According to his death certificate, my dad died of myocardial infarction, otherwise known as a heart attack.
His health had been deteriorating for some time, so it wasn't a total surprise. He gained weight and was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. He had two bypass surgeries -- one triple, one quadruple. It wasn't hard to understand why he had heart problems. His diet was unhealthy; he didn't get enough exercise; and he was constantly under stress.
We thought there wasn't much any of us could have done. In retrospect, there was one area where I might have been able to help, though at the time I didn't think about it in those terms. His financial health deteriorated more than his physical health, and that was one of the primary sources of stress.
It Wasn't His Heart Alone That Killed Him -- It Was His Debt
My dad racked up credit card debt faster than a NASCAR driver at Daytona, and he never could get his spending habits in check. Just as you can spot the indicators of heart trouble, there were plenty of signs something was wrong with his finances. He took cash advances on one card to make payments on another. He took out a second mortgage just to make minimum payments on his credit cards, all of which had interest rates in the 20 percent to 30 percent range. He constantly worried about how he would scrape together enough money to pay his bills.
I saw the stress of his debt weighing on him. I have no doubt much of the reason he gained so much weight in the first place was because he was gravitating toward unhealthy comfort food to help him forget the stress, and the emotional drain from constantly worrying about money robbed him of the initiative to exercise.
One of my biggest regrets, which I shared in my book "Soldier of Finance," is that I never had the courage to confront my dad about his debt. I think somehow I believed things would just work themselves out. They didn't.
If you know someone who is struggling with debt, there are signs that you can watch for -- and things you can do. Here are three indications that they are headed for unnecessary and dangerous stress.
1. They're Constantly Fretting About How They Will Pay Bills
You can tell when it has become a problem for someone you know. For one thing, it creeps into their conversation. They begin making comments that allude to their desperation. Watch for other signs. I can remember walking into my dad's house and seeing a list of credit card debts next to his computer. It was clearly on his mind. Worry is difficult to hide.
2. They Use Credit to Pay for Credit
If someone is using one credit card to pay the minimum payment on another, or taking out a cash advance on a card to make a payment, there are multiple problems. First, making minimum payments doesn't usually reduce the balance on a card in any significant way. The lion's share goes to paying interest. By using another card to make the payment, you're only adding to your total debt, making future minimum payments even higher. It's a no-win cycle.
3. They Frequently Borrow Money -- Sometimes From You
When they ask, it always sounds like an opportunity for you to help. The loan will solve their problems and take the pressure off by allowing them to consolidate their bills into one payment, which will allow them to return your money to you. The problem is that it never works out that way.
I once loaned my dad $8,000 to help him pay off some debt. Not only did he run up new debt as fast as he paid off the old, but when he realized that he couldn't pay me back, he took out a life insurance policy with me as the beneficiary. Instead of eliminating debt, he added another monthly payment.
If a close friend or relative exhibits these symptoms, there are things you can do. Here are three suggestions to get you started:
1. Gently Confront Them With Your Concerns
Do your best to keep from sounding judgmental by emphasizing that you are concerned about the stress their financial habits put on your relationship, and more importantly, the danger to their health. It won't be easy, but if you really care about them, be honest with them.
2. Stop Enabling
When my grandmother passed away, both my dad and I inherited some money. True to form, dad wanted to borrow my share to pay off his debts and planned to pay me back in monthly installments. My girlfriend -- who later became my wife -- confronted me the way I should have confronted my dad. "It won't help him, and it won't help you," she said bluntly. She was right, and I knew it. It was the first time I ever told my dad no, and it was the hardest thing I ever had to do, but it had to be done, for his sake and for mine. Learn to say no. Don't even agree to co-sign a loan. You'll only add to the problem.
3. Offer Real Help (Not Loans)
This might be as involved as sitting down with them and helping organize bills, develop a plan for debt reduction and help them stick to it. But at the very least you can introduce them to a financial adviser to help them get things under control. Above all, offer your encouragement and support. Changing lifelong habits is never easy, but it can be done.
I wish I had spoken to my dad early on. I never did, but I believe I have learned from both of our mistakes. I hope you will, too. Don't wait or sit back silently, hoping something will change. Become an agent of change. When you see the warning signs, speak up.