The U.S. Debt Ceiling–a simple analogy

20 07 2011

In a past post, I gave an overview of the debt ceiling issues.  I recently explained this to a very confused colleague using a simple analogy:

Let’s say you have a monthly income of $1,000.  Your basic living expenses are $700 a month, leaving you with a “surplus” of $300 a month.  Due to elements out of your control, you cannot change your monthly income (despite repeatedly asking your boss) and you cannot decrease your living expenses.  That is, the bare-minimum necessary for you to survive every month is $700 and the most money you can possibly earn every month is $1,000.

You have options on what to do with that $300 though.  You can save it or spend it.  In this example lets pretend that the only way to save it is by putting the surplus in a jar in your closet. If you save it, you can spend it in a later month.  For instance, if you save $300 one month, you now can spend $1,300 the next month (your $1,000 income check plus the $300 that you saved).  Or you can spend $1,150 next month and $1,150 the month after.  Or you can continue to save $300 a month, or whatever you want to do.  But you can never spend more than your monthly income PLUS whatever you have saved up in the past; that is you can never spend more than what your boss pays you that month PLUS the amount in your jar.

Given the above scenario, everything is fine and simple.   Life goes on, sometimes you save a portion of your $300 surplus, sometimes you spend a portion of your savings, etc.  One day, you get a credit card.  Your credit card has a cap of $5,000.  The credit card allows you to borrow any amount of money at one time, up to $5,000, or you can borrow in increments.  The credit card acts almost exactly the same as your jar – you can take money from it, or put money back into it.  The big difference is that you can never take more than $5000 out and you will HAVE TO put the amount of money that you took out back into it at some point.  So if you take $100 out, you will eventually have to put $100 back in.  The other big difference is that you have to pay interest on what you take out, so if you took out $100, you might eventually have to pay back a total of $150 over time.

There are only two hard and fast rules attached to this particular credit card: (1) you can never take out more than $5000 at a time, including accrued interest and (2) as long as you pay your minimum payment every month, you are not in “default.”

You decide that since you now have this credit card, you can spend more than $1000 a month, so you do.  You buy all kinds of fun stuff, so your monthly expenses end up $1,200, month after month. You spend every dollar in your jar as well since you had some saved up.  But every month you continue to pay your minimum payment.  Pretty quickly though, you reach your cap and can no longer spend extra.  Due to the large balance, your minimum payment every month is $300.  So now your income of $1,000 a month exactly meets your bare necessities PLUS your minimum required payment to avoid default.  You can no longer buy anything excessive since you have spent your savings and maxed out your credit card.

The important thing is that you are NOT in default.  You just have to cut back on the $200 excessive spending a month that you have grown accustomed to.  You also won’t be able to save any money or have the benefit of occasional splurges that you enjoyed in the past.

This is the situation the U.S. Federal government faces – they have maxed out their credit card, so they need to cut back.  They WILL still spend money, but only equal to the amount they bring in.  Right now, and for the foreseeable future, the amount they bring in is enough to cover their minimum “monthly payments” on the credit card as well as their “crucial living expenses.”




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