Can Debt Feel Like Inheritance?

Issues of debt are so present in our lives and the news. Here’s a brief excerpt from The Secret Life of Money that discusses one aspect of debt.

There is an uncanny resemblance between debt and inheritance. For example, money received by borrowing feels much like money received by inheritance. We receive something for which we do not work; our present resources are increased and we are better off. Of course an inheritance does not have to be repaid, while debt does. But repayment is a future consideration; in the moment of receiving the money we are like heirs, we are richer than we were before. 

William Thackeray, the contemporary of Charles Dickens, made the following observation about debt in Vanity Fair: “Everybody in Vanity Fair must have remarked how well those live who are comfortably and thoroughly in debt; how they deny themselves nothing; how jolly and easy they are in their minds.” While Thackeray is satiric, he certainly captures the sense in which debtors may imagine themselves to be heirs — at least, until the time when the debt must be paid.

Even the story of John Dickens languishing in debtor’s prison shows the peculiar similarity between debt and inheritance. Dickens had been imprisoned in Marshalsea for a little over two months when his mother died at the age of 79. In her will she gave her son 450 pounds, more than enough to pay off all of Dickens’ debts and let him and his family begin a new life. On May 28th John Dickens walked out of Marshalsea a free man — an heir and not a debtor. While John Dickens never returned to debtors’ prison, his son Charles carried the burden of that experience for the rest of his life: “My whole nature was so penetrated with the grief and humiliation of such considerations, that even now, famous and caressed and happy, I often forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children; even that I am a man; and wander desolately back to that time of my life.”

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