Chapter 3 – Take a Lap on the Gerbil Wheel of Debt

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Chapter 3 – Take a Lap on the Gerbil Wheel of Debt

Think of debt as that annoying squeak in the back seat that you hear as you drive alone in the car. The squeak distracts you from the beauty of the scenery, and before you know it, you are only worried about the squeak. I knew a guy that bought his dream car, a brand new Volvo, and was enjoying showing it off to everyone. About a week after he bought it, it was totaled. He was driving with the windows down, just enjoying the day, and a bee flew in the window. He was so focused on getting rid of the bee that he ran off the road and hit a bridge support post. He just lost focus on what was most important. The goodnews is that he survived without major injuries and the bee vanished. The bad news is that his insurance did not cover the entire new loan on his car and he was unable to buy another dream car.

“Being in debt is a state of mind, not an account balance.”

When you are in debt, you are mortgaging your future. What you are doing is promising to generate money in the future to pay off what you have in your hands today.

Too much debt means your future is locked down. It robs you of options and flexibility. It means that you become a slave to your creditors and have to work at some job, even if you hate it, to make enough money to pay off what you owe. If you wake up in the morning and you are thinking about how much you hate going to work, you’re clutched in the mouth of the monster of debt. You’ve got saliva dripping off your feet, and in a minute or two you are going down the gullet, never to be heard from again.

It doesn’t have to be that way. You can break free. It is possible for you to wake up almost every morning and look forward to the day with childish glee and anticipation. I’d say I feel that way most of the time because I love what I do and I’m thankful for any day I’m not dead. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a good day.

So what happens when you get deep in debt is you sacrifice your future. That’s all, nothing much. Now, not all debt is bad. If you love what you do and you make enough money to pay your bills and have a bunch of money leftover, it’s not such a drag on your life. However, if you are generally unhappy with yourself, your life, your reality, then debt can just be a new pair of cement slippers.

People are frequently worried about debt — whether they have too much or what is the “right” amount. They worry if they have financial problems, they hear about “good debt” and “bad debt” and don’t know the difference. I’ve developed this simple way to determine if money is a problem in your life…it’s just not that complicated. Here is a quick test to see if you are having financial problems.


That goes for debt, too. If you think you have too much debt, well, you do.

“No man’s credit is as good as his money.” – Ed Howe

If you had to think about debt as something, would it be an anchor around your neck? The cement slippers I just mentioned? How about a gerbil? Stick with me here. Do you know what a gerbil is? It’s a small rodent about five inches long with hairless ears, large black eyes, pointed snout, short legs, clawed feet, light-colored fur and a long tail.

Sounds like a new character in the next Stephen King thriller, doesn’t it?

For some twisted reason, many kids keep gerbils as pets. They are much cuter than they sound and they kind of remind me of the Tribbles on that old Star Trek episode.

I had some gerbils as pets when I was but a young lad. They lived in an old aquarium, the one that leaked so it wasn’t any good for fish.

It was an accident that my gerbils were of opposite sex. Boy, did those things breed. I guess when you are caged up in an old 10-gallon aquarium all day long there isn’t much to do but chew everything you can and breed. They did both very well. Siskel and Ebert would have given them two thumbs up.

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I got tired of them procreating all the time, so a friend suggested putting a gerbil wheel in the cage to keep them busy. It wasn’t enough of a distraction to keep them from breeding all the time but they now had something new to annoy the heck out of me.

A gerbil wheel is a cheap metal wheel that is mounted in a cheap metal frame and when they get on it and run, it just rotates around and around and around. They go nowhere fast. I’m not sure what the purpose is. Exercise? Distraction? To keep me up at night? Who knew gerbils are nocturnal? They wake up from napping all day and jump into the wheel just as you doze off to sleep. The wheel always seems to have a squeak and, of course they knock it over or it bangs against the glass all night. Squeak, bang, squeak, bang, squeak, bang.

I always wondered two things. First, would I get in trouble if I heaved the whole damn aquarium out the window, and two, don’t Fred and Ethel realize that the wheel just spins constantly but goes nowhere? I have to give them bonus points for dedication and creativity. Sometimes they would get that wheel banging and spinning so fast I thought either the side was going to bust out of the tank or they were going to make electricity.

Every once in a while they’d have a spat and both get on the wheel and try to run in opposite directions. That was interesting.

I tried to take the wheel out of the cage one night to stop the madness. I think one of them sunk their teeth deep into my flesh and took a huge chunk out of my hand as I reached for the wheel. Blood poured down my hand, ran down my arm and dripped off my elbow as I held my arm up and ran back to bed. At least that’s how I saw it as an 11-year-old. They probably just brushed against my hand. Anyway, sticking my hand in the cage in the middle of the night freaked me out, so I tried to keep late-night commando raids into the tank at a minimum.

The whole point about the gerbil wheel is that they found nothing wrong with running in place and going nowhere. They listened to the same glass banging and squeaking that I did; I know this because they have keen hearing. I’m sure they got very used to it. That was just their universe. They obviously enjoyed all of the running in place and going nowhere.

Credit and debt are a lot like a gerbil wheel for many people. No matter how much you make, you just keep making payments every month. We decide, or are trained early in life to expect that, as adults, we earn money and make payments. “What do you mean you don’t make payments each month? What the heck is wrong with you?”

A couple of times in life we wake up in a panic and realize we don’t have enough money. For most people those times are when we get married, the day before our child leaves for college and a week after we retire. But for the most part we are happy and content to keep earning and spending, earning and spending, earning and spending.

“Some people use one half of their ingenuity getting into debt, and the other half avoiding paying.” – George Prentice

Life becomes this comfortable hum of making money and never having enough. Can’t you picture a human-sized gerbil wheel with a huge sign stuck in the ground right in front of the wheel that says, “If you can touch this you will make good money.” Many people would run on that wheel all day long chasing the dream, stopping to earn a little money, spend some and then sleep. You know I’ve never quite figured out what “good money” is, but everybody seems to use the term. “I’ll be happy as soon as John lands this job.

We’ll be making good money then.” As far as I’m concerned, all the money I make is good.


Our consumer society is set up like a huge gerbil wheel. We are trained by our parents and environment to be good consumers when we grow up. Can we really be surprised that we do it so well or to excess? If you buy into that whole belief that you are what you own and that more is going to be enough, you will run and run and run your entire life and you will wind up in the same spot, just older, tired and still unhappy.

Here is my sage advice, “Step away from the wheel.” Can’t you picture the prosperity police pulling you over in a felony stop as you race down the road running in your gerbil wheel. “Mr. Rhode, put your hands in the air and step away from the wheel.” They’d force you to come to your senses, taking you away in handcuffs made of recycled credit cards. Platinum cuffs, please.

The perpetual cycle of debt will not make you a better person. The race for wealth will not make you happier. There are people who have 10 million dollars in the bank who don’t feel like they have enough. Enough will never be enough. Enough, already, of this enough stuff. Enough!

Do You Have a Question You'd Like Help With? Contact Debt Coach Damon Day. Click here to reach Damon.

You are not what you make, you are not what you spend, you are not what you buy, you are not what you give, you are not your reflection and you are not the size of your pants. You are you and that can be pretty terrific if you let it.

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“You hate your creditors because they make you live up to your end of the bargain.”

Your creditors are not trying to keep you enslaved on the gerbil wheel of debt. You do that all yourself. You constantly seek out more stuff. “If I only had that new outfit or golf bag, I’d be happy.” Yeh, right! Don’t you see it’s not the thing that you desire that will make you happier; purchasing the thing is just an escape from the way you feel inside.

Money isn’t your problem. You are your problem. But like most problems, if you apply a willingness to change the situation, good guidance and a plan, you can have a good chance at changing things up. You might try and fail. If you do, stop complaining and try again.


  1. Take a break. Play a video game, read, listen to calming music, watch TV, go for a walk alone or do anything else you can, alone. Take a few minutes or hours to let the frustration die down a bit. You’ve probably been working hard or you’ve been distracted, and that could have contributed to your failure. The reason you need some quiet time rather than going to “twofer” night at the bar with your friends, is that you need to let all of those thoughts about the experience filter out of the crevices in your brain. You don’t need a distraction to mask what you just went through. Let it silently percolate.
  2. Jot down or think about the factors that you think contributed to your failure.
  3. Jot down or think about what you could have done to avoid those factors in the future.
  4. Admit defeat. Stop pretending that you didn’t fail. You failed. Too bad, so sad. Move on. I’ve had too many clients over the years that insist on reliving their past mistakes over and over again. Let them go. The key is that they were mistakes and they were in the past.
  5. Decide if you want to try and pursue that goal again. Was it worth it, or is the luster gone? Sometimes the moment has passed and it’s time to move on. “Next.”
  6. Regroup. If you are going to try to achieve the same goal again, think about what additional resources or people you are going to need to help you. Identify what those resources are and gather them together. Before you move forward, consider what the new cost will be with the required time and materials. Is the goal worth the true cost of what it will take to achieve the end result?
  7. Failure is only success masked in defeat. Some part of what you attempted was good. Figure out what that was and do that part again. No sense reinventing the wheel.
  8. Admit that what you attempted was a failure, not you. You are not an idiot or stupid for failing. You are courageous for trying.
  9. Remember that sometimes no matter how good the effort, the passion and desire, life just doesn’t play ball. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose for no good reason. As the song goes, sometimes you’re the windshield; sometimes you’re the bug. Life is what it is.
  10. Figure out what good can come from your failure. There is tremendous value in failing as long as you can analyze what went wrong. Don’t waste a perfectly good failure by trying to forget it. Learn from it. Both the recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken and the light bulb were successes at the end of massive and repeated failures. And just think, today they actually make an oven that can cook chicken with light. If those inventors didn’t keep trying, imagine what we would be eating in the dark? Once you’ve analyzed that experience, let go of any negative baggage you are carrying from that past experience, just keep the good. Remember that the most important minute in your life is the one you are living right now. It’s the only real minute of your life. Unfortunately, we often let our past predict the future because we are stuck living in other minutes. They are no longer real. Let go. Live now.

“It doesn’t have to be perfect, just good enough.”


Creditors are, well, us. People who work for lenders as debt collectors are in the exact same boat you are in, they just have a different job. I remember one client who said she had been getting the same call from the same collector for months. The collector hadn’t been very nice in the past and when she called again, she dreaded the call. Finally, the client admitted to the collector that she was working with Myvesta and the collector stopped, paused and said, “I am too. Aren’t they great?” The whole relationship changed from that day forward.

Creditors have better memories than debtors.” –Ben Franklin

The only reason creditors keep providing us with the credit we so desperately want is that we crave it. Somehow we have to figure out a way to get off the gerbil wheel of debt. Until then, I think the person next door has a nicer wheel than yours. What are you going to do about it?


Chapter 4Why Money Doesn’t Make You Happy



Chapter 1I Got Hit in the Head With a Baseball and I Saw it Coming
Chapter 2What Your Money is Trying to Tell You
Chapter 3Take a Lap on the Gerbil Wheel of Debt
Chapter 4Why Money Doesn’t Make You Happy
Chapter 5If You Had a Million Rats, Would You be Successful?
Chapter 6The 10 Attributes of Internal Prosperity
Chapter 7The Attributes of Internal Prosperity in Action
Chapter 8Your Money is Your Friend
ConclusionListen to Your Heart

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Steve Rhode is the Get Out of Debt Guy and has been helping good people with bad debt problems since 1994. You can learn more about Steve, here.
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