Being in debt is nothing to boast about

Spending is good; to reach anywhere one should over-reach, over-invest and over-expand

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There are a limited number of ways for the semi-famous to put on those vital column inches with an appearance in the press, but Rosie Millard, once a bouncy BBC arts correspondent, now a freelance writer, may just have discovered a new one. She has announced that, between them, she and her husband have run up a rather large debt on their various credit cards.

There are a limited number of ways for the semi-famous to put on those vital column inches with an appearance in the press, but Rosie Millard, once a bouncy BBC arts correspondent, now a freelance writer, may just have discovered a new one. She has announced that, between them, she and her husband have run up a rather large debt on their various credit cards.

As it happens, Rosie's cheerful confession of financial incompetence has wider resonance. Today is the end of the tax year, a moment where a few old-fashioned souls may be taking stock of their financial positions. Over the coming month, personal indebtedness on the Millard model will almost certainly be a subject of electoral argy-bargy.

The Conservatives have revealed the findings of a group, chaired by Lord Griffiths, that has been looking into borrowing and debt. According to its research company, some 15 million people are over-extended to the extent that domestic mismanagement, redundancy or the slightest blip in the economy - a rise in oil prices, a bank rate hike, a change in the international situation - could cause them severe difficulties.

We are among world leaders when it comes to running up a tab, apparently. Our use of credit cards is double the European average, currently standing at 67 million. By 2008, the figure will have reached 93 million credit cards, a 40 per cent increase over five years. The fourth most indebted country in the world, Britain is already showing symptoms of the problem, with a spiralling number of bankruptcies being announced, particularly among professionals under 30.

Behind these statistics, we are told, lie stories of heartbreak and family collapse, but the reality about which Rosie Millard has written is altogether cheerier. There are loads of impoverished professionals like her, she reveals. She and her husband, who works for the BBC, are comfortably off.

By taking out a mortgage against their house in Hackney, they bought two flats with a view to letting them out and earning an extra income. Then, in 2002, Rosie added a "fabulously chic flat in Paris" to the property portfolio. They have four children - not in private schools, thank goodness - and are currently running a £40,000 debt.

Having tried briefly to economise, which was "fun, in a Shaker-style, Amish work-ethic sort of way", Rosie quickly slipped back into her old ways. As for savings, who has those any more? The only people who had managed to save in her house were under eight years old.

It was an unwittingly perceptive statement. There is something unashamedly childish about these attitudes. Like an infant reaching for the breast, the modern professional person needs to shop, dine and holiday to his or her heart's content. Treats and comfort are things that are deserved, even if they require taking on another credit card.

Spending is sometimes described as an addiction, but almost always it is less glamorously pathological, being more in the nature of a simple and understandable desire for instant gratification. Yet, while other forms of self-indulgence - partying, boozing, bashing people on the nose on a Saturday night - receive the full force of social disapproval, the business of slipping into debt through playing the property game, or simply through an over-fondness for buying things, is seen as almost endearing.

Spending is good; to reach anywhere, one should over-reach, over-invest, over-expand. These are the great truths that we have learnt over the past decade or so. As David Denby put it in a book describing his own financial fall, American Sucker, the drive to increase and expand has become "a most respectable passion".

If bankruptcy follows, then it is less the individuals who are to blame than the lenders who have battened on their vulnerability. Like so many other reports before it, the Griffiths Commission concludes that the problem is that credit is far too easily available.

For the happy consumer, meanwhile, debt has lost its power to embarrass. In fact, it has become something to boast about - almost an indicator of personal dynamism. Now that a standard has been set, other people with access to the media may soon step forward to offer stories of financial mismanagement that will make the Millards' £40,000 black hole seem like pocket money.

If you happen to have four properties, the price of over-indulgence is, at worse, that one of the flats in London or Paris will have to go.

But, at the risk of sounding prim, one might just wonder whether an element of personal responsibility, even morality, should not be introduced here. There is something decadent about the luckier citizens of a rich country boasting about how much they spend upon themselves and luring others, younger and poorer than they, into a fiscal trap.

The modern world is good at finding scapegoats and doling out public shame. Perhaps, for a short while, we should lay off the binge-drinkers, travellers and Asbo families and concentrate a small element of disapproval towards those self-pampering, privileged folk who slip into debt not out of need but out of greed.

terblacker@aol.com

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