Photo: CAFE CREDIT (CC BY 2.0)

'It's a constant weight on your chest': Young, dumb and broke

Commentary

At around 11:45am on a Friday, I set out to see how much debt I could get myself into in the following 24 hours. Forty-five minutes later, I had my first strike, a text message approval for a $5000 loan.

That afternoon, I managed to make a $1200 purchase on AfterPay and I could have, hypothetically, put another $1000 on ZipPay. The following morning I received a notification from Wallet Wizard that my loan application had been received and I should call back in business hours to complete the application. I never did.

I already have approval for a $5000 personal loan with my bank, ANZ. I tried applying for a credit card as well but was declined immediately; perhaps it was all the personal loans I had been applying for. So, taking all things into consideration, had all that money I applied for come through, I would have been at least $12,200 in debt - and that's not including the $15,000 I owe on HECS.

A 45-minute approval text for a $5000 loan.Photo: JELENA ZARIC

Now, let's put that into perspective. At 21, with two part-time jobs in retail, studying full-time and living out of home with all of my expenses coming out of my own pocket, I would be in a cool $27,200 of debt and that's before the thousands of dollars in interest I would eventually owe kicks in.

The reality is that it's far, far too easy to find yourself in debt as a young person. This is exactly the realisation Hadi*, 20, has come to. Hadi took out three personal loans and got a credit card, all while working casually and accumulating a few years' worth of HECS debt. At the moment, he owes $20,000 on HECS, $17,000 on his personal loans and $2000 on his credit card.

'It's just like a constant weight on your chest… every time you think about it, you're like 'oh shit, this is not good, this is not good'.'

It's a similar story for Chloe*. At 21, she owes over $20,000 on HECS, $6000 on a credit card, $28,000 on a car that she's currently driving and another $5000 on the last car she financed, as well as $800 on AfterPay and $400 on ZipPay.

"I was freshly 18 years old and got approved for a $14,500 loan on a car … being a crew trainer at McDonald's," she says. It's a sentiment echoed by Hadi, who got his first personal loan at 18. "Literally just old enough to drink, to go out and I'm working a casual job - nothing stable, you know - and studying at uni, literally just like a child."

Chloe on a New York shopping trip.Photo: SUPPLIED

There is now community focus on why so many easy loans and credit cards are being handed out. Professor Andrew Grant, a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney who specialises in behavioural finance, says part of the issue is that while it might be a considerable amount to a young person working part-time, it's actually not that much in the broader context of the financial market. He says this is the problem, because these small loans are so regular and normalised but their long term consequences are rarely considered, he says.

"A big part of this is younger people tend to be less financially literate than older people. A lot of people aren't really aware of their own credit worthiness and what goes into determining people's credit worthiness and the impact that actually failing to repay a loan would have on their future ability to obtain credit," he says.

Australia is presently in the process of undergoing a massive change to its credit system. A positive credit reporting system is being rolled out across multiple institutions, with the biggest difference being that in the past, your credit history would focus on any poor credit practices, whereas now you'll be able to build your credit score positively with timely repayments and good credit practice. The good news for people like Chloe and Hadi is that if they repay their debts in the intended period, they'll probably have better credit scores than most young people, which may mean they can access lower interest rates or higher sums for future borrowing.

'Just because you got approved for a loan, doesn't mean you should take as much money as they're willing to offer you.'

Grant hopes that this change in the credit system will encourage people to be more aware of their borrowing habits. "What we're going to see is a real change where the focus will be [that] you can see what your credit score is and how it's changing based on how you're behaving, so that will sort of facilitate better behaviour for people," he says.

But a question left hanging is why young people get themselves into debt in the first place. "There are a lot of temptations out there and the self control aspect is probably the hardest one to develop," says Grant. It's an issue of wanting more and not having the means to get it.

"The car that I have now - I didn't need to buy a $31,000 car. I had a car that was perfectly fine," says Chloe, "then I got to the point where I was like 'actually, I want a better one' and I refinanced anyway." Hadi agrees it is a matter of wanting the latest and greatest, "but you don't have the money to do it? Boom, let me get a 5k personal loan with a ridiculous interest rate."

Amassing debt at a young age will put you on the back foot financially, but it's more than that, it also has a massively detrimental effect on wellbeing. Fifty-eight per cent of financially independent university students consider their finances a "source of worry", and that's not even taking personal debt into account.

"I was just so stressed out, you know? It's just like a constant weight on your chest… every time you think about it, you're like 'oh shit, this is not good, this is not good,'" says Hadi. "If I save a bunch of money now and I want to, for example, go overseas, I kind of would feel bad, because I could use this to pay off my loan … it's kind of a constant conflict."

Chloe puts it simply: "It makes me feel really shit, to be honest."

The general consensus among young people I talk to is it's too easy to end up young, dumb and broke, that there is simply not enough education regarding personal finance.

"All throughout high school I don't think I learnt once about getting a loan, or what interest rates were, or like finance things, or a credit score or like how that would affect me later on in life," Chloe says.

Both Hadi and Chloe agree they would have benefited from a compulsory class on personal finance in high school.

However, Grant says young people can't completely shift responsibility to predatory credit lenders and "grown-ups" who could have given them a financial heads up. The behavioural financial academic says "you have to be responsible for your own financial literacy … you're responsible for your own financial services, for your own financial circumstances and there could be long-term implications."

And his biggest piece of advice? "Just because you got approved for a loan, doesn't mean you should take as much money as they're willing to offer you."

As for me, I'm waiting to see how much damage I've done to my own credit score in the process of writing this article.

*Surnames withheld.

Correction: An earlier version of this article wrongly stated the author had been approved for a $1600 loan by Wallet Wizard. The loan was not approved, a credit assessment process was ongoing at the time the application expired.

Learn more about personal finance here or get a free credit report here.