It was a little over a year ago that I opined on the sad news that a beloved part of my own childhood Toys R Us would be permanently shutting its doors. Recently, Sears declared bankruptcy, and it would appear that another priceless piece of my childhood might soon be gone forever. As a child of the ’80s, how fondly I recall getting the massive Sears catalogue each Christmas season and spending hours looking through its pages for the things I would be asking Santa for that year.
Much like Toys R Us, changing consumer habits and a lack of solid strategic adaptation to these changes led to the fall of the former king of retail. However, as much as companies like Amazon and Walmart can be pointed to for the downfall of these two corporate giants, something else played an even larger role – debt.
In fact, at the time of its bankruptcy in 2017 the amount of debt Toys R Us had accrued amounted to over $5.2 billion, which resulted in annual interest payments of over $400 million. These debt payments made it impossible to make the investments desperately needed to improve the overall customer experience in their stores.
Similarly, when it declared bankruptcy in October, Sears had over $5 billion in debt, while only having a company valuation of about $50 million. If it has been a while since you stepped foot in a Sears you might be surprised how bad it has gotten. To be perfectly honest, it’s depressing to even browse their aisles. Shelves are not stocked, the floors are dirty, and there are virtually no employees to help you.
The reason is the same as it was for Toys R Us. Debt payments are making it impossible to provide even basic services to its customers.
Just like these two companies threatened their future existence by taking on too much debt, individuals can threaten the future they dream of by having too much debt in the present. All one must do is scan the headlines to see how student loan and credit card debt is wreaking havoc on our nation’s middle class.
Besides the possibility of debt leaving you in financial ruin, debt can harm you in ways that are not financial too. A recent study from Nottingham University found that those who are struggling to pay back debt are twice as likely to experience serious mental health problems. And a family studies professor at Kansas State University found that money fights caused by too much debt were the number one predictor of divorce.
While I’m not someone who says in all circumstances debt is evil or destructive, I do think it’s dangerous and should be treated as such. American humorist Henry Wheeler Shaw described debt as “like any other trap, easy to get into, but hard to get out of.” My advice to you is to understand the risks taking on excess debt might have on your future before signing on the dotted line. And if you find yourself already buried in debt, the time for action is now. A local financial adviser can help you develop a plan for taking control of your debt before your balance sheets starts looking too much like Sears’s.
Luke Davis is the director of operations and compliance at Stewardship Capital in Independence.