Financial Principles of Ancient Babylon (Part 3): Debt Management

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 One thing is clear in my conversations with farmers: the biggest challenge they face is making their debt payments.
 Part three of our series on the financial principles of ancient Babylon pulls from The Richest Man in Babylon. Today’s lesson is about managing your debt and working with the holders of your debt to have a realistic plan in place.
 Debt can just pile up. Have you ever had credit card debt? If you make the minimum payment on $5,000, it takes something like 40 years to pay off. The interest rates can really crush a person.
 Thankfully, a story from ancient Babylon can help us today.

The story of Dabasir, the camel trader

 Dabasir, a man recently married, was living over his means and had a lot of debt. He sent his wife back to live with her father and tried to figure out how to hide.
 He fell in with the wrong crowd, a group of robbers who robbed merchants. One day, they robbed the wrong merchant, one who had a local tribe protecting him. Several of Dabasir’s fellow robbers were killed, and he himself was enslaved.
 He was sold to a tribe, where one of the four wives of the tribesman soon had mercy on him.
 He told her he was not born a slave but a free man. She asked, “Do you have the heart of a slave or a free man? Because you’re a slave now.” That question troubled him.
 She gave him a chance to escape, and he took that chance, trekking across the desert back to Babylon. He had decided that the will of a free man was to face his debt like a challenge and overcome it rather than collapse under the weight of it.
 After almost dying in the desert, he made it back. He met with all his debt holders and laid out a plan. He would live off 70% of his income, use 20% to pay off the debt, and keep the final 10%. (Remember, the first cure for a lean purse is to pay yourself 10% of what you earn.)
 That’s what he did. He divvied out his 20% proportionally. As a camel trader his income fluctuated, but he paid more when he could and less when he couldn’t.  In that way, he paid off the debt in three years.

 What this means for farmers
 Debt plagues many farmers and business people who aggressively grow their business during high prices and live high on the hog. Eventually, they feel buried.
 I know debt management is a lot less personal today. It’s not like you can go to Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac and say you’re not able to make your payment right now.
 But you can get all your debtors together and say, “This year is going to be a hard year for me, but I’m going to live off of rice and beans and minimize my personal expenses. Don’t increase my interest rate; don’t kill my credit.”
 A lot of farmers did this in the ‘80s. I’ve met them. They told me they went in with their bankers, made deals, then made good on those deals. On the Cash Cow Farmer Podcast, my co-host James even told the story of a friend who negotiated his student loan debt down from $120,000 to $40,000 by paying more in a shorter amount of time.
 Also, it’s not popular, but bankruptcy is a financial reorganization. If you’ve watched The Big Short, you know how people got crushed by adjustable rate mortgages.
 As a farmer, you might have a closer relationship with the holders of your debt and have an opportunity to make due on it. Many farmers still work with small banks, and they’re a lot more flexible than larger institutions.

 Remember Dabasir’s breakdown: live off 70%, pay debts with 20%, and keep 10%. Even if you’re living in your car, keep that 10%.
 Meet with holders of your debt to have a realistic payment plan in which you don’t get harassed if your income is down. If you present a solid plan and hold yourself to it, your debt holders will be happy to receive a timely payoff…

 This post was based on an episode of the Cash Cow Farmer Podcast. To hear more content like this in audio form, subscribe to the show here.


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Scott Anderson

Cash Cow Farmer Founder/CEO, Scott Anderson, grew up on the family farm in Andover, South Dakota. He is a second generation farmer with a passion for farming, marketing, analytics, and software development.