The owner of a successful small business in his hometown had two sons. The younger son asked one day if the father could lend (really give) him a substantial amount of money. The father, being the trusting sort, gave him the money without asking why he needed it. The younger son took off for a distant big city where he spent everything and then ran up substantial credit card debt on top of that. The economy in the big city went south and he had trouble paying for his pricey condo in a “hot” neighborhood. Things got so bad that he took a job in a restaurant and started eating food that people left on their plates.
The young man said “My father has so much money, and I’m starving! I’ll go back to him and apologize and even offer to work for him.” So the young man went home. His father was overjoyed to see him. The young man apologized for his wasteful behavior, and asked to be forgiven. He said he wasn’t worthy to be his son anymore.
The father instead took him to a fine men’s store and bought him a new suit. He gave his employees the day off and took his son and his employees to a fine chain restaurant and threw a party, ordering many delicious appetizers.
Now all this time the elder son, who also worked for his father, was attending to business with an important client. He had worked hard all of these years for his father’s business. He had never asked for anything – he had worked hard, lived below his means and saved for the future. When he checked his Blackberry, though, he noticed that everyone took the day off and was partying at the Outback.
He fired off an email on his Blackberry to his assistant asking what the occasion was. “UR bro is back & we R throwing a party :)” replied the assistant.
The elder son was furious. He drove to the Outback but sat outside, sulking. His father came out and begged him to come in. The elder son was in no mood to hear this. He snarled, “I’ve worked for you for years. I’ve never done the least thing to embarrass you. I’ve provided for myself and my family, I’ve grown the business, I’ve never gone into debt – and you never threw a party for me at Red Lobster, let alone the Outback.”
“But my little brother blew through YOUR money, spending it all on strippers and appletinis, and yet you’re throwing a party for him.”
The father considered this, then said “Listen, you have been a good son. When I retire, my business is yours. Everything I own goes to you in my will. But we should be happy. Your brother, who had disappeared, is back. He was lost, but now he is found.”
My story is (of course) a modernization of the parable of the prodigal son. My question is this: is the father’s debt forgiveness really consistent with what we expect as people who pay attention to personal finance? Isn’t it really unfair to reward the younger son’s debt? He’s not a bad person, maybe, everyone makes mistakes – but isn’t the elder son right to be annoyed? Why didn’t they even see fit to invite him to the party? Or is this the whole point of the idea of recovering from substantial debt – that, in a way, the battle to escape debt is worthy of celebration? I guess maybe it’s also about the fact that your love of family should be greater than your love of money (or hatred of waste), but it’s tough for me to grasp.