When Sean Cooper burned his mortgage papers after going to extremes to pay off his house in three years, he never imagined it would get folks so fired up.
But after CBC News reported Cooper’s story late last year, reader comments flooded the internet, either praising or reviling the 30-year-old’s financial achievement.
“What is he going to do next, buy a car and sell one of his kidneys to pay for it?” snarled one reader.
An era of cheap interest rates has helped ignite an escalating and troubling household debt binge. The topic has become such a touchy one it can spark polarized opinions, finger pointing and even contempt.
Fuelling the debt fire
Not wanting to face a lifetime of debt, Cooper sacrificed three years of his life to pay down a $255,000 mortgage on a $425,000 Toronto home he bought in 2012.
His story generated more than 2,000 comments on CBC News sites.
“Well done! Worked your butt off to get away from debt,” wrote a jubilant reader about Cooper’s accomplishment. But others had only harsh words.
“He’ll probably die young,” opined one reader. “What a load of horse patty,” posted another, adding, “Work yourself to an early grave!”
Someone else chided, “Sean Cooper is the most boring man on earth. Life’s [too] short to live like a hobbit.”
Readers also invented details about Cooper’s life such as claiming he got his $170,000 down payment from his parents. Cooper said he saved the cash himself by, yes, living frugally.
Media across the globe have now jumped on the story and also taken sides. “Well done, big fella, congratulations, an inspirational guy,” gushed host David Koch on the Australian breakfast television program,Sunrise.
But America’s Slate magazine had a different take, stating Cooper’s story implied our money troubles were entirely our own fault. The Slate article suggested cash-strapped people wanted real economic change rather than just “inspirational stories of sacrifice and pluck.”
Shaming and blaming
So just how much of our debt is our fault and why has Cooper’s story ignited such a furor?
There’s no denying some Canadians have money troubles. Thanks in large part to fat mortgages, Canada’s debt-to-income ratio is at a record high — on average people now owe $1.64 for every dollar of disposable income they earn.
Cooper said he understands not everyone is in a position to live the single, super frugal life. But he believes many lack the willpower to pay down their mortgage more quickly and that’s what inspired the nasty comments.
“They have different priorities in life, so I guess it’s just easier to kind of hate-on me for trying to accomplish this because they aren’t willing to do [it],” he said.
Financial writer Kerry K. Taylor agrees many people are not motivated to make the extra effort.
“Saving’s hard,” she said. “We want our stuff and we want it now,” added Taylor, who lives her own frugal lifestyle with her family in Toronto.
She has also written about the Cooper story and suggests his feat inspired hate because many of us don’t want to confront our own money problems. “It’s easier to poke holes in his lifestyle rather than take nuggets of advice from it.”
Taylor added that we have no one to blame but ourselves for our debt. “Look in the mirror,” she said.
Understanding the haters
Kitchener-based bankruptcy trustee Doug Hoyes is more sympathetic to the haters. While he applauds Cooper’s accomplishment, he said the 30-year-old’s extreme methods are out of reach for many. “That is not realistic for a single mother of a two-year-old kid,” he said.
He suggests some people find Cooper’s story offensive because they are not in a position to achieve the same goal.
“It could be interpreted that the finger is being pointed at me. Why am I not working 100 hours a week?”
Hoyes also believes individuals shouldn’t shoulder all the blame. While he feels personal choice definitely contributes to debt, so can many other factors such as bad luck, one’s health, a tough economy and policies that allow easy access to massive loans.
Cooper takes it in stride
For those who are inspired by Cooper’s achievement, he’ll soon be offering his services. In addition to his current pension analyst and freelance writer gigs, he’s planning a new venture: advising people how to get rid of their mortgage faster.
He’s working on a book on the same topic. The working title is “Burn Your Mortgage.”
He admits if he had do it again, he’d probably take a couple of more years to wipe out his debt so he would have had more time for socializing. But Cooper wants the haters to know that mortgage-free life is great.
“I’m in a financial situation that people are typically in in their 50s or 60s and I’m only 30 years old, so that’s a nice feeling to have,” he said.