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Bondage of debt

In October 1929, the collapse of the U.S. stock market set in motion a national and worldwide economic downturn so severe that it came to be called the Great Depression.

The Great Depression was the longest, most widespread and deepest depression of the 20th century. Unemployment in the United States rose to 25 percent; in some countries it was as high as 33 percent. Construction virtually halted and crop prices fell by more than 30 percent.

One of the lasting messages of the Great Depression is that finances aren't always stable. A lesson many have learned since is that people pay a high price when they live beyond their means, thinking money will always be available to them.

But as a society, have we learned these lessons?

Today, 609.8 million credit cards are held by U.S. consumers, according to the January 2010 "Survey of Consumer Payment Choice," by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

In addition, the total U.S. revolving debt — 98 percent of which is made up of credit card debt — was $796.1 billion as of March 2011 (Federal Reserve's report on consumer credit).

Since the early days of the Church, the Lord's prophets have repeatedly warned against the bondage of debt. One of the great dangers of debt is the interest that accompanies it.

"Once in debt, interest is your companion every minute of the day and night; you cannot shun it or slip away from it; you cannot dismiss it; it yields neither to entreaties, demands, or orders; and whenever you get in its way or cross its course or fail to meet its demands, it crushes you," said President J. Reuben Clark Jr. in the April 1938 General Conference.

In Doctrine and Covenants 19:35 the Lord warned Martin Harris against the dangers of debt.

"Pay the debt thou hast contracted with the printer," Martin Harris was told. "Release thyself from bondage."

Our prophet has repeated the Lord's warning to us today, calling debt an "oppressive burden."

"Perhaps no counsel has been repeated more often than how to manage wisely our income," said President Thomas S. Monson. "Consumer debt in some nations of the world is at staggering levels. Too many in the Church have failed to avoid unnecessary debt. They have little, if any, financial reserve. The solution is to budget, to live within our means, and to save some for the future" ("Guiding Principles of Personal and Family Welfare," September 1986).

Latter-day Saints can look to the example of the financial management of the Church as an example of how they should financially manage their households.

First, the Church does not borrow money. Second, the Church saves a portion of what it receives.

President Gordon B. Hinckley explained in his April 1991 conference address that "in the financial operations of the Church, we have observed two basic and fixed principles: One, the Church will live within its means. It will not spend more than it receives. Two, a fixed percentage of the income will be set aside to build reserves against what might be called a possible 'rainy day.'

"For years the Church has taught its membership the principle of setting aside a reserve of food, as well as money, to take care of emergency needs that might arise. We are only trying to follow the same principle for the Church as a whole."

President Heber J. Grant promised members that living this principle will bring peace to their homes and families. "If there is any one thing that will bring peace and contentment into the human heart, and into the family, it is to live within our means. And if there is any one thing that is grinding and discouraging and disheartening, it is to have debts and obligations that one cannot meet" (Gospel Standards, p. 111).

It was at the height of the Great Depression 75 years ago, on April 6, 1936, that the Church launched its Welfare Program. In the decades since, that program has brought relief to those in need in more than 175 countries around the world.

In a Church News interview earlier this year, President Monson said "the purpose of Church welfare assistance is to help people to help themselves."

One of the most important things we can do to help ourselves is to avoid unnecessary debt and repay the debt we have.

For as the Lord promised Martin Harris, this will "release [us] from bondage."

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