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Debt v Deficit

Growing up as a kid, I was always the first to wake up in the house. My parents and sister would be fast asleep, often snoring, and I would quietly tip-toe my way down the stairs, open the front door and pick up the newspaper that was patiently waiting for me outside.

I would then sit down on the carpet in our family room and begin to read the paper, flipping through every page, reading every headline, pausing to look at every picture and stopping to read whichever stories caught my attention.

I remember the first time I read about a deficit. While I was quick to learn the concept of debt, the concept of deficit took me some time to fully comprehend.

And now I understand how dangerous it is to confuse the two.


Debt and deficit are most commonly referred to in economic terms.

Debt is to borrow money, the way a government borrows money to help pay for additional spending during a pandemic, or how a family borrows money to help pay for a house, or how a student borrows money to help pay for tuition costs.

Deficit is a form of continuous debt, and happens when a government is continually spending more than it is earning, or when a family is spending more money to live than they are bringing in regularly, or when a student who despite earning money from a part-time job, still spends more to live than they earn.

A deficit is structural. On a long-term basis, a system with a deficit will come to a breaking point, as it is not sustainable. If the inputs are continually less than the outputs, the picture will not be pretty at some point.

My reflection is not on the economy of our collective or individual finances, but the economy of our individual lives, beyond money. The concepts of debt and deficit have relevance to our physical, mental and emotional beings.



I experience physical debt when I have an injury. For example, a few years ago my knee got injured and I had mobility challenges for several months. After time for my knee to heal, I had mostly paid off this physical debt.

A physical deficit is different. I am currently experiencing a physical deficit as it relates to my posture. 15 years of working behind a screen has led to tense shoulders, tight hips and back aches.

I cannot pay off this deficit by getting a massage, working with a physical therapist or ‘fixing’ my posture while working. Any deficit is structural, so I have to make deeper level ‘structural’ adjustments to solve it.


I experience mental debt in moments of high stress, pressure or anxiety, often tied to a milestone, be it in business, earlier in school or when faced with something new like learning Portuguese. The only solution is to put the work in and ‘get through it’. It will feel effortful and I do it knowing it is temporary.

A mental deficit is different. The moments when I have felt continuously ‘busy’, when my mind has had trouble relaxing, when I notice the desire to always be doing something productive or to be efficient, these are all moments of mental deficit. I feel like I am always running metaphorically, somewhere. Addictions, be it to substances or activities, can also be examples of a mental deficit.

The risk is that I fool myself into thinking that I just need to ‘get through this’, and exert the type of effort that I face a mental debt with. The issue is that, unlike mental debt that is temporary, a mental deficit is structural and persists.

In our modern society, I observe a high degree of mental deficit almost everywhere I look. When I innocently ask someone ‘how are you’ and the response is consistently ‘really busy’, it is a sign of a deficit.

As a deficit is structural, simply putting more effort is not going to solve it. It requires a change in priorities, commitments, lifestyle or routine. To work smarter, not harder.


I experience emotional debt when faced with a sudden or unexpected event, like the passing of a loved one, the end of a romantic relationship or feeling homesick after moving to a new place.

Time is the cure to pay off emotional debt. To expect myself to be okay immediately is to deny the emotion, which will lead to suppression and a host of other issues. To dwell on it indefinitely is also not helpful. A reasonable amount of time, and a few good cries, are often helpful.

Emotional deficit is different. It is when I feel drained, fatigued or tired, not physically but energetically or emotionally. Social media scrolling, excessive news media consumption, a toxic friend or family member, are all examples of when an emotional deficit manifests.

Time is a curse when faced with an emotional deficit. Time gives the deficit more space to continue. The solution is cutting off time towards the source of the emotional deficit. Easier said than done, however the only path.


Debt often requires a one-time surge of attention while a deficit feeds off of attention. This is why it is dangerous to confuse the two.

Debt is often intentional and deliberate. I believe it is a good choice to make when I feel I have the capacity and resources to manage it.

Deficit is often accidental and creeps up on me. To address it requires first for me to acknowledge it, and then to make deeper structural changes.

It has taken me a few decades of life experience, from that moment as a child when I first read about debt and deficit, to understand better how to tell the difference, in all parts of life.

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