Paying Your Debt to Society

What do you think of when you hear that someone “paid a debt to society?”  If you are like most people, myself included, you assume that someone just got out of prison.  In fact, Merriam-Webster defines the idiom exactly as such...

My argument today is that the expression has gotten a bad rap and that more of us should be THRILLED  to acknowledge and pay our own “debt to society”.  Let’s first look at the components of the phrase. 

In the world of finance, we often look at “debt” as a bad thing.  It is to be eliminated.  For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume we’re not talking about using debt as a tool for leverage.  To consider the word “debt” as inherently bad is to ignore the third definition which is “a feeling of gratitude for a service of favor,” as when it is used in the expression, “we owe them a debt of thanks.”  So, for the sake of this exercise, let us consider our debt to be a feeling of gratitude.  

Defining “Society” won’t be quite so complicated.

Putting it all together, we can now ask ourselves what feeling of gratitude we owe to our communities and how that gratitude can best be expressed.  For people in my business or any community-based enterprise, I would argue that our debt to society is great and that this may be the most appropriate time we have ever seen to pay that debt.

Unfortunately, it is all too common that I see neighborhood financial advisors who do not feel that their responsibility is to anyone but themselves.  This isn’t unique to our industry though.  Plenty of professionals look at their day-to-day through the narrow scope of maximizing the benefit to the owners/shareholders.  The first step in “paying our debt” is to expand our responsibility to not only include the needs of shareholders but rather stakeholders. 

A stakeholder can be defined as anyone with interest or concern in something.  The obvious place for us to look at first is our employees.  After all, who has more of a stake in the success or failure of an enterprise than someone who relies on it to pay their bills and feed their family.  What gratitude do we owe to these people whose daily contributions allow us to build our own lives?  They certainly deserve better than to be treated like expense items, easily sent to the unemployment line when it gets a little tricky to balance the books.

What debt do we owe to our clients and customers?  They deserve better than to receive the minimum level of service required to prevent them from leaving.  Their trust cannot be taken for granted, but rather earned over and over again every day?  Ask yourself if your next bump in revenue will go into your bank account or be used to offer a new service to add value to your clients’ lives?

I encourage you to continue this exercise and keep expanding your concept of who your stakeholders truly are?  What gratitude do you owe to your vendors and how should it be expressed?  What debt do you have to your community and how will you pay it?  How about your planet?  What steps are you willing to take to be a little kinder to the environment?


Paying our debt to society doesn’t have to be a punishment.  In fact, you should celebrate the fact that you have the ability and opportunity to express gratitude to those who may need it now more than ever.  Doing the best you can for the community that makes your success possible is simply the right thing to do.

Related: Recent Bad Advice from "Experts"