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Money Lessons from Netflix’s Squid Game

While the plot may seem a bit fantastical at first glance, the financial guilt and stress that debt can put on people can feel all too real.

Bobbi Rebell, CFP®

Personal Finance Expert at Tally

October 20, 2021

Whether you’re browsing Twitter or passing by the water cooler, chances are you’ll hear everyone talking about Squid Game. This South Korean drama is currently the most popular show on Netflix and has struck a chord with audiences worldwide. Why is that exactly?

The show’s plot centers on a contest where players from different walks of life but are all in debt, play a set of children’s games that have deadly penalties if they lose. The motivation being, you can win a 45.6 billion won (about $38 million) prize. 

While this plot may not seem all that relatable at first glance, the financial guilt and stress that debt can put people under felt all too real to countless viewers. The desperation and despair that comes from debt is universal. While the plot of the show may be horrific and sickening to watch, the motives of the central characters are rooted in the very real emotions tied to money and the damage that debt can cause.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the other money lessons viewers walked away with after watching “Squid Game,” — as well as what you can do to get rid of your debt and how to avoid accumulating more. 

Lesson #1: Debt can spiral out of control 

If not managed proactively, debt can spiral out of control. In the show’s fictional world, the consequences of debt are so overwhelming that it pushes people to risk their lives for even the smallest chance to live debt-free. High-interest rate debt can grow especially fast, so watch out for predatory loans like payday loans and car title loans that come with extremely short repayment timelines and sky-high interest rates. 

Anyone would love to win millions of dollars, but the characters in the series are looking for a quick fix. That’s not realistic. Paying off debt isn’t going to happen in one fell swoop, so it’s important to create a plan and stay on track. Remember, the main character Gi-Hun is a compulsive gambler — but that is not a plan. Paying off debt is a process that requires really taking a hard look at the numbers to figure out how to pay it off in a sustainable way, and to set yourself up to never be in that dire situation again.

Lesson #2: Debt can happen to anyone — and it may be happening to those you would never expect.

Another reason “Squid Game” is so relatable is that the players came from all walks of life, making the program resonate on a much larger level. Even people who appeared successful had secret debts that they were desperate to pay off. What can we learn from that? 

Call it the Instagram effect, but people generally want to present the best versions of themselves, which can be unhealthy both personally and socially. The biggest takeaway here is that more people are struggling financially than you would think. A recent Tally survey found that 84% of Americans feel anxious about money, and nearly 1 in 3 Americans feel this way at least once a day. All too often, the fear of not having enough money holds them back regarding major life choices like changing their careers or having children.

My advice is, don’t worry about what other people are doing or how it appears they’re doing. Focus on what you want out of life and how you’re going to get it without leaning on a credit card. 

Lesson #3: Debt doesn’t make you a failure if you take control of the situation 

Having debt can really weigh on you and limit your options, but it’s so important to remember that you’re not a failure if you have debt. Most people aren’t carrying debt because of bad decisions. Often, people are forced to decide between a bad choice and a worse choice to survive. The true mistake is not making a plan to tackle the debt, so don’t let regret and guilt get in the way of that. 

How to realistically get out of debt 

Speaking of making plans, if you have debt, the first step to relief is sitting down and figuring out a realistic debt repayment plan. 

On a piece of paper or spreadsheet, list out all of your debts. Next to each one, write down the balance owed and the interest rate. You’ll want to prioritize the debts with the highest interest rates (read: credit cards) followed by personal loans, auto loans, student loans and mortgages.

Next, figure out if you can pay more than the minimum on your high-interest debts each month after paying for all of your essential living expenses. Your priorities should follow this order: housing, food, insurance, cell phone and Wi-Fi service.

For tackling credit card debt, consider using tools like Tally† to pay down your credit card debt faster and potentially consolidate it into a lower-interest line of credit. 

How to avoid debt moving forward

So let’s say you want to take the first step to managing your money better so you can avoid accruing debt in the future. Knowledge is key here and it’s time to get very familiar with your finances. 

First and foremost, go through your budget and spending for the last year and flag what you wish you had done differently. This will help you set goals so that you don’t let history repeat itself. You also may discover some good pandemic-driven spending and saving habits that you want to keep.

Even if you don’t have this information handy and many people don’t keep track of these things, I still recommend moving forward and creating a budget. Whether on paper, a budgeting app or a spreadsheet, start from scratch and track your savings for a month. Then you can make adjustments next month.  

Want to take control of your credit card debt? Tally​​ makes it easier to manage multiple sources of credit card debt so you can pay it down faster.†

​​†To get the benefits of a Tally line of credit, you must qualify for and accept a Tally line of credit. The APR (which is the same as your interest rate) will be between 7.90% and 29.99% per year and will be based on your credit history. The APR will vary with the market based on the Prime Rate. Annual fees range from $0 - $300.