Sun Tzu’s Art of War Applied to Your Battle Against Debt

“Every battle is won before it is ever fought.” – Art of War, Sun Tzu.

This was the infamous line said by Gordon Gekko in the popular 1987 film Wall Street. Derived from Sun Tzu's Art of War, a 2400-year-old Chinese text on military strategy, the teachings of this tactical mastermind have proven useful in various aspects of present-day life besides warfare.

Although Sun Tzu's Art of War is studied most religiously by military commanders, political leaders, and corporate executives, the concepts are scalable to conflicts as minuscule as your struggle with debt. Like in war, where the objective is to overcome the enemy resistance, it is everyone's goal to conquer their personal debt.

Debt is the bad guy. We are the good guys. The road to financial independence is a righteous path where we'll have multiple encounters with debt – a merciless obstacle that seeks to consume us. Luckily, an old man from many many years ago jotted down some powerful advice that may serve the purpose of securing a victory against debt.

Universal Debt Teachings From The Art Of War

Debt is, without a doubt, a dangerous adversary. A vast majority of the American population acknowledges the risks of carrying debt, yet we peacefully welcome it into our lives. The failure to understand the depth of the matter is a major reason that so many of us become victims of debt.

We must remain cognizant of the responsibilities of debt:

It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected. [Laying Plans: #2]

Thus it may be known that the leader of armies is the arbiter of the people's fate, the man on whom it depends whether the nation shall be in peace or in peril. [Waging War: #20]

  • Personal debt is influential in more than just our financial lives – it can alter lifestyles, sway career decisions, destroy relationships, and disrupt any sense of stability and comfort. Take it seriously because it truly could be a matter of life or death to not only yourself but also everyone around you.

The consummate leader cultivates the moral law, and strictly adheres to method and discipline; thus it is in his power to control success. [Tactical Dispositions: #16]

  • In any attempt to maintain a firm grasp on our goals, consistency and persistence nurtures the attitude to make them realities. Financial independence asks of the same – a relentless drive when faced with an enemy such as debt.

Declaration of War Against Debt

So, you've resolved that debt should no longer be a part of your life. It has presented you with a hostile environment that warrants forceful attention. Waging war against debt requires an aggressive demeanor and steadfast composure.

If you are preparing for battle against debt, heed Sun Tzu's advice:

There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare. [Waging War: #6]

In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns. [Waging War: #19]

  • Time is a friend of the enemy. Debt's stranglehold will only get stronger the longer you take to deal with it. Consequently, interest accumulates – the power of compounding begins working against you. So, the cutthroat approach is ideal.

Now in order to kill the enemy, our men must be roused to anger; that there may be advantage from defeating the enemy, they must have their rewards. [Waging War: #16]

  • You know the benefits of being debt-free: fewer worries, less stress, and restful nights. To obtain these rewards, get angry at the very existence of debt. If you are keeping debt around, you don't hate it enough.

Security against defeat implies defensive tactics; ability to defeat the enemy means taking the offensive. [Tactical Dispositions: #5]

Standing on the defensive indicates insufficient strength; attacking, a superabundance of strength. [Tactical Dispositions: #6]

  • Progress is essential to the removal of debt. Minimum payments can only keep you afloat for so long. A defensive stance merely keeps debt from overwhelming you, which it will eventually do. Instead, tread forward. With every extra payment you make, you are taking back another inch of your life.

Holding Your Ground Against Debt

Cheers to you if you've managed to defeat debt – but you are not in the clear just yet. We all know how easy it is to go on a reckless spending spree. The next thing you want is to have to repeat your hard-fought endeavors due to preventable mistakes.

On future engagements with debt:

The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy's not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable. [Variation in Tactics: #11]

  • Keep your guard up because debt remains a lingering opportunistic foe. You'll never know when an emergency brings debt back into your life. For most of us, it is inevitable that debt will crawl in and out of our lives. But in the end, with the right preparations, it will always leave.

We are not fit to lead an army on the march unless we are familiar with the face of the country – its mountains and forests, its pitfalls and precipices, its marshes and swamps. [Maneuvering: #13]

… If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle. [Attack By Stratagem: #18]

Thus it is that in war the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory. [Tactical Dispositions: #15]

  • Know what you are getting yourself into. Know your financial habits. Know how evil debt can be. Take on consumer debt knowing that you have absolute confidence in your ability to kill it.

Multipurpose Advice

If you are thoroughly amazed at how a military text can be of such insightful relevance to your battle with debt, then you'd probably be interested in the entire text. The versatility of Sun Tzu's Art of War can be extended to the other areas of our personal finances and the daily undertakings of our eventful lives.

A free download (PDF) of Sun Tzu's Art of War is available here.

With an open mind and some creative thinking, you'll find even more precious wisdom that will be advantageous in your war with debt – including more lessons applicable to many other situations.

Sun Tzu wishes you triumph and glory on the battlefield!

The following is a guest post by Simon Zhen who is a big Art Of War Fan.

Recommendation To Conquer Debt

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Related: Ranking Debt Types From Best To Worst

(photo credit: Pedronet)

31 thoughts on “Sun Tzu’s Art of War Applied to Your Battle Against Debt”

  1. Wil Possible

    Excellent article comparing the Art of War and modern day debt. What an amazing book written thousands of years ago. It probably ranks up here right next to the Bible.

  2. debt managemenmt uk

    Declaration of war against debt.Very excellent techniques to win the battle with famous quotes.Thanks for sharing this techniques with us.

  3. Great stuff! I’m fully at war with debt and am doing everything I can to get it paid off ASAP. And doing everything to avoid gaining more debt.

  4. Love the article and the art of war. I guess I’d quality that my war would be against consumer debt. I’m glad i could finance part of my education. It allowed me to get ahead in life in the form of a good paying job.

  5. Mike - Saving Money Today

    Cool post Sam…I read The Art of War a few years ago and you’re right in that it’s principles can be applied to many aspects of life. I think its about time I went back to re-read it for motivation.

  6. I LOVE THIS POST!!! Being a General in the Debt Destroying Army I completely see the implications. Great job Simon.

    Hmm maybe we should all start a “War on Debt”, kinda like a “War on Drugs”. We could start teaching it in schools like the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), we’ll call it D.E.B.T. (Debt Eradication Battle Training). It will teach all our kids about the evils of consumer debt and the tacties required to win the war on debt. Just my thoughts :-)

    1. Thanks! And that D.E.B.T. program idea would really work wonders for those in high school and college – a revolution in financial literacy!

  7. I love your optimism towards debt and by saying that we don’t need much money to survive. I’m in a 30 year mortgage loan myself and while I do have plans on how to work around it, it can be a little intimidating and somehow made me cling to my current job a lot more. I guess I have to conquer fear, this didn’t really start until I started thinking that I got a lot to lose now. Thank you.

  8. Art of War is a good tactical prescription that can be applied to many aspects of our lives. There is just one simple change I would like to make before I apply these principles in my life. Instead of ‘hate debt’ I would rather ‘love financial independence’ with equal or greater fervor.

    The reason is simple. I would rather focus on the possibilities that open up with financial independence and make it a part of my psyche.

  9. I like Laozi’s phrase “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. Debt can be overwhelming but all it takes is the determination to change and starting to save – even if you can’t save that much starting itself is half the battle.

  10. Money Reasons

    The week before I went on vacation, I downloaded “Art of War” as an mp3 file. So that is an option too! Unfortunately, I haven’t listened to it quite yet, but I will :)

    Nice job Simon!!!

  11. If you have lots of debt at high interest to pay down, it could be like a really long siege, I suppose.

    After that, however, you need to evolve to use debt as a tool if you really want to get ahead. If your goal is just financial independence, this is probably less important.

  12. Excellent post, Simon. Fighting debt is very similar to fighting war. I liked the quote about if debt is lingering about, you don’t hate it enough! Very true. There are plenty of people just paying the minimum amount on their balances and aren’t paying any of their debt down. Over the past 18 months, I’ve been on a mission to knock out my consumer debt (because I hate it!). I’m getting closer and should have the last of my consumer debt paid off within 12 months!

      1. What do you mean by anything? Do you mean on credit? Obviously I still need to purchase necessities. And I’m pretty sure my Starbucks coffee’s count as a necessity! As for racking up more credit card debt, NO, NO, NEVER again!

        1. Lol, nothing! Not even food! But especially not Starbucks coffee! That is one of the biggest addictive wastes of money!

          Glad you are being so focused in not using the credit card until your consumer debt is paid off. Impressive!

  13. Kevin@InvestItWisely

    Nice selection of quotes, Sam. I think you’re taking a narrow view of debt, though. Debt is not objectively bad; it’s simply a tool. If you go into debt to go on a long vacation, then maybe that’s not so good. Debt to expand your business is not necessarily a bad thing, though, and debt to buy a house can be good or bad depending on what you can afford and how much you are spending.

    1. I agree that debt can be a great leveraging tool since it can open the doors to growth and expansion. But, I am using Sun Tzu’s wisdom to preach that we should acknowledge the dangers and the purpose of carrying debt – we must be prepared for it.

      In the end, don’t you feel that the debt must be dealt with?

  14. Nice hand-selection of quotes Simon. Did you already have those in mind when you wrote this, or did you have to scan through the text for the ideas?

    There have been so many variations on this classic, Art of War FOR: Women, Managers, Executives, Sales, and even Writers.

    Recently donated a ton of books, glad I didn’t get rid of this one. The article’s got my blood pumping and may just go pick it up again.

    1. I had it in a file for the longest time and I periodically take a peek at it. Like you said it does get my juices running. It is definitely a keeper.

      Decided to look at the text from a different angle and found some great quotes that would work – picked out the few that made sense and voila!

  15. Argh, I had written a long response and then deleted it. (I have to get used to this new computer.)

    Anyway, I had never thought to correlate war with debt. Maybe if people viewed debt as the enemy instead of a ‘fact of life’, the world would be a lot better off.

    My debt is my mortgage, and I admit, I have accepted I will have debt for the next 7 years. I could put all our discretionary income into the mortgage, but I do not want to sacrifice other savings. It is all a balance I suppose. The key is to minimize the debt wherever you can instead of just accepting it. Hate it like your enemy and take it seriously. You never know when debt will seriously impact you and your life decisions. Only you should be in control of your finances. It shouldn’t be your house, your credit card, whatever.

    1. Does your mortgage debt really irk you? I really love my mortgage bc it helps keep me focused to do things, and it also gives me added purpose in making money since realistically one doesn’t Need that much to survive.

      1. Oh, my mortgage really irks me. I would just love to not have to make that payment every month. It doesn’t affect me day-to-day or anything, I just so look forward to the day when I don’t have to make a mortgage payment EVER again.

        1. Harnessing the “irkness” is exactly how and why I’m doing everything I can to get out of debt. Getting pissed off is a great way to use the negative energy created by debt.

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