Vacations are odd things for Americans. Even as we crave and dream about them, we still feel culturally pressured not to take them.

But do you deserve one if you have debt?

In an article for the Washington Post, columnist Michelle Singletary asserts that you don't.

"I'm sorry to tell you that you don't deserve a summer vacation if you're a financial hot mess," writes Singletary. "I'm not saying you shouldn't enjoy your vacation time. Take your time off. Relax. But you don't have to go away."

On the one hand, I completely get where Singletary is coming from. My own family always had to count pennies. And while my parents never explicitly told me debt was a no-no, I did come to understand through their financial behavior that you shouldn't borrow without a clear plan to pay the money back. I learned also that, ethically, promises to lenders mean something, and that spending for wants now can erase your ability to cover needs later. So in the sense that it's in your best interests to be prudent with your purse strings, I absolutely agree.

But "deserve" is a word with a deep connotation of fairness. And the reality is, debt isn't always the product of irresponsibility, which Singletary simply doesn't address.

Entrepreneurs take on debt all the time to get ventures off the ground or support a career shift. But they do so knowing the risk-benefit ratio, and there is such a thing as good debt that ultimately will yield income. If you make sensible agreements, it can be perfectly plausible to pay for a jaunt while also paying down these obligations.

And of course, there's the unexpected. You can work hard and follow every financial rule your whole life, and you still can get sucked into debt with just one hospital stay. About 1 out of every 4 people (26 percent) say they have trouble paying medical bills, and 61 percent of those who've had problems paying medical bills say they either just meet their basic expenses (43 percent) or don't have enough to meet basic expenses (18 percent). You can't always foresee a layoff, and you don't necessarily see your paycheck go up just because your landlord ups the rent. You need an hourly wage of $22.10 to afford a modest two-bedroom now, according to a recent report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition's annual "Out of Reach" report. Yet the average hourly wage of U.S. renters stands at $16.88. It's often those kinds of situations -- not just too many Amazon sprees --that lead to people needing to carry credit card balances for years.

Is it fair that those situations should rob you of the chance to have experiences that can deeply enrich your life and change your entire perspective? To tell someone with this kind of debt, which they might never get out of, that they don't deserve a break is an incredible insult. It points a finger at victims and plays into the current workplace bias that the poor are where they are because of bad choices or a lack of intelligence or competence.

And can you have fun on a staycation around town? Absolutely! But I hate to break it to you. The local water park isn't a trip to the Louvre or seeing the colors of the Grand Canyon. It's not flying on a plane for the first time or being able to haggle in a Tibetan market.

An apple will never be a substitute for a banana.

The problem with Singletary's statement isn't the concept of being financially self-accountable. That's golden. It's the underlying implication that experience isn't an innate right, that somehow you lose your entitlement to it the minute money troubles hit, and that you're always the problem if they do.

If you choose to give up your right to experiences by mismanaging your funds, that's one issue. But if you have mismanaged nothing, if you have negative accounts that truly will transform into wealth, or if you have been dealt coal when diamonds are due, then your right is intact. You still deserve experiences, even if you're logistically held back from claiming them by flawed systems.

Debt doesn't erase that.  

Published on: Apr 26, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.