Image: Piggy bank © Fancy, Veer, Corbis

You may remember J. Wellington Wimpy, more commonly known simply as Wimpy, Popeye's beloved friend from the iconic comic strip. Wimpy was soft-spoken and intelligent, but also cowardly, lazy, stingy and gluttonous. A true scam artist, Wimpy usually finagled his favorite meal, a hamburger, from some unsuspecting patron at the local diner. Wimpy's parsimonious ways included his famous con line, "I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today."

Decades later, this character, created in 1932 during the Great Depression, has become a symbol of fiscal irresponsibility.

Today, the United States is facing its own Wimpy-esque moment in the form of the debt ceiling. The free burgers have flowed for some time now, but the patrons have grown wise to the scam. The pitch of pushing off today's payment until some future Tuesday has become a bit haggard and worn thin for many in America.

Simply look to Greece, Portugal, Spain and other countries to see what it is like to have one's hamburgers taken away. The forced diet does not look pretty.

Strangely, as the U.S. citizenry passionately criticizes its government for running up a budget deficit, a greater irony is afoot: When it comes to debt management, Americans are, sadly, worse than their government.

While government debt sits at 94% of national revenue, U.S. household debt sits at a whopping 107% of personal income.

The household balance sheets of Americans are in worse condition than at any time since the Great Depression. The ratio of household debt to gross domestic product is greater than at any time since 1929. And while we all are trying to comprehend what life will be like as a poorer nation, many Americans have not yet comprehended their own personal poverty.

The point of saving

From the early 1940s through the late 1960s, an ethos of saving before spending ruled the roost. If you sought to buy a house, a 20% down payment was required. Similarly, substantial savings were required to buy a car. Home furnishings, clothing and more were purchased primarily with cash.

By the 1970s, however, rampant inflation helped form a debt culture that found footing and gained steam.

If you saved, inflation threatened to erode the value of your savings, while the price of your desired purchases continued to rise. What was the point of saving when you could buy with little to nothing down, deduct interest from your federal tax obligations and have those things you longed for?

Over the coming decades, American household debt ballooned, eventually doubling from $7 trillion to $14 trillion between 2001 and 2007. Debt fears, however, were assuaged by the rapidly growing value of real estate; homeowners used equity lines to buy more property and cars, as well as pay for vacations and toys. Burgers were flowing for all.

Then in 2008, the sudden and violent decline in home prices revealed just how bad the debt binge had been. Tuesday had finally arrived, and, like Wimpy, our wallets were a bit too thin to meet our obligations.

Wise and disciplined investors

A renewed focus on government fiscal irresponsibility should lead us to honest self-examination. At the heart of this audit should be confronting personal debt and embracing basic investing disciplines.

Each person must make a decision to feed the debt furnace or build a retirement engine.

Like Wimpy, we all experience the gnawing hunger to consume more than we need. Each time we reach out, through credit, for a burger today, we take our future dollars and throw them into the blazing furnace of consumption. The heat of the moment is delightful, but the result is the poverty that's unfolding before our nation.

When we behave like wise and disciplined investors, we resist our pulsing appetites, take our hard-earned dollars and direct a predetermined portion to smart, long-term investments. In doing so, such investors build an engine through the miraculous power of compounding interest.

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Unlike Wimpy and other debtors, this interest works in your favor. Ben Franklin understood that for such savers, "money can beget money, and its offspring can beget more." Albert Einstein called compounding the "eighth wonder of the world."

Those who reject debt and invest wisely create a powerful engine, so that Tuesday's obligations can be fully met on time, leaving a few burgers to spare.

This article was reported by Steve Beck for U.S. News & World Report.