The Shame of Debt

Money doesn’t make you happy. That’s how the saying goes, and you can’t deny that there’s some truth to it. However, while having lots of money won’t make you happy, having very little is more likely to make you stressed and depressed. 

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The less you have, the more likely you are to stress over the smallest of things, and if debt is forcing that poverty on you, hanging a dark cloud of uncertainty over your head, that stress and that depression will increase.

Psychological Cost of Debt

Debt has a massive psychological cost and a lot of that boils down to shame. Debt stress and debt shame are more common than ever in the United States, as debtors seek to hide their troubles from their families and loved ones. There is an unmistakable link between debt and an increased suicide risk.

A student conducted several years ago looked at the finances of people who had committed suicide and found they were significantly more likely to have massive debts (student loan debt, credit card debt). Similar studies have been conducted on mental health, noting that people are more likely to suffer from debilitating depression, stress, and anxiety when they have problems with debt.

And it’s easy to see why. Not only do many debtors choose to keep their problems to themselves, feeling an immense shame that stops them from telling even their closest friends and family, but debt can also lead to anxieties about debt collectors, foreclosures, repossessions, bankruptcy, and more. 

How to Overcome the Shame of Debt

To improve your mental health, you need to fight debt stress and shame. That’s easier said than done, but there are a few things that you can do:

Understand Where the Shame Comes From

The first step is to understand why you feel the way that you feel. This might not fix your debt shame, but it will help you to understand it more.

There is no single, overriding cause of debt shame. Some debtors feel shame because they see themselves as the breadwinner, the provider, and if they have debt it means they have failed. Others feel shame because they come from frugal backgrounds and have been wasteful or because their debt is the result of a drug, alcohol or gambling problem.

Whatever the reason, you need to find it, address it, and fix it. Get help for that gambling or drug addiction, get advice from that frugal family.

Admit Your Fault

Debt doesn’t mean that you’re a bad or useless person. It doesn’t mean that you don’t care about your family. It’s not a character flaw tied to your personality, it’s a behavioral issue tied to impulsivity and even mental health issues. It’s still your fault, but it’s easily fixed and doesn’t make you a bad person.

Understanding this can help you to get rid of that shame and deal with your stress and mental health issues.

Improve Your Financial Knowledge

Researchers have found a direct correlation between debt and financial knowledge; the more you have of the former, the less likely you are to be competent in the latter.

Fortunately, it has never been easier to educate yourself. Take a look at the many guides here on Pocket your Dollars, spanning everything from pay off strategies for credit card debt to money-making ideas, recommendations for loans and credit cards, and more.

Get Credit Counseling

Credit counseling exists for a reason and can help you in your time of need. They’re not mental health counselors, they can’t prescribe you medication and they can’t help with your insomnia and anxiety. However, they have worked with countless debtors, many of which have anxiety and depression, and they understand what it’s like to be in your shoes.

They can help you to assess and manage your debts before advising on the right course of action. A financial therapist can also provide assistance with any relationship issues, counseling you on who you should tell, how you should tell them, and what sort of reaction to expect.

The problem that many debtors have is that they think they know everything. They won’t speak to a counsellor because they’re convinced they know what the counsellor will say. But let’s be honest, if you’re struggling with debt, there’s a good chance you’re not a financial wizard and even if you are, it always helps to speak with an expert, voicing your concerns out loud and bouncing some ideas around.

Stop Spending

We spend when we’re depressed, get depressed because we’re in debt and are in debt because we spend too much. It’s a cycle that’s keeping your favorite retailer in profit and doing untold damage to your finances. To get out of debt, you need to accept that this cycle exists and that the only way to escape is to stop that spending immediately.

Anything that isn’t an absolute necessity can be left for another day, preferably one when you actually have money to spend. Limit your spending to clothes, food, rent, utility bills, medical bills, and everything else that allows you to continue living comfortably from day to day, but give the alcohol, cigarettes, vacations, and other luxuries a miss.

How to Take Control of Your Debt

The best way to avoid the shame and stress of debt is to get rid of it. Studies on debtors have found that at least 9 out of 10 believe they will be much happier if they didn’t have debt. These beliefs have been confirmed by individuals who successfully pay off debt, claiming = they are much happier than they ever were.

There are many ways you can pay off debt and we’ll look at a few of these options below, but generally speaking, you need to:

  • Assess your financial situation
  • Check your credit report and credit score
  • Get help from a credit counselor or financial therapist
  • If your debt-to-income ratio is low, budget better and pay off more with a debt payoff strategy
  • If your debt-to-income ratio is high, try debt relief
  • Create an emergency fund to prevent future issues

Best Ways to Get out of Debt

There is no debt shame if there is no debt. As discussed above, debt is not something you should be ashamed of, but it’s also not something you should cling onto. It can cause you a great deal of stress, placing strain on your relationships and generally making life very difficult for you.

So, while it’s important to face the truth of the situation and dispel those feelings of shame, it’s just as important to fight your debt and get your head above water. Here are a few debt relief options and debt payoff strategies that can help. For more information, including expensive guides and recommendations on each of these options, take a look at the relevant sections on Pocket Your Dollars.

Snowball and Avalanche Methods

The debt snowball and debt avalanche methods are two of the most popular debt payoff strategies, and ones that we have discussed at great length before (see debt snowball vs debt avalanche). They can make the process more systematic, which, in turn, may provide you with the support and the structure you need to get your debts in order. 

In both cases, you need to make a list of all your debts, covering things such as Balance, Monthly Payment, and Interest Rate. For debt snowball, sort the list by balance and go from the smallest to the largest. For debt avalanche, focus on the debts that have the highest interest rate and get those out of the way first. With both methods, you need to keep meeting your monthly payment obligations, before putting any extra money you have towards your chosen debt.

Debt avalanche provides the most practical benefits as it clears the problematic debts first, thus reducing the total interest. Debt snowball provides more of a psychological boost, giving you motivation as you steadily clear your debts.

Major Sacrifices

The biggest issue with any debt payoff strategy is that it isn’t easy to get the extra money you need to make those additional payments and clear your debts early. However, many debtors are trapped in a cycle of debt not because they can’t scrape the cents together no matter how hard they try, but because they struggle to budget properly and make the necessary sacrifices.

The average American debtor spends thousands of dollars every year on uneaten groceries, lottery tickets, and media subscriptions. They drop hundreds of dollars on luxuries they don’t really need and spend over $3,500 a year eating out. If debt is dragging you down then it’s imperative that you clear it, which means making some sacrifices and getting your priorities in check.

If you genuinely can’t spare a dime and don’t waste money on unnecessary expenses, then look into some of the options below.

Debt Settlement

Debt settlement is tailor-made for unsecured debt and works especially well for clearing credit card debt, as well as private students. Debt settlement companies often request that you stop meeting your monthly payment obligations, which puts the accounts into doubt and means your creditors are more likely to accept a settlement.

This settlement will clear the entirety of the debt for a fraction of the price, often around 50%. This means that a credit card debt of $10,000 would be cleared for $5,000, providing you with some big savings even after the settlement fees have been taken into account.

Debt Consolidation

A consolidation loan is a large loan that pays off all of your debt at a reduced interest rate and for a reduced monthly payment. The loan is often extended by several years, which means you pay more in the long-term, but the reduced monthly payments alleviate some of the burden and make the debt more manageable.

Debt Management

Debt management provides debtors with a debt repayment strategy, with all funds funneled through the debt management plan and then distributed to creditors. This service is often provided by credit counseling agencies and credit unions, who begin the process by negotiating with creditors and then assuming control of all debts.

These companies often ask that the debtors cancel all but one credit card, which can reduce the debtor’s credit score by impacting their credit utilization ratio.

Balance Transfer

A balance transfer credit card lets you move all your credit card balances onto a single card, one that offers a 0% APR for the first 6, 12 or 18 months, allowing you to pay down debt without interest, thus reducing compounded interest and clearing the debt quickly.

This method works with all credit card debt and you can typically move between 1 and 5 balances onto a new credit card, providing that card isn’t offered by the same company.