The Emotional Burden of Debt

Many Of Us Carry It

Photo: Matthew Henry

“Home life ceases to be free and beautiful as soon as it is founded on borrowing and debt.” — Henrik Ibsen

We’ve become used to the lingering presence of our debt, like living with someone who reminds us everyday that we’re not enough. It sucks the life force out of you.

How are you emotionally coping with your debt?

I asked my friend Kara Perez over at BravelyGo.co to share her personal experience with debt. See if you relate.

“I’ve got a problem with debt. While I no longer have any debt, it doesn’t mean that my feelings about debt have changed. I hate debt. It stresses me out.

Debt is a burden. You’ll find a lot of articles and stories out there about ways you can pay off debt, or avoiding going into it at all. You’ll find tips for frugal living and ways to maximize your savings.

All the information is good! I myself have written a post or two about frugal living. What I don’t see as often though, is stories about the emotional cost of debt.

I graduated college with $25,302 in student loans in 2011. I had no savings and no job. It was a pretty bleak financial picture and I was acutely aware that I was starting from behind.

My debt weighed me down, and not just financially. My debt weighed on my emotions. I sat at my college graduation feeling actual fear while our speaker gave his address. How was I going to pay my loans back? Was I going to be in debt forever? $25,302 is a lot of money and I have none- what am I going to do?

My debt made me sad, angry and scared, often all at once. And I know I’m not alone in this. Graduates have committed suicide over their student loan debt. Talk to anyone with debt and they’ll mention that they feel overwhelmed by it, scared of it, and sure that it’s a permanent part of their adult life. That is the emotional cost of debt. The overwhelming hopelessness.

I felt all those things. I was sad that my debt kept me from doing things I wanted to in my life. Friends of mine were taking the year off after college to travel, or were able to take very low paying jobs in fields they loved because they had no debt. Those weren’t chances I could take.

I was angry with the education system that requires teenagers to take on tens of thousands of dollars of debt before they understand it. Education shouldn’t cost you your future. If we’re asking kids to pay almost $300,000 for a degree, there needs to be work for those kids when they graduate.

I was scared I would never pay it off. I come from a lower middle class income background, and $25,302 was more money than even seemed real. I had a Bachelor’s degree in English and a passion for writing. Not exactly a well-paying field or a high earning degree.

These emotions paralyzed me at times. I tried to be proactive about my debt, but after college I could only find work as a waitress. I worked really hard for fairly low pay, all the while making no dents in my debt load.

The fear, anger and sadness didn’t go away though. I thought about my debt all the time. It was something I would poke at, and up would rise all the bad feelings. The emotional cost of my debt was just as bad as the financial one.

Looking at my balances made me cry. Thinking about my income level made me cry. I was crying a lot, and it was bringing down my whole quality of life. My response to my debt for a long time was like riding on an emotional roller coaster. I would ride until I stumbled off, and then get back on. I couldn’t control the path it took me on.

I finally started to feel better when I started making serious moves to pay off my debt. Two and a half years after graduation, I’d had enough. I slashed my spending, tightened my budget as much as I could, and picked up as much extra work as I could. Every single penny that wasn’t spent on the bare essentials (and I do mean bare) got funneled towards my debt.

Taking action made me feel approximately 1000 times better. I felt like, for the first time, I was the one in control. My debt was no longer a boogeyman that lurked in the shadows of my life. I dragged that thing out into daylight and showed it who was boss!

It took another year, but I managed to pay off my student loans in three and a half years after college graduation. During that last year, my feelings about debt totally shifted. I felt powerful, hopeful and strong. Focusing on eliminating my debt showed me what I’m capable of. Each time I made a payment I felt stronger. I was winning against my debt. The finish line was in sight.

While knowing the best tactics to pay off your debt is important, it’s also important to talk about the feelings associated with your debt.

Being debt free has vastly improved my life. I feel lighter. I’m happier. I can take risks. I can save money. I own my life, not some lender. This emotional journey has had high high’s and low low’s, that’s for sure.

For all of you out there who have your own debt burden, I would say this. Examine how your debt makes you feel. Are those feelings positive? Are they negative? If they’re overwhelmingly negative, I encourage you to do whatever you can to take back control. Don’t let your debt control you. You are in charge, and you can defeat your debt.” — K.P.

Debt gives us no room to make mistakes. Who needs that?

When you owe money, you make your most significant decisions life based on fear — fear of missing a payment or never getting out from under, especially if you’re someone with integrity.

I remember my high school friend, Grace. She was a scholarship/student loan kid going through undergraduate and then graduate school at UCLA. She owed a lot of money.

Smart, gorgeous, funny, and dating a 55-year-old journalist for 5 years. He paid for her rent and was out of town a lot. She said it was love. As her friends, we didn’t believe her. By the time they broke up, she was a ghost.

The feeling of being behind is hard to shake. Sometimes, it runs our show long after the last payment is made. Your mind is always somewhere else, trying to survive, instead of having fun and attracting the positive energy you have the power to create here and now.

Your choice is simple: embrace the hardship of getting rid of your debt and look forward to being free. Or, put it off and get poorer in every sense of the word for the rest of your life. You pick when you’re ready to start.

You’re in great company if you’re struggling with debt. Forgive yourself. It’s a new day. It’s a new year.

Make a plan to remove that financial and (more importantly) emotional tumor from your life. You’ve done harder things before. Do what you need to do to see the light again.

Call To Action

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You can find me at janehwangbo.com.