emotional burden of debt

Fear of Debt: The Hidden Emotional Burden of Debt

Part of the process of taking control of your money is giving you the space to be open about your emotions surrounding money, including the intense fear of debt. Personal finance is personal for a reason- we carry a lot of emotions in our wallets.

We stress out about paying bills on time. There’s happiness in landing a new job, or pride in negotiating a raise. We feel powerful when we build up savings or panic when we have to spend it.

The Emotional Burden of Debt

In my case, I carried negative emotions surrounding my debt. Google student loans and 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.

There’s triumph after triumph out there, and while that’s wonderful, it’s also just one side of the story.

I graduated college with $25,302 in student loans in 2011. I sat at my college graduation ceremony feeling actual fear while our speaker gave his address. How am I going to pay my loans back? Am I going to be in debt forever? I don’t have a job, and I don’t know how to get one. 

I had no savings and no job, and the economy was still recovering from the recession. It was a pretty bleak financial picture, and I was acutely aware that I was starting from behind. My debt was a handicap right out of the gate.

My debt made me sad, angry, and scared, often all at once. I felt frustrated by its demands on my money, even as I struggled to find a full-time job. I know I’m not alone in this. Talk to anyone with debt, and they’ll mention that they feel trapped by it.

That is the emotional burden of debt: the overwhelming hopelessness. 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 wanted to be proactive about my debt. I knew that debt was a bad thing for my financial future, but after college, I could only find work as a waitress. That meant I worked really hard for fairly low pay, all the while making no dents in my debt load.

The Vicious Cycle of Fear

It was clear to me that I would probably never pay it off. I grew up lower-middle class, and $25,302 was more money than even seemed real. The degree that earned me so much debt was in English, and I had a passion for writing — not exactly a well-paying field, or a high-earning degree.

I was stuck in a vicious cycle- I had to pay my loans, so I had to constantly be bringing in money. The only job I could find was waiting tables. That wasn’t a lot of money, so I couldn’t make serious headway on my loans. But I had to pay my loans, so I had to work…it felt like a cruel joke.

Beyond feeling paralyzed, my debt affected my sense of self-worth. Not being able to find work outside of waitressing made me question my value.

Why didn’t anyone want to hire me? Maybe I wasn’t smart. Maybe I wasn’t talented. No one else seemed to be struggling with their money so much- maybe I was some sort of freak. 

The real kicker was that these feelings were never far from my mind. I thought about my debt all the time. I was obsessed with its chokehold on my life.

It was something I would poke at, and up would come all the bad feelings. The emotional burden of debt was just as bad as the financial one.

Each month I manually paid my bills. Looking at my balances made me cry. Thinking about my income level made me cry.

The vicious cycle I was trapped in was weighing on me. Not know how to manage my income and my debt was ruining my life.

Debt is a harsh master. There is no room to make mistakes. When you owe money, you make your most significant decisions life based on fear- fear of missing a payment or repossession. You can feel behind all the time.

Time For Change

I reached a breaking point two and a half years after graduation. I’d been obsessing over my debt for long enough and I needed change. I needed action.

So I took action. 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 1,000 times better. For the first time, I was the one in control, and that meant everything. Action changed my entire relationship to my debt and to money at large.

Creating a spending plan-aka a budget– helped me figure out how much extra I could put towards debt each month. It helped me realize that I needed an emergency fund.

Debt was still a burden, and I still had down days. But my debt was no longer a boogeyman that lurked in the shadows of my life. It was no longer the one in control.

Each time I made a payment, I was taking back control of my life. Every extra catering shift I worked, or book that I sold for some more cash, gave me another bit of power over my debt.

The negative emotional burden of debt shifted from totally negative to more of a learning experience. Focusing on eliminating my debt showed me what I’m capable of.

It took another year, but I managed to pay off my student loans three and a half years after college graduation. I learned about money, and I started to use it as a tool. It became something that helped me live my best life, instead of dragging me down.

Being debt-free has vastly improved my life. I feel lighter. I’m happier. I’m saving money, and I’m beginning to build wealth. I own my life, not some lender. And now, my money goes towards my investments and building my assets, instead of to some student loan company.

There’s no one way to feel about your personal finances. You can feel whatever you want. If you feel mostly negative about your money, reach out! Maybe it’s time to take some action of your own.

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