Awhile back there was a national article about Allison Brooke Eastman, and how her fiance broke off the engagement because he found out the extent of her student loan debt.
What resonated with me about that story is that Eastman didn’t even KNOW the extent of her debt when they first started dating. She told him she thought it was in the range of $100,000. She didn’t realize it was actually $170,000 until she got out the paperwork after they became engaged. She had refused to look at it because she was too ashamed.
Shame can be a strong deterrent to action.
It can make us curl up and shut down. It can force us to disconnect from the outside world. It can turn us into secret-keepers, procrastinators and liars. It can even make us, as in Eastman’s case, ignorant of the extent of our debt. And it can even pull us further into debt. Our goal needs to be to overcome the shame, so we can begin to take action. There are plenty of studies on credit card debt and shame. The National Foundation for Credit Counseling asked people to finish this sentence: “I’d be most embarrassed to admit my…” Thirty seven percent answered “credit card debt”, followed by 30 percent pointing to their credit score. Interestingly, only 12 percent answered “weight”, putting that loaded subject in a distant third place. Debt far outweighs being fat in a country obsessed by body image.
According to Moneycrashers.com, in an article 6 Tips to Stop Being Ashamed of Your Debt and Take Control, “When consumers feel a deep sense of shame, guilt, and embarrassment over debt, [instead of inspiring them to get out of debt] an opposite effect can take place. Instead of curbing spending and improving debt payoff rates, the embarrassment causes debt to fester unacknowledged and keeps consumers from getting the help they need to take control of their finances.”
We need to stop blaming ourselves. Inc.com, in an article entitled How Student Debt Is Ruining Millennial Lives, explains how the skyrocketing cost of education and a lousy job market have created a perfect breeding ground for such debt. The student debt crisis in this country is real, and not a “personal failure.” “The reality is that the cost of education at a private college has more than doubled in the past 30 years, and the cost of a public college education has more than tripled. Meantime, when adjusted for inflation, average compensation has stayed flat or even declined over that time. So it stands to reason that most people born in the 1980s or later who get a college education will wind up with more debt than they can easily handle. It’s not your fault–but it is your responsibility to deal with it. If you’ve been putting that off, the time to start is now.”
Throughout my website, and in my book, I give practical advice for getting out of debt, from lowering interest rates, to consolidating loans, to aiming for higher paying jobs. For now, let’s look at a more emotional/internal approach, things you can do to shift your attitude around shame and student debt.
Kate Northrup, author of the book, Money: A Love Story, suggests taking three steps to get out of high debt, including student loan debt: Tell the Truth, Forgive Yourself, and Go Toward Gratitude.
“In my early twenties,” she writes about Step 1: Tell the Truth, “I got myself into over $20K in credit card debt. Writing it all down and telling the truth about my financial situation made the shame I felt feel lighter immediately. Soon after I got clear on everything I began to get traction paying it off…like when you’re using a GPS to get directions, you can’t get where you’re going unless you know where you’re starting from.”
In Step 2: Forgive yourself, she explains that you cannot go forward if you keep shaming and blaming yourself. “No amount of beating yourself up or spending time and energy on regret will change the past. But deciding to let go and move forward will at least create a new financial future. …when you forgive yourself for past mistakes (and others, as well) you free up your emotional energy to make smarter financial decisions…”
Finally, she asks, what if we showed gratitude for high student loan debt? Could you imagine thanking your monthly debt statement for the education it provided? Could you actually list the benefits you got out of the education you’re now paying for?
“Any time we have debt,” Northrup writes, “we’re simply repaying someone for something of value that we have already received. So instead of looking at your …loan statements with dread, why not get into gratitude? Go through and list out all of the blessings that you’re still paying for. …This type of gratitude practice is a great way to train your attention on what’s good and abundant in your life. And what we put our attention on grows.”
Whatever way you go about it, the truth is, before we can beat the debt, we must beat the shame that keeps us swirling in a vortex of self-blame, self-recrimination and self-sabotage.