My Message to Others in Debt

So we all know that having student debt-–-or any type of debt-–-can have a lot of practical consequences, such as:

  • Having to allocate large portions of your paycheck each month towards paying back your loans
  • And, because of this, not being able to use your money for other things that are important to you, like traveling to see family, saving for retirement, or (fill in the blank).

These practical consequences are, to some extent, realities. We may be able to consolidate/refinance our loans, or get a better job, or get a second job, or drastically reduce our spending—and these are all fantastic ideas that can make a huge difference. However, we can’t get rid of our loans this instant unless we default on them and/or flee the country (neither of which I recommend). However, there are other consequences of being in student debt which are talked about less often, but which are still very, very real, such as:

  • Feeling trapped and powerless
  • Feeling anxious that you might not be able to pay the loans back, or that you might not be able to pay them back while also saving for the future and taking care of yourself today
  • Feeling guilty, ashamed, or embarrassed for having taken out the loans in the first place
  • Having to deal with the negative impact that all this anxiety and stress can have on your psychological and physical health
  • Not being able to sleep because you are lying in bed panicking about any/all of the above

I know about these because I’ve experienced them all. But my message to you is this:

You may be in debt, but you are not powerless. You may not be able to change the facts of your situation at this very moment, but there is a great deal you can do to change things from this point onward, both in terms of the debt itself and how you feel about it.

Just briefly, here are some suggestions that I believe can be very powerful:

  • For me, increasing my awareness of my financial situation has been really important. You can read a little more about my experiences becoming more aware in Origin Story and Knowing is Better than Not Knowing. Awareness very often involves taking data, doing calculations, and making small (or large) changes based on those calculations.
  • Please know that you don’t have to go through this alone. You may or may not know anyone in your everyday life who is in a similar situation, but there are a ton of great blogs and resources online, and connecting with people virtually and hearing their stories can be incredibly encouraging. Leave comments here on this blog, or on other blogs, talk to your friends, talk to your family, start your own blog. Whatever you do though, don’t just hang out inside your own head panicking. I know from experience that this is neither fun nor helpful.
  • When thinking about student debt, remember that a) the facts, b) your initial emotional response to the facts, and c) the attitude you choose to adopt about the facts are three totally separate things. And the one we generally have the most control over is the third one. So for example, one fact about my life is that I have a lot of student loan debt, and my emotional response to that situation is a mixture of panic and regret. BUT even though those things are true, I can make a conscious choice about my attitude going forward. Am I going to curl up in the fetal position and construct a narrative about how I’m a victim of the system? Nope (although sometimes that does feel tempting!). I’m going to sit down, assess my finances, make a plan, and view debt repayment as the ultimate challenge.

In case you’re interested, a couple of books that have had a substantial impact on my thinking about the psychological ramifications of student debt are:

Feeling Good by David Burns. This book has been a best-seller for decades, and with good reason. It’s about disentangling your thoughts from your emotions so that you can take a more rational and less panicky view of situations in your life that may be anxiety-inducing.

When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron. She’s a Buddhist nun, so there’s a bit of a religious spin, but I’m not Buddhist and I still get a ton out of her perspective. She talks a lot about the insecurity that is inherent in all our lives and about trying to find lightness and compassion (towards yourself as well as others).

(Those are Amazon affiliate links, but in keeping with the spirit of this blog, allow me to suggest that you save yourself some money and just go find the books at your local library.)

So take courage! The past and present are what they are, but you have a lot of control over the future.

Have you experienced the anxiety that comes along with debt? If so, how are you handling it?
I’d love to hear about your experiences; feel free to comment below!

9 Comments

  • Reply Rich November 4, 2015 at 9:26 PM

    I really appreciate your last bullet point here about the facts, your initial emotional reaction, and your attitude going forward. I’ve read/heard from too many folks who have been sucked right into that “narrative about how I’m a victim of the system” and seem to be incapable of taking ownership and making plans for how to move forward. Congrats on finding and committing to a better response! And thanks for sharing your journey here with the rest of us!

    • Reply Sarah Noelle November 4, 2015 at 11:49 PM

      Hi Rich, thanks so much for reading and for your nice comment. It’s definitely taken me a while to figure out what my philosophy on debt is. It’s tough because there are definitely a variety of factors driving any decision (financial or otherwise), but in the end I definitely believe that I’m responsible for my own decisions. Seeing oneself as a victim is actually very limiting, I think, because it takes away our power to change our situation. But taking responsibility is EMpowering on a pretty deep level, because it means we get to decide what to do next.

  • Reply brendan@futureminimalist.com January 1, 2016 at 5:46 AM

    Hi Sarah, this is a great page – very reassuring with positive and practical messages to those out there with real debt concerns. Thinking about my student loan used to fill me with dread but since I have confronted it and regularly review my balance, I can see the difference my repayments are having and it is actually quite exciting to see the balance reducing with every month! All the best, Brendan

    • Reply Sarah Noelle January 1, 2016 at 2:57 PM

      Hey Brendan, thanks for stopping by and for your nice comment. I’m glad to hear that you’ve gotten to a point where you are excited to see your loan balance, rather than dreading it. I’m actually just starting that journey this month because I just finished grad school and am about to start paying off my loans. I’m hoping to be in that place soon, where it feels like I’m working away at the debt and making a difference in the balance.
      Happy New Year! 🙂

  • Reply Jen @ Frugal Millennial January 2, 2016 at 10:26 PM

    I finished grad school with $75,000 of debt and no job prospects. The fear that I would default on my loans and live with my parents forever triggered major anxiety for me. I would put so much pressure on myself every time I went to a job interview that I would get incredibly nervous during the interviews and would forget everything I wanted to say. Needless to say, it took a while before I landed a job – and it wasn’t a well-paying job.

    What helped me the most was developing a plan to payoff my debt using the debt snowball approach. Knowing that I will be debt-free in just three years is an awesome feeling.

    • Reply Sarah Noelle January 2, 2016 at 11:36 PM

      That’s great about the debt snowball approach, Jen! I actually just finished grad school a couple of weeks ago so am currently figuring out my own plan of repayment (which I won’t be able to really do until I have a job and a salary…). I too am finding job interviews to be daunting and anxiety-inducing, but I’m hoping that I’ll get more experienced at them as I continue the process.
      I’m glad you’re feeling good about your plan — that’s great! And three years really is not such a long time in the grand scheme of things. 🙂

  • Reply Proceed Until Apprehended » Blog Archive » Sarah Is Yachtless. Maybe You Are Too? January 12, 2016 at 8:05 AM

    […] conscious” (which I think is a really cool phrase). There are posts that revolve around debt repayment (especially student loans…she’s a millennial after all) and there are some great […]

  • Reply Wolf359 February 9, 2016 at 2:43 PM

    I’m about 10 years older, so I’ve already proceeded past the early adulthood debt stage. It took a concerted effort, but I can say that there is a silver lining you didn’t mention above. If you do the debt snowball approach and make a concerted effort to pay down a big debt, when the debt ends, you have a really big positive cashflow. If you then switch from paying creditors to paying yourself, that quickly launches you towards FI.

    I did a bonehead move after my student loans were paid off and replaced them with a car loan. After I paid THAT off, I kept the car payment going as a car replacement fund. I haven’t had a need for any debt except a mortgage since then.

    The journey to get out of debt becomes the path to FI. How’s that for something to which to look forward?

    • Reply Sarah Noelle February 9, 2016 at 4:05 PM

      Ah yes, that’s also a good point. Since I’m currently paying off my loans, I haven’t yet spent much time thinking much about my future post-debt mentality. But I plan to use that positive cashflow wisely. As you say, there’s a lot to look forward to. 🙂 Thanks for the comment.

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