For many Americans, debt is a fact of life: according to Experian’s 2020 consumer credit review, Americans have an average total debt balance of $92,727.
That total includes debt from sources including mortgages, auto loans, credit card debt, personal loans, and student loans. Not all debt is bad debt; some debt, like loans taken out to finance the purchase of a new car or house, can be seen as an investment in the future. However, when debt starts to pile up, it can be difficult to make monthly payments and stay on top of your finances, which can lead to stress and anxiety.
If you find yourself unable to sleep at night thinking about your debt, or too anxious to check your credit card bill each month, you’re not alone.
Here are some recommendations for how to manage the mental repercussions of debt and get your finances back on track.
1. Review your financial situation
The first step toward conquering your debt anxiety is to get a clear-eyed picture of your finances, even if you’re used to ignoring your bills and dread checking your balance statement. While it can be overwhelming to realize the exact amount of debt you’re in, it’s also the only way to be able to understand your situation and make an effective plan for moving forward.
In order to begin setting your finances straight, you should make a comprehensive list of the money that you owe. This can include credit card debt, student loans, personal loans, auto loans, mortgages, and medical debt. You should record how much money you owe, what your minimum monthly payments are, and what the rates are for each debt.
You should also get a better sense of how much money you earn and how much you spend each month. This can help you to figure out areas you might be able to cut back spending in. It can also help you to effectively budget in order to pay down debt.
Use an app like YNAB to get a sense of what your finances look like. Plus, you can easily track your debt paydown goals and see at-a-glance, how close you are to being debt-free.
2. Understand how you got into debt
If you’re struggling with debt, it’s important to understand how you got there in the first place. In some cases, debts like mortgages, auto loans, and student loans were investments in your future – or at least seemed that way at the time.
Other debt might be a result of financial precarity or caused by events outside of your control. Maybe you put expenses on a credit card for a few months when money was tight, or maybe you had to make an unexpected trip to the emergency room and were saddled with a hefty hospital bill.
Debt can sometimes be caused by irresponsible spending beyond your means, but just as often it’s a result of systems that aren’t designed to work in your favor, from predatory payday lenders to for-profit healthcare. Understanding how you got into debt doesn’t have to mean blaming yourself for your current situation.
3. Don’t panic
The phrase “drowning in debt” is more than just a cliché; it can be hard just to tread water when you’re struggling under a massive burden of debt. Anxiety about debt can also manifest in terms of physical symptoms, like an elevated heart rate or trouble breathing.
Despite how debilitating your anxiety surrounding debt may feel, it’s important not to panic. While debt is scary and stressful, it’s also really common. There are resources available to you that can help you to navigate your current situation.
4. Get help
Because debt can be/feel embarrassing and shameful on some level, it’s not always easy to admit that you need some help. You may be tempted to try to muddle through on your own rather than having to divulge shameful financial details.
If you’re struggling to make your monthly payments, the first thing you should do is reach out to your creditors to see if you can adjust your payment plan. While lenders won’t always be flexible, they’re often willing to work with you to come up with a plan that enables you to keep making payments each month. It’s also a good idea to reach out if you have loved ones that you are comfortable asking for help. Some people even find success through methods like crowdfunding for medical debt.
If you’re in a tight spot financially and struggling to make ends meet, there may also be government or non-profit assistance available to you that can help you to save money on everyday expenses. You should check to see if you qualify for SNAP, Medicaid, subsidized housing, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
5. Make a plan
Once you have a clear-eyed picture of your finances and have accessed any resources or aid that you qualify for, the next step is to make a plan to tackle your debt. Depending on your financial situation, this can include aggressively paying down debt by adhering to a strict budget, paying off debt gradually over time, or even filing for bankruptcy in order to discharge your debt and start over with a clean slate.
No matter what your debt strategy looks like, you should come up with a budget and try to stick to it. You may also want to consider finding ways to increase your income, like applying for better-paid jobs or starting a side hustle. If you’re not sure what your options are, nonprofits like the National Foundation for Credit Counseling can help you to get a better sense of how to move forward.
6. Prioritize your mental health
Debt can have a profound negative impact on mental health. If you’re feeling weighed down by debt, you may suffer from stress, anxiety, and depression as a result. There’s no magic fix for stress caused by debt, especially if you’re already in a tough spot financially. However, there are a few things you can do to make yourself feel better physically and mentally. These include:
- Getting exercise. It may be a cliché, but exercise is a common stress-reliever and can help to clear your head and reduce anxiety if you can’t stop thinking about your debt. Even a simple walk around the block or a quick Youtube yoga session can help.
- Getting enough sleep. If you’re stressed about debt, you may have trouble getting to sleep at night, but you should try to get as much rest as possible in order to mitigate anxiety.
- Eat well. Stress can affect people in different ways; some people find that their appetite has disappeared, while others stress-eat to cope. You should try to fuel your body with healthy, nourishing foods and make sure that you’re getting enough to eat each day.
- Treat yourself. When you’re struggling with financial issues, it can feel wasteful to spend money on yourself. However, there are still plenty of ways you can treat yourself in order to lower stress and reduce anxiety. Whether that’s watching a comforting TV show, taking a soothing bath, or eating a favorite meal, there are plenty of little ways to take care of and practice compassion with yourself.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Feeling stressed about debt is totally normal. That said, there are times when professional help can help you to better manage your mental health and deal with stress. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you’re having trouble managing on your own.
7. Keep things in perspective
Debt is a vicious cycle that traps some of the most vulnerable Americans. Whether you’re struggling with credit card debt, medical debt, student loans, or another form of debt, it can feel like an insurmountable task to pay down your balance. In some cases, financial precarity caused by debt can have a far-reaching impact on your life, making it difficult to afford basic necessities like food and shelter.
That said, in many cases debt isn’t debilitating, even when it is stressful. It’s a good idea to keep things in perspective when considering your debt and to remember that debt isn’t a reflection of your worth as a person.
There’s no denying that debt is a major stressor for many Americans, and for good reason. Debt can make it more difficult to save money, afford basic expenses, and maintain a basic quality of life.
At the same time, taking on debt is often an inescapable part of affording necessary expenses like education, housing, transportation, and healthcare. The accumulation of debt is often driven by systemic causes outside of any individual borrower’s control.
If you find yourself struggling with debt, the good news is that it’s not impossible to pay it off. There are plenty of strategies for saving, budgeting, and chipping away at debt. In the meantime, it’s important to keep your financial situation in perspective and make your mental health a priority.