By Patty Moore, a blogger who writes about career, family, and personal finances. Follow her on Twitter @WorkMomLife!
Americans must have short memories. Not even a decade has passed since the financial crisis which exposed a debt bubble that led to a record number of bankruptcies, foreclosures, and credit card charge offs; yet, Americans are carrying more debt than ever. The average household that carries debt, about 80 percent of Americans, has nearly $17,000 in credit card debt, $29,000 in auto loan debt, $28,000 in student loan debt and $137,000 in average total debt. Less than 20 percent of Americans are debt free. Would you like to venture a guess as to which group of Americans are the healthiest? I can vouch for the fact that carrying that kind of debt is harmful to your health. It can even shorten your lifespan. Now that I am debt free, which was no easy feat, I have never felt better in my life.
(Note from Kate: we know that debt is not always a choice, especially when it comes to medical bills. Additionally, student loan debt isn’t always understood when you sign up for it. I know that I and many people I know didn’t fully grasp what student loan debt would look like until we were at the end of college.)
The Physical and Mental Dangers of Debt
For most people, when they’re up to their neck in debt, their sole focus is on the financial strain – having to juggle payments, keeping creditors off their back, watching their balances creep up. They may notice that they’re feeling more stressed and their relationships with loved ones have become more strained; but, they figure all of that will go away if they could just find a way to make their debt go away. What they don’t realize is their debt may be slowly killing them. It took a rare visit to my doctor for me to find out that the stress was indeed killing me. He pointed out that there is a significant positive correlation between debt and heart attacks; and if the heart attack didn’t kill me, I would continue to suffer from migraines, weight gain and accelerated aging. I knew I would have to do something about it, because I was only 36 and had a family to take care of.
Debt Payoff Increases Your Lifespan
It took me three and half years to pay off $15,000 in credit card debt and the remaining $24,000 in student loan debt. I still have a mortgage payment, but that has always been factored into my finances and I’m happy to have that as my only debt. Of course, the stress is gone and my doctor now tells me it is like it never happened – my body has fully recovered. What is important to know is it didn’t take until all of my debt was repaid for me to start feeling again. I began to feel better as soon as I had a plan to pay down my debt within three years.
Debt Payoff Can Improve Your Mental Health
Less noticeable, but no less harmful are the mental aspects of carrying debt. I know for myself that having my life controlled by debt caused me embarrassment and shame, which hammered my self esteem. The stress led to anxiety and an inability to focus on day-to-day activities, which is what convinced me to see my doctor. I was lucky, because many people suffer from depression and some experience downright hopelessness. When I started executing my debt payoff plan, the anxiety left me and I felt good about myself for the first time in many years. Being debt free is like having a new life, with new possibilities.
This doesn’t necessarily mean getting rid of debt will automatically improve your mental health, as anxiety and depression are mental illnesses. Debt can exacerbate these issues, but you might also suffer from them in general. It is important to see mental health professionals to help you manage them.)
Debt Payoff Saves Relationships
The one benefit of being debt-free for which I am most thankful is the turnaround in my relationships. When you enter a debt spiral, it’s tough to see how it affects your relationships. You notice your family members and work colleagues treating you differently, but you don’t know why; or you are simply in denial that you’ve become a different person. I experienced feelings of resentment and bitterness against my significant others and people at work, which I figure was a defense mechanism to mask my loss of self esteem. I nearly lost everyone. Once I recognized the problem and developed a plan, I turned back into the old me.
What tips have helped you deal with debt?
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