As someone who used to be both broke and in debt, I can say for sure that living with negative finances can be a real downer.
Actually, that’s an understatement.
Debt is one of the chief stressors of my generation. Millennials are buried under black, sticky mountains of it, mostly from student loans and credit cards.
In my early and mid-20s, after moving back to the United States from Australia with all the money I had rolled up in my suitcase, I got caught up in a bad credit card cycle.
My apartment was too expensive, I didn’t know how to budget, I started graduate school, and I didn’t make enough at my entry-level office job.
I managed to perform a razor’s edge balancing act for a few years by living off my very low-limit credit card and then paying it off with the entirety of my paycheck. Charge – Deplete – Repeat.
It was definitely a worrisome cycle, but I managed to keep that wheel turning. And, of course, my credit line grew steadily. Visa didn’t know about my balancing act, it just knew that I was racking up debt and paying it off.
Then, I decided to go to a summer writing conference in Maine as part of my master’s program. The expense pushed me off the edge of that cliff, and down into debt’s black hole.
For the first time since I got my credit card, I couldn’t pay off my entire balance. I always paid more than the minimum, but I still started to accumulate interest.
For about two years, I walked around with anywhere from a few hundred to $3,000 in debt. I would get close to paying it off and then something would come up – like a car repair or an ill-timed splurge – and I’d rack it up again.
The cycle was suffocating.
Having debt was immensely stressful. It was always on my mind. I had nightmares about getting sick or suddenly having some other expense. When I went out with my friends, I could never relax because I was so worried about how much I was spending.
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I was expecting my young, urban life to be bright and carefree, just like the movies. In reality, my debt cast a big shadow over everything.
I also felt very alone with my debt and would rarely talk about it. When I did, I would frame it as something I had complete control over.
“I plan on paying it off in the next few months,” I would tell my parents. “Don’t worry, I’ve got it.”
I felt ashamed – like I should have known something I didn’t. Now I know that many of my friends were probably suffering the same way.
And yet, my debt and the time it took me to get out from under it was miniscule compared to what some of my peers are facing. Debt – even short-term – is taking a real toll on our mental health.
What the Studies Show
The correlation between debt and poor mental health is quite high.
“Household Debt and Adult Depressive Symptoms,” a paper published by the University of Wisconsin in October 2012, states that short-term household debt is associated with “greater depression and stress, declining quality of marital relations and parenting behavior, and adverse child outcomes.”
In December 2013, Clinical Psychology Review published an examination of 65 studies on debt and mental health, which concluded that people with debt are three times more likely to have a mental health problem, most commonly depression, anxiety, and psychotic disorders.
Even more alarming, the study found that people who commit suicide are eight times more likely to be in debt.
The causation isn’t clear, though. Does debt cause mental health issues or do mental health issues cause debt?
It’s likely that the two can exacerbate each other.
A mental illness probably makes you more susceptible to losing track of your finances and thus building up debt. And debt is likely to aggravate any anxiety or depression you may already have.
In any case, I’ve found awareness, education, and discipline are the keys to overcoming debt and its effects. And remember: just like mental illness, you’re not alone.