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How to Respond to Debt Shaming

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Debt Shaming Is Everywhere

As I’ve written in the past, money can come with all sorts of emotional baggage. Debt is something millions of people unintentionally land themselves in. There are countless people who, through no fault of their own, have ended up in serious debt. And before you can say they should have had enough savings, there are some situations you can never prepare for. Rare disorders with new treatments that cost tens of thousands or even millions a year. Natural disasters for which there is no insurance coverage. The market changes and business goes belly up. 

Average lives can become indebted as well. Financial literacy isn’t taught in regular education streams. It’s only available to those who go out of their way to seek it out in special high school courses or in college. From that broken system, you end up with people like me. People who learned about money the hard way – by falling into horrible spending patterns. By not knowing how to budget. And what can really throw you into a spiral of anxiety is the shaming. Family, friends, the bank, the government – these can all be sources of debt shaming.

debt shaming

Media, Schmedia

There are marketing campaigns that tell us if we skipped the cup of coffee and invested its cost, we’d be on a dream vacation right now. Famously, an article calling out millennials suggests they could afford to buy houses if they put down the avocado toast. Never mind that families used to be able to prosper on one income. Many of my friends are barely getting by on two incomes, and they don’t go on vacation or have new iPhones. It’s tough out there! 

Not every penny of income has to go to paying off debt. Life still needs to be worth living. People love to comment when someone in debt has the audacity to go out to lunch or buy a (desperately needed) new pair of shoes. I’ve learned to give myself some walking around money that I can spend without guilt. I’m still fine-tuning the number (it’s too high at the moment), but it’s mine to spend on whatever I want. That little piece keeps me in control while still allowing me to direct most of my discretionary money to debt. If my parents ask me about a meeting a friend for a coffee or drink while I’m working on getting out of debt, I can proudly say it was in the budget.

How to Respond to Debt Shaming

The first step is for you to do alone. Acknowledge your debt! Sit down, tally everything up, and figure out what the total damage is. Let that sink in. Then, make a plan. You might want to talk to a not-for-profit credit counseling service or try a budgeting app, like YNAB or Mint.com. Once you have a plan, you will begin to feel less anxious, I promise! It was terrifying to confront all of my debts. Once I had them all laid out and had determined what I could do to pay them down, I began to feel better.

My last piece of advice is to talk about your debt with someone you trust. A lot of the shaming surrounding debt actually came from me. I went to great lengths to appear like I had money when everything was going on a card. Once I was honest with myself about the totals, I felt brave enough to talk to my best friend about it. I rarely talked about my debt until I began paying it off. When I finally paid off my first credit card, I was so proud of myself and began to share the news. If someone tried to make me feel bad about it, I cared a lot less because I finally felt a little bit in control. My grandparents and some wealthy aunts and uncles really made me feel bad about myself at times, but it got a lot better once I was honest with myself. I was able to let them know things were finally becoming under control.

I’m not suggesting we should encourage debt. On the contrary. My entire goal with blogging at BAD is to eliminate my debt. However, there is a kinder approach we can take with those rebuilding their financial lives, or with ourselves as we are climbing out of debt.

One last thing…

If someone is rude or belittling to you about your debt, especially if you’ve told them it’s something you’re working on, walk away. You don’t owe anyone, not even your family members, time for that kind of conversation. Stress about debt can cause strain on your body that can do serious damage. Get it under control for yourself and don’t give bullies the time of day.


26 Comments

  • Reply Lisa |

    Until people get out of the mindset that debt “happened to them,” and start taking responsibility for their situations, the cycle will continue. Just my two cents. “Debt is something millions of people unintentionally land themselves in.” I totally disagree, unless you take out the word “unintentionally.” Many people, and I would say most people, in debt knew exactly what would happen with their signatures on those mortgage/purchase/lease documents. Those credit card agreements! Debt is not something that just happens to someone because, oh, well, I landed there. Yes, there are those “series of unfortunate events” which bring some people to their knees, and yes, unintentionally. Hospital bills come to mind. But, seriously, taking out that student loan came with caveats, with disclaimers, with legal language that people agreed to! Financing a car purchase with a hefty payment came with the same. Signing was intentional; taking on debt was intentional! Buying unnecessary things was intentional. It didn’t just happen.

  • Reply Cheryl |

    You are saying just what I am thinking. I don’t know if it is an age thing but if we don’t have the money we just stop spending. My husband is now retired but he never made more than $60,000 a year. The mindset today is so different, my own four children included.

    • Reply Cwaltz |

      I suspect it’s a generation thing. I remember standing in line to cash my paycheck. There were no atms or electronic banking. Credit was not as plentiful back then. Things were not as convenient and if you wanted to eat out you had to have cash because that is how restaurants were set up. I do think it is interesting that the poster placed ” families used to be able to prosper in one income. “

  • Reply Janie B. |

    Ah–but back when families “prospered on one income” expectations were vastly different from what they are now!

    When I was growing up (and admittedly, I’m old!!), a family had ONE car for the ENTIRE family, ONE telephone for the ENTIRE family (and it was on the wall or on a table), ONE television for the ENTIRE family, one hair dryer for the ENTIRE family, we’d never dreamed of buying water to drink from a PLASTIC bottle, . . . etc.

    Personal computers didn’t exist; so, no one had the expense of buying one. Hence, there were no Internet charges either.

    So, when people complain about not being able to “get by” on one income, like in the “old days,” they really are “comparing apples to oranges.”

    • Reply Lisa |

      This is called the “keeping up with the Jones” mentality. Yes, definitely apples to oranges. Expectations? I say, set your own expectations based in reality. “Getting by,” I guess, like so much/everything else, has become “what I want and now,” and not being content with making a life. And still, there is so much true poverty that many folks are truly “getting by,” and are not whining about not having the latest iThing. Also, imho, debt is not “discretionary income.”

    • Reply Emily N. |

      That “one car for the family” worked *because* only one member of the family had to commute to a job.

      Sure, people lived just fine without internet when you were growing up, but it’s vastly harder to do so now. Most people need internet for work, school, or job hunting.

      • Reply Cwaltz |

        Only one person had to commute for a job because you were watching broadcast tv. Cable TV did not enter the picture until the 70s. Until then we watched censored TV that cost zip and operated based on advertising dollars. Cell phones? Also not invented until the 70s and believe you and me there were no data plans back then. Although I do remember the “convenience” of a cell phone costing. Internet? We saw that entering households in the 90s before that it was used primarily for government, not commercial applications. Oh and in the 90s all and at and t were competing so every other month I’d get an offer for $100 if I switched my phone carrier. There was no pulling out a bank card and zipping through a drive thru in the 70s or 80s because banking was not electronic. You went to a bank in payday Friday and waited in line. You wrote checks to pay your bills.And because your check was not automatically deposited banks were much more careful about giving you access to credit. If we were to go back a little earlier automobiles were not mass produced until 1910- so we’re talking only 3 to 4 generations having “advantages” and I’d imagine some of those generations would gladly have traded conscription in the US military during wartime for the freedom today’s youth have(after all that is why most of us wanted the draft over with.) Most generations have it hard if you actually consider context. This generation just seems less inclined to realise that every generation has to adapt to its circumstances and more inclined to believe we’re “shaming” then when really what we’re doing is offering advice.

        • Reply Emily N. |

          I’m not sure what a cable TV plan costs (I don’t have one), but I’m pretty sure it’s only a fraction of one person’s paycheck.

          • Laura |

            I love when things like cable tv and coffee are brought up as examples to cut so only one parent has to work. Our family is a two income household mainly so we can get reasonably priced health insurance and have enough money to pay the medical bills that comes with 3 of us having chronic diseases. Having us both being able to contribute to retirement is a close second. The world isn’t like it was 40 years ago, wages haven’t kept up with inflation. My family has no debt, lives a pretty modest lifestyle, and we would not be able to survive on just one income. For many families it just isn’t as simple as cut out the luxuries. Oh and I don’t have cable tv either.

          • Cwaltz |

            Our cable bill was $100 a month. If a person makes $10 an hour that is 1\16 of your income.

          • Cwaltz |

            Laura not to be mean spirited but my stepfather lost his life to cancer and his family lost their house trying to cover the costs around 30 years ago so I’m not quite sure what imaginary social safety net you are referring to when you mention the world 40 years ago .The reality is medical care costs have been problematic for decades for those who are unfortunate enough to have to deal with conditions that require treatment. It’s not a new thing.

        • Reply Cwaltz |

          Cwaltz I am not referring specially to medical care or social safety nets but to this idea that “back in the day” families had one income and one car and no tv, internet, etc so if people today just gave up those luxuries they could live on one income again. That is not today’s world, even without those things wages have not kept up with inflation, many families simply could not live on one income today even without luxuries like high speed internet.

          • Laura |

            That is my comment up above, meant to reply to CW , not put their name on the comment.

          • Kerry |

            1/16 is 6.25%, so consider the percentages. Not in the budget if 50% of your income goes to rent, but why is it that someone at $10/hr has to pay so much in rent? What is structurally wrong with the economy? Actually, Elizabeth Warren did a great job outlining it in her book The Two-Income Trap–the government has cut taxes and shifted all responsibility for quality education, healthcare, housing, etc onto the citizens, requiring them to pay individually for goods and services that have been privatized or are no longer supported, and which wind up costing all of us more.

            Pre-1980 cosplay with no cellphone, no internet, using public transit, all that “good old days” bs is impossible because the way we live has radically changed. Take cellphones. Yes, you can manage without one. But 1) there used to be payphones available at the shopping center, gas station, library, etc if you needed to contact someone or call police; 2) people from work or your personal life didn’t expect you to be available 24/7 answering questions; and 3) services did not expect you to have access to one in order to use them (Uber, Lyft, the bus service, the pizza joint down the block, etc.)

          • Cwaltz |

            There are people that do live in one income though. I’m not by any stretch of the imagination calling it easy or suggesting that everyone could since everyone has different circumstances but there are people who do( and yes our household was one of them. With 4 kids it made more sense for me to stay home and manage our household than to work and spend all of my income on child care.)

    • Reply Elizabeth S. |

      I agree with that. I am startled to see kids each having their own iPads and computers while parents have credit card debt. People see things as needs that are most definitely wants.

  • Reply Olivia Ruby |

    I’m going to be critical – maybe a little harsh.
    I am 31 year old female – currently finishing my undergraduate degree. I have a husband and three young boys. We are a family of 5, have a house that we pay a mortgage for, and we have one vehicle (payments are being made). My husband is the only one who works right now and has been like that for 1.5 years now. It is possible – we are doing it – we don’t have avocado toast or drink coffee out, or have lunch out. We have an allotted “allowance” each that we can do those things with – but our allowance is combined less than yours has been.
    Instead of you feeling shame from your wealthy family members – maybe try to learn from them? I personally haven’t seen much growth from you in this blog yet except a few excuses here and there. Stop trying to “figure out” where you are spending and set an amount and don’t go over it. We get $200 allowance each. That includes clothing, eating out, entertainment and our sports, and personal care.
    You can see your fixed expenses from a mile away – rent, phone, car, transit etc. Then you take your not fixed – groceries and such and set an amount and don’t touch another penny. The extra goes to debt and savings.
    Get serious – I want to see it

  • Reply Jennifer |

    Another older poster here ….if you were only sending out one person into the work force today you could only use one car. Cut that second worker and you can get the second car and that “non working “ spouse can do stuff during the day to save the household a lot of money. Can they replace a $100,000 job by doing this ? No but by saving on daycare, a car, being home to make meals, shopping smart, cleaning their own home, doing the laundry at home, doing the yard work , and you tubing home repairs….snd of course living in a house that “matches” your income….I think it is pretty easy to live on one median income

    • Reply Emily N. |

      This may still work for some people in some places, but as someone Elizabeth’s age, I promise you it’s not typical. My husband and i are doing everything “right”–we have no kids, shop economically, do all our own cooking, cleaning, and laundry, and rent a very small apartment for below market rate. It still takes two incomes to fund our very basic lives.

    • Reply Kerry |

      You don’t get Social Security credit or job skills for signing up to be a household drudge. As Emily N. said, you can still do all that, hold down a job, and find that a tiny, terrible apartment last renovated in the 90s with sketchy neighbors costs $950/month with utilities. We are not living high on the hog here–it is simply that things cost money, there is finite time, and multiple demands on each of us, and the system is rigged against us.

  • Reply Kate |

    My in-laws were able to successfully raise their family in a small ranch house on one salary, but times are different. My father-in-law got a union job with GM after high school that had a pension, healthcare, etc. Where would a high school graduate with no specialized training find that today? The area of the country where my husband grew up is now completely economically depressed with one of the highest opiate overdose rates in the country.

    There is definitely room for some people to live in smaller houses, drive less fancy cars, etc. but there are also a lot of people who are working really hard and barely making ends meet, and it’s not because of the cost of high speed internet – a year’s worth of high speed internet won’t get you a month’s rent in a two bedroom apartment where I live.

    For what it’s worth, this isn’t me complaining for myself – I’ve paid off my debt and now we’re doing just fine. I’m seeing how hard it is for people around me to stay afloat.

So, what do you think ?