Debt, Its Emotional Toll and How to Tackle It

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Debt can feel overwhelming, and studies are increasingly showing that it can lead to a decrease in happiness and life satisfaction, anxiety and even physical symptoms like headaches or loss of sleep.

A study of more than 1,000 student loan borrowers — conducted by Student Loan Hero, which, like MagnifyMoney, is owned by LendingTree — found that:

  • More than 61% of respondents admitted that they’re afraid that their student loan debt worries are spiraling out of their control.
  • More than 70% said they suffer from headaches because of their debt concerns.
  • Some 64.5% of respondents have lost sleep over their debt.
  • 67% reported physical symptoms of anxiety that stemmed from the stress of their student loans.

The study showed a direct correlation between having debt and detracting from happiness. In fact, results revealed that carrying student loan debt is nearly as significant as income when it comes down to predicting financial concern and evaluating life satisfaction.

What studies show about how debt affects your health

Indeed, money can buy happiness, but how much debt one has also weighs heavily into the equation, according to a study from Purdue University. An online college alumni sample of 2,781 individuals from the United States revealed that student debt could take a significant toll on one’s life satisfaction over the long term.

Another survey conducted by the Harris Poll on behalf of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) showed that 56% of Americans with debt admitted that it negatively impacted their lives. Twenty-eight percent of the 1,004 American adults surveyed said their debt caused stress about their everyday financial decisions, and 21% said it caused tension with their partner.

It may be that such accomplishments as a promotion at work may be marred by knowing your debt is eating up your higher earnings. High debt may also be such a financial burden that borrowers are unable to save for retirement, for emergencies or even such pleasures as a vacation.

High-rate debt can be particularly difficult to carry. Seeing your monthly payments largely going toward fees can make you feel as though you’ll be trapped in debt forever. And if that debt isn’t allowing you to save money, your stress may only grow if you’re suddenly struck with a financial emergency that causes you to take on new debt.

6 tips to dealing with your debt

If you’re dealing with debt and it’s taking a toll on your health, what can you do?

“The first thing a person needs to do is take a close look at how they got into debt in the first place,” advised Carolyn McClanahan, M.D., CFP, who began her career as a physician and is now founder of a financial planning group called Life Planning Partners LLC, based in Jacksonville, Fla. “They should identify what triggered the situation or any bad habits that might have led to their debt, so that they don’t repeat those things going forward. Then, they need to make an actionable plan to figure out how to get out of debt.”

Consider these tips that could help you better handle your debt.

1. Thoroughly research your options

When tackling your debt, it pays off to research your options for dealing with debt. For example, federal student loans come with borrower protections that may help you if you’re struggling with money. You may be eligible for an income-driven repayment plan, which would adjust your monthly payments based on your income. You may also qualify for student loan forgiveness or have the opportunity to defer payments for a period of time.

If you have a mortgage, you could extend your repayment term without refinancing. This is known as mortgage recasting. By extending your repayment term, you could lower your monthly payments, freeing up cash to deal with debts that are a higher priority.

Credit card debt doesn’t have to be such a burden, either. If you lost your job, it may be beneficial to call up your credit card issuer. You may be able to get on a hardship program that reduces your payments for a time. Or, if you have decent credit, you may qualify for a balance transfer credit card with a promotional 0% APR. For a fee, you could move your credit card debt onto your new card to avoid interest charges for a period of time. Pay off that debt before the promotional period ends and you could save a lot of money on interest.

2. Don’t be afraid to negotiate

Many people fail to recognize that there are many instances where you can negotiate and in turn, lower your debt. Take medical bills, for example.

“It can really help to negotiate with the medical provider,” said McClanahan. “If you’re willing to pay them real money over time, you can end up paying pennies on the dollar of what you own,” she said. In addition to negotiating, McClanahan suggested asking hospitals or health centers whether they have any financial assistance programs that you might qualify for.

Furthermore, if you’re accepting a new job offer, don’t be afraid to negotiate a higher starting salary, which in turn could help you windle your way out of debt faster. Research the job market and consider making a compelling case as to why you deserve a higher salary.

3. Take it one debt at a time

If your debt is stretched across multiple credit cards or loans, you may be overwhelmed just by the thought of them. But if you can focus your attention on making extra payments on just one debt, it could help you see some quick wins.

“You ideally want to start by paying off the debt with the highest interest rates first,” McClanahan said. Repaying the debt with the highest rate helps you reduce how much interest you pay over time. Often, this means you’ll focus extra payments toward a credit card balance. Once that debt is paid off, you start making extra payments on your debt with the next-highest rate.

However, you may instead choose to pay off your debt with the lowest balance. This would result in a fast win that will motivate you to keep making extra payments on your debt.

4. Consider therapy

Seek the help of a psychologist or another mental health expert if your concerns about debt are negatively impacting your day-to-day life. A licensed health expert can help you confront your anxieties head on and offer strategies for dealing with them effectively. Also, reach out to your personal network and let those close to you know that you could use their support. It helps to know that you’re not in it alone.

Low-income individuals may want to seek the help of a sliding scale therapist, who will adjust their fees to make therapy more affordable. This can be found on mental health directories like GoodTherapy.org. There are also clinics that provide low-fee or free mental health services. To find a clinic near you, visit MentalHealth.gov.

5. Enlist the help of a credit counselor or financial planner

Sometimes, it helps to get an outside perspective on your debt, or at least talk to someone who can reveal your options. A credit counselor or financial planner can help you take steps toward getting your finances in order or develop a game plan for getting back on track, McClanahan said.

The National Foundation for Credit Counseling is a nonprofit financial counseling organization that provides a variety of free services, including counseling on credit and debt, bankruptcy and student loans. If you’re interested in hiring a financial planner, you could use the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors to find one.

Outside help could help you better weigh the pros and cons of your options and guide you as you work on your debt.

6. Focus on improving your credit score

Take steps to rebuild your credit and improve your credit score, which in turn, could give you access to more credit in the future. For starters, focus on implementing a plan for paying off debt, and work to keep your balances low on credit cards. Keep in mind that improving your credit score requires small, responsible actions over time, so be patient and set long-term objectives. For more tips on how to improve your FICO score, take a look here.

Indeed, accumulating debt can certainly take an emotional toll and negatively impact your overall life satisfaction. However, you can take simple steps to pay down debt and turn your financial situation around. No financial situation is permanent, and with some patience, persistence and implementing of best practices, you can find yourself back on the path to financial recovery. So take a deep breath, keep your emotions at bay and work on tackling your debt in a practical manner.

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Renee Morad
Renee Morad |

Renee Morad is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Renee here

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