Never have Americans been in so much debt. According to data from the Federal Reserve, consumer debt — including mortgages, credit card debt, student loans, and car loans — among the lowest-earning 90 percent of American households rose to $13.8 trillion in September 2022, up from $2.5 trillion in 1989. Over a third of Americans carry credit card debt from month to month, per a survey from personal finance site Bankrate, and those credit card balances hit a record high in 2022 with borrowers averaging $5,474 in credit card debt, according to TransUnion. About 45 million — or nearly one in five — Americans have student loan debt.
Inflation, price increases — for utilities like natural gas and for groceries like eggs — and wages that fail to keep pace with the rate of inflation contribute to personal financial strains no amount of budgeting can allay. The lowest earners are hit the hardest, with the greatest share of their paychecks allocated to bills like rent, utilities, and groceries. Even with the pause on student loan repayments, many have turned to credit cards to make ends meet.
Given its pervasiveness, having debt shouldn’t be a personal reflection on those who have it, yet carrying any amount of debt can be embarrassing and shameful, says licensed marriage and family therapist Nicolle Osequeda, who is also a member of the Financial Therapy Association. However, recognizing how emotions interplay with finances is the key to changing the narrative around your relationship with money. Osequeda offers insight on the insidious ways debt impacts every aspect of life.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What are some common threads that come up in people’s personal narratives around money?
There are a lot of “shoulds”: I should do this or I shouldn’t do this about debt. Incurring debt is something that people feel really embarrassed and shameful about. It’s a cycle of “I shouldn’t have had to do it,” but then people become stressed out if they have to put something on the credit card again. There’s another layer of “I’ll never get out of this, this is something that I’m destined to struggle with for the rest of my life.” That can become people’s money narrative or their belief about how they are able or are not able to manage money.
There is this belief in our culture that we should be able to do all of the things — and I’m not even talking about frivolous things, either. We want to be able to keep the lights on and provide for our family. But then there is that discrepancy between what the necessities are and actually having the funds to do it. Sometimes they just don’t meet. Especially with inflation and salaries remaining the same, costs are going up, and they still need to get the things that they needed before but there isn’t exactly the same financial security as they had previously.
Has accruing debt always been a shameful thing?
There are different kinds of debt [that aren’t seen as shameful]. For example, student loan debt: It’s [seen as] a good thing. But maybe not taking out a short-term loan because you want to make sure your family has food on the table or you can pay the electric bill. Or if you want to buy a fancy purse or a car, maybe that’s not seen as okay. It seems like in order to be able to better yourself, there’s a belief that debt is okay. But if it’s [in the service of] a thing that people don’t value as much, people are more critical about it.
How can we break the unhelpful money narratives we’ve written for ourselves?
First, identify what is my narrative or how I see myself with money. I don’t feel like everybody has the choice to be able to change their narrative as easily as other people do. But if you are able to make a shift in how you see your ability to manage money or pay off debt, you can then slowly identify small goals, even if it’s not a huge chunk that you’re able to pay off.
For example, when I was in college, I racked up quite a bit of credit card debt. That stuck with me into my adulthood, the belief that I just wasn’t good with money. I had to take a step back and say, “No, it’s not that I’m not good with money. It’s that I made a few errors that stayed with me for a while.” My narrative about money shouldn’t be based on what I did when I was 20 years old. But it sticks with us.
There aren’t many people that don’t carry some sort of debt. So it’s not necessarily that because you have debt, you are bad with money. That’s not true. A lot of people incur debt for things that are completely out of their control: an accident, a job loss. But because we have so many negative connotations associated with debt, it’s hard to talk about it. When we don’t share things, we keep them inside and they grow and that’s where most of those narratives begin. There’s nobody there to challenge them. We need to put some light on it and have someone that can support us to make a plan.
What advice would you give people dealing with the shame of debt?
Let’s talk about it. What does it bring up for you? How did you get here? Then, where do you want to go? What are some small things that you can do today and tomorrow that can start to shift your money narrative?
Why is it worth interrogating ourselves in this way?
Because money isn’t going away. We need it. We use it. It’s always going to be present in our lives. So how do we want that relationship to be?
What might offering support to a loved one in debt look like?
I would first say, “I’m so happy that you shared that with me. That must be really hard to be going through. Why don’t you look at the full picture? What are you actually dealing with here? How can you address the debt based on the highest interest rates?” There are so many resources online to help people understand how to start to pay down debt. There’s nonprofits that do financial coaching to help consumers that have racked up debt. There’s places that will create payment plans for you. There’s also terrible ones out there, so you have to be careful, but the nonprofit ones are the ones that you want to look for that can give you counseling.
Do you find that people maybe work harder toward other relationships, like their relationships with fitness or sleep, and not so much with money?
Yeah, because it’s hard for us to talk about money. It’s just not a topic that we talk about a lot because it’s personal. We don’t talk about our struggle with money as much as we even talk about our struggles with our fitness journey. You never hear people say, “I’ve really been trying not to spend on my credit card and I just had a terrible weekend where I spent so much.” No, you hear about someone saying, “I’ve been trying to go to cycling class and I didn’t go at all this weekend.” No one’s gonna blink an eye.
There’s so many other areas in our lives where it’s okay to say, “I don’t know how to do that. Let me learn how.” With money, I think it’s getting there. There is less shame around debt. But there isn’t a lot of room to say, “I’m not good at budgeting,” or, “I spent too much and now I have a lot of interest and I’m not quite sure what to do next.” It’s important that we create that space for people to be accepted with debt, not knowing the next step, because we do that in a lot of other areas of our lives.
It’s not as easy as saying, “Okay, just pay off your credit card bills.”
Because that’s very surface level. Unless you dig a little bit deeper, you’re going to probably do the same thing again.
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