A Story About Paying Off Debt and the Obstacles Along the Way

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The Shame Trap: Why We're No Longer Letting Financial Regrets Get The Better Of Us

The other day on Twitter, Debt Free Geek asked readers to share financial decisions that they've come to regret. I replied with a summary of our massive financial oops-a-daisy in the early aughts: taking out student loans to help cover a mortgage we clearly couldn't afford and racking up more than $50K in needless debt in the process.

After telling our story, I expressed my ongoing sense of embarrassment at our predicament. After all, we were in graduate school when we made this choice. We were/are intelligent people - at least according to our grades and the reputable school that admitted us. So it's hard not to look back and wonder: Who were those textbook-smart-but-financially-flippant kids who thought purchasing a house on a grad student salary was a good idea? Why did they insist on buying when renting was obviously the better choice? What were they thinking? 

It's easy to get sucked into a shame spiral, but here's here's the thing (and if you've seen the light and are in the process of debt repayment, too, I know you get this): being embarrassed about our past mistakes isn't helping. If anything, until we finally got over ourselves and decided to take decisive action, that embarrassment set us back years. Here's why:

(1) Being embarrassed about our situation created a head-in-the-sand situation: Because our finances felt so, well, WRONG, we chose to ignore them altogether. The thought of assessing my credit card debt was enough to make me wilt with shame. So we, and especially I, rarely checked our accounts and barely read our statements. Occasionally our willful ignorance led us to go into overdraft on our bank account, thereby incurring additional pointless fees. We'd pay the monthly minimum on any balances, but we assiduously avoided the hard numbers of our debt load, and we certainly didn't make any debt repayment plans. 

Of course, it's hard to get out of debt if you a) don't know how much money you have, b) don't know how much debt you have, and c) have no roadmap for finding your way out of said debt. It seems ridiculous now, but at the time, it was all because we were afraid to face the truth.

(2) Our embarrassment hindered our communication as partners. Fortysomething and I would frequently make purchases without consulting with one another. We were both guilty of this, but I was particularly bad about it: If I decided I needed new clothes, I'd run out to Target and stock up. If I wanted to take a weekend away, I'd book the hotel and "surprise" him later. If we decided to spend $50 on each other at the holidays, I'd ramp it up to $100 because hey, it's Christmas! And I wouldn't tell him how much I spent or even that I spent anything. 

By the time we realized we were in a true financial emergency, we had absolutely no idea what the other person's credit card or student loan balances were. We avoided sharing because we didn't feel good about our individual choices. There was a whole category of our lives that we did not share with one another.

(3) Our embarrassment led us to hide the truth from the other people around us. Even as we were running up thousands of dollars in debt, we cultivated an illusion of security. From the outside, it looked like we were doing well: attending a strong graduate school program, living in a small but cute condo, and taking nice vacations. Nobody knew about the massive disparity between appearances and our actual financial situation.

I'm not saying we should have broadcast our predicament to the entire world, but had we been able to talk honestly about our finances with the people closest to us, it would have a) helped us confront reality and b) created a sense of accountability. Our trusted friends and family would have helped hold us in check. 

So what's changed?

I'm still embarrassed. I don't know if that feeling will ever disappear. The difference now, though, is that the communication lines are open. I'm honest with myself and my spouse: I keep track of what we spend, I look at our accounts every single day, and Fortysomething and I talk about finances all the time. The budget, needs and wants, and unexpected expenses are frequent, necessary (if sometimes boring) topics of conversation.

And although I don't walk around in my everyday life yammering on about my debt, I'm more forthcoming with people about my budgetary constraints. For example, last week a friend invited me to join her for a pricey wine-and-paint event. I found myself falling into a knee-jerk rationalization: that spending time with a friend would be worth the cost. Then I thought it through, and I decided to come clean with her: We just don't have the money this month, I told her. Maybe I can budget it in for next month, or maybe we can do something free? She totally understood. Now that she knows where I'm at, we can build our time together accordingly, and I don't have to feel guilty about an unnecessary expense.

From here on out, we're battling the debt monster every single day. We're longer willing to let shame or embarrassment prevent us from moving forward and building greater financial security. Do I wish we'd started sooner? Yes, absolutely, but at least we're now on the right path.

So here's my word of advice: If you know you have debt but the thought of confronting it makes you want to cringe and hide under the bed, don't. Face it head on. Start by just looking at the balances on your credit cards, student loans, mortgage, etc. Tally it all up. At least then you'll know what you're working with - and then you can get to work making a plan to get rid of it all (more on how we did that in a future post). But whatever you do, don't hide the truth from yourself. 
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8 comments:

  1. It's really difficult not to feel embarrassment and shame when you know you've made financial mistakes, but you're absolutely right that those feelings only hold you back. If you can adopt a "that was then, this is now" mentality, it will be easier to communicate about your issues and start solving them. I know I've made some foolish mistakes in my life, but I've left them in the past where they belong. Thanks for a great post.

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    1. Thanks, Gary! For the most part, it *is* all in the past... just a little hard for this neurotic, type A personality to let things go. ;-) *However,* seeing our debt already start to decrease after just a few months of effort is really motivating and inspiring. I'm feeling determined and optimistic. I appreciate your comments and your posts! Have a great day!

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  2. Don't beat yourself up. You never know what you don't know. All you can do is your best, and when you know better, you do better.

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    1. True! Thank you. I appreciate it! This knowing better/doing better part is really enjoyable. I'm thrilled to see our debt decline after even just a few months of budgeting and conscious spending.

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  3. Funny how well-meaning people so often want to use shame to motivate changes for the better, but it so often has the opposite effect. On the other hand, admitting to our mistakes is much more likely to cause us to take the steps to get over them. I think how you handled the situation with your friend is a great example of the value of vulnerability. Yeah, you had to admit a weakness, but that meant you could address it (and, if your friend is ever in simlar straights, she knows she can bring it up to you too.)

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    1. Thank you, Emily! I think that's been an important step: pinpointing where we made the mistakes so that we don't repeat them in the future. Lack of communication played a major role in our debt accumulation, so now we talk about money all the time (our son tells us that we are incredibly boring. Haha!)

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  4. I can relate to so much of what you said! I went through some hard life events while I was in Grad School and my student loan balance is totally a sign of that. Also, conversations about money were SO hard with my husband at first. It helped us to think of it as a kind of intimacy we were practicing by making safe space to talk about the very difficult topic of finance. We're getting so much better at it. Practice really does help. Just yesterday he raised the question of some side money he had recently earned for a show he played -- an area where we have always had left unspoken independence rule (we're still going to leave that free to independent choices unless one of us starts making some substantial dough). What I love about this topic is this: When you stop carrying the heavy weight of shame and embarrassment, then you can start using that same energy toward meeting your goals. Facing something in the eye can be incredibly difficult like you said, but just like you I found it incredibly empowering as well. All the best on your journey! Your blog is very smooth read, quite enjoyable!

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    1. Hi Melanie! Thanks so much for your comment. Our communication re: finances has definitely improved over the last few months... We talk about money all the time now. Our son finds it totally boring and annoying ;-), but he'll appreciate it later when he realizes that his parents have figured it out and he doesn't have to worry about them (from a money standpoint, at least!)

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