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Don’t Feel Fear and Shame About Your Debt. Fix It.



Generally speaking, there are two kinds of polls. One asks what you’re doing. The other asks how you’re feeling.

Here’s an example of each…

  • Doing: recently released its annual budgeting survey. It found that 85% of us keep a monthly household budget.
  • Feeling: Around the same time, the Nationwide Retirement Institute asked how adults feel about Social Security. Turns out the younger they are, the worse they feel: “About two-fifths or more of Gen Z and Millennials believe they will not get a dime of the Social Security benefits they have earned.”

Where it gets interesting is when Americans are doing the opposite of how they’re feeling.

The emotion-money disconnect

For instance, a Gallup poll earlier this year found 55% of Americans say “their financial situation is only fair or poor.” Compare that to polls that show wedding spending hit an average of $30,000 (up $2,000 from the previous year) and half of Americans planned to travel more in 2023 than they did in 2022.

I know what you’re thinking about me right now…

This writer is about to make a sweeping generalization about how Americans say one thing and do the opposite. But he’s comparing polls that questioned different Americans. Shouldn’t he ask the SAME people what they do and how they feel?

Sure, that would be ideal. But it’s also unnecessary.

Besides polls, there’s hard data. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says wages have grown by nearly 11% over the past two years. The BLS also says the inflation rate peaked at 6.5% in that same timespan.

Obviously, not everyone’s wages rose 11%. But I think it’s fair to say: For many Americans, inflation didn’t cause their debt. This did: Credit card debt peaked this summer at just over $1 trillion.

I can hear you mumbling…

Maybe they needed to use their credit cards to cover basic living expenses. Maybe your privilege is showing, and you’re judging a huge swath of society that simply can’t afford to make ends meet.

Let’s agree that what I’m about to say – yeah, I haven’t even said it yet – doesn’t apply to the 38 million Americans living in poverty. That 12% of the population needs more help than can offer. But what about the other 88%?

Other polls show that Americans have a virulent strain of FOMO. They’re not only traveling more, they’re also overspending on luxury vehicles. (“The share of new vehicles sold by luxury brands hit a record high 17.3% in June,” reports The Wall Street Journal.)

Inflation is certainly biting us, but it’s not killing us. We’re doing most of the damage ourselves.

We need more “debt shame”

For the nearly 9 in 10 Americans who don’t live in poverty but are apparently spending their way there, the problem is simple. Debt is no longer something to fear, and it’s no longer anything to be ashamed of. I mean, everyone’s doing it.

Our grandparents and great-grandparents ran up less personal debt than we are, but not because they were better than us. They were simply burdened with more fear and shame. Credit cards either didn’t exist, or they were hard to get. Credit limits were low, and bankruptcy was the only option if you couldn’t pay your bills. Debt management or debt settlement weren’t invented yet.

If I could time-travel back to right before the Great Depression and bring my grandparents to this time, I’m quite sure they’d go crazy with credit cards. And I remember my grandmother saving tinfoil until it literally fell apart, and my grandfather using pencils until they were a half-inch long.

Basically, I’m saying society is to blame. But it’s still your problem.

Am I the problem?

This month marks my 10th anniversary at When I started here, I thought I was doing something noble while earning a living. I was helping people get out of debt. Sure, they paid a fee to do so, because me and my fellow employees like eating. But that fee has always been a mere sliver of the overall money they saved.

Now I wonder if just knowing that we can solve your debt so easily is making America complacent about running up even more debt. It reminds me of my dentist, who’s in her 50s like I am. She has no empirical evidence, but she firmly believes fewer people brush and floss because getting a filling or a root canal is relatively painless compared to decades past.

Debt and dentistry may have something in common.

That said, I believe it’s easier to instill people with fear than shame. Let’s end where we started, with that budgeting survey that showed 85% of Americans are tracking their household spending. That’s up from 69% in 2019. So why are more people budgeting now than four years ago?


Another question in our poll asked why they started budgeting. Nearly 23% replied “debt.” Another 16% said “rising cost of living due to inflation.”

When the economy sours, I find myself wondering, “Is this a good thing?” Not a massive recession, of course. But creeping inflation? If that forces people to get serious about their debt, then maybe that’s good for everyone in the long run.

If you’re afraid about being in debt, and if you’re ashamed your friends will find out, then you’ve taken the first steps to financial freedom.

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