Debt Shame

debt shame
The shame crept up on me at the strangest of times.

Opportunity Knocks

It happened as I was walking out of a session at the most recent Financial Bloggers Conference (Fincon), a place where dozens of people had gathered who had stories very similar to my own.  You see, my wife and I had recently finished paying off over $20,000 in consumer debt, and had blogged through the entire experience on our website, See Debt Run.  We were at the conference that day mainly to network with other bloggers, but also to promote our site. 

As I entered the hallway, a gentlemen who had been intrigued by a question that I asked during the session, approached me wanting to hear more about my story.  He introduced himself as the finance reporter for the only major newspaper in town, and said that he was hoping to write  a few articles about the conference.  As I started telling him about our site and my family's austerity plan, his eyes lit up.  He said that he was fascinated by the concept of going public with something that most people are embarrassed by, and that he would love to write about my site.  We ended up talking for a half an hour, thanked each other, and exchanged business cards. He then told me that he would call me in the next day or two to setup a more formal interview, and to get a few quotes for the article.

I Should Be Excited, But..

The emotions that I felt after this conversation were a bit unexpected.  One of the main reasons that I had come to the conference in the first place was to promote the site, and I should have been elated at the the opportunity to get a dedicated feature in an influential AP newspaper.  Many bloggers in our genre that have made the leap into the big-time had their crossover moment after getting exposure in the mainstream media. Strangely, instead of excitement–  I found myself filled with only worry and an undeniable fear of being judged.  Suddenly, I was worried about what my peers think of me if they found out that I once carried such an embarrassing amount of debt.

This might sounds a bit strange when you consider the fact that my wife and I were not blogging anonymously, and you could easily find a picture of both of us if you clicked around on See Debt Run for a minute or two.  A big motivator in keeping us accountable with our debt payoff had been the fact that we were airing our dirty laundry publicly, but all the same– many of the people in our day-to-day lives didn't know about our struggles with debt.

Sure, we had told a few close friends and family members about the site, and they had been some of our biggest supporters from the beginning.  But we quickly realized that being featured in the local paper meant that co-workers, neighbors, and parents at our kids' schools and activities would all immediately know about our past problems with money. Would our neighbors start to worry that we would fall back into debt and be unable to pay our mortgage?  Would extended family worry that we were putting ourselves back into debt to buy their children Christmas presents?   Is this really what we wanted?

The Stigma

The truth is that there is a certain shame in our society when it comes to being in debt.  It's rather similar to the way that society looks at people have “let themselves” become extremely overweight.  This stigma is one of the main reasons why many people are so scared to talk about money with their friends and (sadly) even sometimes with their spouses.  Even nearly a year after working our tails off to get rid of all of that debt, my wife and I were still having trouble with it.

This debt shame makes even less sense when you consider the fact that a whopping 46% of US households currently carry a balance on their credit cards, with the average indebted family owing over $17,000 (source: Nerdwallet)!   In other words, our debt story is anything but uncommon and furthermore, sitting around and brooding about our past troubles wasn't going to help anyone.

A Calling

When we finally did finish paying off our  debt in March of 2013, there was an undeniable since of relief.  It felt amazing to finally get to take that family vacation, and to invest our dollars however we saw fit.  However, one unexpected side effect was that without the payoff journey to chronicle,  our website was seemingly left without a clear direction.  While we had learned so much about the responsible way to run a family budget, our site needed some some clarity and purpose to continue justifying the time and energy that we were putting into it.

When my wife and I  sat down to talk about the Fincon interview,  it was in those discussions that our vision finally became clear.  By continuing to share our stories, we could help to inspire those 46% percent of Americans who still carried debt mountains of their own.  The more we talked, the more we realized that having this article in the local paper would get our story in front of many of new families, and perhaps some of them would decide that the time had come to them to follow suit and start working to get rid of their debt as well.

Without Shame

We realized that if anyone heard our story and decided to judge us for getting into financial trouble, then we would simply let the haters hate.  Even if we hadn't been able to pay off our debt, there is no reason to be ashamed.  People get into debt for a wide variety of reasons, and you can't live your life going around judging others, or worrying if they are going to judge you.

But in reality, we were able to pay off all of that debt, and I knew that we could help others who were facing a similar battle.  We ended up doing the interview, the article went live, and See Debt Run got thousands of new visitors as a result.  As a result of this process, I no longer feel any shame about the debt that we used to have, and I am proud of what we accomplished.  To top it all off, it truly makes me warm and tingly inside when I realize that as bloggers, we have the ability to make a positive impact in the lives of others.

Have you ever experienced shame when it comes to your own finances?   How did you overcome it?

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  1. Great article! As we were going through our own journey we did share with family what we were doing but didn’t go into numbers until the recent ‘Net Worth’ post.

    After I posted our Net Worth, a member of the family asked me if it was difficult for me to divulge and share that information, and honestly it was easier than I thought it would be. The main reason for sharing is being transparent.

    The great thing is, once you open yourself up and become transparent you’re met with 1) People that have gone through something similar and can relate, 2) people that want to hear more and implement changes in their lives, or 3) People that are stuck in a rut, do want to implement changes, but lash out because of the effort it takes. Either way you’re reaching people. Well done!!

    PS I see I have a lot of reading to do – nice to see there are other people out there that have gone through similar situations!

  2. I know exactly how you fell, Jefferson – for over four years I blogged about our debt and didn’t tell hardly anyone we knew “in real life” about what we were going through. Over time we did tell a few people, but not many. It killed me not to share with my parents, and my friends the exciting opportunities that my blogging had brought to me. It also felt hypercritical that I wanted to share my story with “the universe” the help people, but didn’t want anyone I really knew to know. About a year ago I did an interview with Business Insider, that ended up picked up by Yahoo, unbeknownst to me. A coworker stopped by my office the next day and said, “Um…I just saw you on the front page of Yahoo.”

    I read through the comments..many of which were very supportive…many were down right nasty. There will always be those trolls, but in the end – as you mentioned – these are OUR stories. The people that are gonna leave those kind of comments, judge, and look down on us for what we’ve gone through aren’t the people we’re trying to reach anyway.

  3. I’ve written before about debt shame and actually have another article in the queue about debt stigma. It’s very real and the reason I wanted to stay anonymous for so long. I was so scared and nervous that people would find out. But student loans should not shame a person, nor any kind of debt. We’ve all made our mistakes and talking about things publicly gives us room to grow and help others. I feel I’ve come into my voice being “out” and can say confidently, YES I’m in debt, but I’m working my way out. People can judge all they want, but it takes courage to talk about it, address it, and overcome it. I’m glad you did the interview and were able to help others. I’d love to hear your perspective now that you are debt free — do you think people think of you differently?

  4. I think you should be proud of yourself. You paid off your debt instead of giving up.

  5. Yes! I’m still so glad you went public. You rock!

  6. Truly awesome article, Jefferson. We dealt a lot with this debt shame at first too. When we were “outed” by NOT well-meaning people who found out about our debt and our blog, we were embarrassed and humiliated, because now, everyone in our real life would know what we had gotten ourselves into. But, as you mentioned, due to the fact that we are now helping so many others be motivated to get out of debt, those feelings of shame are a distant and unimportant memory. :-)

    • No doubt, Laurie! Thank you for the kind words about the article. Thankfully, these feelings of shame are nowhere to be found anymore!

  7. Alicia,

    Any and all of our fears about going “public” with our issue ended up being mostly unfounded. It’s amazing the way that we can so much anxiety about something– that when it is all said and done.. is something so common that nobody would ever think badly of us for our situation.

    Don’t let your worries get the best of you.. “Coming out” was one of the very best things that we did..

  8. Man, I just published a post about this (kind of). I was talking about wanting to remain anonymous because someone in my real life “might find out I’m a debt blogger…” – cue the nerves. I think that I’m much more invested in what they might think than what actually they actually will.

    That being said, I am ashamed of my debt, even though I try to stay as positive about it as I can. Sometimes it’s disheartening. Generally, when things go mainstream, the opinions can get nasty (have you read the comments on most major media outlets!?)

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