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 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.
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.
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?