Debt nags me like a mosquito buzzing my ear as I try to sleep.
I’ve spent my midlife trying to get out of debt while preserving assets – in other words, reducing debt with current income while attempting to avoid incurring more liabilities or depleting investments. Sometimes I have had to unload investments to pay off debts, and always feel bad about it, like I’m filling a city street pothole that is sure to crater again.
Overall, I’ve been fairly successful at paying down and staving off debt. Still, whenever I become completely debt-free, something seems to suck me back “into the red” – a job loss, a major repair, education costs, or simply operating a budget that gets out of whack and spending beyond current means, a cash flow problem. I’m not alone.
Americans are swimming in debt:
- The average American household that carries credit card debt has a balance of more than $15,000 on the cards, according to a 2017 NerdWallet survey. The same study found that the average American household carrying student loan debt owed $46,597 in education expenses, and the average American household with auto loans owed $27,669 for their vehicles.
- A 2014 Urban Institute study found that 35 percent of Americans had delinquent debt. That debt typically came from credit cards or medical or utility bills that was more than 180 days past due and had been turned over to collections. The debts averaged more than $5,000.
- In 2013, 7 out of 10 graduating college seniors were entering post-college life with student loans, which averaged $28,400, according to the Project on Student Debt.
Debt limits freedom and choice. Debt triggers shame and guilt. Debt causes stress and distrust in relationships. Worry over debt can lead to physical health problems, such as high blood pressure.
Debt makes me irritable, anxious and angry. I’m not alone in suffering from negative emotions related to debt. Research has found links between financial health and mental health.
Researchers from the University of South Hampton who analyzed 65 studies on debt and mental health determined the likelihood of having a mental health problem, particularly depression and anxiety disorders, is three times higher among people who have debt. The link between debt and suicide was especially pronounced: People who committed suicide were eight times more likely to be in debt.
Drug abusers were more than eight times more likely to be in debt, and problem drinkers 2.5 times more likely.
Short-term debt, such as credit card debt and overdue bills, was associated with greater depressive symptoms, according to a 2016 study in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues. People in the latter stage of midlife and closing in on retirement, 51- to 64-year-olds, were among the groups where the link between debt and depression was the strongest, along with people who were not stably married and those with no higher than a high school education.
Researchers aren’t unified in what causes what – whether stress related to debt causes mental health problems or mental health problems lead to poor financial management. But the two woes are close partners either way.
As midlife progresses, the urgency to escape debt and then keep it at bay increases. Time becomes the enemy; opportunities to get out of debt and recover start to diminish. Wives have been horribly miscast; debt is the real proverbial “ball and chain,” and not something one wants to drag into later adulthood. Whenever I hear that mosquito known as debt whining in my ear, I’m going to slap it silly.