How to Let Go of Debt Shame

Joanna Nesbit

By Joanna Nesbit
Joanna Nesbit writes about college, education, personal finance, and the nuts and bolts of transitioning to adulthood. Follow her on Twitter at @joannanesbit or learn more at
Posted on 12/21/2018

Recently my sister opened up a little with me about her family's finances and how tough things are. From what I've gleaned over the years, she's held credit card debt and student loans since her college days, but she doesn't usually reveal much to me, and I don't pry.

From childhood, we've approached money differently. I was the saver, while she spent what she had, often sharing generously. Next to her I felt like Scrooge, and she, in turn, admired my management skills. But we've never discussed money in depth.

After our conversation, I got curious about the silence around money. Why is talking about money so hard? What are the first steps to tackling financial insecurities? And do DIY plans for how to pay off credit cards really work?

I checked in with Kathleen Burns Kingsbury, a wealth psychology expert, founder of KBK Wealth Connection, and author of Breaking Money Silence: How to Shatter Money Taboos, Talk More Openly about Finances, and Live a Richer Life.

Part of debt shame, she explained, stems from our culture's taboos around discussing money, and as a result, feeling alone with our money woes. Some statistics from Kingsbury's book: 69 percent of parents would rather talk with teens about sex than investing. Financial conflict is a leading reason 50 percent of marriages end in divorce; 44 percent of Americans say they would rather discuss death, politics, or religion than a loved one's personal financial situation. And, according to a 2016 NerdWallet survey, 70 percent of people think carrying credit card balances carries stigma. Ergo, shame. These days, the average household owes around $15,000 to credit card companies. People aren't alone.

There's also burdensome student loans, which may feel a bit less shameful because taking on student loans to manage college costs has become so necessary. But feeling victimized by the system can lead to the same avoidance behavior someone might adopt toward credit cards.

Trickiest of all is the emotional relationship with money we don't even know we have. But Kingsbury says the silver lining is that debt can actually be a great learning tool. "There are some real positives in facing a debt situation you're uncomfortable with and turning it around. If you can turn it around, that builds your financial confidence," she told me. Here's how to do it, Grownups:

Acknowledge the situation.

The first step is to acknowledge the amounts you owe and consider how you feel about it. Be honest with yourself, but also cut yourself some slack. It might not even be your fault—think stiff medical bill. Sharing your story with another person—someone you trust—is an important part of the process. It could be a student loan advisor, financial advisor, money coach, trusted parent, or friend. "Opening up and having that conversation with someone who's not emotionally connected can help you normalize that this is a behavior you engaged in but that you're not a bad person," Kingsbury told me.

Examine your money messages.

Figuring out how to get out of debt isn't always as simple as creating a plan. We're all born with a money temperament, Kingsbury explained. We also have money scripts, those attitudes and behaviors around money from our family messages, our culture, socioeconomic status, religious affiliation, gender, and other factors that affect our feelings about money and contribute to our money mindset. For example, I'm an intuitive saver, but my sisters and I also grew up in a low-income home. As a child, I picked up on my mom's irritation with my dad for his spending choices, and I cranked up my saving habit, learning to operate from a scarcity mindset. It's still with me. We also each have a money talk mindset. Kingsbury says most of us aren't aware of our mindsets and how they influence our financial lives. Early experiences between ages 5 and 14 form the backbone of our financial habits, and because our messages were picked up young, they tend to be simplistic. As a result, they often don't serve our adult financial reality.

Change your mindset.

Once you figure out your unconscious thought process around money and personal finances, you can begin understanding what informs your decisions. Do you spend because you feel you deserve to? Do you use money as a weapon against your partner? Are you underpaid because you've absorbed a cultural or family message you're worth less? Kingsbury's book helps readers identify thoughts and emotions underlying their money habits so they can reframe them for their adult lives (these questions offer a peak).

Enlist help.

You'll probably need someone with financial expertise—a live person, not an app. (According to Sofi, Grownups don't generally turn to financial experts, but it's worth it.) "This person doesn't have to be a paid professional, but they could be," Kingsbury explained. The main thing is to find someone who can talk through a plan with you. Watch out for resources that look free but aren't. To get started, check with your financial institution or county and state non-profit organizations, and ask friends, your parents, or your college for tips. Consider a fee-only financial advisor (they don't earn commissions on products). Whoever you work with, find out if they can discuss the psychological side of money rather than just the nuts and bolts of debt management. Kingsbury says even people trained to discuss money fall into the taboo trap, but addressing the emotions of money is important.

Make a plan.

And commit to it. This includes how to prioritize payments, establishing a budget, analyzing the need for a side gig, changing living situations, or other considerations. Once you're on your way, useful online resources include Mint, Feed the Pig, and SALTmoney to help pay off your loans.

I'm aware my sister might see me as the judgy older sib, but next time finances comes up, I'll ask if she wants to talk it through.