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How Does Debt Hold You Back?

Every now and then, I forget that I’m still $50,000 in debt.

It’s funny how that happens. $50,000 is a lot of money; in fact, it’s more than I’ve ever made in a year. Yet there are periods of time where I’m busy, life is good, things are going well, and it just slips my mind for awhile.

I’m always glad for a break from beating myself up over past mistakes. However, the bad part about forgetting is that something eventually helps me remember. Like looking at my budget and realizing I can’t have something I want. Or adding said item to the enormous list of things I’m saving for, then noticing that I’m looking at a target date of 2017.

Despite the progress I’ve made – paying off my last credit card balance last year, finding a system to cut down on restaurant spending, and learning to avoid malls like the plague – I still have many years to go before I can even think about becoming debt free. And while I know that’s a logical consequence for all the years I spent money like crazy, it still pisses me off.

We Build Our Own Cages

This year has forced me to put my various debt payoff strategies on hold as I adjusted to self-employment. No more double car payments, and I even deferred my student loans again. Why? Because in a world where I can only estimate what I’ll make in a month (and that’s assuming everything goes as planned), it makes more sense to throw every dollar I can into my emergency fund, which took a beating in the first few months after I left my former career.

Just like the choices that got me into debt in the first place, quitting my job was a choice. I made that decision knowing I wouldn’t be able to pay off my car loan and student loans as quickly as before, and I’m okay with that overall. Then I have one of those days where it hits me – Whoa, there’s $50k hanging over my head – and I freak out a little.

Honestly, being in debt doesn’t affect me as much as it did in the past. For the most part, I live comfortably and don’t worry too much about paying the bills, both of which are improvements over the crazy life I used to live. But that doesn’t mean that owing all that money is a cake walk.

The Shackles are Still There

Last week my internet connection was down again (what a shock, right?) and I wasn’t able to deposit a check into my bank account. On top of that, my bank’s website fell victim to a DDoS attack and was down for several days. All I could think about was how many overdraft fees I was going to incur and how the bank would never reverse them for a frequent flier like me.

Then I remembered that I’ve never ever overdrawn this account. That I’ve had my act together for two whole years. That my savings account is hooked to my checking. And I breathed a sigh of relief as I realized that everything would be okay. Still, it will take a lot of years for me to get used to having money available when I need it instead of relying on credit cards to pick up the slack.

When I make my car payment each month, I grumble to myself about where that money could be going. A year of those payments could fund a fairly nice vacation, or rebuild my emergency savings beyond the highest previous balance. And when I resume student loan repayment next year, I’ll moan about that, too – especially since I don’t even work in that field anymore.

Every single time I buy something that isn’t completely necessary, I have a miniature nervous breakdown. I should have saved that. What if I don’t make any more money this month? All part of my debt’s legacy – creating anxiety, paranoia, and insomnia for the past 12 years of my life.

It Doesn’t Let Go Easily

I can’t really imagine what it will be like to have no debt whatsoever because I’ve never been there. But I can picture myself carrying the burden even after my last debt is paid off. I will always be a reckless spender in my own head, and I will always have to question my purchases and compulsively check my bank balances. In that way, debt will probably always hold me back, even if I don’t have any.

Debt limits choices. It instills a sense of fear and distrust. It causes us to be reactive instead of proactive. It weighs us down, preventing us from becoming the most awesome version of ourselves. And its effects stick around for years. The only way to keep it from holding you back is to avoid it in the first place, and if it’s too late for that, to get rid of it as soon as you possibly can.

My debt’s hold on me is more mental these days, but it’s still there nonetheless. If you’re in debt, how does that debt keep you from doing what you want or need to do? If you’ve gotten out of debt, have you been able to move past the “in debt” mindset?


About Andrea Whitmer

Andrea is a freelance web developer and mom trying to maintain a sense of humor in an otherwise chaotic world. She blogs in hopes of helping others avoid the same mistakes she made in the past. Join in the discussion here on So Over This, or connect on Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, or Google Plus. You can also subscribe to new posts via RSS so you never miss out!


  1. I feel for you on this one. I have been trying to kill my car payment for the entire year. I started out this year basically owing as much as I originally bought the car for a year and half ago. It kills me to see how much I have to dump in every month and I push all windfalls to the car loan to get rid of it. If all goes well it will be gone by April but worst case it will be gone by Jan 2014(1.5 years early). The mental aspect will linger for me as well even long after all debt is gone.

  2. As you point out, debt steals your personal freedom. As long as you're in debt, you must continue to bring in certain income each and every month (unless debts are deferred) or bad things will start happening. That's stressful! Especially when the economy and job market are poor.

    I don't know, but I predict that once your debts are paid off, you'll feel an enormous mental relief. Liberation!

  3. I think your mental thinking of debt will be good for you in the long run. You know you have made mistakes in the past and you remember those mistakes clearly. I think that keeps you from making them again. I think about our debt all the time and how it is limiting us in certain ways. I know we could be saving more for retirement, going on more vacations or just spending it freely if we weren't in debt.

  4. I am actually posting about this same subject on my website.

    I got out of debt in 2011 and boy does the freaking world look better. You FEEL like the world is pretty, lighter, and more enjoyable, at least I did. I was then able to choose what I wanted to spend my money on, not what I thought debt was making me spend it on.

    I did, however, just recently bring up some debt to the tune of $10,000 and that was after I took money from savings. It wasn't fun, but between changing schools, hubby hit the hospital (twice) and waiting on refunds from school, I had to go into debt again. My number one priority is to pay it off, so no big deal, but I don't like the feeling of being in debt again. It makes me feel like I have to have a reason behind every penny I spend. Like for instance, watching to make sure I get the very best and lowest price on a used textbook. Seriously, how much am I saving by scouring the web an extra hour, instead of just using Google and the ISBN #?

  5. InsuranceGal says

    DH and I declared bankruptcy in 2010. I will never, ever forget the nightmare we went through. I do not blame anyone but ourselves. I still have a school loan, which I've been paying off religiously for over a year now. I also have several personal loans hanging over my head. That debt has kept me from funding my EF, retirement fund, traveling to see family and friends, saving 3-6 months worth of living expenses, landscaping our backyard, and performing a few other repairs in our home.

    Even when the BK "removed" our cc debt, it did not remove the in debt mindset. I will never be able to freely spend money. Which, is a good AND bad thing, IMHO. Now, when I see people abusing credit, I want to sit them down and tell them what we went through. They just don't get it, nor will they ever.

    Our house didn't get foreclosed on, because we were never late in a payment. In two months we will be able to refinance. My half of the reduced mortgage payment, plus reducing several expenses here at my office (I am self-employed), will free up $400+/mo. That money will be thrown at the two above referenced debts. Once those are paid off, I'll pad my EF, then retirement accounts.

    Thank you for being here, Andrea. 🙂

    • I'm actually considering bankruptcy myself because of irresponsible spending and procrastination. Was it worth it??? How much debt did you have

  6. My debt is just keeping me from changing my career or going back to school. It's smaller now (as of last week) but I wouldn't feel safe doing something dramatic with my life until I owe even less.

  7. I think debt changes you forever, even when you're out of debt. You will never be able to think about money in the same way. When we're debt free (which, by the way will be about 5789 years for me) I think I will cherish the value of every dollar and question if I used it to it's fullest potential. For be our debt load is making it very difficult to build an emergency fund, something we so desperately need but we'll get there. I didn't get into debt overnight so I cant expect to have everything I want financially in the blink of an eye.

  8. Oh man i had to stop putting money into my IRA then i closed the acct so i could get money which took my 3 years to build up but i need more of a cushion for money I also got hit with overdraft fees. I can't wait till i car payment free! i just worry that as soon as i pay it off something will happen with my car. I have no mechaincal problems right now i just have that fear (im also try to do preventative measures )

  9. kimateyesonthedollar says

    It's good to remember so you won't go there again, but you're on a good path. Think about that too.

  10. americandebtproject says

    I forget about my debt a lot more these days. I'm not as worried about it, although I have decided I absolutely can't switch from my current position unless I can increase my salary (I have had some offers but had to turn them down because I don't want to do a disservice to my future- and I've decided getting rid of debt first is still my priority). But I don't feel like I am in the "in debt" mindset. I keep thinking about what's next, and planning and trying to work on that. I do worry that when I am completely debt free, doing well in my new business and have finally made that first real estate purchase, that I will go out and finance a car at 0% interest because "I can afford it". I don't think I will because I don't really value having a fancy car (that much) but I just wonder what it will be like to be debt free and see a lot of easy credit at low prices? I guess I'll cross that hypothetical bridge when I get there.

  11. Anne @ Unique Gifter says

    This was really interesting to read, the small effects on your everyday life. Thanks for sharing. Good luck tackling it in the future. It sounds like your business is working out well, so best of luck and keep on truckin!

  12. Anne @ Unique Gifter says

    Whoa – you're already at 107% of your October income goal? Go you!!

  13. bluecollarworkman says

    Debt does limit choices, and we sure do build our own shackles, don't we? You've got a plan though, which is great. 2017 is a long time away and that's depressing, but hey, you're on the path. It sucks that you can't just save moeny for what you want, and are stuck paying off debts for things you wanted in the past. But that's just sorta life. I know when I read PF blogs I get sorta "down" sometimes that it seems like everyone is becoming debt free but my family, but that's not true in the real world. Lots of people are still in debt and slowly working out of it, but don't let that get you down. I even buy baseball tickets for my family sometimes, and we go out to games and buy expensive hotdogs and beer in the park… sure, it'll put us a half month behind on our final debt repayment, but you also have to live today and enjoy yoru life. Me and you wont' go hogwild I bet, but as we keep paying stuff off, we gotta remember to keep enjoying life, too.

  14. Agree. But what I find is that the way I feel changes depending on my income to debt ratio. When our consumer debt was quite a bit over what we earn annually I felt like my world has just ended. Now that less than a fifth of our annual income is left to repay I feel very different – the fear and feeling of limitation is gone. What I hope will stay when all is gone in three to fout months is the discipline and good financial habits we developed.

  15. It's like you wrote the words coming out of my own brain. I can't tell you the number of times I've beaten myself up relentlessly for a $20 purchase.

  16. I know I should probably comment about being bogged down by debt BUT WHAT THE HELL IS THAT ARM IN THE PICTURE? Creepy? Maybe?

  17. Canadianbudgetbinder says

    I've talked to many people who say "how can we budget when don't make enough to cover our bills" and then when I read your post it reminded me about what I would think. I still think this way that some people that are in debt are reactive, think negatively about mistakes, the past, who hurt them, it's not their fault etc etc as opposed to moving forward and making change even if it is small changes that will help the overall debt. Our life experiences no matter what they are can be carried as a burden our entire lives if we let it or don't know how to move forward. I always tell them that no matter what they owe, or how much money they make they need to budget and see how their financial health is and where they can improve. You can't run numbers in your head and hope that it all works out for the best. I wish it was that easy. The only debt I've really ever had were my mortgages in life and to me that was a big debt but I set out to pay them off. No, no one was knocking on my door for me to pay the bills but at the young age I was anything could have happened and that was a risk a debt risk I was willing to take. If you owe money, you have debt, no matter what it is. Keep doing what you are doing and what makes you sleep better at night. Paying off that debt will happen but it's up to you to walk that line. Great post Andrea! Mr.CBB

  18. Just keep on going. The less debt you have, the less interest builds up, the more momney you have to pay debt and not interest, and the faster you start paying it all off..

  19. Wicked post Andrea. I admire your honesty. I'm currently $50,000 in debt debt (started with $78,000) and it has held me back from travelling, giving, saving for retirement and changing my career. In your post you said “I will always have to question my purchases and compulsively check my bank balances“.Personally, I don`t think there is anything wrong with that. I know once I become debt free, I will always watch where my money goes and asked myself do I really “need“ something before I buy it. It`s been a tough journey but I know one thing for sure, I don`t ever want to be a slave to debt again!

  20. I know exactly what you mean, I had forgotten just the other day that I am in $42,000 worth of debt but I just have to keep focusing on the bright side and keep thinking that it used to be $85,000 including the car and that even though I'm trying really hard, sometimes things just come up (oh, my car needs new winter tires and a new transmission and I lost my part time job yay!) But it is important to keep yourself motivated by seeing all the progress you've already made and continue to make baby steps until you're debt free. I started putting away a few hundred each month for a down payment fund a couple years back and have some money tied up in investments so as soon as the debt is paid off I'll be well ahead of the game – I hope! I look at my debt rather compulsively as well but I always try to think back to where I started even just at the beginning of 2012 and feel good about the progress I've made. Let's keep it up for the rest of the year before we make new resolutions in 2013!

  21. When I make my student loan payments or my car payment I am always thinking like you. I look at the amounts that are going to the bank, and grind my teeth. I could be travelling al over the world if I would be able to just save all of that. Debt is always holding me back. Always. But I really hope that one day it will get better. it has to, right?

  22. I haven't been thinking about our debt much, lately. I think because most of it is subsidized student loans, and we're both still full-time students, so we don't actually owe them yet (well, I guess technically most of it is our mortgage, but that's still cheaper than paying rent each month, so I don't think about it that much as a "bad" thing). But every once in a while, I'll spend a little extra money, like I'll forget my lunch a few days in a row, and I'll have a mini freak-out because that money should be going toward retirement or toward our moving fund, or increasing our emergency fund in case something happens to the dog.

    I hope that I will always be able to easily maintain some of this mentality, and some of my frugal ways…but I also hope that someday, when I make a little more money, I'll also be able to really enjoy spending money on myself every once in a while, without feeling guilty about what that money could be going to.

  23. I've got to agree with you that I think debt can affect you even if you don't have it. My fear of getting back into debt makes me like you question every purchase and think damn I should have saved that money instead of spending it on whatever. But I know if you just keep on going, you'll be able to look but soon and be free of debt once and for all!

  24. Debt definitely affects your everyday life. It keeps people from doing the things they want to do and spend their money how they want to. My wife and I just started a journey to pay off some debt. You can follow our story at We have paid off 14% of our debt in one month, but there is no stopping there. We will continue to be motivated and pay off more.

  25. I have my fair share of student loans as well. I finished school with a balance of 60K. I've paid it down by a little over a third, but I do think about those loans just about every time I spend money. I can't wait until the other two thirds of those loans are paid off! Some alcoholics that I know, even though recovered, still consider themselves to be alcoholics such because falling back into old habits is too easy. I think the same is true of other issues, like being an ex-shopaholic.

  26. I was um AM so overwhelmed with my debt that for years I tried all the methods to get rid of. Finally i threw in the towel and now i am hoping i havent made a huge mistake yet again! Good luck to you , i completely understand!

  27. Hi everyone! This my debt story, growing up I always worked, my family owns a restaurant so i always had a good share of income, I had a car as a teen and I always had savings I remember going to the mall and getting a pair of tommy hillfiger jeans for 100$ like it was nothing,I considered myself excellent with money.Probably around the age of 22 is when I started to go downhill, I began a relationship with someone who is absolutely terrible with money, the type of person that if they have 5 cents or 5 hundred dollars in the bank it needs to be spent ASAP.I don't totally blame her though I made a bad decision of buying a brand new (out if my budget) vehicle and having to commute with astronomical gas prices. We are still together and I have accumulated 22,000 dollars in debt all in my name. There is light at the end of the tunnel though my car is almost paid off and I have kept my credit in tact by never missing a payment on anything. I have moved pretty much walking distance to work so my plan is to sell my car when it's paid to take care of my 12,000 dollar MasterCard then I will easily handle my low interest line of credit for the last 10,000. I envision the day it's all paid off and seeing my bank account build like when I was younger. My relationship with my gf is great, just not financially, I think all of this will make me a better person in the long run so I am grateful for that. I will never take the little things for granted like going out for a drink with friends. I have been pressured by my gf to claim bankruptcy or debt consolidation but I'm not one to take the easy way out I made my bed in this and I will protect my credit to the end so I can eventually be able to buy a house. I'm almost there and I'm not giving up!

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