For some people, debt leads to sleepless nights and anxiety about incessant collections calls. But for others, it causes quieter changes that still leave them drowning in bills without a clear way out.
Understanding the ways in which your debt can affect the way you feel, think and act may give you perspective that’ll help you conquer it. Here are three subtle ways you may be responding to being in debt.
1. Defaulting to short-term thinking
People who are in debt tend to think in the short term, often because they’re driven by fear, says Gian Gonzaga, who has a Ph.D. in psychology and is the chief data officer at the student loan refinancing company Earnest.
“Fear makes you narrow your decision to the thing that is the most concerning and worrying to you,” Gonzaga says. “That can actually take away from your ability to think creatively about what other ways you’ll be able to dig your way out of [debt].”
People with multiple kinds of debt may focus on certain ones, sometimes at the expense of others. Sixty-eight percent of student loan borrowers say they’re focused on paying off obligations such as credit card balances and mortgages before their student debt, according to a new survey by NerdWallet and Harris Poll. Nearly half of student loan borrowers surveyed (47%) have missed a student loan payment, including borrowers who have skipped a payment to pay their rent or mortgage (17%) or a credit card bill (13%).
To avoid potential late fees and dings on your credit report, make sure you’re paying at least the minimum amount due each month on all your debts.
2. Opting for simplicity over savings
Many borrowers prefer to repay their smallest debts first, even though they could save more money by prioritizing their debts with the highest interest rates, according to a 2011 study published in the Journal of Marketing Research. Smaller debts may seem more manageable, or completely paying off a small debt seems more attainable, than paying off the full loan balance, the study says.
It’s not unreasonable to want to focus on your smaller debts first, though. The motivation you gain by paying off those debts could increase your productivity for repaying the remaining, larger debts, according to a 2015 study published in the Journal of Marketing Research. However, if you’re able to muster the motivation on your own, it’s best to put your extra money toward the highest-interest loans first.
3. Resigning yourself to your debt
If you’ve been in debt for a long time — say, 10 years — you could experience what’s known as learned helplessness, Gonzaga says. In other words, you may stop trying to become debt-free and instead resign yourself to life in debt.
By not being open to the possibility of getting out of debt, you may miss new opportunities to improve your money situation. For example, student loan refinancing has become available only in the last several years, Gonzaga notes. Borrowers who gave up looking for student loan help 10 years ago may not know about that option.
To get out of the learned helplessness mindset and feel empowered to change your situation, try thinking more long term, Gonzaga says.
“Frame things in terms of a future self you want to be,” he says. “Then start thinking about steps to get there.”
Depending on the type of debt you have, those steps may be different. For instance, consolidating your debt may help if you have personal loans or credit card debt. If you have student debt, switching to an income-driven plan or refinancing may be good solutions.
You have the power to take control of your financial life. If you need help, consider meeting with a credit counselor or researching strategies on your own.