How to stop beating yourself up about debt

By Dana George

Reviewed by Kimberly Rotter

May 17, 2024

Read time: 2 min

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We all know that money is supposed to represent success, power, and security—according to society’s standards. We assume that wealthy people have some sort of magic the rest of us lack—even when nothing could be further from the truth. And so, when we run into financial difficulties like debt, we allow this false belief to dictate how we feel about ourselves. We experience shame about our debt and can become embarrassed, frustrated, even disgusted with ourselves. 

How did we ever allow things to get this bad? 

Here's the truth: Being financially wealthy doesn’t make you special, and having what might be too much debt does not diminish you or your value in this world. We are more than the possessions we own—or the debt we carry. 

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The power of making mistakes

As humans, we learn by making mistakes. In fact, none of us would grow if we didn't make mistakes once in a while. Besides, those who never face hardship are the least likely to have empathy or understanding for others going through trouble. In other words, if you're feeling bad about your current debt situation, it's time to reframe the situation in your mind. Getting rid of debt is like getting your master’s in money management. It's a chance to take stock of what's important to you and what you want your future to look like. 

I can't say that getting out of debt will be fun, but I can promise you'll find an unexpected silver lining (or two) as you go through the process. 

I speak from experience. My husband and I married as teenagers and put ourselves through college. We came into adulthood just as interest rates hit 18% and one-third of all U.S. manufacturing jobs disappeared. Unfortunately, the three degrees my husband earned were meant to help him move up the ranks in companies that were once titans of manufacturing. 

By the time the dust settled, we faced an overwhelming amount of debt and had to find a way out. While I would never want to do it again, I can tell you that hitting that terrifying financial roadblock taught us more about financial responsibility than I ever imagined possible—and made us more compassionate human beings. 

Related: I’m letting go of debt shaming to create a better financial future

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Do this instead of feeling bad about debt.

Rather than beat yourself up about being in debt, consider all the good that's coming your way as you resolve that debt, pay it off, restructure it to bring the cost down, or tackle it some other way. Here's some of what you have to look forward to:

A deeper understanding of money

For us, slowly getting rid of debt meant learning how to properly budget, how to determine the differences between wants and needs, and how to plan for a rainy day. Years later, when my husband's company closed, we were ready. Since we'd been planning for a rainy day, we had the emergency fund we needed to carry us over until he found another job. 

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A clearer picture of what you want your future to look like

At one time, we pictured success as having material wealth. We thought a big house, nice cars, a boat, and showy vacations would mean we were successful. One of the most positive changes to come out of our debt situation was learning that "stuff" means very little. Today, we feel financially successful if we're smart with our money. That means:

  • Having a healthy emergency fund

  • Avoiding high-interest and revolving debt

  • Not caring what other people think of our choices


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A more compassionate heart

Today, when I write about personal finances, I care about making people feel less alone in their struggles. I never get tired of offering actionable tips. My husband has become known as a compassionate leader who genuinely cares about what's going on in the lives of his employees. 

We might have been decent people without ever facing debt, but I do think our struggles have softened our hearts to others. I suspect the same will happen for you. 

At the end of our lives, it won't matter how much stuff we own or how much money we have in the bank. What will matter, and what we'll be remembered for, is how we treated others. 

Dana George

Dana is an Achieve writer. She has been covering breaking financial news for nearly 30 years and is most interested in how financial news impacts everyday people. Dana is a personal loan, insurance, and brokerage expert for The Motley Fool.

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Kimberly is Achieve’s senior editor. She is a financial counselor accredited by the Association for Financial Counseling & Planning Education®, and a mortgage expert for The Motley Fool. She owns and manages a 350-writer content agency.

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