I’m letting go of debt shaming to create a better financial future
By Polly Clover
Reviewed by Kimberly Rotter
Jan 19, 2024
Read time: 2 min
As a child, my family rarely talked about money. We didn't learn about it in school either. I didn't know what debt was or the importance of earning and saving money.
I had no idea if my family was wealthy or poor, and I didn’t think much about it.
We didn’t use the M-word
When I was nine years old, my father passed away. I overheard a few quiet conversations about the financial troubles this caused for my family, but I didn’t understand what any of it meant. And I didn’t ask any questions.
Money wasn’t open for discussion. Older family members even said things like, “We don’t talk about money.”
Lack of financial knowledge led to poor financial decisions
When I was starting college, I didn’t have much financial support, so I applied for and accepted every student loan I could get. I read a few things online about how student loans worked, but that was the extent of my research.
Throughout college, I used my student loans to pay for school and living expenses. I also had jobs, but I couldn’t tell you what I did with the money I earned. I finished college with a massive amount of debt and no money set aside.
I was on a financial hamster wheel. I became a teacher and worked part-time jobs on the weekends. I barely earned enough to live, much less pay down my debt or build savings.
Ashamed of my financial situation but powerless to change it
A few years into teaching, I started to feel ashamed of my paycheck-to-paycheck life and the debt that I accrued with no plan or ability to pay it off. I didn't know how to change my financial situation, and I was getting by, so I tried to ignore it.
I lived that way for years after college—working a lot, not having much (or anything) to show for it, and feeling financially illiterate. My shame deepened.
Still, I never discussed finances with others aside from occasionally asking my mom for money when I needed a little extra.
My debt was building up, and I started having anxiety about it. High interest rates and only being able to make minimum payments kept me trapped with student loan balances that looked like they’d never go down. I also had credit card and car loan debt.
Some days, I felt like everything I did was wrong, and always would be. Other days, I felt okay but accepted that being wealthy or even financially secure wasn't in the cards for me. Or so I thought.
I learned that it’s possible to change your financial reality
As I got older and met new people, finances snuck into the conversation. I heard things. I read things. I got out of my comfort zone and chatted with others about this formerly taboo topic. I learned that it’s possible to have a better understanding of and relationship with money.
Many people just like me—similar jobs, upbringings, and goals—were earning a comfortable income and knew what to do with their money to create financial stability. Some of these people also had monetary struggles and experienced debt shaming but were fighting to overcome it (or already had).
I didn’t feel alone anymore. This was the thing that inspired me, more than anything else, to act. I was ready to shed the shame.
This is how my money story changed
I started educating myself on finances. I learned how to increase my income, create a budget, pay off debt, and save money. I also quit teaching to start my own business as a website copywriter and consultant, which has been a great success.
I've spent the last few years becoming financially literate. During this time, I've also realized that many people, including myself, are in debt due to a lack of resources. It’s not always our fault and doesn’t define our character. This truth has helped me forgive myself and find the motivation to focus on creating the financial freedom I deserve.
There are still moments when limiting beliefs and money-related anxiety crop up. But instead of getting discouraged, I focus on improving my money mindset. I practice positive self-talk and do something—even something small—toward my goals daily.
It’s my time to shine, and I’m leaving debt shaming behind to create a better financial future.
How you can start to change your money story
First, start asking questions so that you can increase your money know-how. Sign up with an accredited credit counselor or enroll in a free personal finance course (Kahn Academy has one; so does the University of Michigan). Pick up a book by your favorite money personality. If you have a 401(k) or other retirement account, you might already have access to free educational resources that could help you. Nobody is born with financial expertise, and you aren’t expected to have all the answers.
Next, make a plan. If you feel broke all the time, learn how to manage your money. If you have debt, choose a payoff strategy that works for you. If your debt is crushing you, take a breath and talk to a debt expert who can walk you through your options. Depending on your circumstances, your creditors might be willing to negotiate so that you can get rid of your debt faster, compared to that hamster wheel of minimum payments.
Without help, debt can leave you feeling ashamed, overwhelmed, and isolated. But it is possible to experience a life free of financial constraints and full of possibilities.
Polly is a lifestyle writer who covers finance topics. She’s passionate and knowledgeable about creating financial freedom through increasing income, budgeting, paying debt, and saving. Polly owns and manages a copywriting and consulting business, Polly Clover Writes.
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.