5 reasons why you can’t seem to climb out of debt


5 reasons why you can’t seem to climb out of debt Rob Goebel, Lana Kotioukova/


5 reasons why you can’t seem to climb out of debt Rob Goebel, Lana Kotioukova/


Chances are you can tick off a half dozen reasons why you hate being in debt. But if you’ve been struggling to live debt-free, you may harbor a secret fondness for some aspect of running up your credit cards.

Many people derive an emotional payoff from accumulating debt, says Jonathan Rich, a psychologist based in Irvine, California, and author of “The Couple’s Guide to Love and Money.” Something about the experience feels good on a subconscious level, such as the temporary sense of power that comes with being able to pay for a big-ticket item that you can’t afford.

“It’s the same phenomenon that gamblers and alcoholics deal with,” says Rich. “There’s this short-term rush that causes long-term problems.”

Here are some emotional payoffs you may be getting from your credit card debt, and how to come up with other ways to get your needs met:

You’re the big shot who takes care of everybody, and if you can no longer afford it, you will use your credit card to do it.

— Karen McCall
San Francisco

1. You gain clout among family and friends. Some people gain a reputation for being the person who picks up the tab, gives great gifts or is the go-to person when family members need money. However, that role led to financial trouble for Karen McCall of San Francisco. “You’re the big shot who takes care of everybody, and if you can no longer afford it, you will use your credit card to do it,” says McCall, who has since founded the Financial Recovery Institute, an organization that helps people transform their relationship with money. While some like the feeling of having others depend on them, others fear that if they stop being so generous, their relationships will suffer.

2. You get a taste of the good life. Sometimes people can’t afford to live the life they wish, but they discover they can temporarily live a lot better by taking on debt, says Rich. For example, you may love the feeling of freedom you get when you travel, and fuel that passion by continuing to book trips on a credit card even when you don’t have the money to pay the card off. “Sometimes it’s like a sense of entitlement – I deserve a certain lifestyle and it doesn’t really matter if the income doesn’t match that,” Rich adds.

3. You get a sense of the familiar. It’s easier to do something that you’ve always done than to do something new. “There is lots of research showing that people will subconsciously be biased toward the familiar even if it is not in their best interest or is in conflict with their stated goals,” says Syble Solomon, creator of Money Habitudes, a game that helps people explore their attitudes about money.  If you’re used to being in debt, you may subconsciously reach for the credit cards whenever you get close to paying it off.

4. You escape the doldrums. Some people long for a little excitement, and being on the brink of financial disaster can provide that. For example, you may revel in the challenge of trying to figure out how to pay off a debt or get a rush out of transferring balances to take advantage of a promotional rate. “It’s sort of the drug addict phenomenon where your life is in constant chaos and you get used to that, and maybe even enjoy it,” Rich says.

It’s sort of the drug addict phenomenon where your life is in constant chaos and you get used to that, and maybe even enjoy it.

— Jonathan Rich
Author, "Couples Guide to Love and Money"

5. You avoid things you fear. Life can pose many opportunities, some that may be scary to some, such as going back to school or writing a book. Our debt can become a convenient excuse to keep us from taking those steps. If debt isn’t holding us back, “we have to make decisions, and fear of failure and fear of success often comes up,” McCall says.

While emotionally charged habits can be tough to break, here’s how you can create different behaviors:

Track the money-emotion link. Note everything you charge on a credit card and how you felt as you were spending, suggests psychotherapist Linda Williams, founder of Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Whose Apple Dynamic Coaching. Were you depressed, scared or lonely, or did you feel good when you initially made a new charge? Then, “look back over that list and see if any patterns emerge related to your emotions and the spending,” Williams says.

Follow the feeling to the end. The next time you experience a good feeling when using a credit card, keep track of what happens financially in the next 30 days, and when your feelings about the purchase start to change. If you can’t easily pay the debt off or your budget is thrown off track, the good feelings may give way to anxiety. “You’ll see that this behavior that is nourishing your ego is digging you deeper and deeper in a hole,” McCall says.

Create a less costly path to the feeling. Once you identify the emotional payoff, come up with an alternative action that will provide the same feeling but does not involve debt. For example, if you always pick up the tab, you might suggest a potluck at your home for the next gathering. McCall worked with a client who went into debt buying gifts for friends and family members. While she didn’t stop being generous, she started limiting her gift selection to those that fit into her budget.

Take a long-term view. Remember that changing financial habits takes time, and you’ll also have to face the consequences of your past actions by paying off the debts you already incurred. Also, understand that you might have relapses or feel tempted to use credit to fill that emotional void again. “If you have a tendency to get yourself into financial trouble, you’ll probably always have that tendency,” says Rich. “It’s something that you’re always on the lookout for.”

See related: 8 steps to reduce credit card debt, 7 things not to do when you've maxed out your credit cards

Published: August 2, 2016

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Updated: 10-27-2016

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