Debt-Stress: The Pressure-Cooker Stew That’s Killing Us

The other day I was on a hike with friends of mine who were bemoaning the fact that they were taking on large—no, rewrite that, huge— amounts of debt to put their son through a very expensive private college.  Eight years ago they also bought a very pricey house and the pressure, by their account, was “killing them.” 

“When we bought this house I was worried we’d end up being ‘house-poor.’  And I was right,” the woman said.  “So now we’ve got a too-expensive house, no money for our son’s college, and a tuition bill that would knock you over.”

Then her husband said something that made my jaw drop.  He said, “But you can’t tell kids anything these days.  They expect that they should have everything they want.”  He then began a bit of a diatribe about our town, about Silicon Valley in particular, and the “geek hype” of an impressive college and how important it is to “risk everything” if a child of his should get in.    

And it stopped me in my tracks.  It was so incredibly obvious that it wasn’t his kids who had instituted a living-beyond-their-means lifestyle.  The parents had done it.  This couple had taught their kids by example, and the message was clear: their parents would go into serious debt for status, for stuff they can’t afford, and for things that are “must-have’s” that are out of their income range.  God knows, they’re not alone.  There are droves of us trying to extend our income by running up debt to get stuff we can’t afford.

But here’s what really broke my heart:  He, the man, is 55 years old with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and grinds his teeth at night resulting in daily, serious headaches.  She has just barely recovered from serious thyroid cancer. 

These are friends who know what I do.  They know I teach people how to live debt-free, and they know I’m a proponent of doing whatever you have to do to right the upside-down ship.  So I didn’t need to say much.  They know what I would say if they asked me for help.

What they were trying to do, is justify their debting.  They were giving me the reasons why they “have to” go into debt—hand-wringing justifications to support risking their health for a cart-before-the-horse upward mobility with a life price tag that is literally making them sick.

The woman said to me privately that she’d rather live in an apartment and have no debt than try to keep all of their balls in the air.  When she got cancer, they had had some very heavy heart-to-hearts about their lifestyle, but still they kept putting incredible money pressure on themselves. 

The whole conversation just made me sad.  It’s not just these two friends who are doing this.  We’re a whole country full of debtors, doing the same damn thing. 

But here’s the really scary part:  there’s a link we’re missing regarding our strained finances and our health.  It looks like this:  debt = stress = health issues.  The more the leveraging we do, the bigger our debt is in proportion to our cash income, the higher our stress levels.  The more intense our stress is, the more likely we are to develop diseases, disorders and conditions. 

The thing is, we already know this.  And though we often pretend to be, we’re not clueless about the effects of daily money angst on our well-being.  It can cause us to lose sleep, overeat, stay up nights, grind our teeth, have indigestion, chew our nails, break out in hives, or any one of a myriad of physical or spiritual symptoms.  It can cause high blood pressure, and contribute to heart, digestive, skin, and elimination conditions of all kinds.  

We are often in so much denial about our debt that we stop paying attention to what’s happening in our bodies.  So let me say it loudly and clearly: STRESS SYMPTOMS are meant to paid attention to.  They are a sign from our bodies that something is amiss, and that our angst is running too much damaging, over-hyped electricity through our system.  It’s a message to us that says, “Wake up!  You need to do something different or you’re going to knock yourself down!”

I know we all have to come to our own readiness in our own time.  Most of us have to hit the wall, fall down, or have some kind of disaster strike before we’ll admit the damaging effects of debt on our health and bodies.  I had to, too.  I had to land face-first on the sidewalk and lose everything.  I was stressed out, tanked my business, lost my investment in a big project, had hives, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t breathe, and was constantly sick to my stomach.  Thank God I stopped before I developed some condition that was even more serious.

All of this reminds me of the brilliant Vicki Robin book, “Your Money or Your Life.”  It truly is just that:  are we going to sacrifice our health for more stuff?  For more prestige?  Are we really saying we’re willing to risk disease to drive, dress, vacation, dine, and school at establishments we can’t afford?  Really?

And I submit to you, humbly, that it’s just not worth it.  I look at it like this:  life give us signs.  And when a sign comes—a feather of a thought at first usually—it’s easy to ignore.  Then the signs get bigger:  a stick that falls on our head.   Then a brick, then a two-by-four.   By then, if we’re not listening, we’re in for a 2-foot thick beam landing on top of us. 

The point is this:  we can’t expect to put ourselves into the pressure-cooker stew of debt over and over again, with all its attendant worry, stress and angst, and expect to stay well.  It just won’t happen.  It’s a mess in there, and our best bet, now and forever, is to learn to stop the madness and live debt-free.

It’s the only way I know to wrangle money-stress to the ground, and to restore what’s truly ours for free: a beautiful, lighthearted, vigorous, contented, easy-on-the-soul life that brings us health, wellness and joy. 

 JoAnneh Nagler, Author

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