If you’re feeling overwhelmed about being in debt, you’re not alone. Many people who have debt report feeling stressed about their financial situation and their payments. On top of that, others report feeling unfairly judged for being in debt, even when debt can be a good thing or happen to financially responsible individuals.

As a result, people can end up feeling shame or isolation because of their debt, but they shouldn’t be made to feel that way. You’re not alone in your debt repayment journey, and there are ways you can find help and break through some of the negative feelings you may be experiencing around your debt.

How and why debt stigma happens

When you think of the word “debt,” negative thoughts may come to mind. For many Americans, being in debt isn’t something you discuss with friends and family.

Financial milestones such as owning a house, having enough to retire and having a successful career are considered keystones of the American dream. Being in debt, in contrast, may seem like a threat to these goals. To many people, debt can even signify that an individual can’t achieve that dream.

Sometimes, people feel embarrassed about debt because of perceptions that may not be true. Stereotypes can falsely portray those in debt as materialistic or lacking self-control. This negative perception leads to people in debt avoiding discussing and confronting their finances. They might conceal their financial situation from friends, family and colleagues – to the point where some prefer to talk about politics, religion and their love life at the dinner table.

Financial success is often tied to one’s self-perceived worth and place in society. A strong correlation exists between debt stigma and an individual’s income, education level and perceived social class. In a nutshell, the more you make, the more likely you are to feel shame about debt.

The negative perceptions of debt are present and pervasive. Debt, of course, can happen to anyone for a variety of reasons – even those who don’t fit the stereotype. These views may have a mental and financial impact on repaying debt.

Overcoming debt shame

Debt shame is more than a feeling. The stigma around debt can influence borrowers’ finances, mental health and their ability to find help as they pay off their debt. Here are some things to keep in mind about debt – and some tips on how you can find help and overcome debt shame.

Know that debt can be good

Those who have been in debt before may remember the stress and struggle that can come with it, including making monthly payments or worrying about paying off the balance.

Watching a friend or a loved one struggle with debt may make some people want to avoid all debt – from credit cards to mortgages – like the plague. The stigma of debt has made many reluctant to take out a loan for any reason.

While debt can be scary, not all debt is bad debt. While avoiding credit card debt can be a good way to keep your spending within reasonable limits, a mortgage, student loans or a business loan can be investments in your future. Some kinds of debt allow you to later earn a higher income or build equity in a home.

Tackle the debt

Though thinking about debt can be stressful, ignoring debt or making only the minimum payments makes things worse. Debt doesn’t disappear if the payments stop. Instead, interest will grow the balance, and missed payments can tank a borrower’s credit score.

Even if it’s stressful, tackling your debt head-on by making a payment plan and building a timeline for paying it off can help you get rid of debt – without having to resort to bankruptcy. Making a plan to get out of debt can help you feel more in control of your situation.

Embrace important money conversations

According to a Bankrate survey, 42 percent of adults with a significant other have said they’ve kept a financial secret from their partner. Nearly one quarter (23 percent) of those surveyed said they’ve secretly taken on debt.

This financial infidelity can come from a place of shame: 28 percent of respondents mentioned they avoid talking about their finances with their partner due to embarrassment.

When debt shame prevents many from being open about finances with their partners, it can lead to long-term problems. Financial secrets can result in a loss of trust, and secrets can prevent couples from making fully informed financial decisions.

Secret debt can also balloon out of control if not addressed. A partner who is aware of it can support you in paying it faster and help you work through the challenges.

Beware of scams

Unfortunately, the stigma of debt can make people susceptible to scams from fraudulent debt collectors, fake “relief” companies and other bad actors.

Scammers will threaten to take homes and garnish wages or benefits if the fraudulent debt companies don’t receive payments. Other scammers will pose as forgiveness programs, promising targets that their balance can be wiped out in exchange for an upfront payment.

These scammers use debt shame to isolate their targets, telling debt holders to avoid informing their family, friends or authorities about their situation to avoid embarrassment or persecution. When you know you have a support system, you’re in a better place to avoid offers that are too good to be true.

Overcoming the social stigma of debt

While the social stigma of debt may be pervasive, you can push back on the narrative about personal debt. By doing so, you can also help others in a situation like yours.

Seek help

If you’re struggling with debt payments, ask for help. Accessing the resources you’re qualified for, whether a food pantry or a federal assistance program, can help you pay off your debt faster.

Government programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and local resources such as food pantries and free medical clinics help cut costs. Other programs can offer financial aid to struggling students, families and individuals going through financial setbacks. These programs can help you make debt payments on time.

Sharing childcare or asking a neighbor to carpool to the store can reduce household costs, and your family may be willing to lend you a financial hand. More people are likely to be willing to help than you realize.

A little help can go a long way in paying off your balance and help relieve stress you may be experiencing. If you qualify or have family willing to help, don’t be afraid to ask for the aid you need.

If you’re working with a debt repayment or debt relief company such as National Debt Relief, it may be able to help connect you with resources and find assistance programs you qualify for as you pay off your debt.

Educate yourself and others

Educating yourself and others can go a long way to help break the stigma around debt. Debt can happen to anyone, and most people in debt aren’t just “bad with finances.” Many Americans are facing the same issues. Understanding the current financial climate can help people know they aren’t alone.

As prices rise and emergencies occur, even those with an $80,000 annual income struggle to pay for necessities. According to a Bankrate survey, one in three Americans have more credit card debt than they do in emergency savings.

Even those with an emergency fund may find themselves in debt if a medical emergency strikes. A three-day hospital stay in the United States costs $30,000 on average. It’s no wonder that one in ten Americans carries medical debt, sometimes into the tens of thousands.

Even when avoiding “bad” (unsecured or high-interest) debt, a loan isn’t something to be ashamed of when investing in your future. Student loans, business loans and mortgages allow borrowers to pay for something that can profit in the long term. Building equity in a house or establishing a profitable business can set someone up for stronger finances in the future.

By communicating these facts to those around you who may feel shame about carrying debt, you can help correct the misconceptions and break down the stigma. As you help educate others, you’ll be less likely to be affected by the stigma too.

Build a support system

Surrounding yourself with friends, family and colleagues who support you can be an important step in breaking down the shame you might be feeling around debt.

Finding a group of people in a similar situation and discussing the challenges you’re undergoing can help. You can share the resources you’ve found and the successes you’ve had. These conversations can go a long way to help manage stress.

Support doesn’t have to come only from your friends and family. A professional such as a financial therapist can help you manage your mental health and finances. You’ll get help identifying the money stressors that are impacting your day-to-day.

You can also find support through the financial services you’re using. If you decide to work with a debt relief company such as National Debt Relief, they can help you find resources to make payments and get into a better financial situation.

Working with a company that provides respect, empathy and understanding of your situation can go a long way to help

Share your story

Debt is more common than you might think. Around 80 percent of Americans carry some debt, including mortgages, auto loans and credit card debt. The average credit card debt balance in 2023 was $6,501, with just under half (49 percent) of cardholders carrying a balance from month to month.

Connecting with others in debt can help you feel less alone and allow you to share the story behind your debt repayment journey. You can find testimonials of those in your shoes through online forums, support groups and other social avenues. You could also reach out to people in your community.

Putting a voice to the number [2] behind your debt can help illustrate how being in debt doesn’t only happen to those making bad financial decisions – and that it is possible to pay your balance down.

What next?

Debt shame can make people in debt feel isolated and guilty. However, there are ways to manage your feelings around debt and find the help and support you need.

Sharing your story, educating those around you and building a support system where you can find acceptance and empathy can not only help you manage your feelings of debt shame but further break the silence and barriers around discussing and confronting debt and the stigma around it. By doing so, you can help yourself and others who may be feeling the financial and mental impact of debt shame.

If you want to learn more about managing your finances, mental health and debt repayment plan, check out Bankrate and National Debt Relief’s ongoing article series about all things debt. Watch this space for tips, tricks and exclusive stories from readers like you and their debt repayment journeys.