Reader Perspective Series

How One Woman Stood Up To Her Numbers and Got Past The Guilt of Debt

Getting past guilt to get out of debt

This is a guest post by Christina Brannan.



Everyone who has made the decision to pay off all of their debt has experienced that moment at the very beginning when you actually come to terms with the total balance of everything you owe. Prior to this moment, we generally all have some sort of estimated number that we think is “about right” for our total balance. We learn to become very skilled at dancing around the reality of how much debt we actually have. We even get creative and keep everything separated into smaller piles so it doesn’t sound so bad.

“Oh, I pay about $425 a month on my car, and my student loans are about $200 a month, and I owe maybe about $2K on my credit card.”

This sounds so much better than saying something like,

“I’m $43,567 in debt and paying an average APR of 18% interest.”

Even though both statements could pretty much represent the same actual dollar amounts, that first statement sounds somewhat harmless. Keeping our apple and orange financial piles makes us feel safer somehow. It doesn’t sound too scary at all does it? However, that second statement would cause alarm to just about anyone. It’s like getting hit with a rock right between the eyes.

What is worse is that once actually calculated, you will discover that your “real” number is almost always higher than your estimated number. Even worse than that, sometimes the difference can be significant. Unfortunately, we cannot truly begin the debt free journey until we face this reality. It isn’t until we compile everything together in one place that we really come face to face with that dreaded REAL number. Facing this number is also the moment where we start to really understand the full extent of the battle that lies before us. It is also where we start taking back our freedom.

For nearly everyone including myself, this initial experience is one of shock and disbelief.

“OMG!–this CAN’T be right!!”  

“I must have a decimal point in the wrong place somewhere!”  

“Did someone buy a house on my AmEx card??”

Then after the initial shock wears off, the guilt-inducing negative internal dialogue kicks into high gear making you feel even worse.

“How did I let the balances get this high?”

“Why didn’t I pay better attention to this?”

“What will happen when my significant other finds out how much I owe?”

Does any of this sound familiar to you? The reason that this internal dialogue is so good at making you feel like crap is because there is often a bit of truth in them. After all, no one knows your flaws and mistakes better than you do. Unfortunately, our brains are more than happy to remind us of our failings. And just in case you might forget, it is also happy to revisit it over and over again.

Sometimes it can be like carrying around a bad behaving mother-in-law in your head telling you how awful you are. As a result, we will often focus on those negative thoughts and hold on so hard that it causes us to just give up before we even really start. We get stuck in the guilt and shame of past decisions and can’t seem to move forward. Even after experiencing success, that negative internal dialogue can still rear its ugly head, stop us in our tracks, and have us wallowing back in guilt and shame again.

So, if you are reading this post, odds are you are currently in debt and are at some stage of wanting to get out. Congratulations on your decision to get out of debt! It doesn’t matter where you are in your process. You have made a positive decision to improve your future and you deserve to feel proud of your decision. And guess what, I am on the same journey too. I am not some phantom writer repeating the same “tips” that you find in every other debt article and bragging about how great my life is. I am a real live person going through this and discussing my journey. I am right there with you, and experiencing many of the same challenges you are experiencing. I have had that shock moment as I faced my “real” number, and I have heard those discouraging internal words that have made me feel stuck, sick and ashamed. So, when I say to you that I understand what you are going through, I do. I am facing similar challenges and fears.

Furthermore, the advice that I share here are methods that I actually use to keep on my goals. I am very excited to be able to share these methods with you, and I hope that they will help you as much as they help me. Not everything that works for me may work as well for your present circumstances, but at the very least I hope that it will inspire you to continue. You may discover other tips that work better for you and your situation, and I hope you will share them with the community here as well. Regardless of the method you use for your success, I want to give you support and encouragement so you never feel alone. You can succeed! We can succeed!

Good news

Let’s revisit that nasty negative internal dialogue for a final moment. After all, it seems to somehow know so much about you. Well, I’ve got good news. The past is the ONLY thing it knows, and even that can be a bit distorted. It will remind you with amazing detail of all of the mistakes you’ve done, and it will torment you with what it says you could have or should have done differently in the past. It will distract you and attempt to convince you that you will never reach your goals. However, no matter how correct it may be about your past, it has absolutely no idea what you are truly capable of accomplishing. You have 100% full control over the choices you make in the future, and you can succeed. So, when you hear that internal voice say that you will never gain control over your debts or that you will never be able to pay off the balances, it’s wrong!

That negative internal dialogue has no idea of what you are capable of achieving once you stop listening to its lies. Yes, it will be difficult. Yes, you will have to work at it every day. Yes, you will make a mistake and fall down. Still, you can reach your goal. You CAN do this! It may take you years of hard work and perseverance to reach your goal, but you can absolutely reach your goal of being free from debt. The only thing you can’t ever do is allow yourself to give up.

More good news

I don’t like my “real” number, and if you are here, the odds are that you probably don’t like your “real” number either. But I have more good news for you. The hardest and scariest part of beginning this process is just facing that real number. After you face it and commit to your payoff plan, this scary number somehow loses all of its power. It becomes merely a representation of the amount of time it will take to be free again. Don’t believe me? If you commit to paying $100 a month to reduce your debt the only real difference between owing $500 and owing $50K is the amount of time it will take you to pay it off.

Yes, you will pay more in interest with the higher number, but that is because interest is a function of time as well. Just think about that for a moment. You have just single-handedly taken that scary number that previously filled you with dread, guilt, and fear and removed all of its power. Congratulations! You’ve just turned the scariest part of this process into a calendar. YAY!!!! My number doesn’t scare me any longer. I know what it is, and I know when it will be gone. Better yet, I smile every time I see it now because I’m watching it get lower and lower with every payment.

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Build a bridge… and get over it!

Yikes! Sounds harsh, but I promise you that it isn’t. This statement has become my personal mantra and the first piece of advice I tell myself when I start to feel stuck or discouraged. I first heard it over drinks with a very dear friend when she was talking about how people sometimes get so bogged down and overwhelmed with situations that it completely paralyzes them. When this happens, she said, “Ya gotta just build a bridge and get over it.” Please note that this is NOT advice for someone struggling with mental health issues, but rather strictly for a person who just needs a bit of a “Dr. Phil-type” kick in the butt.

Anyhow, this was a light bulb moment for me and it has become the phrase that I say to myself when I need to get moving again. I was, and continue to be surprised at how incredibly empowering it is. It reminds me that I have the power within me to rise above the challenge and just go over it. Am I feeling ashamed because my debt balances are high?  Build a bridge! Is negative internal dialogue giving me just enough truth to discourage me?  Build a bridge! Feeling sad because I can’t go on vacation without putting the cost on a credit card? Build a bridge! Feeling guilty because I took my significant other out to a nice restaurant to celebrate and needed to put the tab on my credit card? Build a bridge… and move on! Life happens. Your pay-off schedule will not always go according to plan. There will be some unexpected expense that will pop up. Your car will break down. Someone will get sick. Your kid will need braces. You will absolutely NEED that caramel macchiato one afternoon to keep from strangling some poor stranger who doesn’t realize that you are having a really, really bad day.

No matter what happens, you cannot let yourself get stuck. When you get stuck, you’ve stopped moving and will eventually give up. So, if you are unable to change something, you just have to find a way to put it aside and move forward. Build your bridge, get over it and keep moving forward towards your goals. It is empowering! It stops that internal criticism in its tracks every time, and makes me feel unstoppable. I challenge you to try it and see if it works for you too.

Final thoughts

For the average person, the actual amount you owe doesn’t really matter. What matters is what your number represents to you. For me personally, my number represents the inability to live as free as I want. I don’t want to feel that I HAVE to work forty plus hours a week for another twenty or so years. I don’t want to wonder if I’ll ever actually be able to retire. I don’t want to spend my life feeling like I have to work a job that stresses me out for a paycheck that is already spent before I even get it. I don’t want to feel like I can’t walk away from an employer that makes me miserable. I want to be free. I don’t want to owe anyone anything. I want my “real” number to be zero, and so do you. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t.

We make no judgments here. We are all in this boat together, so let’s make sure we don’t drown each other. We all have challenges we are facing. So, what helps you? What scares you? What encourages you? What questions are you afraid to ask? I encourage you all to share your successes and even your setbacks if you feel comfortable. There are thousands of us all going through similar struggles, so let’s help ourselves by helping each other.

Image credit: Luigi Anzivino

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  • Great article! Timely, too, as I find myself getting bogged down in all the guilt and bad feelings that come with being halfway through our journey of paying off debt. I want it to go much faster than it is going and it can get to me. It is important to stay positive and celebrate the little victories and realize how far we have come. I love the build a bridge method! It seems so simple, yet so effective in keeping the past at bay.

    • Awesome! I’m glad you liked the article. We will try to publish more of these reader perspective posts in the future. I definitely understand the desire for things to move faster. But it sounds like you are well on your way to accomplishing your goals. Keep up the good work!

    • Christina

      Glad you liked the article!! I totally can totally relate to the impatience that comes with wanting the balances to go down faster. They seem to move so slowly sometimes, and it is easy to get frustrated and want to give up. I’m happy you found the “build a bridge” helpful. Even when it is slow going, it is important just to keep moving. You can totally do this! Congrats on being halfway to your goal! That’s AWESOME!!!!

  • I’m inspired by reading success stories. Hearing about how real people found practical ways to get out of debt is really encouraging. It can’t be that impossible if so many people are successful, right?

    • It’s so good to know that these stories are inspiring. We’ll continue trying to publish more! And you’re right – it’s definitely not impossible! You can do it, and you will do it!

    • Christina

      Glad you found some inspiration! It certainly is not impossible, but it is a lot of work. You just have to keep at it and not be too hard on yourself. These things take time, and one of the most important things to remember is to just be patient with yourself. You can absolutely do it!!