Debt Does Not Make You a Bad Person

Debt Does Not Make You a Bad Person | www.TheHeavyPurse.comWe have lots of conflicting emotions about money. We think it is good, bad, evil and everything in between. We feel guilty for having too much or angry for having so little. We let money define our worth, so we start living beyond our means to remain competitive with our neighbors, friends, family and co-workers. Until one day we wake up and realize we are in trouble. Even worse, the blame rests solely at our feet. Now we succumb to another popular myth and believe ourselves to be a “bad person” for allowing this to happen. Does this sound familiar?

Debt Does Not Define You

I have seen countless people fall prey to the belief that they are a “bad person” because they have debt or made money mistakes. Whether they realize it or not, they have stamped themselves with a “bad” label and walk around in shame. This affects their ability to take action and get out of debt because they are so busy beating themselves up. Their energy goes towards punishing themselves, rather than taking positive action. Debt is a serious issue, but it does not represent who you are. Don’t give it that much power.

Understand How You Got into Debt

Of course, the easy answer is you lived beyond your means. But why? Did you lack the funds when an emergency occurred? Or were you trying to keep up with the Joneses? Or buying things to cope with your emotions? Understanding the “why” is critical to changing your behaviors. So let’s more closely examine the two most common myths people believe that lead to debt.

Everyone Has Debt, so It Must Be Okay

This is one of the biggest myths that get so many people into trouble. We believe debt is normal. In fact, some believe it’s more abnormal to not have debt, than it is to have debt. Is this something you believe? Or did a friend, co-worker or family member say something that made you think debt was okay? Or were you teased for declining to do something because you couldn’t afford it or it wasn’t in your budget? Many people end up in credit card debt because they blindly followed what others told them.

The Reality: Lots of people do have debt but that does not make it good or bad. Debt is debt and all debt has risk. Sometimes the risk is worth it. Other times it’s not. Most credit card debt is not worth the risk. At the same time, I don’t want you to irrationally fear debt either. Once again, you are giving your money and emotions all your power. You need to be in control. This means truly understanding debt and how it impacts your goals, so you know when it makes sense to leverage it and when it doesn’t.

I’m a Failure if I Can’t Afford …

Money has become a barometer to our self-worth. We feel if we have to say “no” to ourselves, our spouses, our children, our friends that we have somehow failed. Feeling as though we have failed loved ones is a powerful emotion, and it can cause even the most rational person to pull out their credit card. This particularly affects parents. The look of disappointment in our children’s faces can be devastating and conjure up our own bad memories of feeling deprived (even if we truly weren’t).

The Reality: You may feel as though you have failed in the moment but you haven’t. In fact, you have done just the opposite. You protected your family’s financial security by making smart choices with how you used your family money. You need to embrace this and make sure your kids do as well by always including the “why” when you tell your kids “no”. It doesn’t mean they will be happy that you can’t/won’t buy them the toy they want, but they will understand your money has another intended purpose. And if you can tie the reason “why” to something you are working together as a family to achieve, then you may be able to avoid any unhappiness or complaints from them.

Own Your Mistakes but Don’t Become Them

We need to own-up to our mistakes and learn from them, but we are not our mistakes. I see so many people carry around immense guilt and shame over their past money mistakes. It’s understandable that you may not be proud of some of your past decisions, but you also need to recognize and celebrate the fact that you no longer make the same mistakes today. You now make money decisions that support your goals and financial well-being. Don’t hide your mistakes, but instead use them as a cautionary tale to prevent your kids from repeating your mistakes. Most importantly, let them know that money mistakes do not make you a bad person or define who you are.

March 10, 2014  •  57 Comments  •  Debt

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  1. Monday, March 10th, 2014
    Great post, Shannon. I find it unfortunate that this post likely will hit home with almost everyone who reads it. For some reason our culture really correlates worth with how much money you have, and that translates into each person attributing their self-worth to money 'wins' and 'losses.' I think there needs to be a balance between feeling good about paying down debt and feeling bad about carrying debt and making 'mistakes' in our past.

    Also I really really really like the redesign! Looks great!
    • Shannon Ryan
      Monday, March 10th, 2014
      Thanks, DC! It has become too common to associate our self worth with how much money we have or what we can afford. It's unfortunate because they are not at all related to one another. There does need to be a balance about how we look at money. To understand we are not our money mistakes and to feel empowered as we pay down debt, rather than riddled with guilt or regret.
  2. Monday, March 10th, 2014
    Solid post Shannon! I remember feeling like I was "bad" because I had debt. I'd beat myself up about it and think less of myself. Of course, they were the result of foolish and unwise decisions, but it wasn't until I saw that I was making debt out to be bigger than it was that I started seeing that I could overcome it. It was at the same time that my attitude and behaviors started to change and killed the debt for good. I think that's so much a part of it, seeing how you can improve, change your behaviors and use it as motivation to improve yourself and, if you have them, your kids so they don't make the same foolish mistakes.
  3. Monday, March 10th, 2014
    I've lived this post to a 'T." My biggest one was feeling like a failure. For years I had the notion that to be a good provider and leader of my family I needed to give them *everything* they asked for. To have to say "We cannot afford that" was admitting failure as a father and as a husband.
    • Shannon Ryan
      Monday, March 10th, 2014
      You are not alone, Travis. Advertisements, media and TV shows/movies/books all help perpetuate that belief. The saddest part is that our "no" is quite the opposite of failing. Understanding your priorities and making the tough decisions to say "no", is the very best thing you can do for your family, but that is not the way we are taught to think. I'm glad you know better now and are truly being the great provider and leader you were meant to be.
  4. Monday, March 10th, 2014
    The "victim" mentality never leads to good choices. If anything, I think it makes people spend more and they continue to feel less and less empowered.
    • Shannon Ryan
      Monday, March 10th, 2014
      I agree, Stefanie. Victim mentality often keeps you trapped, rather than propelling you forward.
  5. Monday, March 10th, 2014
    "Money not define us." Absolutely! It sure is easy to get consumed by this notion though. Our kids do not need to see us beating ourselves up over past mistakes. They need to see us moving forward and correcting our errors in judgment.
    • Shannon Ryan
      Monday, March 10th, 2014
      It easy to get consumed by the notion and believe it. And our kids definitely do NOT need to see us beating ourselves up because of our past mistakes. They need to see us learn from them, share our learnings with them and move forward in a positive light.
  6. Monday, March 10th, 2014
    Your post reminds me of when I first started my blog and started commenting on other PF blogs. One of the things I noticed right away were several PF bloggers that wrote posts that specifically said that people with debt were bad people. Very immature posts, I thought, and I never want anyone in debt to feel that they are bad people.

    Your money does not define you, as you said above. We all make choices throughout our lives and we all do some things that we may regret. But as you said, if you use all of your energy to dwell on your mistakes, financial, or otherwise, you will never move forward. And, honestly, moving forward feels so much better than sitting on the sofa crying about how much money you owe.
    • Shannon Ryan
      Monday, March 10th, 2014
      I've seen posts like those too, Sicorra and they always make me sad. We all make mistakes - in both money and life. The best thing we can do is accept our mistakes, learn from them and move on. There is no power in beating yourself or others up for past mistakes. And I agree wholeheartedly - moving forward feels so much better. Every positive step forward, no matter how big or small, brings you another step closer to financial freedom and needs to be celebrated.
  7. Girl Meets Debt
    Monday, March 10th, 2014
    You always write awesome content Shannon, but without a doubt, this is my favorite post from you yet! I may be bias though with a name like Girl Meets Debt. ;) On a serious note, I could really relate to this post especially the line about "Debt is a serious issue, but it does not represent who you are. Don’t give it that much power." I am mostly "positive" about my debt since I know I will longer be repeating my same money mistakes but from time to time, I do get really down about it and feel shame. Thank goodness for uplifting posts like this to make me feel better again. :)
    • Shannon Ryan
      Monday, March 10th, 2014
      Thanks, GMD! It's easy to get down at times when you are facing debt, but you're doing it exactly right. You don't let it keep you down long-term or stop you from enjoying life. Those moments will become fewer and fewer as you continue to work towards paying off the rest of your student loans. I'm glad I can help you stay positive and inspired! :)
  8. Monday, March 10th, 2014
    Hi Shannon,

    I love how you said money mistakes do not define us. I sometimes feel ashamed of the money mistakes that I've made. But now that my kids are young adults I need to celebrate the hurdles we've jumped and not focus on those mistakes.

    It's sad that nowadays we're judged by how much we have in our accounts when I think it's what we have under our roof is what truly matters.

    Thanks for such a feel-good post!

    Have a great new week!
    • Shannon Ryan
      Monday, March 10th, 2014
      Hi Corina,

      It's normal to feel regret or even ashamed of your past money mistakes, but I'm glad you are focusing less on your mistakes and more on how far you have come. I really commend you for sharing your past mistakes with your kids, so they can learn from them as well, rather than hiding them. It sounds like they have been having the impact you wanted from some of your previous comments, which is great news! It is sad we are judged by how big our bank accounts are. I couldn't say it better - "what we have under our roof is what truly matters". Amen.
  9. Monday, March 10th, 2014
    "Own your mistakes" is such a great life lesson, but especially when it comes to money. I think that a big reason parents are not able to teach kids proper money lessons is because they have not accepted their own faults and learned from them. And it probably has a lot to do with shame and feeling "bad" but not accepting your mistakes only makes the problem worse. I have made a number of poor money mistakes, but I accept that I did them, know where I went wrong, and plan to make sure my son doesn't repeat those mistakes.
    • Shannon Ryan
      Monday, March 10th, 2014
      Great point, Shannon. Many parents can't teach their kids how to handle money wisely because they have not yet accepted their own mistakes and addressed them. I do agree that fear and feeling "bad" are two main reasons why they haven't done so. I definitely want my girls to avoid making my money mistakes and most importantly to feel confident in their own money decisions.
  10. Monday, March 10th, 2014
    An excellent post. I think my partner feels guilty that we have managed to build up a debt, and has spent a year refusing to really acknowledge that it is there, hoping that it would just go away on it's own. But acknowledging the problem, and forgiving yourself are two of the most important steps you can take. The rest is easy!
    • Shannon Ryan
      Monday, March 10th, 2014
      Thanks, Jacqui. It's a very common reaction. Many people just wish it would go away but sadly it doesn't. Like you said, acknowledging a problem exists and forging yourself (such an important steps that is too often overlooked) are critical to moving forward. Debt happens but with hard work it can also become a past memory too.
  11. Monday, March 10th, 2014
    Great post. "Money has become a barometer to our self-worth" I definitely feel this way sometimes. When many in my stage in life have purchased a house, and I haven't been able too, sometimes I feel like I've failed in providing for my family. I have fortunately not have to deal with looking at the disappointed face of a child, saying I can't afford it, but I can see that as being very tough. I mean if it is for something worthwhile...not something frivolous.
    • Shannon Ryan
      Monday, March 10th, 2014
      You are not alone, Andrew. Everyone compares themselves to those around them, even though we know we shouldn't. It's human nature. You have definitely not failed your family in any way. When it's the right time for you to buy a home - you will! It is hard to see disappointment in your child's face, but it's not worth risking your (and your child's) financial stability to make it go away.
  12. Monday, March 10th, 2014
    Hi Shannon

    I agree, I think understanding 'Why' is an important part of reversing debt, changing behavior and not succumbing to it again. I hate to see when friends have debt with unmanageable credit card interest rates.
    • Shannon Ryan
      Monday, March 10th, 2014
      Hi Alex, I see a lot of people jump to how to get rid of their debt right away, which is natural. But I think before you can truly eliminate debt, you need to understand why it happened in the first place to avoid going back into debt later.
  13. Monday, March 10th, 2014
    It's sometimes hard to forgive yourself for past mistakes like not taking proper control over your student loan debt while in school. I know we have a few regrets about the way we financed our education. However, we really had to make a point to forgive ourselves and just move on and do better. Debt doesn't make you a bad person like you said.
    • Shannon Ryan
      Monday, March 10th, 2014
      It is hard to forgive yourself for past mistakes. We are often the hardest on ourselves. Student debt is always so tough because you were so young. Most kids don't know enough about loans to make truly informed decisions, so they often take more than they need and/or don't make the wisest choices with how they use their money. I'm glad you and your husband have forgiven yourself and are moving forward.
  14. Monday, March 10th, 2014
    Debt it just's up to us how we tie emotions with it. I don't feel bad about my car loan (especially after seeing what I owed in taxes and having that money on hand to pay it). I know a car is necessary in LA and I got the best deal I could get. When I had cc debt I did feel bad about it...more like guilty.
    • Shannon Ryan
      Monday, March 10th, 2014
      And you absolutely shouldn't feel bad about your car loan. You were working diligently on building your car fund but circumstances forced you to buy a car now. You took your time so you could do your homework and make the right decision for you. That's all that matters. I do think people tend to feel guiltier about their credit card debt because it was more likely used to buy some frivolous things, whereas as your car is something you do need.
  15. Monday, March 10th, 2014
    The more you blame yourself, the less you will advance in your quest to improve your situation. But it is important to understand how you got there so you can start working on it.
    • Shannon Ryan
      Monday, March 10th, 2014
      I agree, Pauline. Most people get stuck blaming themselves and spend all their energy playing shoulda, woulda, coulda. Instead they need to use that energy to move forward. The "why" is often overlooked but it necessary to avoid going right back into debt after you get out, which unfortunately happens quite a bit.
  16. Monday, March 10th, 2014
    I find it tough to strike a balance between:
    1. Taking complete ownership of my own debt - which actually gives me the power to do something about it.
    2. Not giving the debt itself too much power - because it drains my ability to work it down.
    I've never thought about this before, but you're right. And I think I do tend to give too much power to our debt. Thanks for the heads-up! I'll try to shift towards taking complete ownership without giving power to the debt itself.
    • Shannon Ryan
      Monday, March 10th, 2014
      It is an hard balance, Prudence. You don't want to give it too much power where it gets to point where it's all you think about or start believing that you are a "bad" person for your money mistakes. But you also do need to own those mistakes at the same time. To me, part of owning your mistakes is to understand "why" you got into debt so when you find yourself falling back into old habits, you catch yourself. I also find having goals to work towards, beyond just getting out of debt, can help keep you moving forward when you having something to work towards that excites and motivates you.
  17. Monday, March 10th, 2014
    Debt doesn't make you bad, although I have certainly felt that way in the past. I think the better measure is how you deal with it. Either learn and get better about it or continue the cycle. I see lots of people, past self included, who use debt as an excuse. "I am already in so much debt, what's a little more?" That attitude is how you get in trouble.
  18. Tuesday, March 11th, 2014
    Love this! I think a lot of people can relate. It's incredible just how easy it is for money to take control of our lives, if we let it. And even easier to fall victim to guilt, when money mistakes happen. Great post, Shannon!
    • Shannon Ryan
      Wednesday, March 12th, 2014
      Thanks, Anthony! It is very easy to give money control over your lives. So many people inadvertently do this and we definitely need to be one in control. Our emotions can get the best of us but we need to forgive ourselves for our money mistakes and look towards the future.
  19. Tuesday, March 11th, 2014
    Very well said Shannon. We often talk about how we live in a consumer driven world where material possessions are the goals for most. I don't think we spend enough time talking about what that actually does to us as people, especially when there is always going to be someone that has more (and less) than you. It's hard to do, but if you can find a balance between spending on what makes you happy, and growing your wealth/ getting out of debt, I think that's a good place to be.
    • Shannon Ryan
      Wednesday, March 12th, 2014
      We do tend to naturally focus on the things we want. And it's not wrong to want things, but we need to better understand how they fit into our lives and where our priorities lay. We too often just see something we want and buy it without thinking about how we truly want to use our money. There definitely needs to be balance where you can spend joyfully without creating debt and let go of your guilt and/or shame over any debt or past money mistakes. Learn and move forward that's all you can do!
  20. Tuesday, March 11th, 2014
    This is a great post!

    Feeling like a failure for being in debt does absolutely nothing to change the situation. Only action does. I like how you say to "own your mistakes, but don't become them." That's advice that works for almost anyone in any situation.
    • Shannon Ryan
      Wednesday, March 12th, 2014
      Thanks, Holly! I agree - feeling like a failure does more harm than good. Nobody likes making mistakes but all you can do is learn from them and move forward. It is important we own our mistakes and not pretend we didn't make them but they are not our whole story. Too many people turn their mistakes into their life stories.
  21. Tuesday, March 11th, 2014
    Once you start to see how much interest you spend in a year, it becomes a goal to eliminate it. Once you are debt free, there is nothing like it.

    I see people all the time that have to think about the next $20 bill they spend. Some only have that for a week. If they were not paying interest, they could have $100 per week.
  22. Tuesday, March 11th, 2014
    There is still a lot of shame and guilt related to debt, even with student loans that are supposedly "good debt". Debt is debt, and it's not fun either way. I actively try to get rid of this stigma, which is why I'm so open about my debt journey. I love that line about owning your mistakes, but not becoming them. Our debt is, like our mistakes, are but one part of our life. We are so much more than that!
    • Shannon Ryan
      Wednesday, March 12th, 2014
      Absolutely. I think for those dealing with student debt much of that guilt or shame is related to the fact that when they were getting into debt, they didn't fully understand what they were doing. They most likely accepted the maximum offered and spent every penny of it too. They simply didn't know better. It's great that you are so open with your story and helping others in a similar situation. Debt is certainly not something we love but it does not define who here. This is just one small piece of our life's story.
  23. Wednesday, March 12th, 2014
    When you have debt, it feels like the weight of the world is on your shoulders and you do feel like a bad person for having the debt in the first place. I can relate.

    Love, love, love this post Shannon!!
    • Shannon Ryan
      Wednesday, March 12th, 2014
      Debt does weigh a person down and it's easy under that weight to believe you are a bad person. But you most definitely ARE NOT. You may have made some money mistakes but that does not make you bad or any less of a person.
  24. Wednesday, March 12th, 2014
    Hi Shannon,

    I'm so glad you shared this post at the I'm Every Woman Weekly Linky blog party. I truly enjoyed reading it and I know those who made money mistakes they'd like to forget will take that first step after reading this :).

    Happy Wednesday hon!
    • Shannon Ryan
      Wednesday, March 12th, 2014
      You're welcome and thank you for hosting the blog party. Also happy to participate and I'm looking forward to see what's going on in everyone's lives.
  25. Thursday, March 13th, 2014
    Thank you for this Shannon. I accumulated a lot of debt when I was in college. It was just paying my necessities and ten years later I'm still paying it down. I am not my debt and I do try to tell this to myself on a regular basis but sometimes its this looming cloud. I think of all the savings I could have if it weren't going towards interest. Sigh.
    • Shannon Ryan
      Friday, March 14th, 2014
      You're welcome, Arelis. You are definitely not your debt. It can seem like it somedays, especially when you think about what else you could have done with your money. But the important thing is you are moving forward and paying it off. You learned from past mistakes and now make better decisions with how you use your money. Learn from the past but don't live there. You've got so much to look forward too, including an upcoming wedding and that's is what you work towards. :)
  26. Thursday, March 13th, 2014
    Debt ... sometimes ok. Many times not! Ever since paying off our student loans many years ago, we've tried to avoid most debt, other than our mortgage. I'd rather drive my ten year old SUV than trade it in for a newer one, which would require taking a loan out. I know eventually I might have to take on a car loan, but for now, enjoying only the home mortgage, and saving money for when that ten year old car decides to bite the dust. Don't like carrying debt!
    • Shannon Ryan
      Friday, March 14th, 2014
      I don't like carrying debt either, Carol. Beyond our mortgage, we are fortunate to not have any. I don't believe debt or money mistakes make you bad but at the same time, we need to recognize the risk debt carries, which sadly not everyone realizes. It's having the knowledge or awareness of what debt is so that we can make the best possible decision for ourselves and our family.
  27. Friday, March 14th, 2014
    • Shannon Ryan
      Friday, March 14th, 2014
  28. Thursday, March 20th, 2014
    I like this post because so much of our behaviour is based on emotion, not based on our actual money situation. It's how we feel that drives our decisions and actions, not necessarily what we think as being our "reality".

    It's unfortunate that we let our past behaviour dictate how we should feel in the present. It's what we do NOW that matters most. Experiencing shame and guilt over past decisions is a:
    1. Waste of energy because you can't undo the past.
    2. Barrier to finding the personal empowerment that can help you create a much brighter future.
    3. Ticket to continuing the vicious cycle. If you relive the bad decisions over and over, you are more likely to perpetuate the behaviour by letting your emotional self make the decisions.

    We are what we do today. Period. Onward and upward people!
    • Shannon Ryan
      Thursday, March 20th, 2014
      Thanks! It's very true, a lot of behavior and money decisions are driven by our emotion. I agree wholeheartedly that we cannot let our past money mistakes dictate how we feel or see ourselves today. And yes, onward and upward - that is right the attitude to take!
  29. Wednesday, March 18th, 2015
    This is such a great post. Reflect on how we got there, and move on and work towards getting out of debt.
    • Shannon Ryan
      Thursday, March 19th, 2015
      Thanks, Michelle! And that is exactly right. Debt does not define us. We should learn from it and move forward with our lives.
  30. Friday, May 22nd, 2020
    Such a relevant post. You know, debt often feels like a burden and a mistake. Sooner than we realize it, we are blaming ourselves for taking debt and seeing ourselves as an unworthy person. It's important for people to know that their worth does not depend on their assets and liabilities.
  31. Shannon Briggs
    Sunday, September 25th, 2022
    I’m ashamed and embarrassed for the past 5 months I’ve taken or stolen money mostly from my mother. Because I tried to help out someone who doesn’t deserve the help. I’ve taken money from my own kids, friends. Mostly my mom. And the money I take I use on lottery tickets to “try to get the money back “ for what I have taken. It doesn’t happen, I do feel like a criminal and can’t get my life back in order. Very much in debt and can’t get out.
  • Meet Shannon

    "As a Certified Financial Planner, it is my passion to help individuals and families build a healthy relationship with money. I look forward to helping you raise financially confident kids.” - Shannon Ryan