If you have experienced money problems, then you know that debt can have a detrimental effect on your finances. But did you know that debt can also adversely affect your physical and mental health? In fact, working to get out of debt is one of the most constructive steps you can take to improve your overall well-being.
Being in debt places severe stresses on your body, your psyche and your relationships. For instance, a 2012 study published in Family Relations showed that newly married couples who argued about money were more likely to split within five years than couples who argued about anything else. That includes arguments about who does the dishes, nights out with the boys (or girls), even sex.
Health care neglect
The Affordable Care Act has significantly decreased the number of Americans living without health insurance. Nonetheless, many low-income individuals and households still lack access to health care coverage. As a result, basic health care such as physical examinations and preventative care are neglected.
High credit card debt can also directly endanger your health. According to a 2013 study conducted at the University of Michigan, high levels of credit card debt often translate into fewer doctor visits. People juggling minimum credit card payments often hesitate to visit doctors even when they’re sick, never mind for preventative care.
Stress-related health problems
Debt-related stress can also make you sick. A 2013 study conducted by Northwestern University evaluated subjects between the ages of 24 and 32 with high debt-to-asset ratios. Many subjects had dangerously high blood pressure. A 2011 study conducted by The Ohio State University linked high stress levels with lower production of beneficial bacteria and higher levels of harmful bacteria in the digestive tract.
Stress due to chronic debt can also literally be both a headache and a pain in the neck. A 2009 study published jointly by the Associated Press and AOL showed that 44 percent of survey respondents who reported high levels of debt-related stress also complained of migraines, muscle tension, back problems and higher heart attack risks.
Have you ever said “no” to an invitation simply because you knew you couldn’t afford it? Chronic debt often results in continually saying “no” when friends invite you to get together socially. Chronic debt may also prevent you from traveling to spend time with family members during the holidays.
A 2013 study published by the Public Library of Science (PLOS) showed that economic hardship can aggravate social isolation. This makes sense: being in debt causes many people to feel shame and embarrassment, causing them to withdraw. As people withdraw further from others, social isolation can become life threatening, leading to thoughts of suicide and an increased risk of self harm.
Inferior living conditions
For many people, the biggest source of debt is a mortgage. Falling behind on mortgage payments places homeowners at risk for foreclosure and ultimately losing their homes. Chronic debt also affects renters, making it difficult or impossible to maintain on-time rent payments, putting them at risk for eviction.
Even without suffering foreclosure or eviction, chronic debt can force you to settle for inferior living conditions. You may be cramped into a tiny apartment with no privacy for anyone, trapped in an unsafe neighborhood or simply stranded in an isolated area with few or no basic amenities. Living in substandard housing may expose your family to toxic and to potentially life-threatening substances such as lead or asbestos.
Getting out of debt can improve your budget – and your life
If you are deeply in debt, you may despair that you will never be financially solvent again. Getting back on your feet may not be the easiest thing to do. It takes time. After all, chances are that you didn’t get into debt overnight, so you can anticipate getting out of it taking some time too.
The first step is to evaluate your situation. Many people who are buried under so much debt aren’t even aware of all the obligations that they have still outstanding. A quick and easy way to find out how much you owe and to who is to get a copy of your free credit report. Every American is entitled to one free copy of their credit report from each of the three major bureaus once per year. Once you receive your credit report you can look through it to get a better idea of where you stand financially.
The next step to getting out from underneath that burden might be to start a monthly budget. There are many tools you can find that will help you evaluate which type of budget is best for you. Creating and sticking to a monthly budget will help you with your financial goals and keep your spending more under control.
Financial professionals can help too. Whether it is a financial advisor you are seeking or perhaps a debt consolidation loan, there are multitudes of people and businesses out there whose sole purpose is to help people who are in debt.
It’s true that unless you win the lottery or discover a rich relative, getting out of debt won’t happen overnight. But with financial discipline, diligent effort, support from family and friends and perhaps guidance from financial professionals, you can erase the burden of debt. Just think of all the benefits there are to being financially secure. Your pocketbook – and your body – will appreciate the effort.
Audrey Henderson is a Chicagoland-based writer and researcher. She holds advanced degrees in sociology and law from Northwestern University. Her writing specialties are sustainable development in the built environment, policy related to arts and popular culture, socially and ecologically responsible travel, civic tech and personal finance.