Debt denial: 5 warning signs and how to start digging out

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Debt denial: 5 warning signs and how to start digging out
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Do you know how much you owe?

If not, you’re not alone. According to a New York Fed report, Americans tend to underestimate their credit card debt by 37%.

In other words, we owe more than we think we do — a LOT more.

Read more: 9 successful habits of debt-free people

Wake-up call: your debt won’t magically disappear

Whether it’s a result of apathy, ignorance or denial, facing the facts of your financial life, however unsettling, is the only way to start moving toward an empowered fiscal future – and a life on your own terms.

Now before the excuses start…

… but I’m financing my wedding…. I’m too busy to deal with it right now… YOLO ….

…. let me remind you that no matter how high you let the unopened bills pile up or how many debt-collection numbers you block on your phone, your debt will not magically disappear.

Maintaining debt denial, be it in the form of ignorance or excuses, will inevitably exacerbate the problem.

Here are five signs you may be in debt denial and stories from fellow consumers who were once there too. See how they faced their respective financial realities to take ownership of their debt – for good.

RELATED: How to get out of debt in 5 simple steps

5 signs you’re in debt denial

1. You’re rationalizing your debt as “good”

Student loans, mortgages, small business loans – essentially any form of debt that has the potential to increase your wealth in the long-run is often classified as “good” debt. As opposed to auto loans, credit card bills or debts accrued while purchasing items that depreciate in value – that’s “bad” debt.

Read more: Good vs. bad: Dangers to avoid and how to protect yourself!

While I think “good” debt can be a useful tool in some cases, I would caution against leaning on the characterization of debt as “good” as a justification for over borrowing or payment procrastination. Taking on a mortgage for example, isn’t good if you can’t afford to make the payments, and neither is a loan you can’t afford to pay off.

Considering the national student loan debt is over $1.3 trillion and 43% of the roughly 22 million Americans with federal student loans are in delinquency, default or deferral – I think it’s safe to say that the concept of “good” debt has enabled some less than stellar borrowing decisions.

Monica Louie of OurDebtFreeFamily shares hers …

“We didn’t think we had a debt problem because our only debts were our student loans, a home equity line of credit and our mortgage. We have always paid off our credit card balance every month, and we paid off our cars before I left my job.

Our debt turning point occurred in July 2013. I had become a stay-at-home mom in May and was pregnant with our daughter. Prior to leaving my job, my husband and I ran our numbers. His income should have been enough to cover our expenses, but by the end of June, we had realized that our savings were slowly dwindling.

With my background in finance, I took it upon myself to learn how we could be smarter with our money. That’s when I came across a story of a young family who had just paid off all of their debt, including their mortgage!

Hearing that story made us realize how free we would be if we didn’t have any debt. So we decided that we would be debt-free in eight years, by the time we turn forty!

We started our plan in August 2013, and since then, we’ve paid off more than $125,000 of debt!”

Read more: Paying Off Credit Card Debt

2. You’re paying  the minimum – and only the minimum   

“I was in debt denial for the longest time. I had about 7 active credit cards open with large amounts of debt. All totaling over $50,000 – and that doesn’t include the over $25,000 in consumer loans I had,” shares Grayson Bell, founder of DebtRoundup.

“Since I had my debts dispersed with so many accounts, I never knew how much I really owed. I was just paying the minimums every month and thought I was good.

It wasn’t until my wife and I sat down to see how our finances were doing (we were talking about having a baby).

Once I put all of my debts on a sheet of paper and realized my minimum monthly payments were as much as my mortgage, I knew it was time to make a change. It took four years, but it was all paid off.”

Read more: The easy way to pay off your credit card debt in a quarter of the time

Why pay more than the minimum?

Because it’s expensive. The minimum payment on a credit card for example, usually covers whatever interest you owe and a small percentage of your principal balance – meaning it can take months, even years to pay off your principal. During that time, you keep racking up interest on the unpaid balance. So while the pair of jeans you purchased on your credit card continues to lose value, the amount you pay for them continues to increase when you stick to making minimum payments.

A common misconception is that paying the minimum payment eliminates interest — false! Paying the minimum allows you to avoid other fees, but interest will continue to accrue until you get the full balance down to $0.

If you can’t afford to pay off your balance in full each month, pay as much as you can, prioritizing debts with the highest interest rate first and moving the full force of your financial resources to remaining debts as you kick each one to the curb.

So put as much money as you can toward the card with highest interest rate, while still paying the minimums on the others each month. Then when that card gets to a $0 balance, move to the card with the next highest interest rate. But this is important, when you pay off a credit card in full — meaning the balance is $0, don’t close the account. That will damage your credit score, so just let the account sit at a zero balance.

Implementing Grayson’s strategy of writing down your total amounts owed can also serve as the wake up call you need to stop your debt denial in its tracks. When you see just how much of that total comes from accrued interest, you’ll probably find the motivation to pay it off as soon as possible.

Read more: The long-term cost of not paying off your credit cards

3. You keep opening new credit cards

“When I was in credit card debt, I was in denial that it really wasn’t a problem. I even opened up a new card with a 0% balance transfer rate to save on interest. My thinking was that I would transfer the balance and pay it off in the 12 months I had with 0% interest.

I didn’t think about the fact that there was no way I was going to be able to actually make that large of a payment each month. But I didn’t get that far…

I started charging on the old card within 2 months! It started off just one thing. Then another. Next thing I knew, I was in the hole for thousands on both cards,” says Jon of MoneySmartGuides.

“I had my wake up moment at the mall one night as I was about to buy a jacket. I don’t know why, but something just clicked inside and I questioned why I needed another jacket. I put it back and did a lot of thinking.

I ended up piling all of the clothes and electronics I bought onto my bed and took a picture. I carried that picture with me every time I wanted to buy something.

In the end, I had to get real with myself – I was depressed and had low self-esteem. It wasn’t until I addressed these issues was I able to overcome my spending habit. “

If you keep running up against your credit limit, it’s pretty good sign you’re living beyond your means.

Ignoring the limits of your debt by opening new lines of credit won’t make the problem go away. Get a copy of your credit report so you can see exactly what you owe, what it’s costing you and whether you can really afford any more, while reassessing your spending and making a plan to pay down what you already owe.

Read more: Understanding your credit reports and score

It also doesn’t hurt to think about what might be underlying your debt denial. As Jon found, it may serve as just the motivation you need to be proactive in your payback.

4. You figure you’ll eventually out earn your debt

Even with a six-figure paycheck, Brian, founder of Debt Discipline, couldn’t afford to continue his debt denial…

“I knew we had an issue for a few years, but never wanted to face it. It finally came to a head when I could no longer increase my credit lines on any of our 5 credit cards to finance a family vacation.

With no cash and a six-figure income I knew something had to change.

It forced us to educate ourselves and begin making a plan for our money. 50 months later we paid off our $109k of consumer debt.”

Financial coach, Melissa, realized she couldn’t out earn her debts either…

“I became debt free so I could pursue my dream of meeting Elton John.

My initial turning point was in 2007 when I could not attend Elton John’s 60th birthday concert. I just did not have any money to go.

Initially, I felt like the “answer” was to just make more money, which I did by working odd jobs and starting a Direct Sales Company business.

But the more I made, the more I spent because I just did not have good money management skills.

In December of 2009, I was buying Christmas presents.  Once again, the holiday had “snuck up” on me and I wanted to do whatever I could to “make Christmas happen” for our boys who were five and four at the time.

As I was sitting at my desk with a few credit cards, it occurred to me that I had lost the true meaning of the holiday. I was so much more concerned with how to make Christmas happen when all the credit cards were almost maxed out than with the true meaning of the holiday.

That became my true turning point. I vowed to never allow myself to be in this situation again. We became debt free on September 27, 2013 – paying off $43,544 of consumer debt.

Ps. Since becoming debt free, I average 3 Elton John concerts per year!”

5. You just ignore it

“Right after I graduated NYU, I signed up for Mint.com and synced all of my accounts. It was the first time I saw that I had $68,000 left in student loans. That, compared with my student budget was a huge blow.

I panicked. Instead of coming up with a financial plan, I deleted my Mint.com account because I couldn’t handle what I saw.

Six months later, I decided to leave NYC because I didn’t have a full-time job and realized that my student loans weren’t going to go away magically. It was a difficult first step, but I realized I had to take action to pay off my student loans.”

  • Melanie Lockert, founder of DearDebt – she is now debt free!

When you face your debt head on, you stop letting it control you and start to become empowered, gaining control over it, which enables the ultimate end goal – the freedom to live on your own terms!

Read more: Know your rights with debt collectors

What is debt? | Common Cents

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Stefanie O'Connell is the author of The Broke and Beautiful Life - a guide to living big city dreams on a small town budget. She writes about all things millennial money on her blog StefanieOConnell.com.
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