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August 17, 2023

Debt Makes You Sick and Fat

Americans’ credit card debt levels just attained a new milestone: last week, the Federal Reserve reported Americans now have a credit card balance of more than $1 trillion. That’s an increase of $45 billion (4.5%) from last quarter. Automobile debt and student loan debt are also at record highs.

Americans are in a lot of everyday debt, and there’s no immediate relief in sight. According to Insider, an increasing number of us are letting balances languish for months without payment, and that’s all before student loan payments restart in the fall. Even more concerning—six-figure earners are carrying debt longer than lower income earners.

The concept of debt isn’t natural to our biology. Debt creates a constant stress, telling us we must keep working to pay something we owe to someone else. If we don’t make a payment, we get penalized, and the debt gets bigger. If we’re late on payments, our reputation (credit score) is downgraded. If we miss enough payments, our appliances, our cars, or even our homes can be taken away. That’s a lot of stress. Oh, and foreclosure rates have already increased 15% in the first six months of 2023.

Humans have adapted to respond to quick, immediate stresses that are perceived as harmful to our survival, like a bear coming from behind a tree, or a snake appearing out of nowhere. We have an innate fight-or-flight response that quickly produces a cascade of hormones allowing us to have greater-than-normal speed and strength to escape or fight such unexpected threats.

On the other hand, we are not well equipped to handle stress that lasts for days, months, and years on end. Hans Selye studied chronic stress effects by subjecting lab mice to various physical and environmental stressors, including excessive exercise, starvation, and extreme temperatures. Selye discovered that when animals are exposed to continually stressful events over which they have no control, they respond by releasing the hormone cortisol.

Cortisol’s main function is to increase blood glucose levels. In a fight-or-flight situation, that’s a good thing; but for days on end, it’s a bad thing. Cortisol plays a major role in helping us maintain our health by keeping us awake and alert, balancing blood sugar levels and reducing inflammation. But when cortisol levels are elevated from chronic stress, we experience an array of problems, including weight gain, muscle loss, suppressed immune system, high blood pressure, increased anxiety, heart disease, and lack of sleep.

Stress plays such an important role in our health that we include it as one of our Simple 9© Habits for a Healthy Life. Reducing stress helps us keep our hormones in check, which in turn, lets our body focus on its other critical components to keep us healthy.

Struggling to keep up with the payments associated with too much debt can bring about sleepless nights. Sleepless night are all too real for the 61% of Americans who currently live paycheck to paycheck. And more real for the high number of Americans who have fallen more than 60 days behind on their auto loans. Lack of sleep leads to increased cortisol levels, and increased cortisol levels lead to lack of sleep. Both scenarios lead to weight gain and depression. It’s a vicious cycle.

Debt, especially too much, can and will ruin your health. The most common techniques used to manage financial stress include watching television more than 2 hours a day, surfing the web, sleeping, eating, drinking alcohol, and smoking. A study in 2008 found that college students with a debt of $1,000 or more experienced significantly higher risks of obesity, excess TV viewing, infrequent breakfast consumption, increased fast food consumption, binge drinking, substance abuse, and lack of exercise. If that’s not enough to convince you, how about this: a study published last year found that having a payday lender close to where you live increases your risk of pre-mature death.

For many of us, reducing financial stress may be the first step we need to take towards improving our physical health. But if you feel overwhelmed, like the 69% of American’s who say the economy causes a significant source of stress, you may not know where to start.

Here are a few of my best suggestions for reducing financial stress:

1. Get Emotional Support. People who say they have someone they can rely on for emotional support have lower stress. Sadly, only 37% of adults talk with their family about money.

For some reason, our culture considers talking about money taboo. Even families have a difficult time—only one-third of American married couples can accurately report what each other earns.

Set up a weekly meeting with your spouse to discuss your finances. If you struggle with your finances, find someone you can trust, a friend or family member, for emotional support.

2. Create a Budget. I’ve tracked our personal family budget in for 15 years. It’s free. It sinks with my checking account. And it allows my wife and I to plan and track where we spend our money each month. If you don’t plan and track where your money goes, it will be gone before you know it. Another great free budgeting tool is Dave Ramsey’s EveryDollar.

3. Stop Using Credit Cards. People who use credit cards spend more money because the pain associated with parting with your money is deferred. Credit card shoppers also purchase more unhealthy foods like ice cream, cookies, and potato chips. If you have credit cards, cut them up, pay off the balances and cancel them right away. Trust me, your health will improve because of it.

4. Unsubscribe from All Retailer Emails. I bought a few shirts online a few weeks ago. Suddenly, I’m getting an email every two days promoting their latest deals. They even show up in my Facebook feed and in my web browser. Retailers spend billions of dollars in marketing research to know exactly how to market to consumers. As soon as you buy something online, unsubscribe from the company’s emails so you won’t buy stuff you don’t need.

5. Get on a Plan to Get Out of Debt. The best way to reduce financial stress is Dave Ramsey’s 7 Baby Steps.

  • Step 1 — Save $1,000 for a starter emergency fund.
  • Step 2 — Pay off all debt (except the house) using the debt snowball.
  • Step 3 — Save 3-6 months expenses in a fully funded emergency fund.
  • Step 4 — Invest 15% of your household income in retirement.
  • Step 5 — Save for your children’s college fund.
  • Step 6 — Pay off your home early.
  • Step 7 — Build wealth and give.

My wife and I have been following this plan for 14 years. We are debt-free and haven’t had credit cards or consumer debt for a long time. It took us three years to pay off our debt, but we were able to do it by working together and communicating. Some of those communications weren’t fun, but they were worth it when we finally became debt-free. The best way to get started on this plan is to get a copy of The Total Money Makeover and get after it. And Dave has lots of stories about people who followed his plan to get out of debt who lost weight and became healthier in the process.

The leading cause of stress in America is money. We experience stress in our lives from lots of different sources, but gaining control of our finances and eliminating debt will help reduce stress more than anything else.

Stay Strong and Out of Debt,

Bo Railey