The world’s debt is the highest it’s ever been. Data released this month by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) shows the world is in $153 trillion worth of debt. $153 trillion sounds out-of-control. A trillion doesn’t even sound real.
Australia has been identified by the IMF as one of the countries where personal debt is rising. Along with Canada and Singapore, Australia is bucking the trend of decreasing debt and, instead, we are playing a huge, very personal part in this $153 trillion.
I feel that familiar block of concrete slowly settle in the pit of my stomach.
Between mortgages, loans, credit cards and HECS, our personal debt adds up to $1 trillion AUD collectively.
This sounds terrifying. But the conversations in our heads are even heavier.
Personal debt – particularly credit card debt – brings with it a whole waterfall of anxiety. Stress about the fastest possible way to pay it off. Worry about the future. A whole barrage of self-talk about “why did you get here in the first place” and “how have you got yourself in this situation?”. There’s also the secrecy of: “I can’t tell anyone about my credit card debt. I know it’s so stupid.”
On a day where the numbers seem too massive to deal with we can take comfort in one thing.
We are not alone.
There are so many people in the same situation. A survey around the office showed most people live in debt. From $18,991 to $802,000 worth of debt for starters.
Financial stress is something everyone is dealing with. And this makes me feel a little less alone. A little less anxious. Not so guilty.
There is also the inconvenient fact of inflation alongside unstable job security. (By the end of this article I’ll have convinced myself that my credit card is actually not my fault at all).
Let me explain: As the cost of living continues to increase, and our debts rise along with it, our earning capacity stays at relatively at the same level. The workplace, particularly for women, is a world of salary freezes and minimal pay rises. Companies are under threat of collapse and job security is minimal.
“Australian average household debt is now four times what it was 27 years ago, rising from $60,000 to $245,000, reflecting an annual growth rate of 5.3 per cent above inflation and leaving our income growth rate of 1.3 per cent trailing in its wake,” an AMP.NATSEM Income and Wealth Report found.
“The ratio of household debt to disposable income has almost tripled since 1988, from 64 per cent to 185 per cent,”
Debt anxiety is also on the rise and it’s easy to see why.
The National Australia Bank’s (NAB) consumer anxiety index showed Australians, in general, were more confident at the start of 2016 than they were at the beginning of 2015 in regards to cost of living and job security.
Although lower income earners were the most stressed about finances, the group in which anxiety increased between 2015 and 2016 was middle income earners ($50,000 – $100,000) and women in particular.
Another survey, conducted by Galaxy Research, commissioned by debt solutions company Fox Symes, found 67 per cent of Australians are worried about outstanding debts. The research showed 22 per cent of women have experienced panic attacks about the state of their finances. 43 per cent of women are also more losing sleep over the state of their finances, compared to 31 per cent of men.
“The link between debt, stress and anxiety is particularly strong,” a 2012 research report from the The Salvation Army states. “A UK study found that 89% of clients reported worrying about money problems ‘most of the time’ and 48% believed that debt problems had a ‘great’ impact on their health. These findings are mirrored in the Australian Bulk Debt Negotiation Project where 47% of clients represented experienced some form of ill health, including mental illness, and in research by Wesley Mission which confirms the significant impact of debt and financial stress on health and well being.”
Denial, stress, fear and panic, anger and depression are all associated with financial debt. People are struggling financially, their mental and physical health is struggling because of their debt anxiety, and they have nowhere to turn.
So how to best deal with debt?
Other than realising we’re not alone, (I hope that brought you as much comfort as it brought me) there are other ways we can work to reduce debt.
Like many forms of anxiety, a plan of action and action itself are often the best way to overcome the fear and stress associated with financial debt.
First up, financial counselling
I know, I know, I have never considered financial counselling either. Because that would mean actually admitting there is a problem and, as you can see, I don’t like facing my financial issues. But, bear with me, the results from this research are compelling.
Research found financial counselling leads to the following outcomes:
■ 68% of respondents felt their financial situation had improved after financial counselling.
■ 75% of respondents indicated improved skills in prioritising debt.
■ 74% of respondents indicated that they now felt better able to budget.
■ 69% now felt more positive about the future following financial counselling.
■ 63% felt their mental and emotional wellbeing had improved as a result of financial counselling.
■ 52% worried less about money problems.
It’s not sounding so terrifying after all.
Prioritise your debts
Work on one thing at a time. Facing your debt all at once is going to feel overwhelming and this is only going to exacerbate your anxiety.
There are two ways you can prioritise debt. Financially, it makes the most sense to pay off the debt with the highest interest rate first. This will save you money in the long run. Remember, credit cards have the most ridiculous rates of interest.
The alternative is not necessarily so financially smart, but it could do wonders in alleviating some of your anxiety. Try and pay off the smallest of your debts first. This will mean you can officially tick one debt off your to-do list, and the sense of accomplishment will help drive you forward to pay off the rest.
Transfer your credit
This is where (again, I know) a financial advisor will be able to help you. Refinancing your debt can be a good way to minimise the interest you are paying. However refinancing fees and hidden “only valid for 12 months” clauses can sometimes do more harm than good. That’s where the counsellor might come in.
Hide your card
There are so many methods for this. I have tried (and failed) at many. You might hide your cards, freeze them, cut them up, all in an effort to minimise their usage.
One thing’s for sure though, spending money has never been so easy. “Tap and go” means you can buy those groceries, or that coffee, or that round of drinks almost without realising. Withdrawing cash, as opposed to relying on Eftpos (which always turns into credit) is a good way to bring more awareness to your spending. Breaking a $50 doesn’t feel so “carefree” as “pay waving” that plastic.
For the anxiety and the stress and the sleepless nights, remember: You are not alone. Rest (a little) easier knowing we are all in the same boat, and there are ways to get out of debt. It is possible and you can do it. I’ll be right there along beside you.