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Is It Even Possible to Manage Debt Anxiety?

I used to stay up at night, crying out of fear, anger, worry, grief, shame and sadness. As the tears hit the pillow, I’d curse myself.

How could we have been so stupid?

You see, my husband and I had unknowingly borrowed student loans up to our necks, to the tune of $154,000. It was easy to borrow and even easier to cast a blind eye to how quickly the loans were growing while we were in college. We graduated with a baby, a pile of bills and no income.

As a result, I would claw through the couch cushions, in the laundry, through our tiny Honda Fit, looking for loose change to beef up our paltry grocery budget. Every dollar makes a difference when your monthly student loan bill tops $1,300.  David’s words resonated with us when he wrote Psalm 69:

“Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in the miry depths, where there is no foothold. I have come into the deep waters; the floods engulf me. I am worn out calling for help; my throat is parched. My eyes fail, looking for my God. Those who hate me without reason outnumber the hairs of my head; many are my enemies without cause, those who seek to destroy me. I am forced to restore what I did not steal.” 

The floods engulfed us. We felt like we were sinking and we were not unique. Anxiety and mental illness are common among borrowers. In fact, according to a study conducted by Student Loan Planner, 1 in 15 contemplates suicide as a result of that anxiety. One in fifteen. As the student loan burden increases, so too does the likelihood that a borrower considers ending their life.

How heartbreaking and understandable.

Any time one of our children would get sick, it would throw us into a panic. Watching your child suffer from an illness is difficult enough by itself. However, when you live on the financial edge, the stress of extra bills from daycare, an additional sitter, prescriptions and the doctor can undo you. Plus, I was nervous that my employer would tire of what I felt were endless requests for leave to care for my family, so I was petrified that my job was in danger. That meant compounded on top of all the already existing stress, we might not even get a full paycheck. In times like these, it was easy to fight at home. Our marriage became brittle.

Looking back, each bump in the road felt like an elephant-sized emergency. Any unplanned expense was an earth-shaking, blood-freezing, marriage-testing emergency because we had no margin in our lives. I remember crying over the utility bill. “Why can’t you remember to turn out the lights?”

But a life of anxiety from debt is not what God calls us to. Jesus said he came to give life, and give it to the full. 2 Timothy 1:7 helped us realize what we felt was not from Christ: For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity but of power, love and self-discipline.” Our debt was barely letting us exist, much less letting us live.

In 2 Kings, there is a story of a widow whose little boys were going to be carted away as slaves because that mother couldn’t pay off her debt. God did a financial miracle for her, enabling her to not only pay off everything she owed but to care for her kids and live on afterward.

We clung to those scriptures, believing that if God didn’t give us this spirit of fear, and if God could do a miracle for the widow, he could do a financial miracle in our lives, too. God blessed our decision and enabled us to work and pay off a total of $194,079.95. For six years of hard work, Hebrews 11:12 became my mantra: “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”

Paying off debt is painful, but it is not impossible. The method that worked for us was to make minimum payments on each loan except for the smallest one, and to focus all our extra funds there. Our anxiety would peak whenever we looked at our total mountain of debt, so we soon discovered the need to keep blinders on and focus on only what was in our control. That helped us stay motivated when looking at our 28 individual loans.

We paid off the last penny right at one year ago, and the difference of a life of anxiety, shame and stress from debt is hard to describe.

I’ll try anyway.

It’s like fresh cool air filling your lungs after holding your breath for way, way too long.

It’s like the soft green buds of spring after six years of winter.

It’s like a soft, clean carpet on tired, achy feet.

We can spend, we can save and we can give without fear, shame, anxiety, or guilt. When the truck needed replacement parts, we didn’t go without spending money or become a one-car family as a result, for the first time in our married life. Any time someone held a fundraiser in 2020, we donated.

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Friends have started ministries, planted churches and gone to the mission field abroad. We have the honor of being a financial part of those callings.

And it’s been a long time since we’ve had to claw through the couch cushions, in the laundry and under the car seats for quarters.

There are 42 million Americans with student loans today, shouldering a staggering 1.71 trillion dollars. If you’re one and don’t know how to begin tackling your debt, start with the belief that you can do it. To the borrower who has long left college and yet the loans persist, take heart! Like the New Testament writer Paul encourages, you can run your race to completion.

Here’s how we got rid of the anxiety of student loans: We pressed into getting rid of them completely.

The 2 Kings widow I mentioned earlier comes to Elisha knowing her sons would be enslaved if she didn’t do something. She was in a panic. When he asked her how can he help, and what does she have, she responds, “I have nothing! Nothing but a small jar of olive oil.”

When we’re facing the seemingly-unscalable mountain of debt, it’s easy to think we too have nothing. Elisha tells the widow to take that one thing she has and to ask her friends and neighbors for their empty jars. He then instructs her to pour the oil out of her jar into each of the empty ones. The oil is multiplied until not a single empty jar remains! The scripture tells us she pays off her debts and ends up with enough money for her family to live on afterward. 

God used what little thing she had and multiplied it to do a financial miracle. When we first looked at our mountain of bills, it was easy to see what we didn’t have: we had no income, no savings and no idea how we would get out.

But we had skills, time and willingness. We asked God to use those things, and through them, he worked a miracle.

Student loan anxiety does not have to burden you forever. No matter where you are, God can rescue you and work a financial miracle through you. Is it hard work? Absolutely. But the freedom is worth it.

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