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Can You Be Happy If You Have Credit Card Debt?

For anyone who has ever struggled with credit card debt, I’m sure you realize what a drain on your budget having to make monthly payments plus interest can cause. Since the average American household carries over $7000  in credit card debt, having those monthly payments is something many of us are familiar with. We all know that carrying too much credit card debt can wreak havoc on our credit scores, our ability to get good rates on home or auto loans, and could wipe us out if we are living paycheck to paycheck. My question today is about quality of life and if people can truly be happy when they have credit card debt.

What Is Happiness?

I think before we can answer that question, we have to define what makes us happy. Is it having new clothes? Is it standing in line to get the latest iPhone? Is it spending time with our family or going on a vacation?

Think about the last few times you felt really happy. What were you doing that made you feel that way?

Do Things Really Make You Happy?

If your answer included something monetary like clothes or a new car, I would encourage you to look deeper. Decide if these things really make you happy or if you are filling a void left by some other circumstance that you are not willing to change or are unable to control at the moment.

 Can You Be Really Happy When You Have Credit Card Debt?

I think you can have periods of happiness or even outright joy while having credit card debt. I gave birth to my daughter while owing Visa several thousand dollars, and that was still a joyous occasion.

 However, after the party is over and you’re lying in bed at night, unable to sleep, what thoughts go through your mind? For me, it was how can I work so hard and still owe all this money? What happens if I get sick and can’t work? How am I ever going to save for my daughter’s college eduction if all my money is going to the credit cards? Will my husband leave me if we have to stop spending money?

Rational or not, those were some of the thoughts that kept me up at night. As Catherine at Plunged in Debt said so eloquently last week,

“Being in debt totally redefines my outlook and purpose in life. I have a career, one that I enjoy, but when I go to work, my current mentality is to make money to pay off debt and provide for family. When I become debt free I will work for enjoyment and to buy things I want and need. Not hand over my paycheque to someone else.”

Other than spelling paycheck differently, this is exactly what I’m talking about.  Are you having similar wars with yourself when you should be getting your beauty rest?

 Changing Your Philosophy

Speaking for myself, I used to think that going shopping or trading my car every couple of years made me happy. In reality, I was using those things to make up for the fact that I was working too much and letting day care raise my child. We kept racking up debt, then I would have to work even harder to make the payments.

 It’s a hard truth when you find out that something you’ve worked you whole career to establish is what is dragging you down. I hate to be wrong, and I try not to have regrets, but until I was able to admit that my work situation had to change, there was no way I was going to be happy, no matter how much stuff I had. There was also no way to be really happy with all that credit card debt hanging over our heads.

 How Do You Find Happy?

Here is the hard part and why most people never really get out of debt. You have to change everything about your life that got you into debt. If that means you have to part ways with friends and family, that might be what it takes.  Luckily, Jim was on the same page and had many of the same fears that I did.  We decided to make a plan to be free from credit card debt.

It involved drastically cutting our spending and staying away from stores. We cut way back on groceries and eating out. Jim started cutting his own hair, and I actually went to Great Clips for $7.99 haircuts. We became big time library users, and we sold a ton of stuff.  While cutting your spending is a key to getting out of debt, we also realized that we needed more income if we were going to pay the credit cards off before reaching social security age.

As hard as it was, I added another day of work as a contractor for the Indian Health Service. It was my original plan to pay off the debt, sell my practice, and get another full time job. When the debt started to melt away, I realized that I could actually work smarter, not harder and cut my hours to part time. If we had never had the debt demon to slay, I’m not sure I would have ever seen the possibility of not working 40+ hours a week in an office.

 Happiness at Last

I don’t think you can really know how it feels to pay off a mountain of debt unless you’ve done it. I don’t recommend going hog wild with the credit cards just to see what it’s like, but if you are struggling with debt, realize that it is worth it when you make it to the end of the journey.

 You don’t have to worry about having more month at the end of your money. You don’t sweat the things that pop up like car repairs or emergency room visits because you can actually build a large emergency fund without credit card debt. Joy does not fade away when the day is over and it’s time to fall asleep.

I’m not saying that our life is all roses and unicorns, but whatever struggles we have now are a million times easier because we don’t have the weight of credit card debt on our backs anymore. I don’t think happiness is truly possible when clouded with debt.

Can you be happy carrying credit card debt?  What worries do you have in the middle of the night?

About Kim Parr

Kim Parr is a private practice optometrist, freelance writer, and personal financial blogger. You can follow her journey to 20/20 financial vision at Eyes on the Dollar.

48 comments

  1. I never had CC debt other than 0% balances to invest which were ok to sleep at night, although I took on a fair share of debt so there was always a “what if” in my head wondering if I lost my job and everything went wrong what would happen. My main fear at night is the dream where I bite my tongue falling face flat on the ground and a piece of it falls out. Subconcious telling me to stop talking?
    Pauline recently posted..Stock Picking: Buy the LeadersMy Profile

  2. I believe you can still have happiness regardless of your circumstances. But when in debt, you won’t have peace. That rain cloud will always hang over your head. And to a degree it will dampen (pun intended) your happiness.
    Taynia | The Fiscal Flamingo recently posted..A Method You’ve Never Heard Of That Will Catapult Your Journey To Debt FreedomMy Profile

    • That’s a great way to describe. You can enjoy day to day things that make you happy, but don’t have that peace in your mind and heart.

  3. Great looking photo over on the right hand side!

    I never really thought of debt in this way before – an obstacle that people can challenge themselves to overcome and work towards a solution. This is a really good outlook to have in general. Throughout life there are always any number of things (like debt) that can get you down if you let it. Finding happiness in the little things and in your accomplishments despite any negativity from other things going on is one of the most powerful controls you can have over your life and thoughts.
    MMD @ My Money Design recently posted..Your Residual Income Formula for Creating An Online BusinessMy Profile

    • I spent two hours at the hairdresser to get that look! I usually look lots more sloppy!

      Taking control of my debt is one of the most empowering things I’ve ever done.

  4. I think it will obviously help your happiness level if you are out of debt, but at the same time it really depends what your definition of happiness is (as you said). I think you can absolutely be happy and be in credit card debt, though if you worry a lot (like me!) you will sleep easier and be more relaxed day in and day out if you get out of credit card debt.
    DC @ Young Adult Money recently posted..Thinking about Going Back to School? 5 Things to ConsiderMy Profile

    • I think it catches up to even the most care free people. It’s like smoking two packs a day. You can only do it for so long until you start to have some problems.

  5. I think that you first have to become “happy” with the process of getting out of credit card debt. That’s the only way it will be sustainable, in the long run. Kind of like dieting, the roller coaster ride is not a happy one to be on. Once you find out how to be satisfied with a healthy diet you’ll be MUCH better off. Good post!
    FI Pilgrim recently posted..Are DIY Projects Worth The Time?My Profile

    • I think you have to replace the thrill of buying stuff with the thrill of saving and paying off debt. It is a life change, but one that can be mastered with the right attitude and motivation.

  6. I’m so grateful not to have ever had to deal with credit card debt. I still stress about money though. I’m currently unemployed and my pay outs from unemployment are $250 a week, so watching my savings dwindle is pretty depressing.
    Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life recently posted..Is Groupon a Good Deal?My Profile

  7. I don’t think I could be happy at this point in my life if I still had credit card debt. Been there, done that. Never doing it again =/
    Holly@ClubThrifty recently posted..Is Making Money Blogging Wrong?My Profile

    • If it meant my family’s health or something crazy like that, I’d go back into debt, but I don’t ever see another reason to not pay off the cards every month. Plus I get to rack up all the points now.

  8. We don’t have much credit card debit – I think $2500, most of our debt is student loans and my vehicle. Nonetheless, same concept. I imagine that the happiness we’ll feel being debt FREE will completely outweigh any moment of happiness that buying something on a credit card could ever offer.
    Jaclyn recently posted..Would You Go Into Debt For Your Happiness?My Profile

  9. Great question Kim! I think you can have moments of happiness, but not peace when dealing with considerable credit card debt. I know that I had times when I’d be happy while in debt, but that was far and few between – with the overarching feeling of being unhappy with the circumstance and wanting to get it killed.

    • It’s amazing how you can transfer the happy feelings you associated with buying stuff to paying off the debt. That’s what will truly make you enjoy all the other happy things in your life even more.

  10. I think like you said you can have a lot of fleeting moments of happiness, but it does feel like the proverbial “monkey on your back.” I think it’s a subtle thing that can weigh heavily on you.
    Budget and the Beach recently posted..Seattle/Portland HighlightsMy Profile

  11. I’ve never had credit card debt, but I’m sure I would spend all of my time thinking about it if we did!
    Michelle recently posted..Self-Employment and $5,382 in Extra IncomeMy Profile

  12. You nailed it on the head for me. I had “in the moment” moments that were joyous when I was in CC debt but it was the quiet and alone times that the thoughts would creep back into my head and cause major anxiety. So glad those days are behind me.
    Kyle | Rather-Be-Shopping.com recently posted..14 Celebs Who Clip Coupons…Who Knew?My Profile

  13. Thanks so much for the mention Kim. Being in any form of debt sucks,especially credit card debt!
    Catherine recently posted..How We Budget and I Want To Know What Works For You!My Profile

  14. As you said, I believe you can have periods of happiness while in debt but you won’t have peace of mind. Debt is a burden that weighs you down, even if you don’t see it yet. You may believe you are buying happiness with all the things you are buying, but it’s really hard to feel good after your initial joy over your vacation or new outfit wears off and all you have is more debt. For me happiness is being able to use my money on what matters most without creating debt. Yes, that means we have to save but I also don’t look around my home or in my closet or my driveway and see regret or debt.
    Shannon @ The Heavy Purse recently posted..How To Build a Strong Financial Foundation for Your FamilyMy Profile

    • Just seeing your family vacation pictures and hearing stories of how financially smart your daughters are becoming has to be the definition of happiness.

  15. I avoided all consumer debt my entire life. I avoided it because I never could justify the interest rates credit card companies charge consumers. By avoiding debt and the associated interest, I managed to accumulate savings and investments that provided financial freedom.
    krantcents recently posted..What Have You Accomplished this Week/Month/Year?My Profile

  16. Thankfully I’ve never had any credit card debt (only student loan debt). I know when I had student loan debt I was still happy, but it did stress me out a lot knowing that I owed so much money.
    KK @ Student Debt Survivor recently posted..Please Seat Us in the Happy Hour SectionMy Profile

  17. Though, I can be happy if I have credit card debt, but there is a guilt feeling. I’m always worry if i have debt and that is why I pay off my credit card balance every month.

    Without card debt helps you to sleep at night worry free.
    My Wealth Desire recently posted..BLOG | My Wealth DesireMy Profile

  18. I think it’s possible to be truly happy in almost any situation, but I think you’re spot on about needing to understand what it is that truly makes you happy and oftentimes debt is getting in the way of those things. Paying off debt, building an emergency fund and saving for retirement are things that aren’t always fun in the moment, but they can significantly reduce stress and increase your ability to do the things you truly enjoy.
    Matt Becker recently posted..Buying a Car: How to Negotiate With the DealersMy Profile

  19. After I graduated from college, I got myself into a lot of credit card debt. I was depressed that I couldn’t find the job I wanted and my life wasn’t working out as I had planned. I found that buying things made me happy. It took some time though for me to realize that the happiness all of the new stuff was bringing me was short lived and I had to keep buying more and more stuff to get that same level of satisfaction.

    Getting out of debt and increasing my assets so that I can be financially independent are what makes me happiest.
    Jon @ MoneySmartGuides recently posted..“Mine’s Broken!” Fixing Your Credit ScoreMy Profile

  20. the answer of course, is an emphatic YES.. of course you can be happy.. in the grand scheme of things, money should be far below things like family, love, and health on the happiness scale..

    that said, it was quite a joyous day in the SDR household when we paid off that last chunk of debt!
    jefferson @SeeDebtRun recently posted..How to Save Money in Las VegasMy Profile

  21. That’s interesting that debt eventually helped you see you could spend less than 40+ hrs in an office. In a way, has debt “freed” you in a certain regard?
    Todd @ Fearless Dollar recently posted..Getting Courage To Look Ahead and Take Action for Your RetirementMy Profile

    • Debt did not free me, but paying off over $30K in less that two years did. I used to think I’d owe money until the day I died, but now I know I can do anything. Really most possibilities are limited based on our own minds and self inflicted limitations. No, I can’t be an Olympic athlete at this point, but I can work less, pay off my debts, and have a great life in financial independence. I would never have realized that without having to get out of the cycle of debt.

  22. This is an interesting question Kim! From the age of 18 up until literally 11 days ago I always had credit card debt. I no longer have credit card debt but still have the massive student loan to pay off. To be honest, I think I have a very happy life and even though the debt worry is always there, I don’t think it makes my life better or worse? Maybe once I get out off ALL debt I will feel different! :)
    Girl Meets Debt recently posted..99 Days Left in 2013 to Achieve My Goals!My Profile

    • I never knew how unhappy debt made me because that was all I knew. I always felt lucky and that I should be thankful for all I had, and even thought I was happy a lot of the time, but it doesn’t compare to now. When our house if paid off, I think I might just start floating around with wings on my feet.

  23. For me, if I had credit card debt I know it would affect my happiness level. Thankfully I’ve always been able to pay off my credit cards and I always tell people it’s the first debt you should try to pay off because it usually costs you the most money.
    Mo’ Money Mo’ Houses recently posted..Top Things to Do in QuebecMy Profile

  24. We don’t use credit cards, so I never had debt related to them. I did have car payments for 4 years (and it wasn’t easy). I was very happy (we traveled quite a lot and had a great time), but I also struggled a lot to pay and finally get to be debt free.

    I don’t think having credit card debt can make you unhappy (unless you really struggle with the payments), but being debt free has surely helped me enjoy life more. I am more relaxed now that we can also save money than when I was when money was pretty tight.
    dojo recently posted..Top Things to Do in IstanbulMy Profile

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