Can You Be in Debt and Happy?

by Katy on July 19, 2010 · 22 comments

I consider myself to be a happy person. I find pleasure in my work, family and home life. I have hobbies and activities that are satisfying, and enough friends to keep loneliness at bay.


However, I also have some debt, a consistently messy house and a few items on my to-do list that never float to the top.

Can a person be happy without being 100% on top of the details of her life?

I love Dave Ramsey, and find his writing to be both entertaining and inspirational. It’s filled with reader stories about overcoming debt and general adversity. However, there’s never anyone whose story reads “I was in debt, but happy enough. We got out of debt and continued to be happy.” It’s not exactly a gripping story to skyrocket a book up the bestseller list.

We have some credit debt that is related to our money pit of a house. It’s recently been as high as $16,000, but is currently at $3000+. I throw any and all extra money at The Visa Dudes, and know that it should be gone by mid Autumn. Am I in utter and abject misery because of this debt? No way! I’m not proud about it, but I don’t let it affect how I feel about my life. We still find fun and cheap family activities, (Star Trek in the Park anyone?) and if there’s any deprivation in our lives, I can’t think of what that might be.

I am not employing the laser focus that Dave Ramsey followers are instructed to master. My younger son gets twice weekly private Japanese tutoring, martial arts classes and just finished a week long soccer camp. My older son also did the soccer camp and is now taking a lifeguarding class. I just bought a refurbished MacBook to replace my no-longer-fixable 2005 iBook, and I did some recreational Goodwill shopping yesterday. (Bought a glass juice container, a swimsuit for my older son, a T-shirt for my younger son and a fabric lined basket. The swimsuit was the only purchase that could be categorized as an actual “need.”)

I do continue to line dry my clothing, pack work lunches, steer clear of the first run theaters and even played host family to the British soccer coaches who came to town to teach in those camps. (Which gave us a sizable discount.)

Of course, my happiness despite debt would be a different story if I weren’t gainfully employed, were unable to make the monthly Visa payments or on the verge of having our electricity/phone service/car insurance cut off. I know that my debt is soon to be distant memory.

Life is never going to be 100% perfect, but I’m not going to let that rain on my parade.

Do you feel like your happiness is completely dependent on your financial status? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

psmflowerlady/Tammy July 19, 2010 at 9:38 am

My happiness is NOT contingent on my level of debt or lack thereof. However, that being said, with the economy being what it is, I have had a higher than (my) average level of niggling worry with that level of debt hanging over me. Enough so that I have gotten MORE focused – but not LASER focused on paying it down. And pay it down I have been. Still have a ways to go. More importantly to me though is that I haven’t increased my debt – even though last year I took a 7.5% pay cut @ work. My goal has been to live well on what I make and NOT go into debt to continue my lifestyle and yes – to get out of credit card debt – not because I’m unhappy, but cause it’s the grown-up thing to do. For about 5 minutes I do expect to be happier when I pay off the 29.9% interest credit card – but then – really my life is not about just money.


Jeanine July 20, 2010 at 1:05 pm

I’m sorry….was that a typo that should have read 9.9%?

I have heard of such an interest rate as 30%, but never encountered anyone who owned up to actually having one.

Bravo for you for making headway on that and NOT allowing it to hold you from a desirable lifestyle.


Alison July 19, 2010 at 9:46 am

I have experienced low self-esteem that was prompted in part by my salary drying up in 2009 (I’m self-employed). That wasn’t the only factor for my low self-esteem, but it did have an impact. At the same time and even though I had less income coming in, I was happy to have more time to spend with my kids.


Elizabeth L. July 19, 2010 at 10:06 am

My happiness is not dependent on my financial status. I currently have no debt, but to stay that way, I live at home with my parents. I’m saving up enough so that when I find an apartment, I have enough money to pay my rent and my utilities without having to put them on my credit card or go into debt trying to pay for everything else.

As difficult as it is to live with my parents, I’m still happy. I think I would be happy even if I had some debt. If I was seriously struggling, I don’t thing I would be very happy, but that would be because I would be concerned with things like food and shelter. Big worries that would seriously interfere with my ability to be happy.

By staying positive and upbeat about my current living situation, means that by the time I can afford a place of my own, I will be even that much happier.


NMPatricia July 19, 2010 at 10:16 am

With apologies to other readers – a comment a bit off topic. I love hearing about your kids and what you do for them. Takes me back…

Can I be happy in debt? We really don’t have any, but I struggle to not overdo on expenditures that could run that VISA card right up. I am working on being happy with less. It is not the debt that makes me happy or unhappy. It is my relationship to wanting to buy “things” and “stuff”. Hobbies can be expensive for me. Just today I was in Michaels looking for ribbon to finish up a skirt I am making. I nearly walked out of their with some fat quarters (fabric) which was way discounted. Did I need it? No and ended up putting it back. Because I had just bought a bunch of material. Need to use that which I have. Thank goodness the fabric doesn’t go “bad” like food!


Annie Jones July 19, 2010 at 10:16 am

We currently have $2500 in non-mortgage debt (our van) which will soon be paid off. It will be nice to have it paid, but getting there is just icing on the cake; it won’t really increase our happiness level a great deal. My husband and I are generally happy people and are content with our lives. When he was laid off for a few months at the beginning of the year, we were just as happy. Yes, we were concerned about when work would start up again, but we weren’t unhappy. We enjoyed every minute of his time off.

That said, carrying a HUGE load of debt would be a different thing entirely. It wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it would be stressful to the point that it would surely affect our day to day happiness.


WilliamB July 19, 2010 at 11:19 am

My happiness level is not connected to my debt level … but my debt level is low. And I will *never* have all my chores and tasks done. I can always think of something else I can work on.

Also? I think that raising kids well and with a broad range of experiences is worth going into debt for/getting out of debt more slowly (assuming one isn’t carrying $50K debt or something).


Molly On Money July 19, 2010 at 2:42 pm

My happiness is not connected to my level of debt. What I do find is as I’m getting rid of my debt I no longer (can) use the excuse of being in debt for my unhappiness (and stress). It’s making me clear my debt and get ultra clear on what makes me happy.
I started reading ‘Your Money or Your Life’ last week based on your post last week. It’s been great at getting me to REALLY reflect on what money is to me and what my spending habits are.


My Roman Apartment July 19, 2010 at 3:32 pm

People who say, “Money can’t buy happiness” have never been really poor.

I’m a generally happy person, but I definitely have less stress (which for me, is different than unhappiness) when I’ve got money in the bank.



Jennifer July 19, 2010 at 5:04 pm

Well, I don’t mind our mortgage at all. But our van loan? It is making things pretty tough around here because of the large payment and us trying to pay extra each month. this leads to much stress, limiting our happiness. I think it depends on the situation really.


HeatherS July 19, 2010 at 5:43 pm

We spent 4 years working on paying off $40K in debt (credit card, car and medical debt) and at times were more “gazelle intense” than others. We still took a couple of very inexpensive vacations – weekend trips with the kids mostly and still ate out once in a while. We also had a baby (paid for with cash) during this time and paid for other medical bills that came up so that is why it took 4 years. We payed the final payment last November.

Are we happier now? I would have to say yes. Mostly because the stress level is so much lower now. It is such a relief when my husband calls and says the car needs $500 worth of work and I can say “do it” and not stress or cry about it because I know we have the cash in the bank to cover it.

After working on it for four years, it actually took several months for it to sink in that we were done. I expected to be jumping up and down happy when I made the final payment on our debt but it felt more like a huge relief .


Jen July 19, 2010 at 5:57 pm

I can see how being intense and getting things paid off quickly could be really motivating. Being in a lot of debt can be extremely stressful. There is a big difference between people who are generally doing fine but have a few thousand on credit cards and people who are not able to make their monthly bills and have creditors calling. I think the latter group are the ones more likely to get excited about the Dave Ramsey approach.


Benjamin Bankruptcy July 19, 2010 at 7:36 pm

I wouldn’t say my happiness is dependent but my stress levels are. The more incontrol of my finances I am the less financial stress I feel.


Deb July 19, 2010 at 9:10 pm

I’m with Benjamin, debt does effect my stress level.

2 years ago we were fixing up a house to move into (moving 1 hr from Portland), and fixing up our old house to rent. We thought we’d pay 2 mortgages ofr 6 months. Try 15 months. Everything that could go wrong did. Then the economy seriously tanked, hubby’s biz dried up, the finances began to get scary. It was bad – my mental health & then physical health truly felt the strain.

2 years later, that $40k debt is paid off, 3 months emergency fund is safe, hubby is working solidly, Roth IRAs are maxed, life is good. I look back and realize: Bad things happen, there’s no avoiding them. People get sick, you lose loved ones, you lose pets, you lose jobs, emergencies happen. BUT – you can CHOOSE to still be happy. You can choose to still pay attention to THIS moment, live in it just for now, and enjoy the blessings that you do have. Sometimes it really is just a choice.

I like Ramsey’s message, but it can be too laser like for me. I can live with very modest debt, but I’d be miserable without some experiences that make life worth living. An occasional concert, an occasional dessert out, taking our little second hand camper to the beach for a long weekend and some clam digging. These little things can delay the debt snowball a bit – but it’s a small price to pay for a smiling, happy heart.


Kristen@TheFrugalGirl July 20, 2010 at 2:37 am

I think the ability to be happy and in debt greatly depends on how bad the debt is. In a case like yours, I can totally see why the debt isn’t bothering you that much. But in a case where a family is sinking deeper and deeper into debt each month and can’t make ends meet, I think it’d be pretty hard to be happy.


Kristin July 20, 2010 at 6:42 am

I think everyone’s happiness is affected by their debt. My family (DH and 2 kids under 6) have no debt other then a very affordable house and I am happy about that. If I had large amounts of debt, living paycheck to paycheck and couldn’t treat my family to an ice cream treat on a whim I know it would affect my happiness. Who wants to spend their days/nights worrying about how to keep the lights on, feed your kids and be able to treat them once in awhile. I am a firm believer in living well below your means, only buying something when you can pay cash for it and really evaluating if you need or want your purchase. Knowing there is money left in the bank after all the bills are paid gives everyone a sense of relief and reduces stress which undoubtedly does lead to happier people.


Tracy Balazy July 20, 2010 at 11:33 am

My husband and I are 43 with five pets and no children. We’ve lived in our metro Detroit home for four years and have 12 years left on our mortgage. Both of our cars are paid off and we carry no credit card debt from month to month.

Our biggest non-food expenditure is for home improvement. Chris has done all the work himself on our 1941 two-bedroom Cape Cod, from rewiring electrical stuff to building a kitchen addition and a garage. Our largest expense after that is what he spends to play on three or four hockey leagues at a time, followed by our pet food and veterinary costs.

As a member of The Compact, we buy all of our non-consumables (clothes, household goods, etc.) used. We rent movies from the library at no cost, and all the books we read are from the library or garage sales/thrift stores. Our only subscription is to XM Radio, and we have basic cable and cable access to the Internet. We eat out on occasion, but usually at our favorite Mexican restaurant, where each dinner is around $6, or at the Eagle Tavern at Greenfield Village (at The Henry Ford, the historical attraction two blocks from our house, where we have a membership), where you get a great meal and a lot of extras for what you pay.

We’re holding off on traveling at the moment, because my husband’s heating and cooling job requires that he be available all summer.

Most of our friends drive a new car every two years, but that just doesn’t appeal to me. My 2000 Saturn and his 2003 Ford F-150 are fine by us. Neither do we crave iPhones, Blackberries, or video game systems. We carry basic cell phones and have no land line.

I was laid off in December from my copy editing job for the company that publishes Detroit’s two daily newspapers, but I feel no stress about our financial future. I think we live very comfortably — we can buy all the types of food we like, which to me is the main indicator that we’re doing OK — and we never need to budget.

I list all this because I wonder what other people in our age range and our circumstances are spending their money on? As I said, I do feel we’re on a different plane of thought than our friends when it comes to spending on consumer goods. And I feel we’ve earned our comfort, as neither of us ever went crazy with spending on things that in the long run we really don’t need.


chppie July 23, 2010 at 11:14 am

Thanks for your input. It gave me a good perspective on the different expenses of midlife with kids vs. midlife without kids. We’re in our early 50s and have two young kids. We have debt and are working to live within our means. My husband gave up his hockey time in order to have money for the girls’ activities and also to have more time with us (hockey wasn’t exactly local). It does seem that what we all have in common is paying rent/paying off a mortgage and cars and past debt as our challenges. We also seem to value the library and minimal TV. But clearly we all face diffent challenges with having a number of people engaged in non-free activities. I realize that in some cases there are free alternatives but if you or your child is building a specific skill sometimes you just need to pay for lessons (we pay for violin and karate and will add an activity for youngest daughter this year).

I agree with everyone’s comments that being unstressed is not the same as being happy but it does seem that stress can impinge on happiness. I guess keeping the big picture in mind helps. I’m always encouraged to hear how everyone’s doing since we all face a different set of circumstances.


Joanna @ Starving Student Survivor July 20, 2010 at 11:45 am

If debt determines happiness, then I must be pretty miserable, because my husband is actively taking student loans to pay for school, and will be for a while yet. I agree that happiness comes more from feeling in control of your financial situation than from net worth alone.

Dave Ramsey is entertaining and inspiring, as you said, but I’m not sure that all his ideas are perfect. More on the topic here:


Jeanine July 20, 2010 at 1:17 pm

I don’t have any debt NOW, house is paid for, both cars paid for. I am extremely….grateful. Happy….meh. It takes much more for me to be happy or sad than money.

I can say, 1 year ago when I lost my job, it was a completely different story. We were on the verge of being evicted, my husband took ill, and we lost medical benefits. I was stressed out and broke. I think the two intuitively (that is so misspelled) connected.


Anne Weber-Falk July 22, 2010 at 12:25 pm

This is an interesting topic that has been discussed often lately with our friends and family.

For many years we were in heavy debt. For the most part it was from frivolous and foolish use of finances, but we were happy. We laughed and we played and we loved. Then it came time to find a way to pay the bills. Then we cried, we couldn’t breathe, we were afraid and we were sad. Sometimes we felt in a panic. For that time, until we figured out how to take from Peter to pay Paul we were not happy. After Paul was paid then we relaxed and were happy again. We did not think about Peter much. Every month was the same. Some months were better than others though and our happy times were not always as happy as we wished them to be.
Now, after several years of learning and budgeting we have paid both Peter and Paul and are debt free. And we are happy. We laugh, we play, we love. That horrible feeling of dread at the end of the month is gone. We don’t have to worry about Peter or Paul anymore. The big difference is our happy feels so much better now.


Slowish Food July 23, 2010 at 3:28 am

This is an in treating topic. I’ve never carried credit card debt, and my husband and I have always paid off car loans early and overpay our mortgage; the plan is for that to be paid off in a few years and we’ll be completely debt free. That said, my brother, who worked incredibly diligently with his wife to pay off their first house, told me that the important thing is not to lose perspective. So if life means you can’t make an extra payment one month, you roll with it. Dave Ramsey’s philosophy on debt mirrors mine, but I think it’s easy when you have his gazelle-like focus, to lose perspective.


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