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Navigating the stress of emotional debt

David Brancaccio and Natalie White Apr 16, 2024
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"With the psyche of debt and how much debt impacted every facet of my life, some of that really did bleed into me," said author Michael Arceneaux. Boris Zhitkov/Getty Images

Navigating the stress of emotional debt

David Brancaccio and Natalie White Apr 16, 2024
Heard on:
"With the psyche of debt and how much debt impacted every facet of my life, some of that really did bleed into me," said author Michael Arceneaux. Boris Zhitkov/Getty Images
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Debt can cast a lingering shadow over one’s life long after making the final payment. It can stir up feelings of anxiety and leave one feeling trapped in a cycle of financial insecurity

Despite the emotional burden that often comes with debt, many Americans internalize their struggles. According to recent research, about 62% of Americans stay away from conversations around money. (Boy, do we have a podcast recommendation for them!) The complex emotions of guilt and shame for taking on debt may also make it hard for somebody to open up about their financial situation.

Yet Michael Arceneaux, author of the new book “I Finally Bought Some Jordans” is opening up about his personal journey with private student loan debt. His collection of essays partially explores the psychology of debt and how it continues to shape his life. 

“Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio spoke to Arceneaux about making the private public and the importance of shedding the emotional debt that so many people carry with them. 

David Brancaccio: Part of this is about emotional debt. But let’s start with the money debt. You don’t come from money, and you ended up with student loan debt?

Michael Arceneaux: I had private student loan debt, which is a very particular type of debt that impacts a lot of Americans, but particularly Black college graduates. I had a six-figure debt that essentially required me to pay you close to anywhere from $800 to $1,200 a month for a little over a decade.

Brancaccio: But you paid it off. In theory, knock yourself out now. But what, you find that it still hangs on like some sort of haunting ghost?

Arceneaux: It’s hard to really escape it. What I tried to write about in the new book is finding ways to kind of remove more of that shame that I carried with me for a long time. To really think about ways in which I can treat myself but not really buy into materialism or, again, shame. 

Brancaccio: So, if a man wants to buy a pair of Jordans to put a stylish bounce in their step and if he has enough money, he should buy a pair of Jordans. Yet there’s part of you saying don’t do it. Where does that voice come from?

Arceneaux: Truth be told, particularly for a lot of poor Black working-class people, but particularly Black people, they’ve always been admonished since the ’90s. Like, if you don’t have enough, you don’t deserve nice things in a way other people do. 

But with the psyche of debt and how much debt impacted every facet of my life, some of that really did bleed into me. So, it became this fear like I can’t treat myself. I have to worry about the next bill or the next crash or the next whatever is going to happen. 

Finally, I just gave myself a reprieve. You know I’m not exactly where I want to be, but I’ve done all right by myself. So, me getting those Js was a nice way of saying, “You know, like, you’re doing OK.” So, I encourage other people to do the same.

Brancaccio: On this subject of the industry of psychological counseling, you’ve noted that that industry is itself set up to be exclusionary.

Arceneaux: I think generally speaking, Americans have difficulty going to that. By design, it’s a privilege that a lot of people can’t afford to access and therapy itself, you have to pay for that. Usually, it’s not cheap. 

A lot of people who would have benefited from the most just don’t have access to it. So, I don’t want to punish people for not turning to that route. People are doing the best with what tools they have. Give them more tools, if you want more people to go to therapy. Pay for my therapy. (I’m kidding.)

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