Carrying student loan debt can make you question your life choices, stay in more often on Friday nights and promote higher levels of ice cream consumption. And now there’s data to prove it.
A Gallup survey of 29,560 Americans who graduated with a bachelor’s degree between 1990 and 2014 found that college graduates who carry the highest student loan debt feel the worst about their overall quality of life, not just about low bank account balances.
To determine how individuals are or are not thriving post-graduation, Gallup partnered with Purdue University and Lumina Foundation to poll respondents using their Healthways Well-Being Index, which encompasses five areas of overall well-being: purpose, social, financial, community and physical.
Survey responses were categorized based on how much debt the respondents carried — none, less than $25,000, $25,000-$50,000 or more than $50,000 and a trend became clear: the more debt you have the worse you rate your overall well-being.
Not surprised? Me either. Debt has been connected to high stress levels and other health issues for years now and as the cost of higher education continues to rise, it makes sense that increased stress levels will follow.
However intuitive the findings may seem, this survey is one of the first I’ve seen that supports similar feelings I’ve experienced as I start to tackle my student loan balance. Whether it’s been regretting the extra semester I took to finish college or eating sour candy to “make myself feel better,” I’ve felt the effects of student loan debt in more ways than one.
If you are also managing student loan debt– regardless of whether you are $100,000 or $25,000 in the hole — here’s some advice based on four of the five Gallup wellness categories.
Purpose: Keep working toward your goals
When comparing your debt to your four (or more) years of college, it’s all too easy to question whether it was worth it. I stand by my college education. I’m happy with where it’s led me, but when I start thinking long-term, I do worry a bit. I don’t want student loan debt to become more important than enjoying work, everyday life and accomplishing goals.
And it shouldn’t. Your debt might temporarily slow you down, but don’t lose sight of what you went to school for in the first place. Think of it this way: If you settle for a completely different career that you don’t love but one that will help you pay your debts faster, what was the point of the debt in the first place? Make your debt worth it.
Social: Maintain supportive relationships
This is the one category of the survey that didn’t show a strong correlation between the amount of debt and well-being and I’m glad. If you are struggling with student loan debt, it’s even more important to have a strong and supportive social circle to help you offset negative feelings — about money or otherwise.
I’ve found that it helps to talk about student loan debt with friends who can relate, such as some of my former classmates. We’re all in the same boat, and it really helps to know we’re not alone.
Financial: Make a plan to reduce stress and increase security
This area of the survey showed the sharpest decline in positive responses as the level of reported student loan debt increased. In short, more debt means feeling more financially vulnerable.
The best thing you can do to combat financial worries is to make a plan. Sure, it would be great to be able to pay off your debt immediately and move on, but that’s not likely unless you win the lottery or receive a huge inheritance. A structured plan will give you a way to measure your debt-elimination progress and budget accordingly.
I may have only just started to pay back my student loan debt, but having a repayment and budgeting plan has definitely reduced debt stress. It makes the overwhelming concept of owing thousands of dollars seem much more manageable.
Physical: Take care of yourself in order to take care of debt
Stress can easily lead to overeating or sleepless nights, which can result in sleep deprivation and weight gain, neither of which will make you feel better about anything.
Case in point: When I made my first student loan payment I got a large milkshake for dinner, which resulted in a stomachache and did not relieve the emotional weight I was feeling that evening. Instead of wallowing, worrying and self-indulging, focus on what you can control. You might not be able to eliminate your student loan debt overnight, but you can go for a run, cook a healthy dinner and go to bed before midnight. You’ll look and function better each day and also feel more in control of your life.