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It's no secret that tens of millions of Americans are burdened with student loan debt — and will be for years to come.
But what's not talked about as much is the emotional weight these graduates also carry.
According to a survey of readers from financial coaching company Student Loan Planner, mental health and student loan debt are inextricably linked. Below are just three key findings that this specific study found:
- "53% of high debt student loan borrowers have experienced depression because of their debt."
- "Nine in 10 borrowers experienced significant anxiety due to their loan burden."
- "One in 15 student loan borrowers surveyed have considered suicide due to their student loans."
To dig a bit deeper, CNBC Select spoke to Melanie Lockert, founder of Mental Health & Wealth, about her experience struggling with student loan debt, what advice she has to offer and how savings can help you.
After attending California State University, Long Beach, as an undergraduate and New York University as a master's student, Lockert walked away with two degrees and $81,000 in student loan debt.
She ended up paying it all off in nine years through a lot of side hustles and a career freelancing, but admits the journey took a toll on her mental health — especially because she didn't walk out of graduation with a full-time job.
"I had this whole trajectory," Lockert tells CNBC Select. "I got into my dream school, NYU, then to be making $10-12 an hour and not working in your field, it felt so depressing and I felt so much shame for going to a fancy private school. All of 2012, I was severely depressed and anxious."
She recalls wondering how she was going to get out of debt and if she would ever make enough money to pay it off. "I was stuck in this spiral, this circular problem of regretting my decisions, so I began side hustling a lot," Lockert says.
To hold herself accountable at the time, she decided to document her debt payoff in a blog titled, "Dear Debt," which she later made into a book. She would write about the various side hustles she found on TaskRabbit and Craigslist and everything she was doing in between to make extra cash to pay toward her loans.
But in the midst of her blogging, Lockert realized no one was writing about the emotional aspect of it all, so she decided to talk about the ups and downs she was experiencing as well that led her to find counseling at a low-cost college.
"It just really affected me," she says. "I wrote about those experiences and it was interesting. As soon as I wrote about it, people started contacting me. I've received hundreds of emails over the years. I thought I was alone, then out of the woodwork all these people came."
For Lockert, and many of those she heard from, the debt load began to hold her back and she felt she could do nothing until she got completely rid of it.
"I just felt completely possessed by it, I wanted it to be gone," she says of her debt. "This problem is much bigger than we give it credit; it's something that we really need to talk about."
Though Lockert was working and side hustling almost seven days a week just to get by and pay off her loans, she advises others that getting out of debt is not worth burning yourself out over.
"For a lot of things in life, we have to try to enjoy the journey," she says. "Take care of your mental health because nothing else in your life will work if it's not intact."
But Lockert is quick to point out that it's not just student loan debt that has an impact on your self-esteem. "We attach so much self-worth to people's income, to their jobs and to their debt as well," she says.
When it comes to other kinds of debt, like credit card debt, your mental health can affect the way you spend. People tend to find comfort in buying things, which is how the phrase "retail therapy" came along.
No matter what kind of debt you are battling, Lockert suggests not conflating your self-worth and net worth — especially during hard economic times that we are all experiencing today.
"Right now, so many people are unemployed, so many people are in debt, you don't need to internalize that and let it hurt you," she says. And keep in mind the exterior forces working against you: inflation goes up while wages stay stagnant, the cost of health care and higher education remain high. "It's just not an equitable situation for anyone."
For those burdened with debt, we summarize below three pieces of advice Lockert shared with us.
- Realize what you can do: Before thinking your debt is too much to even handle, evaluate what is in your control. If you can contribute any more money to paying off your debt, focus on the high-interest debt. If you haven't already, cut out all the expenses you can beyond your basic needs. Make sure you are proactive in contacting lenders and loan services. "I try to tell people that debt is not a death sentence," Lockert says. "It's not the end of the world."
- Acknowledge that paying off debt is personal: Lockert knew the typical debt payoff advice, like cutting out nonessential expenses and selling things you no longer need, but she was already a minimalist. Instead, she turned to side hustling, blogging and freelance writing to build her income. For everyone, whether you're paying off student loans or credit card debt, how you do it is personal to your lifestyle and your talents.
- Treat yourself and have fun with it: Lockert learned to reward herself along the way, too. After reaching a certain payoff goal, such as $5,000 or $10,000, she would treat herself to a dinner out or massage. "If people are trying to side hustle to make more money, think of it as a way to experiment and have fun," she says. "It's not a full-time job where you have to know everything, you can think of it as a way to learn something new."
While Lockert encourages others to see the light at the end of the tunnel with their debt, she acknowledges that having savings you can fall back on helps.
Beyond traditional savings accounts, if you have even a small amount of cash set outside, consider putting it into a high-yield savings account. The Marcus by Goldman Sachs High Yield Online Savings offers a 1.70% annual return with an easy-to-use mobile banking app, and for a higher APY, the Vio Bank High Yield Online Savings Account offers 0.75% .
Savings sometimes seem like a lofty goal, but it's helpful to know that starting small is the first step. Even putting aside $20 per week will help you save $1,000 in a year.
If you are struggling to pay off your student loans and feel the emotional burden of it all, know that it is manageable and there are people who can help you. The National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) offers a portal for people to call and receive free credit and student loan guidance from a nonprofit credit counselor.
Take Lockert's advice, as she speaks from personal experience, to remind yourself of "what makes you happy." She shares what she calls a "great grounding mantra" for anyone in debt who feels unsafe: "Say, 'I'm healthy, I'm safe, I have a roof over my head;' in today's world, that's rich."
If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.