Each spring, Sarah Ober plans a vacation with her best friend.
Ober, 26, has significant student debt. Her friend does not.
“She is incredibly understanding,” Ober said. “But I can’t help but feel pangs of guilt when I have to choose that early flight or bypass a fun excursion because I can’t afford it, knowing all along she likely can and would if not for me.”
Most college graduates — about 60 percent — have some sort of student loan debt.
But that can sometimes leave a rift, or at least friction, between the debt-haves and the debt-have-nots.
“It can absolutely feel very uncomfortable when you have a different debt situation than your friends,” said Katie Krimer, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist. “Money, in general, can be a really difficult conversation with anyone. A tough piece of this is that you’re also counting on someone else’s level of tolerating their own discomfort or guilt about being debt-free when you aren’t.”
Krimer has three degrees and hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt herself.
While she’s learned to be frank about her own debt, it’s often her friends who feel discomfort or embarrassment when she talks about it.
One thing to remember, Krimer said, is that your money situation is private information. If you don’t feel comfortable talking about it with your friends, you don’t have to.
“My thought is that if you feel accepted by your closest friends, it could be helpful to share with them about your loans,” Krimer said. “You may find out that they actually understand your stress, that they have empathy for your experience, and they can be more mindful when it comes to spending and money in the friendship.”
Nearly all of Laura Steichen’s college roommates left school without debt.
Steichen, 26, was $90,000 in the hole when she graduated with her bachelor’s degree. She took out loans to pay for housing, books and food, on top of tuition.
She even took a year off school, partially to deal with the stress of all the debt.
It caused her to resent some of her friends for being more privileged.
“It makes me sad to think about how mad (and) envious I was about it,” Steichen said. “And I literally cried about it when I was alone.”
Then, she got married to a man with $30,000 in debt. Determined to pay off their debt in five years, the two took on a variety of side hustles.
Steichen taught aerobics classes, shopped for a delivery service called Shipt and sold items on eBay and Facebook.
Last month, the two finished paying off their entire student debt, after just three years and nine months. (She attributes her success to businessman Dave Ramsey, who teaches a method called “debt snowballing”).
But at times she still feels resentful toward her more privileged friends.
“I feel like those friends never understood the value of a dollar and never will,” she said.
Debt can be even more of a stressor when it comes to romantic relationships. Mary — who asked to use a pseudonym — has $30,000 in student debt, and owes her parents more than $15,000.
She’s 23 years old, and is in a serious relationship with a partner who has no debt.
“Despite my partner assuring me that they still love me, and that they fell in love with me and not my financial status, I am worried about the possible pressure thousands of dollars of debt might put on a person who has never had any student loans,” she said.
Just like in friendships, Krimer said you don’t have to share information about your debt with a partner right away.
But if you believe the romantic relationship has some potential beyond just a casual arrangement, it’s helpful to be open about it.
“If they don’t accept you, then they aren’t someone to pursue a relationship with,” Krimer said. “Everyone comes with baggage. Being debt-free does not imply that someone is a better or worse person, it typically implies privilege in one direction or another.”
When Mary eventually told her partner about her debt, they were understanding. They had assumed she had debt.
Often, personal shame around debt can come from judging yourself for it. Krimer said practicing self-compassion and mindfulness can help.
It’s important to not ignore the debt, and accept that it exists. But know that you are not your debt, and that having it doesn’t mean you’re less of a person.
“When we fear we are bad, we are attributing our entire worth to the fact that we may have debt,” she said. “It can be helpful to be mindful of your other qualities, of what you’re grateful for, and noting other aspects of who you are that make you worthy of belonging.”
Ober said she often feels jealous of her friends without student debt, but she’d never fault them for it.
And while her debt has forced her to make different choices — she’s still living with her parents, for example — she hasn’t let it affect her friendships.
Krimer said it can come down to keeping the right people in your life. Sometimes, she said, people don’t know that some degree of college debt is normal.
“If someone is unaccepting, condescending, demeaning, flippant, rude, judgmental, et cetera, of your financial situation, then perhaps they aren’t the kind of people that are worthy of being in your circle,” she said.
“If they don’t get your experience, be courageous enough to share yours with them and gently explain how their reaction makes you feel. There is too much taboo and shame around money and having conversations and educating people can help dispel that.”
Gretchen has reported on the criminal justice system in rural Minnesota and covered everything from politics to millennial truck drivers for Wisconsin Public Radio. She is passionate about public media as a public service. She’s also into music and really good coffee. Follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.