Debt means different things to different people. While some are confident to juggle huge amounts of debt spread across a few credit cards, others start hyperventilating at the mere notion of paying a bill a day late. 

Debt is also intrinsically linked to our emotional state of mind. Purchasing a new outfit using Buy now, pay later services might trigger an immediate dopamine hit, and leave the trouble of those four pesky payments to a future version of yourself. Or on the larger scale, buying an apartment means taking on the biggest debt most will take on in their lifetime, but it marks a momentous life milestone.

Why is debt so emotional? And what hidden psychological forces shape our attitudes and relationships towards it?

Keep it in the family

Our attitudes towards debt are largely inherited from our family, according to Jess Brady, a financial advisor at Fox and Hare Financial and founder of online community Ladies Talk Money. Brady says debt is not just numbers on a spreadsheet, but rather a complex emotional relationship informed by how we saw our families and friends interact with their finances when we were kids. “It might be shaped by parents separating and having to move from middle class life, to potentially a period where things became really tight from a monetary perspective. And so now, fear and insecurity drive decision making in your money, beliefs or behaviour.”

“It might be that you watched your parents make reckless decisions, which has made you quite fearful about making any decisions. Or quite the opposite that you’re used to having a lot of money and a lot of freedom. Meaning that you spend money without really considering what the consequences are so often it is what we did or didn’t see in a home life environment.” 

What’s clear is, there’s no rulebook when it comes to debt and financial management. Whether you’ve grown up with examples of responsible spending or not, the moment you get your first job and your own bank account – you’re on your own, which is why Brady thinks it’s important to supercharge your financial literacy.

“We wrap so much shame and guilt around debt.” If we’re going to start normalising talking about money, then the lessons of accepting and reflecting on the decision-making that got you to this point are valuable.

Jess Brady’s key financial messages for getting ahead of debt and improving financial literacy are:  

  • Stop identifying as someone who is, “bad with money”: this negative self-talk creates a belief system around excusing bad behaviour. 
  • The buck stops with you: don’t offload large financial decisions onto others whether that be a partner or a parent. 
  • Working 9-5: Take responsibility for your own income and embrace the mantra “I decide where and how to spend my own money.” 

It’s all about the sell  

For some, accumulating debt can feel like sacrificing freedom while for others it’s exactly the opposite. For a lot of people debt is an opportunity, it’s the promise of more, being one step closer to your dreams. Our differing perceptions of taking on debt has a lot to do with how it is marketed.

Taking on debt to go to university, to buy a car or an apartment are all seen as responsible debt associated with big life milestones, but debt is no longer just about buying your dream home, or taking out a credit card for the frequent flyer points. It’s about wanting a new pair of shoes… And thanks to Buy now, pay later services, getting them immediately. 

According to Adam Ferrier, a behavioural psychologist and co-founder of Sydney based advertising agency, Thinkerbell, money is marketed with a sledgehammer. Money used to be marketed by a promise of aspiration. But it feels like that aspirational side of money has been chipped away at, and it’s almost a bit gauche to promise an aspirational lifestyle with money. Debt in this country is marketed very much as an issue and something that you have to get out of and create a sense of urgency, often targeting the less financially literate people in the marketplace.” 

But all debt was not created equal, and it’s the rise of Buy now, pay later type debts amongst the younger generations that have a number of financial advisors and writers concerned. According to Jonathan Shapiro, journalist and author of Buy now pay later, the extraordinary story of Afterpay, these services didn’t exactly set out to be unethical. “I think what’s happened is that we convinced ourselves that they are providing some sort of a win-win solution and they are of the belief that something so good and so popular cannot be bad.”  

The introduction of companies like Afterpay to the financial lending market means it’s never been easier to fall into the red. And because of the clever way they’re marketed as payment services rather than lenders means they have largely dodged regulation, leading to heavy ethical scrutiny.

A lot of its success is built around a behavioural hack. If something is $100, it might intimidate a consumer. But if it’s leading to $25 payments over six weeks, it makes it more palatable.”

The dangers of these services are that consumers will spend way more than they had originally intended because when a large price tag is divided over the span of six weeks it feels more manageable. “It’s put the burden on consumer groups to educate themselves. Those who use Afterpay need to be mindful of the risks of booting up a debt trap. Now they might not fall into a debt trap in the same way someone using a credit card might. But what tends to happen is Buy now, pay later users that have overextended themselves sign up for a myriad of other providers, or they stop paying other bills that are more important.”

What’s important is that we begin to normalise conversations about money, about investments, and about debt. We’re living in a time where the way debt is marketed is shifting dramatically, so it’s imperative to improve our financial literacy because our critical thinking skills and understanding what’s right for us has never felt more important.  


Life and Debt is available to listen to on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

This podcast is a project from the Young Ambassadors in The Ethics Centre’s Banking and Finance Oath initiative. Our work is made possible by donations including the generous support of Ecstra Foundation – helping to build the financial wellbeing of Australians.