Updated on 11.19.07

Dealing With Shame About Your Personal Finances (And Anything Else)

Trent Hamm

When I first started sinking into a mire of debt, I began to really feel ashamed of my actual financial state. I would avoid the topic and when I couldn’t avoid it, I’d bluster my way around it while feeling really guilty and ashamed inside. Of course, I’d put a balm on this by going to the store and buying some stuff I didn’t need.

What I’ve found over the last few years is that shame is almost always your conscience trying to tell you something. On some level, you are aware that you are making some big mistakes, but your day to day actions are just perpetuating those mistakes.

How can one take the negative feeling of that shame, though, and turn it into the groundwork for positive financial change? Here are some tips for turning those negative feelings around.

Realize that your sense of shame is actually a good thing. Your mind is able to evaluate your situation, notice that something is wrong, and is alerting you to that fact. That’s a good thing, a response that helps you avoid bad situations. Listen to it.

Don’t cover it up with a balm. If you feel ashamed of your choices, don’t make another bad choice to cover up that bad feeling. One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made in my life was the conscious decision to buy something in response to a bad feeling. This was a very weak method for covering up my shame,

Figure out what exactly caused the shame. Look at the situation that caused you shame and piece out what exactly brought it about. Focus on determining the root cause of that feeling, whether it be how you spend money, what you eat, and so on.

If you can take action to fix it, start taking action now. If you’re ashamed of your weight, ask a doctor for help on a simple diet and exercise plan. If you’re ashamed of your money, learn about frugality and controlling your spending. If you’re ashamed of your lack of understanding of a certain topic, read up on it. Take action now to kill that shame.

If you cannot take action to fix it, spend some time thinking seriously about why you’re ashamed of something you cannot control. I have at least one friend who is ashamed of the social actions of his parents and it hinders him greatly in society, for example. He has yet to really figure out that his father’s actions do not reflect on him. He is not his father and he has all of the freedom in the world to step away from that shadow – he can’t change what his father has done, so it’s a stationary shadow that only he can step out from under.

The real key is to not let shame persist except to motivate you to change. If you let it persist without changing the root cause, especially if you just look for quick ways to feel better immediately, that shame will stay with you. Instead, always look to how you can change things – or concentrate on gaining a deeper understanding and acceptance of the things you cannot change.

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  1. Heidi says:

    Excellent post!

    I am in the process of beginning a PF blog and I don’t want to tell anyone who actually knows me about it because of this shame (which, I think, is even worse than a “normal” person’s shame because I work in the financial services industry and I should know better).

    I want to change and have been using your story as a template for the changes I want to make in my life. Thanks for being an inspiration.

  2. It’s not only just being ashamed about your financial situation, it can also be embarrassment over things like – your experience of being scammed by someone online.

    I’ve learned from my experience, but it was tough deciding whether to share it or not.

  3. Sandy says:

    There’s a distinction between healthy shame and unhealthy shame. The latter might be when as kids, our parents ridiculed us & we carry shame from that, and anyone from a dysfunctional family knows what I’m talking about. But healthy shame is completely different, and a good thing because it is our wake-up call to find a fix to what it is that is causing us our shame and embarrassment. I wasn’t disaplined about my spending in the past, and got into the credit card trap and felt SO ashamed about that, I shudder to even recall. Thank goodness I’ve turned it around and reached a 0 balance last month. I have confidence in myself now that I will not go there again, just from the sheer shame feelings alone, but won’t be able to truly relax about it until perhaps a year has gone by and I’ve proven it to myself by still having a 0 balance.

  4. Oswegan says:

    I felt the same way when I was deep in it.

    But now that I’m intense about it, and am digging my way out, I’m very proud of my progress, and I’m much more open and care free about the whole thing. I really don’t care what people know, or think about me.

    But I think I’m starting to make the Joneses nervous and uncomfortable.


  5. debtdieter says:

    I think I’m in the same boat as Oswegan now.

    I don’t seem to mind who knows about my debt as I’m actively taking steps to adress the issue.

    I’m still not entirely comfortable discussing the total amount to friends and family, but I’ll freely discuss anything else.

  6. pfodyssey says:

    So true. What I have always found interesting is that the shame you feel is often a magnitude of 10 of how people will perceive it themselves (ex: when you make a blunder at work and feel that everyone noticed it and think you are a goof, but in reality, hardly anyone even noticed it at all (or gave it any thought if they did). I think the theme here is that everything in your life is much more important to you than to everyone else.

    The same goes for personal finance. Whatever burden of shame you might carry, there are those who would not judge you so harshly as yourself and in many cases would like to help!

  7. Toxic says:

    Great post! I can relate to most of it… Shame is what I felt when I finally realized that everything I owned was financed by credit cards and that I couldn’t afford to buy anything, unless I used my credit cards. But then I recognized that I could change my life around. That’s when shame went away, and I became so proud of myself; I didn’t want to make any financial mistakes because I didn’t want to feel ashamed.

    But it could have gone the other way too… sometimes people fall so deeply into shame that they don’t know how to get out of it. They just keep sliding further down. The more they are ashamed, the more they continue to make the same mistakes… I am glad I realized that I could still change my life… hopefully someone ashamed reading your, mine or someone else’s “success story” blog will realize that they can get rid of the shame and change their life around, too.

  8. Mrs. Micah says:

    While I love being able to get things out on my blog, I also feel ashamed if I slip up or don’t do as well as I feel I should. Because it’s so public. As a general rule, the blog helps me stay responsible. It’d be great if I could comprehend that readers don’t expect one to be perfect, just trying.

    I recently admitted our lack of medical insurance, but people were supportive and we’re nor working on getting some. :) I’d been very embarrassed about that, but until I posted it kind of paralyzed me.

  9. I agree with Sandy, that shame can work in this way, as a healthy indicator of a problem brewing, or it can work as a dysfunctional and paralyzing force. The trick is figuring out which is which.

  10. Minimum Wage says:

    I’m ashamed of my apparent inability to earn anything more than minimum wage. I’m NOT ashamed of my spending, since I’m confident I am living very frugally. But I can’t FTF and I’d rather hide behind my keyboard.

    Most people would say it IS my fault, so I can’t really say it’s beyond my control, but I don’t see much I can do about it now. The wolf is constantly at my door and a long-term fix won’t come in time to save me.

  11. JReed says:

    It is amazing that you wrote this on the precise day that I woke up to a situation that I viewed as shameful. You gave me the incentive to take alot of action…I’ve done as much as I can do about it today including writing a list of what I’m going to do about it tomorrow.
    I feel so much better at least having started the process. Thank you for this inspirational article.

  12. Catherine says:

    You might be interested in the short article on regret that’s in the latest issue of Thrivent Financial for Lutherans’ magazine. http://www.thrivent.com/magazine/fall07/livingwell.html

  13. Minimum Wage says:

    I deeply regret having gone to college and having thereby blown the $4,000 (more than $20K in today’s dollars) I had worked hard to save up by the time I graduated high school.

  14. MO says:


  15. lydia says:

    My personal regrets are announcing to everyone about my personal desire to retire with no debt to stop living paycheck to paycheck and take responsiblity for my financial success. In nearly 15 years of government service I have never received a pay cut, only increase. I just need to develop the discipline necessary to implement it and stop being emotionally ruled and develop consistency, and in three years I will become debt free from cc,tax debt so I will be able to leave a legacy to my family, even though I don’t have any children and not married YET.

  16. Minimum Wage says:

    If it’s my fault and I can’t fix it, why shouldn’t I be ashamed?

  17. Tabatha says:

    I love this post. It’s something everyone really knows, but it’s very helpful to have someone give it to you as advice. Kind of a second opinion. Thanks. :)

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