Debt exacts physical toll on debtors, survey shows

Value Judgments

Your Money

February 20, 2005|By Janet Kidd Stewart

Everyone knows money troubles can cause stress and relationship problems. Now, researchers are beginning to calculate precisely how much damage is being done.

More than 75 percent of people with credit-card debt have experienced some type of physical symptom that they attribute to the financial strain, according to a new survey commissioned by Family Credit Counseling Service of Rockford, Ill.

The survey, performed in November by Impulse Research Corp. of Los Angeles, queried 1,590 consumers with credit-card debts. Nearly 25 percent had debts exceeding $10,000. The survey had a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.

Headaches, inability to concentrate and nausea were the most common symptoms. Eight percent reported that they had seen a doctor because of health problems related to money stress.

Spread evenly

While overall debt stress was spread evenly across income levels, men and women reported some stark differences. Women were more likely to report stress-related health problems.

When it comes to couples' money battles, however, income was a factor. Fighting was more common among people earning more than $45,000 a year.

Nearly 35 percent of debtors reported trouble concentrating at work, and 17 percent acknowledged spending time at work dealing with financial troubles.

Some credit-repair clients threaten suicide, said Michael McAuliffe, president of Family Credit Counseling.

"Some people think the negative connotation with bankruptcy has diminished, but they don't realize" how deeply it will affect their lives, McAuliffe said, noting high interest rates and outright employment denials that often accompany a troubled financial past.

Technically, employers cannot discriminate against job applicants based on a bankruptcy filing, but poor credit histories are fair game.

And the consequences can devastate families.

"Economic distress in the family does impact children's health and well-being," said Irwin Sandler, a psychologist and director of the Prevention Research Center at Arizona State University. "Parents are stressed, demoralized and depressed, and this leads to difficulty in parenting."

The daily toll

Chief Judge John C. Ninfo II of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of New York sees a heavy emotional toll - from divorce to torn family relationships - playing out in his courtroom daily. Sometimes financial trouble causes relationship problems; sometimes it is the other way around.

McAuliffe suggests dealing with financial problems head-on. This not only helps your standing with creditors but also can relieve the stress of worrying. Hit a bad month and can't make your payments? Paying even the bare minimum is important for keeping the troubles in the past, both psychologically and in real terms.

Taking control of a plan to work out your debts is vital, echoed Barbara Campbell, director of financial counseling for ComPsych, a Chicago company that provides employee-assistance programs.

"You want to head off those stressor points by contacting your creditors," not waiting for the phone to ring, Campbell said.

E-mail Janet Kidd Stewart at

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