Is Unhappiness Causing Your Debt?

Data network Marine an expert in her domain

I’m never surprised when military folks struggle with money. For one, the steady paycheck is nice, but the majority of us don’t make that much. Look it up.

For two, we live in a two-income stay-put-and-network-into-a-job world but we move every 2.5 years.

And for three, we have to cope with a lot of things (like deployments, separations and, well, war) that stress people out and make them unhappy.

Could unhappiness be triggering our heavier-than-civilian-folks debt?


Can unhappiness trigger debt?

I’ve been thinking about that ever since I read a letter to financial advisor Suze Orman in O magazine. The writer was a woman who had a lot of debt, no real relationship and a mind-numbing job. Suze didn’t go for her usual YOU WILL BE A BAGLADY IN RETIREMENT message. Instead, she went for a more philosophical explanation:

We spend more when we feel less-than.

“It’s a simple fact: We tend to spend more when we feel less-than,” wrote Orman. “Fear, shame and anger are obstacles to wealth.”

Fear, shame and anger—all three of those emotions are part of being human. We don’t have a corner on the market for negative emotions. We just have our own brand of them.

We spend to feel better.

So we do what humans do to try to make ourselves feel better. We spend. Because spending works in the moment, doesn’t it?

Spending is a balm for a day punctuated by meltdowns.   Spending is a reward for staying in on yet another Saturday night or for your 35th weekend deployed.

Spending takes away that worry that your kids are suffering because their dad or mom won’t be home for Christmas. Spending can distract you from how worried you are that your service member is out on patrol and hasn’t called back. Or that your spouse back home is so alone.

Spending can also be a revenge many of us indulge in and few of us admit to.

We are so sure this time it will work.

Before we spend, we are so sure that it will work. We are so certain that we won’t feel angry or ashamed or afraid if we just buy that one thing.

In the moment that we feel “less-than” our usual selves, maybe that works. For a while. Then our debt gets bigger and bigger until it is a huge and embarrassing debt.

We think that debt represents our failed will power. Our inability to budget. Our terminal lack of earning power.

Instead maybe that debt represents all the times we have struggled with our emptiness, our worry, our hurt.

Unfortunately, the money experts don’t offer a way to avoid the emotions triggered by deployments or moves or war. All they can do is assure us that all the spending in the world will never fill us up.

We can recognize that truth.  We can see how money does not yield happiness.  Still we need to examine how unhappiness does push all our emotional buttons.  We need to make sure financial counseling for military families does recognize the part our stresses play on our finances without excusing it..

We lead the lives we lead. We need to recognize the way our emotions affect our finances.  And start with that.

 Photo courtesy US Marine Corps.

About the Author

Jacey Eckhart
Jacey Eckhart is the former Director of Spouse and Family Programs for Since 1996, Eckhart’s take on military families has been featured in her syndicated column, her book The Homefront Club, and her award winning CDs These Boots and I Married a Spartan?? Most recently she has been featured as a military family subject matter expert on NBC Dateline, CBS morning news, CNN, NPR and the New York Times. Eckhart is an Air Force brat, a Navy wife and an Army mom. Find her at
  • guest

    I think my husband and I took the opposite extreme. We spent so much time apart that saving became our addiction and our joint goal. We want to spend as much time as possible together when he hits his 20 so across continents and states we made it a game to save as much as humanly possible. When we get down, we find ways to save more or sell something we don’t need to add it to the investment accounts. We currently save about 65% of our gross combined salaries.

  • the first mel

    I think if you recognize that spending is used to make you feel better, then you need to find something else to do that will make you feel better. Hobbies, volunteering, and fitness activities can make you feel better without breaking the bank.

    • chibi_sarah

      ya that’s a joke…sometimes those “hobbies, volunteering and fitness activities” you mentioned are just what breaks the bank…this comment I don’t even…ya you shouldn’t be indulging too much in retail therapy, I personally don’t get how that helps people, how getting one into debt somehow can make someone feel better. I know I can’t do that lol. But we also shouldn’t judge how someone copes.

      • the first mel

        I am not judging how someone copes, I am suggesting an alternative solution. I said “if you recognize” the problem. I have overspent to compensate for my unhappiness. I have found that doing other things to increase my self satisfaction doesn’t generate the level of debt I generated when overspending.

  • Michael Klein

    As service members, we do have a choice to consider our spouses career goals. After a service member has completed his/her obligation they can leave the long arm of Uncle Sam and pursue work in the civilian sector. As a retired Army Officer I can honestly say that the spouses were very much under rated. As a commander I tried my best to recognize the contributions of the spouses. To be honest, my intentions fell short of the mark. However, I did encourage spouses, male and female, should they choose too, make a better life than what the military had to offer. Some of my soldiers went back to school or became stay at home dads because mom’s career was providing the family with more than they needed. I suggest that the service member and spouse talk about these important opportunities at least a year in advance of re enlistment. A happy marriage begins with a happy fulfilling personal life. Just my thoughts