When to Keep Your Student Loan Debt a Secret — and When to Sing It Loud and Proud

 January 25, 2020
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Josh Sheen (not his real name) escaped student loan default and repaid his $77,000 worth of education debt. Sheen wrote a blog post about his achievement, and even tweeted the news to his 100-plus followers.

Only Sheen is a pseudonym, and the person behind the very real repayment is a little shy about why.

“It’s something I get asked,” said Sheen. “It’s because of my full-time job. I’m in a space that could be sensitive to some of the things I share.”

That brings to light a sensitive question for borrowers, even those without websites and a social media presence — or a great comeback story like Sheen’s. When is it wise to share your student loan experience, and when should you keep it zipped?

Reasons people keep their debt close to the vest
The case for singing your student loans, loud and proud
Be smart about your student loan debt, not ashamed

Reasons people keep their debt close to the vest

Sheen feels no shame in being secretive, particularly knowing he’s not the only borrower in hiding. The Everygirl blog, for example, recently published 28 snippet-length stories written by no-longer-indebted-readers — and all 28 elected to remain anonymous.

Here’s why they might be playing it cool when it comes to student debt:

  • Student loan debt is an under-the-rug topic: Whether it’s for fear of judgement or something else, it’s clear that many consumers saddled with student debt view their situation as a personal one. In fact, America’s most taboo financial topic is student loan debt, according to a 2019 survey conducted by The Harris Poll. And 40% of borrowers never discuss their debt with family, according to a 2019 TIAA study. Not talking about debt may be a personal choice, but it also limits that person’s ability to seek help from the people they trust the most.
  • You’re worried about negative perceptions at work: Working in the financial services industry, at a bank among the Fortune 500, Sheen worried about the impact if word spread that he’d mismanaged his education debt into default. “When you bring up the debt topic, the mind can run in so many directions from medical to gambling to money stupidity and ignorance, as was my case,” he said. “I have no desire to sit and explain my story to those who have a surface-level interest.”You might be less than open about your student loans in the context of careers, too. Like Sheen, you could be concerned about disclosing your debt to a coworker or boss who could determine your employment and earnings. For his part, Sheen said that, “if a colleague shares an equal passion for personal finance like I do, then I would certainly be open to sharing my struggles and successes … because there would be an immediate understanding.”
  • You’re concerned about impacts on personal relationships: You could be skittish about sharing your debt with a new friend or significant other. In fact, almost 1 out of 4 borrowers say they have kept student loans from their partners, according to our “Debt in the Bedroom” survey. Only you can decide, using your best judgement, when it’s wise to open up.

“Disclosing debt is like disclosing an STD at this point in the dating world,” said Erika Martinez, a licensed psychologist who works with borrowers on adjusting their student loan mindset. “You’re expected to talk about it sooner than later.”

The case for singing your student loans, loud and proud

For every tight-lipped borrower walking the tightrope of repayment, there’s a peer willing to talk. There are legitimate reasons why you too might be more open — and perhaps benefit from doing so.

  • You’re applying for a job: When interviewing, you might point to your repayment while talking about challenges you’ve overcome. Keep in mind, however, that your student loan situation might not set you apart. “Most students have significant debt when they graduate, so it’s not a differentiator among candidates,” said Diane Wilbur, CEO of Soft Skills Training Group. “I wouldn’t recommend bringing it up during an interview unless the candidate has a reason that [it] would be of value.”
  • You’re requesting debt help: If you’re a seasoned and valuable employee, convincing your boss to offer repayment assistance may not be that difficult. “With more companies offering ways that employees can pay down this debt, we can expect this to open the door for conversation about student loans as applicants navigate the interview process,” said Tiffani Murray, a veteran human resources director. Of course, crowdfunding your debt online would probably also require sharing your real name and background.
  • You’re entering a serious relationship: Revealing your debt to your partner might not be your favorite thing to do, but it could get you both on the same page before it’s too late. As Martinez said, “Many people are taking their partner’s debt into account when making decisions about the viability of a relationship.” Hopefully, you’ll find a willing listener who will support you emotionally (if not financially) through repayment.
  • You’re tempted to project success — but need a reality check: Ignoring your student loans could encourage you to be something you’re not. Sharing (and owning up) to it, then, could bring you back down to earth. Consider again the case of Sheen, who blamed his loan default, in part, on his denial of it: “I was the one who would be materialistic, especially in things I wore, so I was that typical fake wealthy person when in reality I was living with negative net worth for at least a decade.”

Be smart about your student loan debt, not ashamed

You probably aren’t in a rush to broadcast your savings account balance or your stock portfolio performance. With student loans too, there’s such a thing as oversharing. Since the current political climate is concerned with debating proposals like free college for all and mass loan forgiveness, you might feel the need to speak up and share your truth.

Sheen’s advice is to think twice, at least before attaching your name to your debt beyond family and friends. “Think about the possible ripple effects of what sharing your loan situation could do to you and, possibly, to your family,” he said. “Sometimes perception is reality.”

If naming your debt isn’t best in your case, don’t suffer in silence. While you don’t have to go as far as creating an alter ego, like Sheen did with the help of his parents after starting his OMG My Money blog in May 2018, you could consider starting a blog. However, this is simply one of many ways to unwind your student loan stress.

You could share your story with the Death, Sex & Money podcast (which created a Student Loan Secrets offshoot series) or, for more support, join a Debtors Anonymous meeting. If it makes fiscal sense, you might also refinance your student loans with a lender like SoFi that provides social support via member events. Of all the ways to cope with student loan stress, find what works for you.

Whether anonymously or on the record, joining the conversation about student loan debt helps to loosen its hold over all of us. As Sheen said, “I know there are others out there… It would be interesting to get their thoughts, too.”

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