Ashamed of your debts? How to speak up and seek help


Meet Annie, a middle-aged, successful, confident, put-together mother, wife and hard worker. At this point in her life, she is happy about her ‘place’ in society; her friends admire her and wish they could live her life, if just for one day.

Very often, she contends with comments such as ‘you are so lucky’ and ‘how do you manage to be so focused in life?’

However, if she ripped off the facade and let her admirers know her deep secret, everyone would see that Annie and her husband are living dangerously close to the edge: they are drowning in debt.

Their house and car loans are in arrears, and the banks are already calling.

The children have been sent home for the fifth time this term due to unpaid fees, with the warning that a sixth time would be permanent until the balance was cleared.

Her parents back home do not know the indignity she has learned to endure in looking for an extra coin to send them a monthly stipend.

Only yesterday, because her husband is already blacklisted in several avenues, she visited a shylock to see how he could help ease their debt burden.

So rather than admire her, she wishes she could sincerely come clean to her support system and let them know that she is stressed, depressed, deeply ashamed and embarrassed about the situation she finds herself in.

She would really like to get help but does not know where to start, neither does she have the courage to seek for it, let alone admit to herself that the problem is way above their scope and requires external help.


So many Kenyans are living in debt of varying amounts – and almost all of them are too ashamed to speak about it, let alone come clean. So ashamed that none of the people I tried to interview for this story would allow me to tell their story because they did not want the discovery, exposure and judgement.

One interviewee said, “I would rather struggle with this issue and keep drowning in debt if I have to, than to let my peers, acquaintances and friends laugh behind my family’s back.”

Our composite, Annie, is built from the common elements of the stories these people told me. And just like her, the struggle to keep the debt a secret means that the status quo is maintained. Many of us can identify with Annie, and if not currently struggling with debt have probably dealt with it at some point.

Experts define ‘shame’ as “a powerful, sometimes debilitating emotion that views the self as incompetent.”

Self-condemnation and blame are very close cousins and according to counselling psychologist Wandia Maina, the weight and baggage of shame is what makes people shy away from speaking up. “In this definition you will find the reason why people are unable to talk about debt,” she says.

She adds that for the majority, a flawed foundation in interacting with money is a root cause for most debt problems.

“Growing up, most of us did not have a healthy interaction with money, and were made to feel self-conscious when relating with it, by either often being told ‘no’ without a reason when asking for something, or watching how our parents handled their

money – by hiding it or grumbling when making payments.

This has given us an unhealthy relationship with money. We are unsure how to interact with it. Instead we worship it or let it become our master.”

Wandia adds that the lack of knowledge unwittingly drives one into shame-riddled debt. “Just like those who learnt that sex is a bad, dirty thing have an unhealthy relationship with sex, how you relate to money – whether you have too little or too much of it –

will depend on the foundation you have. The reason we feel shame when in debt is because you feel that you have failed in some aspect. But how can you fail at a subject that you have no training in?

It would be like feeling ashamed for failing a driving test when the most you have interacted with a car is as a passenger.”


By: accepting this simplicity of the root cause, you can begin the healing emotional and financial journey. Facing the issue head-on by taking ownership of the problem is the key that unlocks the opportunities that will get you on the right track. “The first step would be a self-evaluation of how your parents/guardians introduced the subject of money to you. Realise that you cannot be at fault for what you have never learnt. Once you realise that you actually do not know, the onus is on you to seek help.”

Financial literacy books, seminars and advisors as some resources that one could look into. “You may need to see a psychologist to help you get over the misplaced shame and also guide you in the right direction to get help,” Wandia adds.

Financial independence is the other half of the process, one which John Paul Onyango, a business unit analyst with a local firm says requires intention. “Getting out of debt is a commitment that a person needs to make. It requires time and energy, just like any other commitment.”

Pen and paper or spreadsheet in hand, begin by understanding the nature of your debts. “Make a complete list of your debts – what you owe, the amounts due and when they are due. Credit card debts, for example, tend to be very heavy due to the interest they attract, and as such, they can be a priority if you have one. It is important to know what is weighing you down before you even start working on it.”

Secondly prioritise your debts, beginning with the ones you cannot put on the back burner. “There are debts that need immediate attention. Some keep on accruing interest, others have the possibility of putting your credibility with the Credit Reference Bureau in jeopardy. If you plan and see that a bank loan or credit card is a priority, then you could start by planning to get a house with less rent payment – something that people wait until it is almost too late – to reduce the expense burden. It is important to know the implications of your debts and the timeframe that these implications have,” Onyango says.

At this point, much as the temptation is great, Onyango cautions against taking more debt to pay off other debts. “This is a mistake people make and it lands them in more problems. Instead, you can meet the parties you owe and work on a repayment plan, which is suitable, and follow it strictly. Being honest with some of the parties whom you owe money helps a lot in making you comfortable during the payment period.”

Now that the expenses have been charted out, lifestyle changes must follow. Cut back on your spending habits, for example going out every weekend, and eating out too frequently. It is through these seemingly simple changes that savings are to be made. Developing a personal budget to keep your spending lean is the still the best method to go about it, as you end up spending on what is necessary as per your current needs. “For example, a single person will have different needs from a married person, so tailor it to your situation.” It will be hard, but you must commit to sticking to your budget and only spending the weekly allowance you have set aside in your budget.

Extra, legal income is your best friend because it will give you the much-needed boost to pay off your debts faster. Even as you pay it off, keep in mind that life is unpredictable, and channel some of this money to an emergency kitty. If you find yourself dipping into it repeatedly, consider finding a custodian to keep it for you.

An accountability partner, or avenue such as a blog, is a good motivator to keep focused. Small wins also require simple and modest celebration, such as putting together a special meal. Take time to maintain the elements of your social life by adjusting to low-cost or free entertainment. For example, film screenings at diplomatic cultural centres are usually free. Board games such as scrabble, arts and crafts or play-pretend games such as setting up a ‘picnic’ in your sitting room or acting out a book are all simple yet effective ways to bond. with your family

When all is finally paid and done, work towards maintaining financial independence by putting aside the debt-payment sum you were repaying, into future investments. Maintain your new financial freedom by ensuring you have identified the initial triggers that got you in the situation in the first place, and find coping mechanisms for them.


Shame is a painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonourable.

There is a difference between guilt and shame; shame reflects how we feel about ourselves, while guilt involves an awareness that our actions have injured someone else.

Shame is commonly triggered by:

• Basic expectations or hopes frustrated or blocked.

• Disappointment or perceived failure in relationships or work.

• In relationships, any event that weakens the bond, or indicates rejection or lack of interest from the needed other.

Shame manifests itself in various ways:

Shyness is shame in the presence of a stranger.

Discouragement is shame about temporary defeat.

Embarrassment is shame in front of others.

Self-consciousness is shame about performance.

Inferiority is all-encompassing shame about the self.

Only by recognition of the feelings of shame, can one master the shame reactions and deal with it.


Personal finance resources


• The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom by Suze Orman

• The Total Money Makeover: A Proven Plan For Financial Fitness by Dave Ramsey

• The Richest Man in Babylon by George Clason

• Zero Debt: The Ultimate Guide To Financial Freedom by Lynnette Khalfani-Cox


• Mint

• Acorn

• Level Money

• Digit

• Credit Karma

• Good budget

• Wally