Spending Ten Hours a Day Worrying About Debt

Last week WalletPop brought us Worrying about debt costs you an average of three and a half hours a day.

Harrumph.C Cards 2 (Andres Rueda)

The data is from a survey carried out by an outfit called Survey Sampling International. I’ll give them credit for having one of the more intriguing taglines I’ve seen in a while: “Superior data wrapped in an engaging experience.” I’ve no idea what that means. Which makes it intriguing.

The survey, conducted on-line with a sweepstakes entry as compensation, was done on behalf of DebtPlan.com, a site that appears to provide basic on-line debt management tools for $14.95 a month.

As WalletPop explains pretty quickly, the “you” in the title is really “you, if you are one of the 45% of Americans who consider themselves in debt.” So the number for the average American overall is something like 1.575 hours a day. That’s assuming that the 55% who don’t consider themselves in debt don’t worry about debt at all, which come to think of it is a bit of a leap in the context of this survey.

Apparently, 10% of the in-debt group spend at least 10 hours a day worrying about debt. For me, that one item is enough to crumple the whole survey into a ball and toss it in the wastebasket. (BTW, Adobe, there needs to be a PDF equivalent for that.)

It’s not just that worrying 10+ hours a day about debt (or anything else) is excessively unlikely. I think it may be medically impossible. The stress would kill you in a week. In fact, anybody who finds themselves thinking about a single subject, even a nice pleasant one, for 10 hours a day should seek professional help immediately.

This is, of course, yet another example of the unreliability of surveys, particularly those done in order to generate a press release for a commercial enterprise. The problem is that respondents have a tendency to be casual with the truth. Not business casual. Backyard water balloon fight with just the family casual.

And claiming to spend a lot of time worrying about debt is fashionable just now. Even President Obama claims that debt keeps him up at night. (I don’t believe this for a minute. Not so much because I think he is ideologically unconcerned about debt but because I don’t think he has ever lost sleep worrying about anything. Barak Obama has ice water in his veins. I mean that as a compliment.)

Part of the attractiveness of claiming to spend lots of time worrying about debt is that, although it is not quite as good as actually doing something to reduce what is owed, it is a whole lot easier. This principle certainly applies to most of our elected officials, who go to lengths to express concern about government debt while acting as if they couldn’t care less.

But what really annoys me about this survey, and WalletPop’s dutiful repeating of its findings, is its sheer innumeracy and unconcern for the factual truth. 10% of in-debt Americans spending 10+ hours a day worrying about debt is a result that ought to have been too embarrassingly and obviously bogus to publish.

Moreover, the survey designers found the in-debt respondents by simply asking them “Would you consider yourself to be in debt?” As if being in debt or not was a subjective state of mind. It’s not.

Financial matters, money matters, are about cold, hard, facts and figures. You either have a positive net worth or a negative one. You owe more than you can pay off or you don’t. How you feel about that doesn’t change reality. And worrying about it, or claiming to worry about it, won’t help either.

[Photo – Andres Rueda]


  • By bRobert, June 29, 2010 @ 12:33 pm

    About 4 years ago I was up to my eyeballs in debt, I was on the high side of all the statistics I saw. Any week I didn’t earn overtime sent us deeper in the hole… taking vacation and paying for gas to go visit relatives even more so.

    As far as I was concerned, I was on the knife’s edge of total financial collapse, taking my wife and two very young daughters with me. I worried about debt A LOT. When I was awake, the worry was continuously gnawing at me and I had a lot of nightmares.

    I say this not to argue (not one of my strengths) or try to justify a faulty statistic (I wouldn’t know where to start), but just to say that worry consumed me when I was in that situation, and I know people who are in much worse. 10 hours per day would be low balling it for those like myself.

    Happily and peacefully debt free now…

  • By Jay, June 29, 2010 @ 2:47 pm

    I thought of you the other day. It didn’t have anything to do with finance (biology actually), but the article state “1 in 6 (or 10%) of…” and I had to laugh. I’ve started checking numbers in various articles and there is definately errors in reporters math, but this was the most obvious one I saw.

  • By CalLadyQED, June 29, 2010 @ 4:06 pm

    bRobert, thanks for sharing. You have a good point that the 10+ hrs/day may not be that far off. Nevertheless, the subjective approach to debt (“Would you consider yourself to be in debt?”) alone makes the results suspect.

    “The problem is that respondents have a tendency to be casual with the truth. Not business casual. Backyard water balloon fight with just the family casual.”
    That is hilarious and right on, Frank. Thank you for a great quote.

  • By Adam, June 29, 2010 @ 4:19 pm

    Woo! I’m loving the daily posting, but won’t get my hopes up. The tagline leads you to believe the people are able to do nothing but worry about debt, for 3.5 hours a day (it “costs” you this time). Doing nothing but worry about debt for 10hours a day seems extremely unlikely. Even if you’re severely in debt. Also, why would you take a vacation if you’re up to your eyeballs in debt and going further in everytime you don’t work overtime?

  • By notadam, June 29, 2010 @ 7:17 pm


    Social pressures to do so, if you are in debt you normally are due to social pressures to conform to something. In bRobert’s case, i would say it would be the social pressure of keeping relatives happy and perceiving that not doing those things would make his daughters happier.

    Debt is caused by two things 1)unfortunate circumstances (medical for example) or 2) social need to beat the Jones’. I am just getting over the later myself with a touch of the first. Telling no to family is a hard thing to do when the reason is money.

  • By The Head Hunter, June 30, 2010 @ 12:29 pm

    I disagree, it’s possible for people to worry about debt 10 or more hours a day because our brains can multi-task.

    For example, I can worry about my gf not getting her period for WEEKS. From the second it’s late until she gives me the “I started” text, I worry NON-STOP 24 hours a day, it even haunts my dreams at night. Of course I’m able to do other things as well, like plan on how I will sell everything & start my new life in Uruguay under an assumed name because MY brain is a highly functional multi-tasker.

    In fact, as I write this, I’m worrying about that dreaded text from her one day that says “Goooooooooooooooooooooooooooooal”. Uruguay, here I come…

  • By Lance, June 30, 2010 @ 2:33 pm

    Head Hunter, I had a similar problem. I got a vasectomy and have never been happier. Look into it.

  • By jim, June 30, 2010 @ 7:05 pm

    What do they classify as ‘debt’? 77% of Americans had some form of debt according to the 2007 survey of consumer finances.

    I have debt (3 mortgages altogether) and I can honestly say I don’t give it a seconds thought on most days. I’m sure my wife worries a LOT more than I do about it but thats the difference in our natures. Even if they’re excluding mortgages then I don’t really remember worrying much at all when I had credit card, student loan or auto loan debts either.

    I do believe there are a minority of people who have problems with anxiety who could spend basically all day thinking about something like debt. But that would be a small minority of the general population.

  • By Frank Curmudgeon, June 30, 2010 @ 8:48 pm

    Too much information.

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