Illustration by Sibel Ergener

Why Paying Off Debt Can Leave You Feeling Dead Inside

‘Post-achievement depression’ can rob you of well-deserved joy

January is a month for big changes of the turning-over-a-new-leaf variety. Maybe you’re one of the go-getters who will actually stop drinking, get super fit or pay off a boatload of debt. And maybe when you do, you’ll realize that the moment you expect to be full of heart-swelling pride and ecstasy over accomplishing a thing that will actually feel like a whole lot of nothing. That was the case for Justin Cox, who recently paid off $17,000 in student loan debt only to register absolutely zero on the life-excitement meter.

“When I finally made the last payment, I sat on the couch, hit ‘Pay Now,’ watched my balance change to $0, and felt nothing,” he writes at the Billfold. “I paid the bill, moved onto the next needing to be paid, and felt nothing. No joy of having accomplished a major goal. No elation over the dream of a debt-free future could bring. No sadness about never getting another email from Nelnet again. Nothing.

Personal Finance Tips From People Who Have Paid Off Their Debts

The joy of paying off debt is a real thing for some people—just talk to some of the people we’ve interviewed in our Into the Black series). Experts say it’s great for reducing your stress, building your self-esteem and helping pursue new life goals, even improving your relationships now that the weight of all that debt is no longer hanging over you. Folks who’ve managed to pay off their debt will tell you that it has changed their lives — a freeing experience that gives them a newfound sense of security. Devotees of personal finance guru Dave Ramsey routinely call into his radio show to belt out a “debt-free scream” once they’ve completed his program for debt eradication. Ramsey’s site says they get so many requests for this moment of public celebration that now you have to apply online and hope for an open slot, which could take from four to six weeks to be answered, potentially defeating the purpose of that moment of glee.

But sometimes, faced with a magnificent milestone, the mind goes the other way. Cox wonders why he couldn’t get it up for this debt-free moment, particularly when he and his wife had previously felt celebratory after knocking out some credit card debt, which they’d accrued from their honeymoon and home repairs. That time, they went out to dinner and even splurged on dessert.

Maybe, he wonders, the difference was that this particular debt was student loan debt, which feels “less tangible” for the money spent, compared to say, knocking down higher-interest credit card debt used to improve the house he resides in. “Sure, I have the diploma, but it’s not like the house I enter and exit every day,” he wonders. “I know I’m paying for that. I can’t even remember the last time I looked at my diploma. I think it’s hanging in my office.”

Or perhaps it’s because he has more debt left to plow through, so this just feels like one in a series of steps still not finished. Still, you’d think Cox would be more excited about the student loan debt — it was double the credit card debt he’d paid off and had no trouble celebrating.

Either way, what he’s experiencing has a name — it’s called post-achievement depression. “It is quite common to feel underwhelmed after working to achieve a high-level goal,” says A.J. Marsden, assistant professor in human services and psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida. “Some of the symptoms include not feeling satisfied with the achievement, discounting or distrusting the accolades received for the achievement and feeling like the ‘ball is going to drop’ and the achievement isn’t actually finished yet. Usually, this type of dissatisfaction only lasts a few weeks or months, but it can persist for much longer.”

Marsden says psychologists have some theories about why this happens. One is that it could be the brain’s way of protecting us from our own ego. “Basically, it keeps us from thinking too highly of ourselves,” Marsden writes. “It is nice to have accolades from others, but it is also important that we do not depend on it too much to determine our own self-worth.”

Another possibility is that not getting too pleased with ourselves motivates us to keep going. In Cox’s case, he knows he still has a lot more debt to pay off, so not being too excited about it may be his brain’s way of not letting him rest on his laurels. One other theory Marsden mentions is that such an anticlimactic reaction to a big life moment could be a result of persistent pessimism, or the “idea that if it’s too good to be true, then it probably is.”

“Our unconscious mind is constantly prepping us for failure, so even though we succeeded in a big achievement, there is still this feeling that something bad is going to happen or we didn’t actually deserve to succeed.”

That doesn’t seem to be the case for Cox, who seems fully committed to charging onward through his remaining debt. He notes that he and his wife still have her student loans and a mortgage to clear out. And when that happens, he’s hoping he will finally, at long last, feel something — maybe even enough to order two desserts.