Buying an extra $500 or $1,000 on your credit card could hurt your health

“Buyer’s remorse” doesn’t just happen to shoppers. If you spent $500 on your credit card in August and don’t get the furniture you want in December, chances are good that you’ll still be looking…

“Buyer’s remorse” doesn’t just happen to shoppers. If you spent $500 on your credit card in August and don’t get the furniture you want in December, chances are good that you’ll still be looking at the empty place in January.

But a new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine suggests that additional amounts of debt — whether it’s on a mortgage, auto loan, or credit card — also affect how satisfied people are with their health. And there’s one type of debt that seems particularly harmful: “Medicare-supported debtors” — beneficiaries of the Medicare health insurance program that is primarily funded by the U.S. government — have lower satisfaction with their health than people who had no debt, said Alison K. Miller, one of the authors of the study and an assistant professor of health economics at the Penn State College of Medicine.

Miller and her colleagues based their findings on an analysis of two waves of surveys asking about a range of health behaviors and health outcomes, as well as satisfaction with health, lifestyle and health-related quality of life. The study compared findings between 2010 and 2014. The most common forms of debt were mortgages and credit card debt, the authors said.

The survey questions used did not ask about the monthly payment on a mortgage, so mortgage debtors were less likely to be identified as Medicare debtors than auto loan and credit card debtors, the authors wrote. However, they noted, their research confirmed that those who owed money on a mortgage had a lower satisfaction level with their health than debtors who paid their bills regularly.

And while participants didn’t know how much they owed in total debt, Miller noted that those who owed more frequently had lower health satisfaction than those who had less.

Although Miller and her colleagues couldn’t prove that individual debts could cause a person to be less satisfied with their health, they wrote that the pattern made sense. “Our results suggest that insurance-supported debtors may perceive lower quality health, are more concerned about their financial circumstances, and expect to improve their financial situations after the initial debt is paid off,” they wrote. “Thus, frequent debtors may perceive a large contrast between their current financial position and their future financial condition in anticipation of a smooth repayment.”

In addition to health outcomes, other studies have found that a high percentage of Medicare debtors were likely to smoke, to experience poor sleep and to have blood pressure problems, but that’s part of a broader body of research about the costs of debt.

“The effects on health seem to be multiple-directional,” Miller said. “The debt may impact the way patients perceive the quality of their health, and this may affect their health. But it may also affect the medical care they choose.”

It’s possible that family relationships could also be affected by debt. Individuals who had multiple debts had lower satisfaction levels with their social relationships, and more depressive symptoms than those who had only one credit card or mortgage debt, according to Miller. However, in the end, it’s hard to blame yourself for any unintended consequences from your finances. The only way to avoid these ripple effects is to strive to pay down your debt as quickly as possible, Miller noted.

“You can’t pick the sort of debt you have, and we know that even if you are financially poor it doesn’t mean that your health isn’t well,” she said. “I think the takeaway here is that people should really be focused on managing their finances as much as they’re focused on managing their stress.”

Read the full story at PBS NewsHour.


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