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Three Easy Steps to Get a Handle on Your Rising Debt

A new report shows that many Millennial and Gen Z women with debt don't know how much they owe - but are scared about paying it all back.
Woman taking money from cash machine during night out with friends
Woman at ATMEmma Innocenti / Getty Images file

Take a second and think about how much debt you have — total. Do you know the exact dollar amount? Maybe a ballpark figure? Or do you have no idea?

If the last question hits close to home, you’re not alone. Many Millennial and Gen Z women with debt don't know how much they owe — on both their credit cards and student loans, according to a new survey from and the 1,000 Dreams Fund, a national scholarship fund for young women.

That the vast majority of the women carrying this debt are worried about paying it back doesn't surprise money expert Stefanie O’Connell. She says that coming out of college is so overwhelming that it "induces a kind of paralysis [when it comes to making] any proactive financial choices." This is especially true for women who are already a little less financially confident — particularly those who are perfectionists. "[That can] lead to the worst decision of all, which is doing nothing.”

If you're nodding your head because you recognize yourself in that description, here are three steps to take.

Strategize to face your financial fears

”You can’t fix a problem until you know what kind of problem you’re faced with.” says Sienna Kossman, an analyst with with To start overcoming your fears, sit down and make a list of your financial hurdles. Once you’ve gotten them pinned down, imagine them coming true and then — this is key — coming up with three to five courses of action for each scenario you’re worried about.

“What you’ll find is the worst case scenario probably isn’t as bad as you think it is,” she says. For example, if you fear not being able to afford the minimum payment on a credit card, three possible solutions could be calling the company to negotiate, researching balance transfer cards and trying to open up another income stream.

“Worry is paralyzing, but when you change worry to action, you take your financial fear and you flip it on its head," she says.

Start the journey — now — to being financially independent

It’s easy to put off getting your financial life in order until some undetermined future point or a milestone that hasn’t happened yet — turning a certain age, for example, or getting a raise.

O’Connell says she thinks women sometimes fall into the trap of thinking they’ll plan their financial futures once they get married or have children, but she says to plan under the assumption that you'll have to do it yourself.

“The best way to be prepared is to be your own champion and completely financially independent going in.”

Set it and forget it

One of the best ways to take control of your financial life is to automate it — especially when it comes to paying bills and saving. A number of apps can help with this, like Digit, which gauges how much you can afford to auto-save by tracking your spending habits. It then automatically moves a sum it can see you don't need — usually between $5 and $50 every two to three days — and offers a no-overdraft guarantee.

Mint Bills, a spinoff of the app Mint, helps users keep track of payments on utilities, credit cards, rent and other bills. And, arguably most importantly, when it comes to retirement? Take full advantage of your workplace retirement plan if you have one, or open an IRA or Roth account of your own if you don't. Automate your contributions so they come right out of either your paycheck (in the case of a workplace 401(k)) or checking (in the case of an IRA or Roth). Why? Because if you don't see the money, you won't spend it.

With Hayden Field