I remember being a young twenty something, laying awake at night too anxious to sleep because of my debt. Agonizing over a number that felt so large to me. I’ve always felt very uneasy with the idea of debt. The only thing that ever seemed to work at easing the anxiety over it was rationalization.
The inner dialogue would go something like this: “Everyone has debt. This is normal. I don’t have THAT much”. It would help for a while. Then the cycle of purchase, regret, and justification would start all over again. Until the day I accepted that for me, debt is a four letter word.
You might be asking how a financial advisor can even have this opinion? Isn’t having debt (and a lot of it) just part of life? For a lot of people, yes it is a part of life. But feeling like your payments are controlling your life is not the way it has to be.
People aren’t ok with their debt
When we do a financial review for new clients, one of the questions on the review is “Are you in any way uncomfortable in regards to your current personal debt load?” and more often than not, the answer is yes. Somewhere there is a disconnect in our society. People aren’t ok with their debt, but there is a disbelief that we can live without it and still have a great life. I wanted to share my story about how it is possible to live this way. It isn’t epic or dramatic. It also isn’t a quick fix, but it is real.
To be clear, I have never had a huge amount of debt but it has always made me squirm. I started out my young adult life like most do. Working a job, renting a place, and then learning that I need to build credit if I ever wanted to buy a house. I got my very own credit card and loan from the bank for a new to me truck. Look at me, adulting.
I hated that my paychecks were spent before I even had them
I had real bills, but along with it came something else that was very real. Anxiety. I hated that my paychecks were spent before I even had them. I had never really learnt how to budget my cash flow, so when I had unexpected expenses like vehicle repairs, the trusty credit card would save the day. I wanted to travel, but I couldn’t seem to get ahead enough to afford it. I also had an entrepreneurial craving that I couldn’t satisfy because that would mean having a variable income and I absolutely needed my paychecks.
When I would try to discuss this with people older and wiser than myself, I would often get comments like “get used to it” and “that’s real life”. Well, real life was robbing me of my peace.
Sacrificing now for freedom later
Then one day a friend pointed me in the direction of some audio CD’s (this was before podcasts were around) that talked about people who were paying off loads of debt aggressively and adopting a consumer debt-free lifestyle. I was inspired and learnt that it could be done, but there was a catch. It was hard. It involved saying no to things you wanted now, so you could have freedom later.
Having always been someone that doesn’t shy away from a challenge, I decided to dive in. The first step was to create as meager a budget I could manage to live on and scrape up $1000 as an emergency fund. With that in place I began paying off my debts from smallest balance to largest. Then it was easy sailing.
It was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. When I put my budget together I realized aside from a few small things I could change, I really didn’t have a lot of extra to throw at debt. To make a dent, I had to start working as many hours as I could and say no to all the extras.
I worked 10-14 hour days on a regular basis and I grew so sick of my truck payment that I ended up selling it and buying a little green 96 ford escort. It was one of those vehicles that you have to name to make yourself feel better about owning it. Her name was Cricket.
Freeing up my time and finances
Within six months, I had paid off about $15,000 working a job with a modest but fair wage as a residential painter. That six months of sacrifice has changed my life long term. Because I chose to get rid of my debt, I was able to upgrade (if you’d call it that) from Cricket to a van to run my own painting business out of. I could manage a variable income and make my own schedule because I wasn’t tied to a bunch of payments.
By my late twenties, I had the opportunity to do some bucket list travelling like seeing the pyramids in Egypt, exploring new Zealand with friends, and going on an African safari without having to come home and pay it off. It wasn’t a perfect science, and every once in a while I would swipe the credit card when I probably shouldn’t have, but I was in control instead of my finances controlling me.
Living a 100% down lifestyle in a 0% down world
When I started dating the man who is now my husband, I made it clear how important this was to me. Before we were married we made a commitment to aggressively paying off debt (because he was normal and had some) and living a consumer debt-free lifestyle. We spent the first few months of our marriage in another intense debt repayment phase. Not what most people would consider the typical honeymoon stage.
Now we own vehicles we buy with cash, we pay our balances every month, and aside from our reasonable mortgage, we stay away from debt. We do our best to live 100% down lifestyle in a 0% down world.
Let’s get real about debt
Just because this is my story, I am not naïve enough to think that this should be everyone’s choice. There is definitely a place for things like mortgages and business loans when they are well managed. But if you are someone like I was and your payments are not serving you, but hindering your financial success, I wanted to share this to give perspective that there is another way.
Like most things worth doing, it’s not easy. But it is worth it. There is a popular saying that you must choose your hard. It is hard to sacrifice and having to wait to get the things you want, but it is also hard to feel like your debt is controlling your life choices. Having interest working for you in the form of investments is much more valuable than having it working against you with debt from a financial planning perspective.
For our family, learning to handle this aspect of finances responsibly has positioned us to take advantage of many more opportunities than we would have otherwise been able to. And I sleep a lot better now too.