John Muir seems to be the hero of Mammoth Lakes, Calif. On a sign entering town and on a sign exiting town, he is quoted multiple times. So, I will honor him here as well: “The mountains are calling and I must go.”
Once upon a time, I was completely broke. I was living paycheck to paycheck. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get ahead. I was stressed, depressed, overwhelmed and constantly worried I wouldn’t be able to pay my bills. I graduated college almost $30,000 in the hole at the end of 2011, which was a combination of student loans and a personal loan from my parents. Even though I had a great desire to do adult things, I simply wasn’t able.
I took a job in Virginia, and then took a second job to make ends meet. I worked extra weekends for overtime pay and worked my butt off to do the best job I possibly could. I got a raise, which helped tremendously, and I started paying a little, tiny bit extra on my student loans.
In 2013, I took a job in Texas and a major leap of faith. On the side, I wrote freelance articles, sometimes two or three in a month, to improve my lifestyle and pay a tiny bit extra on my loans. But it wasn’t working. My credit card got a nice workout every month, and it never really held a zero balance for very long. My apartment was too expensive, and I wasn’t making the kind of progress I thought I should.
Then, almost exactly a year ago, I finally got serious. Some days, it feels like a decade ago. Others, it feels like yesterday. I committed to paying off my student loans by the end of 2015, but now, only a few weeks before I turn 26, I’m completely debt free. I paid off the loan to my parents, I paid off my Stafford loans. I paid off the tiny amount on my credit card and got a lot stricter about how often I use it.
Here’s the secret: there is no secret.
I lived frugally. If I bought clothes, they were on sale, clearance or second hand. If I traveled, it was at the generosity of others. I packed a lunch almost every day, and I constantly sought to decrease my food bill each week.
I lived simply. For a year, I lived in an apartment with no sofa, no television and no kitchen table. Each place I lived, I immediately found the local library and used it regularly instead of buying books and movies. I went downtown rarely, and out to eat for special occasions only. There was no cable, no Internet and very few Starbucks.
I focused. Every day, I thought about my goal, and every day, I tried to do something to move closer to that goal. I said no. A lot. I said later. I worked a lot. One job, two jobs, three jobs. Freelancing and office assisting on nights and weekends.
But mostly, I said yes to the reality that I am in control of my money and my financial health. I got myself into that mess, and I got myself out.
Student loan balance as of July 31: $0
Dream big. What if you had no payments except maybe rent or a mortgage? No car, no student loans, no credit cards.
What would you do?
Would you travel the world? Maybe you’d backpack around Europe or take an Alaskan cruise or visit the most beautiful beaches in Central America. Maybe you’d visit all 50 states or raft down the Colorado River. Maybe you’d visit your family and friends who live in other cities.
Would you explore a new hobby? Maybe you’ve always wanted to fly a plane. Maybe you’d learn to paint or brew your own beers or take every class you can at the local community college. Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn Japanese or Italian or Spanish.
Would you invest in your home? Maybe you’ve been waiting to buy a house because you can’t save a down payment. Maybe you’d repaint your current home or do some landscaping or update some furniture. Maybe you’d love to commission a local artist to complete a painting for above your fireplace.
Would you splurge on yourself? Maybe to you, pedicures are the epitome of relaxation. Maybe you’ve been lusting after a new interview suit. Maybe you want to get a tattoo.
Would you give? Maybe you want to help your church fund a mission trip. Maybe you’d splurge on 20 dog beds for the local animal shelter. Maybe you want to be more generous with birthday and Christmas and wedding and baby presents.
Would you save? Maybe you would max out your IRA or your 401k. Maybe you would start a college fund for your 5-year-old. Maybe you would pay double on your mortgage to build equity.
In the end, it’s not about the numbers. For some people, playing with the numbers is fun and is it’s own form of dreaming. But the dreams are what keep us going.
Each person has unique goals and joys. So each person should dream as big as they can stand. Think about this, meditate on this. Turn your dreams into plans. And keep dreaming bigger and bigger with each breath until your chest explodes with the possibilities.
Last week, it hit me: I will have paid off almost $30,000 in debt in 3.5 years, more than $16,000 in the past 12 months.
Indulge me in a little bit of bragging. I’m very proud of myself for what I’ve accomplished. This was the hardest things I’ve ever done.
And that’s when it hit me–if I can do this, what else can I accomplish?
The answer: anything I damned well please.
Paying off a lot of debt is a lot like getting in great shape and improving one’s health. The mindset shifts are almost identical.
- Having a supportive community around you is vital. Having a plan and mini, short-term goals is also very important. Searching for motivation and finding (and hanging onto) your “why” needs to happen on a weekly, if not daily, basis.
- People who become healthy and/or pay off debt ignore negative people, and they truly believe they can achieve their goals.
- After all, goals are just dreams with deadlines. These people give themselves deadlines, and they hold themselves accountable.
- Ultimately, and maybe most importantly, they know that success or failure is in their hands. It’s not dependent on anyone else around them. They take ownership of a project and tackle it fiercely.
I’m struggling to define my debt-free goals, but I know that I can apply so many things I’ve learned from this journey to the next thing. And whatever that next thing is, I know I can make it happen.
The end is near.
No, really, the end is very, very near. If things go as planned, I will make my last student loan payment on July 25.
But let me back up.
Things that happened in June:
- I started consistently taking riding lessons, which has been so much fun, I can’t believe I spent so long out of the saddle. I budget for one lesson per week, and that’s been enough to get me back into the hobby without being overwhelmed. That said, it’s been really, really hard not to go buy a ton of new riding gear! I broke down and bought two pairs of used breeches from a friend of a friend who posted in a tack trading group on Facebook, and I can’t wait to try them out!
- A freelance check came through and I sold some equipment on eBay, so I had an extra boost of income.
- However, I also forgot that my car registration would be due in June, so I had an “unexpected” expense. Once again, a reminder that there are very few things that should actually be unexpected. I’m still working on improving my budgeting skills, but it’s a never-ending process. You can’t let it slide, ever.
Plan for July:
- During July, I will get two second-job paychecks (July 3 and 18, approximately) and my larger salary check (July 25).
- Each second-job check should be at least $250.
- After those two, I should be able to finish off my loans with my salary check.
With the end so incredibly close, I’ve been reflecting a lot on this journey, what got me started, what kept me going, and what’s coming next. I’ve been reading over my blog posts from the past year, thinking about where I was (both physically and mentally) a year ago.
What I’ve found is a form of final motivation I wasn’t expecting. When I laid out my plan, I only sort of believed I could actually make it happen. My words were confident, but inside I was quaking with fear. When I could finally articulate my reason for doing this, a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. When a very fortuitous happening in August left me with far less in loans than I had thought, I soared.
Each stepping stone on this path has taught me something, but it’s also nice to go back and re-learn these lessons with fresh eyes. I will not give up after coming so far.
Student Loan Principal as of June 30: $2,404
July Goal: Become Debt Free
There’s a scene in Tangled with Rapunzel and Flynn on the boat, waiting for the lanterns to get released that I’ve been playing over in my head. Rapunzel’s feeling a little down, and she says, “I’ve been looking out of a window for eighteen years, dreaming about what I might feel like when those lights rise in the sky. What if it’s not everything I dreamed it would be?”
Flynn assures her, “It will be,” but then she says, “And what if it is? What do I do then?”
Of course, Flynn knows just what to say: “Well, that’s the good part I guess. You get to go find a new dream.”
As the weeks dwindle and I get closer and closer to paying off my loans (six more weeks!), I realize how much I’ve been absorbed by this goal. Many decisions in my life that might seem unrelated have been impacted by my deep desire to pay off my loans, and the past year has been riddled with “if only I were debt free” moments, days and weeks.
In some ways, I feel like I’ve already crossed the finish line. For the past year, I’ve focused so much it’s hurt. And now that I’m so close to being done, I wonder what’s next.
Some things, I already have planned: ride more horses; build an emergency fund; save for a new car.
But then I stop and think about some of the little things: Will I keep my second job? If I do, will I be able to cut back on hours without letting my ambition and impatience get in the way? If I don’t, what will I do with (compared to now) so much free time? How will my mindset change once I’m actually out of debt? Will I be more generous? Will it live up to my expectations of freedom? Will I see my career in a different light?
What happens when the biggest, most ambitious goal I’ve ever had is actually accomplished?
Over the past year, I’ve gone through periods of great motivation and extremely low motivation. I’ve wanted to give up and go shoe shopping, but even when I seriously considered throwing in the towel, something kept me going. Sometimes it was an internal drive that this is the right decision and a worthy goal, but sometimes I had to go searching for that motivation.
Knowing that some of my readers might be just starting out or searching for their own motivation, I wanted to compile a list of things that actually motivated me at various points:
Make an After-Debt Wish List. Mine included an updated wardrobe clothing, horseback riding lessons, adding to my Roth IRA, and gifts and charity for others. Everything was detailed: “new flats” instead of “new clothes.” I also have a list of charities I’d like to donate to as I can.
Make an After-Debt Budget. Assuming you’re making the same amount you are now, mock up a realistic budget of what life will look like when you’re debt free. When I did this, it was great to see how much I will contribute to retirement (15% is a lot!) and still have money to pursue other goals like saving for a new(er) car, travel and horseback riding. Although this budget probably won’t be the same by the time you’re done paying off your debt, it shows a very different picture of your life.
Find Like-Minded People. I had many conversations with family members and friends who were supportive of my goals or pursuing similar goals. These often rejuvenated my resolve and let me know that people were rooting for me.
Talk to Non-Like-Minded People. As motivating as it is to talk to people similar to me, I find it just as motivating to talk to people making different decisions. Make a conscious effort to empathize with their situation, but recognize the reasons why you are going down your path instead of theirs. There’s a lot of reasons why you’re paying off debt, and some people will disagree with you. Embrace it. Know you’re doing what’s right for you, and they’re doing what’s right for them. Be thankful you are $X less in debt that you were at this time last month.
Find Blogs, Podcasts and/or Books. There are so many free resources available via the Internet and public library to educate yourself about different theories and methods, not to mention personal memoirs, tips and tricks to save money, sell your stuff, live frugally. My favorites over the past year have included No More Harvard Debt, the Dave Ramsey Show, Living Well, Spending Less, And Then We Saved… and, honestly, so many, many more that it’s impossible to list them all. Start looking and bookmark your favorites. Go to the library and just pick up a bunch of books. Read the ones you identify with and return the ones you don’t.
Make a Debt Countdown. I did this a couple different times in different formats including a bar graph that I colored in, a list of debts I crossed off as I paid them off, and a $100-increment list that I highlighted when I got my balance to that amount (see the picture above). I’ve also taken screenshots of my loan balances so I can flip back through and see how far I’ve come.
Keep a Record of your Journey. Keeping this blog up has been a motivator in itself. Each month, I want to be able to show progress, and it’s so much fun now to go back and read where I was a year ago. Wow. So much has changed between then and now. Even if you don’t want to keep a blog, write in a journal or even just take snapshots of your accounts so you can see where you started.