A Conversation with Veronika from Debts to Riches / by Jennifer Chan

 

Veronika is a law grad living in Vancouver, Canada. She’s crushing six figures of student loan debt - without a six figure salary. You can watch her pay off debt using chocolate on Instagram or Twitter @DebtsToRiches, or hear about her struggles and successes - without a character limit - at DebtsToRiches.com

I've been an avid reader of Veronika's blog for some time. As a fellow law graduate, I've enjoyed talking with her on both our decisions to choose non-traditional Big Law jobs. I recently reached out to her and asked her some questions that touch upon money, career and going against the grain.

I hope you enjoy this interview!


Jen: Hey Veronika, thanks so much for joining me! How did you become interested in personal finance? Were you always good with your money?

Veronika: No! I’ve always been generally terrible with money. I envy the “I’m a natural saver” subset of the personal finance community because that’s never been me. I’ve had my cell phone cut off because I couldn’t afford the payment. I’ve maxed out credit cards. I even almost took out a payday loan once! I’ve just barely stayed afloat for most of my adult life. When I graduated, the full extent of my financial plan was hoping that I could find work that would cover my minimum payments. Fortunately I did, but it was definitely a learning curve.

I looked up and a year had passed - I’d paid $15,000 and only $10,000 went to the principal. On $130,000 of debt, that was a drop in the bucket. I thought, is this my life for the next 10 years? At that point I started researching debt reduction methods and fortunately came across Mr. Money Mustache and Dave Ramsey. I just began reading and listening obsessively until it started to make sense. In a way, I’m grateful for these insane student loans because they nudged me onto the path to financial independence and now I’m planning to retire over 20 years early!

Jen: Did the amount of your student debt impact your decision on the type of job you wanted to pursue?

Veronika: I realized early on that I didn’t want to pursue a traditional legal career. Most articling students I knew were working 80 hour weeks or at least taking work home in the evenings and on weekends and that lifestyle wasn’t for me. I interviewed with several law firms and government organizations, but I don’t think the fit was there on either side and I didn’t receive any offers. If I did, I probably would have accepted out of desperation. Scary thought! Fortunately, I did find a non-traditional career with a starting salary comparable to the average articling position shortly after graduation. I won’t have the same income trajectory later in my career, but the tradeoff of more work-life balance made it an easy decision for me.   

Jen: When I graduated law school, I roughly knew I had accumulated about $50,000 in student loans but I didn’t have a real plan to pay them off until about six months later. Did you have a debt repayment plan as soon as you graduated law school?

Veronika: I had zero plan, which is out of character for me! Throughout law school my debt was this constant noise in the background that I felt like I had no control over. I thought I would eventually make enough money to pay back what I had borrowed, but I generally ignored my debt as it piled up. By the time I graduated it seemed insurmountable. The first thing I did after I received a job offer and negotiated my salary was add up all of my loans. The amount took my breath away! I didn’t see how I was going to make it work at the time. It took me about a year before I started planning beyond the minimum payments.

Jen: At first, I was really envious of my colleagues who graduated with less debt than me -- some even graduated with no debt at all. I eventually learned to stop comparing myself to others, but it did take a lot of inner work. Did you ever experience any of those feelings too? If so, what did you do to overcome them?

Veronika: Yes! I think everyone has those feelings, especially in careers like law where you’re surrounded by such immense privilege. I grew up in a small town, in a single income household, and I had never seen conspicuous wealth to that level. We drove old, rusty vehicles that were paid for in cash - I kid you not, one of them had over 300,000 miles (480,000 km) on it! Our house was a little decrepit, but the mortgage was paid off in 4 years. We always had enough, and I’m grateful for every advantage I was given, but it was just an entirely different world. Going from such a frugal environment to being surrounded by the type of generational wealth and privilege you see in law schools and law firms was a system shock. It’s like you’re speaking a different dialect.

I had moments where I would sit in my studio apartment in the dark with water leaking through the wall during a storm and scroll through sets of photos of my classmate’s exotic vacations. Law school was a tough time for me mentally, in general. The grading system and the firm socials and the job market incubate this constant comparison mindset. I was trying to balance studying, a part time job or three, and a long distance relationship. I envied my classmates, for sure. I felt like no matter how hard I worked it wouldn’t make a difference because they already had the connections and knew the system before they even enrolled.

I’ve gone through such a transformation in the past year and I’m so far removed from that law school version of myself now, but I think some shadow of those feelings will always be there. Now I struggle with comparing myself to the financial independence community! I just try to recognize that it’s human nature to compare ourselves to others, remember the advantages I’ve had, and attempt to foster gratitude and contentment. Easier said than done!

Jen: What I like about your debt strategy is that you incorporate fun, creative strategies to keep yourself motivated. For example, I noticed that you transfer one chocolate coin from one container to another every time you’ve paid off $1,000 of your debt. Are there any other strategies that you recommend to stay motivated?

Veronika: One of my biggest motivators is the Instagram #debtfreecommunity - everyone there is so supportive and inspiring. I have my excessive Excel spreadsheets, of course. I colour in my debt using a mural from an adult colouring book. I send myself pep talks to the future via the magic of the internet using a website called futureme.org. I use habit tracking apps. I’ve probably tried every motivational technique out there! I think the chocolate coins are my favourite though. The clink as every coin hits the jar is one of the most satisfying sounds in the world!

Jen: You live in Vancouver, which is the most expensive city in Canada to live in. Do you ever think about moving somewhere with a cheaper standard of living in hopes to be able to throw more money towards your debt? How do you find balance between maintaining a lifestyle that you want and undertaking sacrifices that might potentially improve your financial situation?

Veronika: I do sometimes think about what it would be like to live in a lower cost of living area, but I’m not prepared to do that at this time in my life. My spouse and I both love our jobs, and I think we’d struggle to find something similar outside of a large city. We love Vancouver too, and living here among the ocean and the mountains has always been one of our dreams. I think it’s hilarious that Vancouver is deemed ‘No Fun City’ since we’ve always struggled to find enough time to do everything we want to do. Living here does mean that we’ve had to prioritize so that we spend the most resources on the most important things (to us). It’s unrealistic to expect to live in a large city with every amenity, have a short commute, own a single family home with a white picket fence and a yard, and still maintain a low cost of living. We live in a small one bedroom apartment, use public transportation, and cook most of our own meals. We might have rice and beans for dinner and then take the bus to a concert. It’s all about maximizing your spending in a way that fits your priorities. You can have anything you want, but you can’t have everything you want.

Jen: Okay, imagine that tomorrow you will be making the final payment towards your student loans. After a few clicks of the mouse you will no longer owe money to ANYONE. What will you do to celebrate?

Veronika: The first thing I’d have to do is transfer the rest of the chocolate coins over! I’ve also said that I would eat them all when I became debt free, so I’d probably do a live Q&A where I just binge on chocolate and talk about debt. Wild, I know.

Jen: Do you think you’ll continue your side-hustles?

Veronika: I’m not sure! I just started my side hustle a few weeks ago but it’s going well. I love the flexibility of working from home! When I’m debt free, I’ll re-evaluate and decide if I want more time at that point. I’ll probably continue blogging, even though I consider it more of a hobby than a side hustle. I’ll still need to work on the ‘Riches’ side of ‘Debts to Riches’ after my debt is paid off!

Jen: Do you have any financial or non-financial goals that you’re dying to start tackling once you’re free from debt?

Veronika: I have the next 15 years generally mapped out! I’m planning to finish paying off my debt in 2019. In 2020, I want to: build up a 6 month emergency fund, recreate Dee-1’s music video for Sallie Mae Back, attend FinCon, travel, and focus more on contributing and creating. Eventually I want to max my retirement accounts, and of course the ultimate goal is to reach financial independence.

Jen: Finally, any words of advice for those who are having a difficult time – mentally and financially - with their debt repayment journey?

Veronika: Let go of perfection. It doesn’t matter if you spend time formulating the perfect debt repayment plan if it means that you delay starting. It doesn’t matter if you pay down your debt aggressively for 3 months if you’re only going to get burned out and give up. Everyone has tough days or weeks or months. If you don’t hit your goals every time, forgive yourself and keep going. Start small, stay steady. This isn’t your forever life. Over time you’ll find that you can increase your payments. The interest will go down, your income might go up, and you’ll probably gradually optimize your expenses. Tune out all of the noise around you and just focus on staying motivated. You’ve got this!

Veronika is a law grad living in Vancouver, Canada. She’s crushing six figures of student loan debt - without a six figure salary. You can watch her pay off debt using chocolate on Instagram or Twitter @DebtsToRiches, or hear about her struggles and successes - without a character limit - at DebtsToRiches.com