What I Learned From Paying Down $30,000 of Debt / by Jennifer Chan

 

I actually didn’t know just how much I paid off until just before I started this blog. I knew that I was on the right track but didn't realize just how far I had come. I remember when I first started how intimidating that big number was staring back at me. You don’t know how you’re going to tackle it, let alone how long it’ll take. I remember during law school someone comfortingly told me, “Don’t worry, you’ll be making good money and it’ll be paid off in 3 – 4 years.” I thought, yeah, that doesn’t sound so bad. But then reality hits after you graduate, and suddenly that dreaded letter arrives in the mail informing you that repayment starts now.

When I first started earning money after law school, I wasn’t too worried about my debt. I was making great money and thought that my financial problems would be over. In fact, I barely thought about my debt at all. I assumed it would be paid off eventually, and I didn’t feel that I had to lower my lifestyle to accomplish that. I paid the minimum payments on my student debt and threw a thousand dollars at my credit card each month (I bought everything on credit). Meanwhile, I still went out every weekend, ate at fancy restaurants and bought pretty much anything I wanted. I wasn’t necessarily buying clothes or electronics, but food and entertainment were my weaknesses.

That all I changed when I saw my girlfriend finish paying her student loans. I realized that there was nothing in this world I wanted more. After buying her a celebratory cake (which had profanity and the name of the loan written on it), I decided to get down to work.

Mindset is Everything

Over the past 18 months, I've gone through many highs and lows. I learned that what makes things much more bearable is confronting your debt with a positive mindset. You have to go through this anyways, why not do it with some optimism and determination? It will make things a heck of a lot more tolerable for you.

You have to remind yourself that you are steadily paying it off and that sweet, sweet day will arrive when your balance will show a big fat zero. Visualize what that day will look like for you. Are you going to buy yourself your favourite meal? Are you going to celebrate with your friends and dance the night away? Are you going to treat yourself to a pair of concert tickets to see your favourite band? Are you going to take a day off work and treat yourself to a massage? The possibilities are endless! Splurge. You worked damn hard. I envision that day often and it’s what keeps me going.

Find the Good

This seems hard to believe but I’ve become grateful for the journey. Without incurring this debt, I would never have known how to manage my money. I pride myself on being completely self-taught on things like creating a practical budget, choosing the right financial products for my lifestyle, figuring out how invest in index funds, and how to, generally, ensure I’m not lighting my future on fire.

I was a hot financial mess before and, in a weird way, I’m so glad that I’ve had this experience because I feel more confident than ever.

You Still Need to Treat Yourself

It’s a marathon not a sprint. Paying down your debt most of the time is…boring and uneventful. There are no quick and easy solutions. One of the worst (and best) things about having a substantial amount of debt is that you are forced to sit with that feeling. You have to sit with the stress, anxiety and general unpleasantness knowing that you have a negative net worth.

I have never valued my mental health so much until I started my debt repayment. If you feel you need to see a therapist, do it. Who cares if that means it’ll delay your debt-free date by a couple months? Yes, it’s important that you pay off your loans as soon as you can, but in the grand scheme of your life a few months won’t make much of a difference. You need to take care of yourself. That’s why I’m a big proponent of still treating yourself to the occasional Starbucks, baked goods, dinners out, etc. You shouldn’t torture yourself. However, given your situation, you really have to ensure that you’re able to say no if something just doesn’t fit within your current means.

Be Open With Your Close Friends & Family

Talk about money and career with your loved ones! As a woman, I think it’s especially important to be open about issues that disproportionately affect us like how to negotiate your salary, deal with microagressions at work, and above all, how to tackle debt on a lower salary. The more that we're open about our experiences, the more we'll realize that we face the same issue.

I also think being open about your debt situation just makes life easier.  If you have to decline plans because you just can’t afford it right now, your friends & family will understand. They’ll also be more likely to propose cheaper activities that suit everyone. And I mean, it’s mostly about spending time with your friends & family anyways, whether it’s at a bar drinking expensive cocktails or having an affordable night in with a $12.00 bottle of wine.

It Will End Sooner Than You Think

Although it may feel like you'll never be debt-free in this century, the end will come sooner than you think. When I started repaying my student loans, I thought it would take 4-5 years. My current plan is to be done a year from now. I really feel like that one more year is relatively insignificant. Time flies. In fact, I can see the finish line now. I'm sure with interest, I'll have probably paid somewhere around $55,000 within 2 years and 9 months. Two years and 9 months over the course of a life is pretty insignificant.  Putting down minimum payments for 10 years, however, can feel much more draining.  This is why I'm such an advocate of being aggressive with your debt now and just eliminating them as quickly as possible.

For everyone currently paying down their mortgage, consumer debt or student loans, know that I believe in you and am there right beside you.