“Although being debt-free is a good goal in and of itself, it shouldn’t be the focal point of the big picture of your life. Knowing what you want will take you a long, long way. I made a list of the things that I wanted in my life, and keeping them in mind helped me stay focused.”
I did it. I paid off $47,554 of student loan debt in 14 months. In order to do it, I had to make some radical changes, but they weren’t as painful as I originally imagined they’d be. They were often barely noticeable once I got rolling along.
In the end, paying off the debt was about reclaiming my power. To do that, I did have to make some changes, create new habits, and take action in a few important ways.
1. I saved $5,000 in an emergency fund.
Long before I started rapidly paying off the student loan debt – or even thinking of rapidly paying it off – I socked away $5,000 in an emergency fund. It took some time, but I it was a goal I had in mind. My income was erratic and I couldn’t rely on credit if I lost a job or had an emergency because I declared bankruptcy a few months before I started building the fund. I decided on $5,000 because it could cover about three months of my low-cost living expenses, and it seemed do-able. Once I had $5,000 in the bank, I felt rich! It helped knowing it was there, and building it gave me the confidence to start thinking about paying off the student loan debt.
2. I faced my emotional issues surrounding money.
I stumbled a lot in my financial life. For a long time, I felt like I didn’t deserve to make much money. I also developed pride in my ability to “do a lot with very little.” I was a classic underearner, and around the time I started building my $5,000 emergency fund, I also started working through Barbara Stanny’s book, Overcoming Underearning, with a friend. We met weekly to discuss the exercises and think of ways we could stretch ourselves to increase our incomes. It was an eye-opening endeavor. It also built the foundation from which I was able to even dream about paying off the student loan debt.
3. I recommitted to my career.
There’s often not a lot of stability in the life of a liberal arts professor. I did take a full-time position early in my career, but I didn’t like where it was. I wanted control over my geography, which is rare in academic life. I took adjunct positions and thought of myself as a freelance college instructor. Sometime, I pursued other avenues, but nothing stuck. When I worked in marketing, I felt like a fraud – not because I couldn’t do the job, but because I felt like I didn’t belong in the cubicle. I missed campus life. The summer before I started my rapid repayment project, I had a mid-life crisis of sorts. I applied to graduate programs in another field entirely. I worked temp jobs and interviewed for a number of positions – one in which was a contract teaching position. It was that job that made me realize how much I wanted to stay in higher education. Once I made that decision and said no to all the other possibilities, life got easier. I had more focus.
4. I put myself out there more often and asked for what I wanted.
Once I recommitted to higher education, I dug in my heels. I looked for other types of work related to my field, and I spoke up in support of my profession. I pitched more stories, I started a blog, I applied for grants, and I got them. It was terrifying at first, but it got easier. The more I put myself out there, the less scary it seemed. I also felt less invested in any one outcome. I didn’t need the ONE thing I asked for, because I’d asked for so many, any one of them might have come my way. I interviewed for several part-time positions, but I didn’t get all of them. That was okay, though, because I was still putting myself out there. It became a numbers game. Except, of course, for my full-time position. I wanted it, I asked for it, I got it. And I was invested in that outcome. It would have been a real blow if it hadn’t worked out, but it did work out. For that, I’m forever grateful.
5. I took on lots of extra work.
At one point, I was teaching five classes, tutoring, selling stuff on Craigslist, and applying for part-time work at least once a day. In the summer, I taught courses and scored exams. Sometimes, I felt like all I did was work, but that wasn’t true. I still met friends for coffee and had plenty of television time. I managed to take a couple of trips, too. I learned a valuable lesson, though, about how much I could reasonably take on. I took on too much a couple of times, and burnout was imminent. I didn’t always handle it well, and I let a few things slide that I wish I’d been able to say no to in the beginning. But, lessons learned. The point is: I increased my income. I made more than I ever had before.
6. I kept my expenses low.
I had no credit card debt due to the bankruptcy. By the time I started the rapid repayment, my twelve-year-old car was paid off, as well. I lived with a roommate and stuck to a budget. My grocery budget is low, probably because I’m single and a pretty plain eater. I took my lunches to work, carried snacks with me, made my own coffee most of the time, and drank simple black coffee if I went to coffee shops. My monthly expenses very rarely exceeded $1,300, which left a lot to throw at the debt.
7. I defined my dream.
Although being debt free is a good goal in and of itself, it shouldn’t be the focal point of the big picture of your life. Knowing what you want will take you a long, long way. I made a list of the things that I wanted in my life, and keeping them in mind helped me stay focused. Now, when I take on extra work or get a windfall, that money can go to funding my dreams instead of paying off debt I accepted in my twenties.
8. I started a blog for accountability and support.
I’m not entirely sure why I thought this was essential to the process, but my gut told me to do it, and it was one of the best decisions that I’ve ever made. When I wanted to waiver, the thought of publishing a post that justified my decision made me feel, well, gross. I found amazing support in the blogosphere, as well. Having a cheering section made the process feel less lonely and more do-able.
9. I followed through.
For some reason, this one is the hardest to believe. Maybe because the story I told myself for years included, “You have no follow-through.” I blamed my lack of follow through for career disappointments and creative failures. There were a few moments on the rapid repayment journey when I could have bought a house or taken a big trip. Instead, I kept paying on the debt. I did it. I made the final payment. I followed through.
As of February, 2016, I am debt free. My student loan debt is a thing of the past. I am no longer carrying the financial weight of decisions I made in my twenties. We have parted ways. Goodbye, debt.
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