When I graduated from college in 1997, I had a history degree and more than $45,000 in credit card and student loan debt. Worst of all, I accrued all of it in less than three years.
After graduation, I was unable to land a decent full-time job in my chosen field, which meant I couldn't pay down my four maxed-out credit cards. I also had to put my federal student loans on forbearance. I was thinking about declaring bankruptcy but didn't have the money to file the paperwork.
Thanks to the tough love of a roommate, not only did I not file for bankruptcy, but I was also debt-free nearly five years later. Here's how I killed my debt.
Where I Started
I had accrued my debt by funding the life I wanted but couldn't afford. Paying off my debt required a radical change in my mindset. Without a good-paying job, I was left pursuing aggressive, outside-the-box efforts to pay off my debt. Some of those things included:
- Working 80 to 90 hour weeks at my day job at the college bookstore during seasonal peak times (for about $6 to $7 per hour plus overtime).
- Selling my plasma, sometimes three times per week (earning me $10 to $15 per donation).
- Selling items I didn't need (like my television and high school class ring) at pawnshops.
- Slashing my grocery budget to under $100 per month for several months at a time. A good friend's mother worked at a frozen pizza factory and was able to get reject, frozen pizzas by the bulk. I could get a box of 10 to 12 pizzas for $1.
- Working as many side hustles as I could to earn extra money, which I applied to my debt -- I was a bouncer, delivered newspapers, and worked part-time seasonal jobs.
The Pros of Aggressively Paying Down Debt
I look back at how aggressive I was at paying off debt and don't know if I could do it again today. I was young and single. I didn't have a family relying on me. I wanted freedom, and that meant doing whatever I legally could do to pay off the debt.
You may believe what I did wasn't worth the sacrifice in life quality; however, there are tangible benefits to aggressively paying off debt. According to Leslie Tayne, founder of Tayne Law Group, "The main advantage of paying off debt aggressively is that you'll pay down the debt quicker and avoid accumulating extra interest in the long-term."
That's what drove me: I not only wanted debt freedom, but I also didn't want to have to pay any more than I had to.
The Cons of Aggressively Paying Down Debt
I'll be honest. Over time, aggressively paying down debt is very difficult to maintain. Debt fatigue can slip in and throw you off course. You begin to hate the new lifestyle choices you must make to become debt-free. I can remember how lonely I felt at times, or bored, sitting at home in my apartment night after night because I couldn't afford to go out to dinner or dancing or drinks with my friends. There's only so many times you can tag along and just order water before the joy of the experience leaves you.
Frequently, I wanted to stop my aggressive debt payoff efforts and trade in my unhealthy, non-balanced diet and miserly ways for a night out with my friends, a new CD or a spur of the moment road trip. I realize now that I felt that way because I was sacrificing my pleasure in the present for financial freedom in the future. I knew, logically, that freedom would feel good, and clung to the hope of no longer being shackled by my debt, but in the moment, my logic did nothing to soothe my loneliness, alleviate my boredom or enliven my life.
Tayne points out that additional drawbacks to aggressively paying off debt often include a lack of understanding from friends and a reduced ability to save and invest.
If you decide to aggressively pay down debt, the decision will be one you have to live with for as long as it takes you to eliminate your debt; making sure you're committed to your decision for the long haul will give you a greater chance of success.
The Biggest Lesson Learned
Looking back on the entire experience, the main thing I've learned is that you can either let money control you or you can control it.
I made a commitment to never be guilty of the former again. I've learned to live by a budget and now view money as a tool that allows me to accomplish the things I want. That commitment requires one thing - remembering not to trade my financial future for the present I want now.
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