It was the summer of 2004. I’d graduated from the University of Minnesota several months prior and had just received my first student loan repayment notices in the mail.
I was six months into my big girl job, having landed a gig in marketing at a performing arts center in St. Paul my last semester in college. I was following the rules and doing everything right. I took the study abroad opportunities and the internships and the work study jobs in my focus area. My internship turned into salaried full-time work and I had health benefits and a retirement account at 22 years old. My American dream was humming along beautifully.
When I opened the mail that day to find a $300 per month payment due for my private loan for my public institution B.A. theatre arts degree, I just about fainted like a goat. This was just one of my student loans! My federal loan repayment hadn’t even kicked in yet as I had ashamedly declared financial hardship upon receiving the first $300 bill.
You’re probably asking yourself, “Why is $300 tough on this girl?” It’s because of all the other choices I’d made financially. Namely credit card purchases. I remember getting my first store card. I bought my then-boyfriend a bottle of Eternity cologne for $50. Which, ironically, probably turned into an eternity worth of debt after the years of minimum payments long after the relationship had dissolved.
My problem, at 18 years old when I stepped onto campus, was that I had a tremendous amount of confidence in myself that I saw all the purchases as investments in my future. My folks couldn’t help me financially with college but had academically and socially groomed me for success so I happily signed off on tens of thousands of dollars in student loans and credit cards promising myself that I would thank myself in the future for pampering myself in the present.
It was all a game to me. I was too big to fail. Until I started to get late and overdue notices from my student loan and credit card companies. It was just before my boyfriend (now my husband!) and I were about to move in together that I, in a panicky way, revealed to him how much debt I had to repay.
“Janelle,” he said, patiently. “I need you to give me full financial disclosure.”
He handed me a piece of paper, pen, and my stack of bills and said, “Write your minimum payments for everything, when they’re due, and we’ll fix this together.” Yep, I totally married him. He’s the best habit I’ve maintained for more than a decade.
Fast forward almost 10 years and two kids later. I’m nearly 32 and, guess what? I am still repaying debt. Facepalm. Within the last year, though, I’ve totally redeemed myself, fessed up to my casual relationship with debt because I became fed up with my feelings of desperation. And I made a new, albeit unusual friend. Dave flippin’ Ramsey.
There is a wide gulf between the core beliefs of Dave and I. He believes in things I do not and would probably encourage me not to splurge on wine when reducing debt. He’s a Christian Southerner, I’m a Midwest Feminist. But he’s got all the right ideas on debt reduction when it comes to my situation, so I’ll just consider him to be my well-meaning uncle figure.
I was losing the game with my debt (Read: “I have years to repay this!” and “The kids are only young once. Let’s live it up!”) up until six months ago when my husband and I committed to Ramsey’s debt snowball plan. We have credit card and student loan debt and the plan is to knock out the little debts and then chip away at the big stuff.
And it’s working! We’ve paid off a $3,000 student loan and $2,000 worth of credit card debt. Only $32,000 more to pay back student loans and $17,000 in credit cards. And $78,500 on our house. Oy vey. Eye on the prize, right?
Here’s a few things I’ve learned through this experience:
1) Debt is emotional.
I didn’t want to face it and pay it because then I would have to own up to having used credit cards and student loan disbursements for gas, groceries, alcohol, rent, and even, OMG, cigarettes when I used to smoke them. How embarrassing. But when I did own up to it, I felt very free, more in control, and way less desperate.
2) You can become obsessed with debt reduction.
Recently, I thought I had the most brilliant idea ever. I could sell our house in the hot real estate market and we could use the profit to pay off our credit card debt. My husband reminded me that we would be homeless. A straight shooter, that one. I’ll keep him around!
3) I’m afraid we won’t be able to maintain our debt-free lifestyle.
I’m anticipating it will be like losing weight, or winning the lottery, or battling an addiction. It’s moderation and truthfulness that will keep us from going back to old ways.
Wish us luck! Don’t feel awful about having debt. Just find a way to fix it. Don’t hide it. Don’t kick that can down the road. Reject convention and want for less. It’s going to be awesome!
Tell me how you’re reducing debt or how you’ve successfully stayed out of debt. I want to learn from you!