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My Road to $75,000 of Debt

When I was in elementary school, I already knew that I would go to a university.  My mom and dad dropped out of college and got married, and they both deeply regretted not finishing school.  Not having a degree limited their opportunities and their earning potential.  It was drilled into me from a young age that I would go to college.  It was not optional.

My parents wanted me to have more than they had, and they believed that college was the only path to get there.  As a kid, I dreamed of being “successful” and more well off than my parents.  I wanted to live in a big house with a pool and a three car garage.  I wanted to own nice clothes and designer purses.

I didn’t give that much thought to how exactly I would live this dream life.  I only had a vague sense that it would involve some sort of advanced schooling.  Maybe I would go to law school.  Maybe I’d be a vet.  Maybe I’d get a Ph.D. and become a psychologist.

I did well in school, and my parents pushed me to do even better.  They taught me that school was to be my number one priority in life – not boys (or marriage), not friends, not sports, not my part-time job, not anything else.  School was my singular priority.  I was okay with that because, honestly, school was the only thing I had ever been really good at anyway.  And, of course, I wanted to be “successful.”

When the time came to choose what I wanted to do after finishing my bachelor’s degree in psychology, I chose to pursue my master’s in HR.  It seemed like a good idea at the time.  I was accepted into a highly competitive (and expensive) business school, and I believed that would open doors for me.

The program boasted an average starting salary of $70,000 for its graduates.  I knew I wouldn’t be earning that much – I had zero work experience in HR while many of my classmates had already worked in HR for several years.  Still, I thought I’d probably be earning at least $50,000.  It was a start.

When I finished grad school, I was in for a rude awakening.  Finding a job was really, really hard.  I hadn’t anticipated the “over-educated, under-experienced” problem – no one wanted to hire me because I had too much education (translation: employers saw me as “too expensive”) and too little work experience.  Eventually, I settled for a job that paid $30,000 per year.  50% of my income was going toward my student loan payments.  I was essentially living on minimum wage.

I was living in my parents’ basement because I couldn’t afford to get by.  I wondered how I could possibly afford to ever move out.  I considered switching to a 25 year plan on my loans even though I knew I would end up paying six figures in interest alone.  I knew it was a bad idea, but I didn’t know what else to do.

I confided in a coworker friend and told her I wasn’t sure what to do.  She lent me a copy of Dave Ramsey’s book The Total Money Makeover.  I was fascinated by the debt snowball idea and liked the idea of paying my loans off early.  Still, it seemed unrealistic and, quite frankly, a little bit insane.  How could I make extra payments on my loans when my minimum payments were already 50% of my income?!

It wouldn’t be possible to do that and move out of my parents’ house.  I had been living with them since my junior year of college, and I wanted to get out of their basement as quickly as I could.  I wished I had read Dave Ramsey’s book seven years earlier – before I had made the decision to take on student loans.

I put off making any decisions about my loans and instead decided to focus on finding a better job.  I didn’t know much about personal finance at that time, but I did know that I couldn’t pay off $75,000 of student loan debt with a $30,000 annual gross income – while living in an area with a relatively high cost of living.

My First “Aha” Moment: Debt is Always Bad

I landed a job with a significant raise, and my husband and I decided to start looking for a home.  When we ran the numbers, we realized that buying a home (or even renting an apartment) at this point would be a very bad idea.  We would be living to paycheck to paycheck.  We would have no savings.  If any unexpected expenses came up, we would put them on a credit card.  We could easily end up trapped in an endless cycle of debt.

Even with our increased income, we were still buried in student loans.  The truth is, with the amount of debt I have, I would need to be making well into the six figures for my student loans to not be an enormous burden.  This was my “aha” moment.  This was when I realized that even if I somehow managed to find another new job that paid double my current income – it still wouldn’t be enough.

We were drowning.  The only way to get out was to pay off the loans as quickly as possible.  We came up with a plan to pay our loans off by 2018.  This plan requires us to live with my parents, drive 15 year old cars, pick up freelance work on the side, and live an extremely frugal lifestyle.

It’s not easy, but it will be worth it.  In a few years, we’ll be able to buy a home.  With the student loans gone (or at least much lower), we’ll have more wiggle room in our budget.  We’ll be able to have emergency savings.  We’ll be able to save for retirement.  We can choose to pay our mortgage off early if we decide to.  We won’t have to live paycheck to paycheck.  We won’t be trapped in debt forever.

My Second “Aha” Moment: Minimalism

After we made the decision to do the debt snowball on our student loans, I started reading more and more about personal finance.  It was during this time that I had my second “aha” moment.  I had always liked the idea of minimalism but I don’t think I had truly understood it.  I saw it simply as a type of decor – I liked the sleek, clutter-free design.  In the past, I hadn’t really thought about it on a deeper level.  The more I read, the more it began to appeal to me.

Why do we attribute so much value to having all of the “right” things – why do I need the latest iPhone, or a FitBit, or a Kate Spade purse?  Why have I always been concerned with being “successful”?  Why do I need to have more than my parents had, as if there was anything wrong with their life?  We always had enough.

Since I’ve started my journey toward paying off massive debt, I’ve re-evaluated how I define success.  I no longer define success as living in a big house with a pool and a three car garage.  I don’t think success means carrying designer purses or wearing $200 jeans.  Truthfully, those people who seem to “have it all” are often buried in debt because they’re trying to pretend that they are more “successful” than they actually are.

To me, “success” is no longer tied to material objects or a particular salary.  My new version of “success” is living a debt-free life.  Living without debt gives you freedom – the freedom to live your life how you choose.  When you aren’t tied down by payments, you can live your life on your terms.  After being buried in massive debt, I see how valuable that is.

Freedom is more important than living in a huge house, driving a fancy car, or buying all of the latest gadgets.  “Success” is not something that can always be easily seen.

“Success” is living a life that feels good on the inside – not just one that looks good on the outside.