Today’s post is from a friend of mine, Jen Smith.
If you told me three years ago I’d be debt-free and inspiring others to get their finances together, I would’ve looked at you funny.
At the time, my future husband, Travis, and I owed a combined $78,000 in car and student loan debt. But after getting married in October 2015, we both decided paying off that debt was a priority — and 23 months later screamed, “I’m debt-free!” to whoever would listen.
Now on the other side, I look back at our journey to becoming free of consumer debt and remember all the emotions tied to different stages along the way. I’m usually a level-headed person, but I think I felt every feeling possible over those two years.
Some of those feelings were positive… and some weren’t.
Many people go through these feelings when paying off a huge amount of debt in a short period of time. Sometimes I felt guilty about the way I was feeling, and other times I wanted to hold onto a feeling even when I knew it was wrong.
The Five Stages of Paying Off a Huge Amount of Debt
Today, I want to share the big ones with you. Hopefully you can learn from my mistakes or better navigate your own debt-free journey.
Before committing to paying off debt, I had a serious case of FOMO (fear of missing out).
I didn’t want to spend my 20s living under a rock to make payments that would hardly make a dent on the amount I owed. I wasn’t just scared I’d miss out on the best years of my life — I didn’t think I could actually do it. I could barely get by without making huge loan payments. How was I going to live on even less?
So, my husband and I planned to take it slow.
Our original plan was to pay off our debt in five years. After a month, we reworked it to four years. Then, the next month we realized — if we went all in — we could feasibly do it in two years.
But we didn’t start on beans and rice; we strengthened our frugal muscles over time. And with every month the fear we couldn’t do it — or that we were missing out — became less of a concern. We learned to be OK with where we were.
I’m generally not a high-stressed person, but you wouldn’t have guessed that in our first few months of digging into our debt. Coming to terms with debt I’d ignored for years and working three to four jobs was a lethal combination. I was working online in the morning, going to my day job, coming home to a freelance assignment and then working at a foster home on the weekends.
I got shingles three months into this heavy workload.
Shingles is a dormant strain of the chickenpox virus that causes severe nerve pain. It’s usually seen in immune-compromised elderly people, but in rare cases, it can be brought on by extreme stress.
I wish I hadn’t tried to do everything all at once. I eventually figured out my physical limits and how to work multiple jobs. It’s different for everyone and definitely not worth stressing yourself into the walk-in clinic to pay off your debt.
We had friends who liked to go out and spend all the time. We quickly realized we had to add some frugal-minded people to the mix if we didn’t want to isolate ourselves or overspend with our other friends.
Two years of not eating out or buying annual passes to theme parks (that’s a big thing here in Florida) showed us who were our real friends. We found people who want to spend time with us for our company, rather than just accompanying them on activities.
Now when I look around, I’m content with what we have. I find I don’t crave stuff and experiences as much as I used to because we’re not keeping up with the Joneses anymore.
Halfway through paying off our debt, I hit a wall.
We’d paid off over $40K and still had another $38K to go. We hadn’t seen a penny of Travis’ paychecks since we got married — they all went toward paying off debt — and I didn’t see myself making it another year working weekends, missing vacations and saying no to things I really wanted.
That’s when I started writing about my experience and what I’d learned from the last year. I thought if I could help others do what I’d done, it would motivate me to keep going and hold me accountable.
I began writing on Facebook and Blogspot, and then started my own website and blogging for bigger sites. Sharing was one of the most cathartic and motivating things that got me through this journey.
Sixty-three percent of millennials have more than $10,000 in student loan debt, and my Facebook friends are no exception.
Seeing these friends take trips and buy things when I know they make less than me and have six-figure student loan debt loads made me unbearably bitter.
Thankfully, I’ve never expressed my feelings out loud, because now I’m embarrassed by some of them. Everyone starts their journey at the right time for them — not when I think they should.
Some people are motivated by charts and interest calculators, while others are motivated by personal stories about paying off debt or actually doing the work. When their heart and brain align, they’ll be ready. Until then, all I can do is have grace for them and say no to their bad ideas that involve money.
Not the bad kind, the good kind. I don’t like to be the center of attention, but leading up to our debt-free moment, I gave myself permission to embrace our accomplishments. I let the encouraging words of others soak in and stopped belittling our achievement.
This probably sounds stupid, but for two years my husband and I flew way under the radar. We hadn’t taken any Instagram-worthy vacations or eaten at fancy restaurants — we focused on paying off debt. So when we made that last payment of $1,887.43, it just felt normal.
I’m really proud of us. My husband and I pushed hard through job layoffs, underemployment, getting kicked out of our apartment, and a heap of other things that could’ve caused us to slow down or quit. But we didn’t.
And I’m happy to say we’re not special either: If we can do it, you can too.
Jen Smith is a contributor to The Penny Hoarder, one of the largest personal finance websites with more than 19 million monthly readers. In 2017, the Inc. 5000 ranked The Penny Hoarder the 25th fastest-growing private company and the No. 1 fastest-growing private media company in the United States.