When Life Gets Tough, Get Practical.

I made a really big mistake on August 28th, 2007 when I signed student loan paperwork to go to a private, liberal arts a country mile north of my hometown. Not that I didn’t enjoy my 3 years there before it closed due to financial mismanagement, I enjoyed the overall experience. However, only after graduating with a business and education degree from another private, liberal arts college and calculating the full amount I had borrowed (just over $50,000 in principal and interest in December 2011), did I stop and think:

“What a mess. How do I get out of this?”

I might be paraphrasing. Thinking back now, I vaguely remember there being more swearing.

Point is, I was not in a great position to get all romantic about my career as a teacher, or in general. In the lead up to graduation in 2011, I found two full time business teacher positions within a 100 mile radius of my hometown. Little did I know that my graduation was timed with one of the most difficult job markets for teachers. And with my aforementioned student loan debt, moving too far away from home did not feel like a good option. So, with $50,000 in debt and no teaching job, I did what anyone should do when times are difficult:

I Got Practical.

My first job out of college was selling eye glasses at an optical store, working sort of full time hours at $8 per hour, plus a small 1.9% commission on all sales I made. It got the job done, and I was even able to save about $3,000 dollars before the grace period on my loans was up in savings by splitting costs with a roommate. Everything seemed to be heading in a good direction. Until I started learning personal finance habits from Dave Ramsey, that is.

The Financial Peace course completely changed my perspective on how I had handled my money and how I wanted to get greater control of my finances. I learned how to budget my money more effectively and centered my focus on one mission and one mission only: becoming debt free. I had stacked up a tall mountain of debt, but I would let myself get discouraged. As I began to look ahead, I figured out the fastest way to do it was to base my plan off two very important tasks.

First, I Worked My Face Off.

In a time where many of my contemporaries have resigned to never paying of their student debts, I opted to take the more difficult path. It didn’t take long to start setting results. Just a few months before taking that class, I landed a sales role with my current employer. It more than doubled my salary at that time and, with the generous commission structure, I could throw all that money at my student loans. On top of that, I kept working part time at the optical store on and off over the last 3 years, doing everything from cutting lenses in the lab to scanning medical documents. The occasional 12 hour days and 7 day work weeks were exhausting, but I knew the payoff was worth it.

Second, I spent nothing on myself.

I also watched my expenses like a hawk. I moved out of my apartment, opting instead to live rent free in the basement of my now 90 year old grandmother (who was very happy to have me around to help with difficult tasks like mowing the yard). I drove a beater car into the ground so I could avoid a car payment. When I did have free time to hang out with friends, I opted to go for water over expensive stinks and ate appetizers for meals. I became a somewhat decent cook, making lunches and dinners last full weeks. Garage sales and thrifty stores became my regular haunts when I needed clothes or other small amenities.

Every extra dollar earned and every extra dollar saved got me one step closer to the summit. I remembered the feeling with each “Paid In Full” notice that came in. The vindication, the joy, the excitement, the exhaustion. I kept pressing forward until it finally happened. My last student loan payment was made on August 28th, 2015.

I Did Not Quit.

Keep this in mind: it was never easy. It took 4 long years and just over $60,000 (after all the interest) to get there. There were times where quitting seemed easier. A few of those stressful moments include:

  • Taking a big pay cut to move to underwriting from sales after it became clear I wasn’t going to meet the required sales goals. I was fortunate to have managers that recognized my work ethic and have me a chance to move departments rather than fire me.
  • I took out a $4,500 car loan for a Pontiac Grand Prix to replace my 1993 Ford Thunderbird that sprung a bad coolant leak. It set me back about 6 months.
  • Breaking a lease after breaking up with my girlfriend at the time less than two months into said lease.

Every time it looked like the challenge was too great, I redoubled my efforts. That’s how bad I wanted to make it. And now that I’m here, there’s one thing I want to iterate:

I’m nobody special.

I may have gotten some help and a lot of encouragement from friends and family along the way, for all of which I am extremely grateful. That said, no one was making me do this. No one forced me to get this crazy and ambitious about paying off my student debt. No one forced me to sacrifice social life for working. I chose trade my free time for extra dollars. I chose to do it just like I chose to borrow the money to go to that school in the first place. I think anyone can do what I did, no matter how big the hole you’ve dug yourself in. You can make a choice to change everything today. You are not the victim here.

It’s a simple formula.

Set a goal, plan around the goal, work ridiculously hard towards the goal, and never quit on your goal. You may not achieve it in your timeline, and that’s OK. You may have to set aside that dream career, or trip, or purchase. That’s OK, too. Life is long. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. You’ll have all the time and money you’ll need of you are willing to manage it correctly. There will be a day to dream and to be romantic. However, there’s days where you just need to be practical.