Being in debt drives me crazy. I never stop thinking about it. It’s the major motivator for me in earning money, in the same way that a trapped animal will chew its own foot off to get free. Anything, anything. I paid off the last of my consumer debt over a decade ago, and the interest rate on my remaining student loan is so low that it doesn’t really make fiscal sense to pay it off early. It’s a psychological thing. Debt is a shackle around my ankle and I’ll file it off with anything I can find.
The other night, I decided it was time to pay off the smaller chunk of my student loan. There’s a subsidized part and an unsubsidized part, and the latter is only about 7% of the total. I thought I’d just nuke it. As it turns out, the debt is structured so that I have to pay off the entire thing. I’m not allowed to pay off the smaller part early! It’s one of the million bajillion little tricks that lenders set up to bilk us of as much interest as possible. This is exactly the kind of thing that enrages me and incites me to ramp up my efforts. I WILL be free! I WILL saw off this shackle! Even if all I have is a nail file!
Most people’s reaction to debt is to wince and ignore it. People hate talking about money. Nobody I have ever worked with actually has a balance sheet or knows exactly how much they owe. Usually they don’t even know their net take-home pay; they seem to operate on a vague sense that they can actually spend their gross. Plus a little extra, because things happen. The two biggest areas of procrastination across the board are planning for the future (read: money) and taking care of health issues (read: planning for the future). If it came down to a contest between heavy-duty weight training and going on a debt-burndown program, most people would… well, most people would probably start Googling “fake own demise” or try to enter the witness protection program.
This is sad, because becoming physically stronger and becoming financially secure are both tremendously powerful, satisfying feelings. We so severely underestimate how great these states would feel. I know, because I’ve done both.
I think the major reason that most people don’t go out and chase down better-paying jobs or launch their own side gigs is because they’re so discouraged by having a boss. Well, a bad boss - research shows that about two-thirds of managers are ineffective. It’s hard working for someone who is bad at their job, someone who is a bully or a bad listener or arrogant or afraid of confrontation or who has double standards. This doesn’t even address the frustrating coworkers and the let’s-not-go-there customers. It’s other people who make our jobs hard. Or at least it feels that way when we believe we have no power over our situation. And we feel like we have no power when we’re weak in the wallet. We think we need this job, this particular job, and that we have no other choice.
Most of us hate only one thing more than updating our resumes, and that’s going to a job interview.
Shouldn’t we hate the feeling of being broke even more?
When I still had debt, I laid it all out on a spreadsheet. I looked at it at least once a day. I was like Arya Stark, memorizing her list of names. I updated my balances every day. I estimated how long it would take me to pay off the next name on my hit list. I used to have a Perkins Loan, and I visualized it as a man, an odious man named Perkins. (Unfair to the real Perkins, I’m sure, but it worked for me at the time). He was a sniveling pencilneck who constantly shoved his glasses up his narrow nose and he spoke in a nasally voice. Every time I would make an extra payment, I’d punch the air and go: “Take that, Perkins!” When I paid off the entire balance six years early, I got a thank-you letter saying that now those funds could be made available to another student just like me. Which was nice, and also made me feel a little bad for my mean visualization games.
I’m not even going to share all the various things I muttered to myself about The Banks when I was paying off my credit card balances.
I had, I think, six personal debts, two credit cards, a car loan, and three separate student loans. It all added up to something like $34,000. Since I was making about $29k at the time, it felt pretty daunting! I’m a fighter, though. Anything that knocks me down just makes me mad. I used what could have been hopelessness, anxiety, or dread, and I turned it into a white-knuckled fury. I would not be a slave to interest payments, fines, and fees. I would be a FREE ELF! I made it my ambition to get every raise, promotion, and side opportunity I could find and turn it into silver bullets that I then fired at the monstrosity that was my debt.
I did get promotions and raises. I did pay off those debts, one by one, until all that was left standing was that last student loan. I moved from my rented room to my own apartment to my own little mini-house. I bought myself new furniture and I took myself on my first real vacation.
Along the way, my work buddy turned friend turned boyfriend started to get more and more interested in what I was doing. Only a few months after I moved into my mini-house, he proposed. I was the princess who saved herself, and that’s how I got my prince.
A whole lot of mixed metaphors in this story, but I told myself a lot of different stories over the years as I fought this grim, lonely battle. Little office temp versus mass global economic forces. Or, I guess, an elf-princess who fires silver bullets at debt-werewolves? Certainly that feels better than seeing myself as an animal gnawing off its own paw. Strength rather than desperation.
What they never tell us is that power is not given, it’s taken. Initiative and agency come from within. The decision to make your own plans and build your own financial security is something that you decide for yourself. Nobody can take it from you. Nobody will even try, not really, not unless you go around to all your naysayers and start telling them your plans… The important thing is only to ask for advice from people who demonstrably know what they’re doing. Most of our friends, acquaintances, and colleagues probably don’t.
Things change when you have money. There’s a big difference between walking into an interview with shaking hands because you NEED this job, and sauntering in knowing that you’d be doing them a huge favor by taking this job. The last time I went on an interview, they asked if there was anything else I wanted to say. I said, “It would be a good idea for you to hire me.” Fifteen minutes later, they called and offered me the position. That’s the confidence that comes from financial security.
The shackle I wear right now is really more of a length of twine. I could have taken it off some time ago. I no longer have the unstoppable, vein-pulsing intensity toward it that I did a decade ago, when I felt that the vastness of my debt was like a swallowing sea, undertow dragging me into an abyss. It’s just a little thing now. I’ll shake it loose with barely a pause in my stride.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.