Let Go,  Mindset

How I paid off $33k of debt in 18 months

I’ve never really identified myself as someone who was good with money. The only formal “training” I’ve had was my microeconomics elective in undergrad and I got a C in the class. I was a bio major and a student-athlete on scholarship so while I enjoyed math, finance wasn’t really my jam. At that time I had a joint credit card with my dad for “emergencies” but didn’t really understand how that all worked because he was the one paying the bills every month.

I landed my first big girl job 10 years ago and since then I had been semi-serious about personal finance merely because it seemed like the adult thing to do. I bought and read personal finance books, attempted to track my spending, and created about 60 different excel spreadsheets with monthly budgets. One month I’d do great, but then my ability to stay in control of my finances went to shit. I really wanted to be a money person but something was holding me back from taking the reins. My relationship with money was unhealthy and lacked purpose.

For most of my twenties, I was a broke graduate student dependent on student loan refund checks, measly research stipends, and lines of credit that I should never have been approved for. Money was coming in and I did a fantastic job of spending it. When money wasn’t coming in, I still did a fantastic job of spending it. I’d soon have a job and make enough to pay it all off eventually, right?

I often blamed my money problems on other things and found ways to justify my shortcomings. I blamed it on the fact that I had moved to an area with the third highest cost of living in the United States. I found comfort in learning that in comparison to what the experts are saying about household debt in America, I was still doing better than the average.

I blamed it on the fact that I got married, bought a condo and started a business within 1 year. I pointed fingers at my ex-husband, my mom for passing down her love for clothes to me, a business that wasn’t making any profit and having to take on a mortgage by myself. I convinced myself that being in debt was inevitable and wasn’t my fault.

In June 2018, that was about to change. I was about to embark on a journey where I would become the most adult version of myself. I was about to take on the ultimate act of self-care by ditching the victim mentality and for the first time own up to my shit.

A difficult conversation with someone I trusted spurred me to figure out how much money I actually owed. I bravely linked all of my personal accounts into my Mint.com dashboard and for the first time I added up all of my debt in one place. The balance on 5 personal credit cards, a car loan and a business line of credit added up to…..$33,234.52.

THIRTY THREE THOUSAND dollars. Holy shit. How the hell did that happen? And that didn’t even include the balance of my mortgage or student loans. If my dad were still alive he would have been so disappointed.

Turns out that my marriage wasn’t the only relationship in my life that was significantly flawed, my relationship with money was too. On top of the big expenses that I used to justify my debts, I had a habit of spending money frivolously and mindlessly. My credit cards were maxed out and my credit score was in the dumpster. I had been separated for a year and a half and even though I was making a great salary I was barely making ends meet on my own. I had come to terms with the idea that I’d be in debt for the rest of my life.

I didn’t know it then, but that was all about to change. I I was incredibly tempted by the fast fixes such as slimy debt consolidation schemes being thrown at me from every direction. I considered borrowing against my 401k, filing for bankruptcy, and even looked into selling my eggs.

I didn’t know it then but now it’s clear: my life had hit it’s rock bottom.

Today, my balance on those 7 accounts is $0.00. My credit score went from an all time low of 625 to a personal best of 784. To say that this journey was stressful would be a huge understatement but the hard work has paid off. Literally.

I endured plenty of challenges and tears along the way but made sure to celebrate my accomplishments, too. What I thought was impossible to do actually HAPPENED. What I thought would take me 50 years, took me less than 2. 18 months ago I felt trapped, alone and depressed and now feel empowered and free. I feel as though I’ve emerged from a suffocating pile of rubble that had been pinning me down for longer than I can remember. Without a mortgage, car loan or credit card debt, I’m in a much better position to tackle my mountain of student loan debt and build my personal wealth. For the first time in my 36 years, I genuinely feel like I finally have my shit together.

I put in the grunt work and didn’t give into any “fast-fixes”, family loans or debt consolidation scams which makes my success feel SO GOOD. I’m proud of me and know that my dad would be proud of me too.

So how did I do it?

There was no single thing that I did to eliminate my debt – it was a culmination of strategic actions that would propel me towards my goal. Every single action I took towards paying off my debt added up to two huge personal successes. First of all, I paid off my debt (HOORAY!). Second, my mindset about money is completely different and therefore my relationship with it is much healthier than it was when I started. I went from being “just another average American” to being in a position where I am living well within my means, and I now have the control to make informed decisions about what I do with my income – both in terms of spending and investing.

My goal for 2019 was to break free from the chains of debt and I did it. Checked that box! Now my 2020 focus is to build wealth rather than have to deal with throwing money away to lenders and credit card interest.

It’s my hope that by telling my story it will inspire others to take on what seems daunting and impossible. I also hope that it will inspire others to bring their skeletons out of the shadows and into the light, and eliminate them once and for all. I don’t expect your story to be exactly like mine but maybe my keys to success will help you to get creative with a customized plan for achieving your own financial goals. Here are some the actions I took to eliminate my debt, increase my financial literacy and make a HUGE stride towards achieving financial freedom.

I forced myself to get comfortable with talking about it.

Prior to this journey, I was incredibly closed off when it came to money. I would get very uncomfortable when the topic came up and never revealed my financial situation with anyone. I did my best to act like I had my shit together but in reality I was a hot mess just trying to keep my head above water. I was stressed out all the time and depression was rearing it’s ugly head. I felt like every area of my life was in shambles.

About 6 months into my new relationship, I was on the phone with my boyfriend asking him for his advice on taking money out of my 401k to pay off some of my credit card debt. He advised against it and it evolved into a conversation about my debt. I didn’t reveal everything to him in that moment because honestly I didn’t even know how much total debt I had. I was shaky and sweating and so scared that he would dump me right then and there. But as shocked and disappointed as he was, he didn’t. In fact, after some tough love he offered to HELP me figure out a plan to pay it all off.

As it turns out, I didn’t really need his help – not directly any way. He had never been in a situation of being in debt so he couldn’t really relate to my situation. I already knew what I needed to do and a general idea of how to get it done. I just needed the kick to the rear and his support to follow through with what I had tried to do so many times before. Over the next 24 hours, I developed a series of Excel spreadsheets with a debt repayment plan (using the snowball method), a monthly budget, and a mechanism to track it all. I had done all of this before, but this time it was different. This time I had someone in my corner to show it to and hold me accountable for actually doing it.

The conversation that I had with my boyfriend was my turning point. Over the course of the next 18 months, I started talking about it with my friends and ultimately it became easier to talk about it with strangers. As I started making a dent in my debt, I became more comfortable with being vulnerable with others about my relationship money. I was transparent about my situation and every time I opened up to someone, it usually resulted in having another person in my corner cheering me on.

Prior to this point I wouldn’t have the guts to post on the internet about my financial struggles but here I am today sharing with anyone who is interested in reading my story.

I put it on my vision board.

Those that follow me on Instagram know that I’m a big believe in the magic of vision boards. I often choose a word that serves as a theme for what I want to accomplish in the coming year. Click here to read about my word for 2020.

My 2019 vision board.

My word for 2019 was FREE and the items I put on my vision board aligned with this. I wanted freedom from my credit card debt but that wasn’t the only thing. I wanted freedom from the legal confines of my marriage – which had been kaput since early 2017 (something else I’ve never really talked about, but we can save that for another time). Freedom from physical stuff. From a job with not a lot of opportunity to grow. From everything that was holding me back from living my best life.

My vision boards give me purpose for everything I do and it shifts my focus to what was most important to me EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. I put the board in a spot where I see if every day so it’s a constant reminder of what I want to manifest in my life.

Vision boards are my way of focusing what I need to do today and in the immediate future to achieve my goals and avoid spending energy dwelling on the past. When I put being debt free on my vision board it didn’t really matter any more how I got to that point, what mattered is how I was going to take control and overcome it.

My vision board and my yearly word is a constant reminder that every action, thought, and decision I make is about living in the present, being intentional, and being in alignment with my quest for freedom in some area of my life. The rest of this list outlines the actions I took to break out of my debtor’s prison.

I picked up every coin I saw on the ground.

About 10 years ago I read Jeff Olson’s book, A Slight Edge, which has been fundamental in shaping my philosophy around achieving my personal goals and helping my clients do the same. This book shifted my mindset around the actions I take to accomplish my goal and has kept me motivated even when all hope seems lost. This book, which I highly recommend, outlines an approach for shifting your mindset towards one that creates powerful results from small actions which are repeated and compounded over time. It walks you through how philosophy, attitude and daily actions create long-lasting results.

One of the many pennies I’ve found in a grocery store parking lot.

My interpretation of this is that every action, big and small, counts. I believed that every penny that I found would would propel me closer to achieving my financial goal. So whenever I saw a coin on the ground, I picked it up and kept it. It didn’t matter if it was heads or tails, it was money yo.

The monetary value of the coin wasn’t the only value these small actions added to my life. I believe in the power of the law of attraction so finding a coin on the ground and actively bending down to pick it up was my way of sending a message to the universe that money is important to me. The monetary value of a coin is small in comparison to what I needed to pay off my debts but it’s symbolic of a mindset which capitalizes on an opportunity to bring money into my life. A penny may seem small and trivial but to me IT MATTERS. After 18 months of doing this, I still can’t walk by a coin on the ground without picking it up.

I got creative with increasing my income (and stopped doing things for free).

Cash-money I made from selling my gym equipment .

With my new mindset in transition and with the philosophy that “every penny matters”, I was able to seek out opportunities for increasing my income in a variety of ways. I rented 2 of my bedrooms in my condo and moved into the basement, sold unwanted or unneeded items, and canceled subscriptions. Goodbye, Netflix. I ramped up my side hustle by taking on some freelance ghost writing jobs, competed in beach volleyball tournaments that had a cash prize, coaching volleyball lessons and nutrition clinics, started selling branded apparel rather than giving it away for free, and took on as many nutrition clients that my schedule would allow for. I tried driving for Lyft but found that as a dog owner and beach volleyball player, I couldn’t really keep up with keeping my car spotless. I also decided that time is money so I said no to doing things for free and didn’t take on a commitment that wasn’t worth the time or the commute.

I will be the first to admit that saying yes to every opportunity to make money can get really exhausting and stressful. I made sure to balance living like a complete pauper with budgeting in some self-love. I scheduled massages to recharge (often booked at a discount through Groupon), fun time with my friends (game nights with friends are cheap and SO fun!) and airplane rides to see my boyfriend (booked in advance to save money).

I made a plan that would work for my motivation style.

As someone who is motivated by achievement, I am motivated by visually seeing my work paying off. I’m all about data, spreadsheets, charts, and checklists so I downloaded a variety of templates from the internet and modified them so they would make sense for me. I set aside time every other week (usually on pay days) to commit to my personal finances. After I paid all my bills, I updated my spreadsheets and printed out charts each month to see how my actual progress compared to my desired progress. Some months I did better than others and the comparison didn’t always line up but the most important thing was that I could actually see that I was making progress. Every month I printed out a hard copy of my progress and it became the cover of my binder where I organized all of my personal finances.

I had created a personalized system of tracking, reporting and accountability that kept me organized and on track which turned out to be a huge key to my success. Within a few months of sticking to my system, it had become a regular habit to check in on my progress. Between regular check ins and the method I used (the debt snowball method), it wasn’t long before I saw that progress was being made and momentum was building. I knew after a few short months on my plan that I wouldn’t be able to stop until my goal was accomplished. I was in it to win it.

I set mini-goals along the way.

In order to keep myself from losing momentum, I built in enough structure to keep me focused but also make it fun where I could. I created small challenges or goals for myself that were all related to my spending habits. For example, I challenged myself to only buy clothing from thrift stores for 3 months which actually made me fall in love with thrifting. I also challenged myself to buy everything with cash only for a whole week – boy was that eye opening!

Since I value high-nutrient foods, I tried my best to cut back on spending without compromising what is important to me. I gave myself a weekly grocery allowance and tried to plan ahead as best as possible. I looked for recipes that only had a few ingredients and ones that I could cooked in a large batch to feed me for several meals throughout the week. I brought my lunch to work every day – even if that meant grabbing random items from the fridge. I started writing meal plans for myself as if I was one of my own clients. I find that sticking to a meal plan is an excellent way of saving money especially if it’s written with a particular budget in mind. I also like having full control over the ingredients that I use, and having meals prepared ahead of time eliminated the need to buy food from restaurants.

I surrounded myself with people who are better with money than I am.

I mentioned earlier that there’s no single action I took to accomplish my goal, but this one had the largest impact on the choices that I made. Lewis Howe’s wrote one of my all time favorite books which talks about the factors involved in achieving greatness – The School of Greatness. In his book, he writes about the influence that the people around you (your inner circle) have on your individual success.

The people that I choose to surround myself by are a huge contributing factor to any goal that I want to accomplish. These people influence my emotional and physical health, the quality of my relationships and my athletic performance. As an example, my goal is to be a more confident and mentally tough athlete so try to train with athletes that I consider to be confident and mentally tough. I still have to put in the work to accomplish my own goals and don’t expect anyone to do anything for me. But having people around to influence the way that I do that AND provide the support to do so has crucial to my success.

I started taking control of the people that I choose to spent my time with. I consciously chose people who have the relationship with money that I want to have. We didn’t always talk about money but their lifestyle choices and actions that they take on a day to day basis influenced my own decisions. At the same time that these people were helping me rewire my brain, I also decided to politely remove myself from the people who make irresponsible lifestyle choices and seem to spend their money frivolously. Hanging out with someone who spends half their paycheck going on shopping sprees every weekend or someone who doesn’t live within their means isn’t going to influence me in a positive way.

I sold almost everything and downsized.

At the beginning of my debt-free journey, I was also on a journey to declutter the physical possessions in my life. I started off small by selling my clothes on Poshmark, and sporting equipment on Facebook Marketplace and Let Go. I was making space in my life for other opportunities by getting rid of my stuff and making a few bucks along the way. I found that the more items I sold, the more stuff I wanted to sell.

Moving day, November 2019.
My new room!

Towards the end of my journey, I took a big leap and put my condo on the market while the market was hot. Once I got a respectable offer, I went on a binge to sell as many things as possible so that I could downsize and decrease my living expenses by moving into a smaller place. I put all many of remaining possessions in storage in a corner of my sister’s basement and rented a 200 square foot bedroom closer to work.

Since then my monthly living expenses have decreased by 65%, my commute to work has been cut in half, and my quality of life has increased dramatically.

I increased my financial literacy.

At the beginning of my journey I couldn’t have explained to you the factors that affect a credit score, what a good APY was, or what an exchange traded fund was. I had no emergency fund, I wasn’t capitalizing on my employer match to my retirement account and had absolutely zero idea what my personal investment strategy should be.

Over the past 18 months, I started asking questions to the people that know more about it than I do or did research on my own. I learned about the difference between the Debt Snowball, the Debt Avalanche and the Debt Blizzard approaches to paying down credit card debt. I learned about investing through apps such as Stash and Acorns. I also learned simple strategies for maximizing my credit score.

My desire to learn about personal finance has also spilled over into my entrepreneurial endeavors. I’ve since taken a Success for Small Businesses course offered through my bank, set attainable business goals and have developed a system for tracking my income and expenses.

Now that my credit card debt has been wiped out, I’m now learning how to use credit cards responsibly by avoiding paying interest and taking advantage of reward programs. I finally have a personal investment strategy in place that makes me feel really good inside.

Holy crap, you guys. I’m such an adult!

Now it’s your turn.

I recognize that I may have more options available to me because I have a steady income, the time to side hustle, and don’t have any dependents to provide for. I know that not everyone has the opportunity and freedom that I do but that doesn’t mean that opportunities don’t exist. As long as you have a clear goal in mind, I encourage you to get creative with your own action plan.

If you’re still reading this and you find yourself overwhelmed by a mountain of debt I want you to know that you can wipe it out it as long as you have the desire to do so. Regardless of your age, income, marital status or family situation you have the ability to take control right now. It may take longer than it did for me with a change in mindset, a shift in priorities, a fuck ton of perseverance and plenty of support from the right kind of people, you too can be free from the burdens of debt and writing your own blog post about how you did it. Just make sure to send it to me when you do!

Wherever you are on your quest towards financial freedom, I would encourage you to start filling your brain with information that aligns with that you want. Read blogs about personal finance, listen to podcasts about money, and watch YouTube videos like this one.

I started listening to the Dave Ramsey show about 10 years ago and before that I was a huge fan of the Clark Howard Show on NPR. Even as a poor PhD student making a research stipend of $22k per year and relying on student loan checks to make ends meet, I was always inspired by stories of people with all sorts of incomes and personal challenges while overcoming their debt. By the time I was ready to start my own journey of reversing the damage, I had already listened to hundreds of podcasts, read several books and had a solid understanding how I was going to do it.

Along the way I figured out the best approach to paying off debt given my situation, and at the same time learned effective strategies for building wealth. I 100,000% believe that if I could do it, then anyone can. You have the power and intelligence within you to take control of your life and if you need any support, I’ll be the first one to sit in your corner whenever you’re ready.

Whatever your goal is, whether it’s related to money, nutrition, fitness or just about life in general, I’m here to help empower you to succeed. If you’re unsure of where to start, having trouble staying motivated or experiencing an insurmountable feeling of overwhelm, shoot me an email and I’ll do what I can to help steer you in the right direction.