What did your debt consist of?
Student loans and medical bills.
The bulk of my debt was used to pay for my freshman year of college.
As I’m sure a lot of people can relate, college for me was a period of limbo between living with my parents and being on my own. For the first time I was going to be responsible for everything except my cell phone bill and health insurance.
That is, unless I wanted to continue living with them. My parent were happy to have me stay home and go to community college or commute to a state school, but I had other plans.
I wanted to wrestle and the colleges that were recruiting me were out of state.
What did it feel like to have that much debt?
It was suffocating.
A big part of why a disproportionate amount of my debt comes from my freshman year was because I was preparing for circumstances and expenses that never came to be.
My first year of college was the first time – and the last time – since I was really young that I wasn’t going to work. Even as a kid I sold Kool-Aide during yard sale season, I mowed neighbors’ yards every week, and I would pick up odd jobs where ever I could.
In high school I always had at least one part-time job. It was pretty typical for me however, to work several different jobs in a single week. I’d been used to making money and paying my way for wrestling camps and tournaments along with anything I wanted to do with my friends.
As I was getting ready to attend college however, I was warned of the big leap I’d being making in course work and training as a student athlete.
To make sure I didn’t fall behind in my studies or in wrestling, I made the decision not to work while I was in college. This decision relied on borrowing money for tuition as well as living expenses.
That plan didn’t pan out the way I expected. In part because I over compensated.
Knowing I’d have to pay for a lot of the things I’d been paying for while in high school in addition to expenses I didn’t have much experience with – groceries and other true living expenses – I guessed at how much I’d need to live on.
Ultimately, I guessed high and borrowed more money than I really needed to cover those expenses.
It took a lot to convince myself to borrow the money, and then convince my father to cosign. Even though I managed to convince myself to sign the papers I felt the weight of my decision immediately.
That weight I felt only seemed to get heavier with all of the idle time I found myself with in college. Wrestling practice and training were certainly more intense and time consuming at the college level, and even with a full class load I found myself with a lot of idle time between classes.
Maybe it’s because I didn’t attend the most academically rigorous school, and maybe it’s because I had so much practice managing my time as a high school student athlete who worked all the time, but college didn’t turn out to be as demanding I had been expecting.
I turned out to be among the most academically successful wrestlers on the team and I was making waves in the wrestling room. But when the weight of my debt got to its peak, even those areas of my life began to suffer.
I became distracted by the fact that I had dug myself a hole, and by not working I wasn’t doing anything to fix the problem. My new found downtime only gave me more opportunity to dwell on this idea, until it drove me to the point making a dramatic 180 degree turn.
In reassessing my priorities I determined that graduating from college was the most important thing I could do for my future. The way I saw it, every dollar I owed was a dollar that would be subtracted from the greater income I expected to earn as a college graduate. When I thought about it that way, increasing my debt only served to diminish the value of the education I was working so hard to attain.
Ultimately, I decided I had to walk away from the one thing that had always been a constant in my life. I decided I had to walk away from wrestling so that I could work and effectively stop student debt from bleeding me of the advantages a college education was supposed to provide.
How long did it take you to pay it all off?
I’m proud to say I was able to pay off $20,000 in ten months.
In total I managed to pay off more than $30,000, but it took me about two years to find the knowledge and focus that allowed me to squash the later $20,000 so quickly.
Determined to finish my undergrad in four years, I accumulate student loans from when I started school in 2008 until 2011. Having identified debt as a problem however, I borrowed significantly less after my freshman year.
By piecing together several part-time jobs and neatly fitting those 40 to 60 hours of work around my class schedule each week, I managed to cover my living expenses and a good portion of my tuition. At one point I managed to schedule all my classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays so that I’d have more time to work.
After I graduated in 2012 I only made minimum payments towards my loans. Within the first year however, I was blessed with a monetary gift from family. It was earmarked specifically for making a big payment toward my loan principle. With that money and a bonus check from my first full-time job, I was able to take a big chunk of my debt, but that was a one-time deal.
I really didn’t have any plan to pay off my debt sooner than the 17 year term the bank had estimated. That is, until my son was in the August of 2014.
The responsibility of becoming a father really shook me at my core when I considered how the weight of my debt could impact his future, his childhood experience, his aspirations of college, and his life thereafter.
By mid-April of 2015 I had accumulated some medical bills to accompany my student debt. All told I was still $20,000 in the hole, but by that time I had also conceived of and committed to a plan for become debt free. 10 months later on February 3, 2016 I made my final payment.
What resources did you use to help you through this process?
It was Dave Ramsey that turned me on the debt-snowball. That’s ultimately the system I used to pay off my debt.
The $25, $75, and $100 payments I was making every month toward my medical bills were the first things to go. As each of them was paid off I’d reallocate my income towards making larger payments toward the smallest remaining debt balance.
Of course, knowing how to do something and keeping yourself accountable to the point of actually following through are two different things.
It was listening to the Dave Ramsey Show and The Well Kept Wallet Podcast on a regular basis along with reading MONEY Master The Game by Tony Robbins, Breaking Out of a Broken System by Chandler and Seth Bolt as well as reading countless debt free stories on blogs all over the internet that kept me going.
Some of my favorite Well Kept Wallet episodes include:
- Episode 68: How to Find a Side Hustle with Nick Loper
- Episode 72: How to Cut Your Grocery Budget in Half with Erin Chase
- Episode 79: How to Become Financially Independent at Age 37 with Chad Carson
These kinds of programs and books kept me very aware of the fact that getting out of debt was not only possible, but that it was a necessity for living the life I wanted for my family and for myself. Being debt free isn’t the end game, it’s just the beginning.
Being free of monthly loan payments has given me the opportunity to put money away for emergencies. Moving forward I’ll be able to invest more toward retirement, my children’s educations, and my business.
Continuing to educate myself on personal finance made things like an emergency fund, a savings account, and the opportunity to invest very real. Over time they became possibilities for my own life as I endured the process of cutting expenses, sticking to my budget, and paying off debt.
Did you face any challenges along the way?
Part of what woke me up to how important it was to get my financial affairs in order was the process of establishing a parenting plan with my son’s mother. When you’re not romantically involved at the time of your child’s birth it can be get stressful and expensive.
In addition to covering the new expenses of having a young child to care for, there were the added expenses of lawyers’ fees and court fees. In our case I had committed to becoming debt free only a few months before those expenses became apparent to me.
I could have allowed those things be a major barrier to becoming debt free, but instead I used it to reinforce the importance of the action I was taking to address my financial well-being.
What were you doing for a living while you were paying off the debt?
I’ve worked in sales and business development for engineering and construction companies since 2012. BrendanBarrett.com or my LinkedIn profile are good places to get more information on what that entails.
At times the variable income that comes with working in sales was a blessing because it allowed me to make significant payments toward my debt all at once. It also required me to plan for expenses over a longer period of time than other people might have to.
How did it feel once you paid it all off?
Like a weight had been lifted. I’m pretty sure I even did a little dance in my kitchen when I made the final payment from my phone.
What practical tips do you have for people looking to pay off their debt?
Know Your WHY – Paying off debt is a great thing, but if you don’t know why being debt free is so great, you’re far less likely to stay disciplined in implementing your plan to make it a reality.
Know Your Numbers – Budgets get a bad name because people feel like they are giving up freedom when they commit to a budget. The truth is that in taking responsibility for your own budget you take control. That control means you can tweak your budget to meet whatever financial goals you want to achieve.
But if you don’t know what money is coming in, where that money is going, and how much is being spent you’re not likely to accomplish any of your goals.
Get Plugged In – There are times when sticking to your plan isn’t so pleasant. Finding a community of like-minded people will reinforce the principles you already know will lead to reaching your goals. Staying connected with supportive community help you stay the course.
When it comes to personal finance, you can find communities like this that meet in-person or online. They might also gravitate around a common fulcrum like a podcast or blog. The Well Kept Wallet podcast and blog is just one of the communities I continue to leverage as I pursue my personal finance goals.
Facebook however, is at the center of the communities I frequent most often.
Facebook Groups I Recommend
Side Hustle Nation: I was turned on to Nick Loper and The Side Hustle Show podcast by his interview with Deacon on WKW. While I’d caution people not to attempt fixing their debt woes by only giving focus to making more money, financial independence is a two part formula, and making more money certainly helps. The SHN Facebook group is a thriving community of people trying to help one another make money that supplements the income of their day jobs.
How Do I Money: This is another budding community created by Derek Olsen. It is full of people helping each other through the different phases of achieving financial independence. What I like most about this group is that – much like following Deacon on Twitter of the WKW on Facebook – this group aggregates a great collection of peer reviewed content that will help you advance your knowledge about personal finance.
Make Money Your Honey: The conversation facilitated by Amanda Abella, the group’s creator, is tremendously helpful. Being a guy, the biggest insights I’m picking up from this predominately female community is how to talk about money with my significant other. Amanda also does a great job of playing connector among group members that can lend advice to one another.
Brendan Alan Barrett writes about professional development at www.StartInPhx.com, a blog dedicated to the mission of career success without student-debt. Brendan is also the author of READ WRITE DO Professional Development and Career Success Playbook, a book written for people ready to pursue the career they’ve always wanted.
Note: This is part of a series called Debt Success Stories which features people who were able to pay off a significant amount of debt. If you have a Debt Success Story I would love to hear about it. Please visit the contact page to let me know the details.