While I’m driving around the U.S, I’ve asked a few personal finance friends to share their wisdom. Today we have Taylor from The Freedom of Money. Taylor is talking about a topic that’s personal to me: knowing that you have enough. Conquering money fears is hard work, and Taylor is fighting the good fight.
On Tuesday, my co-worker found out about my debt. His eyes grew wide. “You paid off $14,000 in seven months? What’s your secret?” I recite the usual speech, “Sold my car and cut back.” He sits down in a chair and gets comfortable. “Tell me more.” I mutter something about “side hustles” and explain that I freelance. “You work an extra job?! That’s intense. Why did you do it?” he asks. I fake a laugh and shrug. “Freedom, I guess?” Eventually, the conversation shifts and my loan repayment fades into the background. He grabs his coffee from the counter and heads back to his cubicle to pack up for the day. My debt is forgotten as the clock strikes five.
I head back to my own cubicle. “Why did you do it?” The answer to that question is both incredibly complicated and ridiculously simple. I wanted freedom, but not from my debt. My real goal was to be free of the past.
When I was 20 years old, I found myself unexpectedly independent. Without warning or preparation, my father stopped paying for college. He documented his six-figure salary on my financial aid forms, ensuring that I wouldn’t receive a penny of financial aid, and promptly left the picture. I had two choices: drop out or figure it out. I figured it out, but there was a price I wasn’t expecting to pay.
For the next two years, I lived under a cloud of financial stress. I paid for everything myself: rent, tuition, books, food. I worked three part-time jobs and struggled to pay my bills in one the nation’s most expensive cities. There are a lot of things I could tell you about that time: nights filled with tears and shame-filled trips to my college’s food pantry—but there’s one thing that stands out most: my obsession with money. I became addicted to watching it. I counted every penny, tracked every debt that my friends owed and fell asleep clutching my phone’s calculator, desperately trying to convince myself that I had enough to survive.
Eventually, graduation came and I traded in my part-time jobs and full-time course load for an office job with health insurance and a 403(b). But during a time when I should have been celebrating and taking a deep breath, I continued to count. For the first time in two years, I had more than enough money, but I insisted on living in a bubble of fear. No matter what I earned or saved, it wasn’t enough. Unsurprisingly, I became fixated on my student loans.
I wanted them gone, so I devised a plan to do it as fast as possible. I gave myself one year to pay them back and I approached my goal with a disturbing level of intensity. During the course of the next seven months, my unhealthy obsession continued to grow as I pushed myself faster and further. Instead of falling asleep with my calculator, I feel asleep with a single mantra, “When your loans are gone, you’ll finally be happy.”
Eventually, the day of freedom came. I hit “send” on my last payment. My partner surprised me with a congratulatory card and we went wine tasting with friends. This was my moment. My moment of pure bliss and complete freedom. I’d accomplished my goal. Finally, I could put the past behind me and move on.
Instead, I started crying. I cried for the 20-year old who was shoved into adulthood before she was ready and I cried for the 23-year old who thought that debt repayment could solve her emotional scars.
It’s been five months since that fateful day, and I’m still working on my relationship with money. I’m trying to take better care of myself. I try to be proud of my accomplishments and remember that I have enough money, that I’m okay.
Slowly but surely, my mantra has changed: “Money isn’t the goal. It’s the tool that we use to create our lives.” I whisper it to myself in the checkout line when I start to feel panicked and I gently remind myself of it when I feel the urge to check my bank account for the third time in a single day. Slowly but surely, I’m starting to feel more at peace.
As I walked back to my cubicle last week, I realized something surprising: I’m proud of my debt journey, but I’m even prouder of the journey that I’ve been on since.
Kara Perez is the original founder of From Frugal To Free. She is a money expert, speaker and founder of Bravely Go, a feminist financial education company. Her work has been featured on NPR, Business Insider, Forbes, and Elite Daily.