Between the ages of 25 and 26 things in my life sucked. I was broke, I was underemployed, I was scared, and I felt helpless. I had no direction, no money, and a boatload of debt. I was watching lots of my friends succeed in seemingly every area of their lives: getting raises and promotions at work, getting engaged or moving in with their partners, buying first homes, traveling all over the world.
I was spending my days re-reading Harry Potter, crying and afraid to leave my house. I became embarrassed to see my friends and had nothing to say to the question “So what’s new with you?” Nothing was ever new. I had no work stories, I had no fun night out stories, no travel stories. I was too afraid and way too poor to be doing those things, so I just did nothing.
There’s a line in the Orange is the New Black theme song- ‘Taking steps is easy, standing still is hard.’ I was standing completely still and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
I wasn’t waiting for anything either. I wasn’t building towards a bigger goal and trying to save energy or money in that time. I was simply paralyzed.
Summer 2014 was the most difficult time of my life. I was sad all the time, I was hiding from the world at large and I was anxious about everything. Applying for jobs seemed pointless, since I had been at it since 2012. I was catering part time and working as a gym receptionist from 5am-10am twice a week for $9 an hour. I could pay rent and pretty much nothing else.
Making the decision to focus on paying off my loans helped pull me out of this funk. I was in therapy once a week and I found myself saying over and over again that my loans were a big point of stress in my life. I felt guilty about not earning more because I couldn’t pay my loans. I worried about having them for the rest of my life. I was stressed about trying to do things like buy a home with the weight of my loans still on my shoulders. (Even though I was a million miles from buying a home. And still am.)
Deciding to pay off my student loans gave me a clear and actionable plan. I knew that I needed to make more money, make bigger payments and stay dedicated to it. These were things I could take action on which helped me feel less paralyzed about my life. I could stop standing still and start moving forward. I had something to achieve and I had a way to do it.
Catering always picks up in September, so as fall came into season I started taking every catering gig I could. In mid-September a friend put me in touch with a nonprofit that was looking for someone to help part time with fundraising and development. I didn’t have any experience, but they were paying so little that they couldn’t get anyone with real experience. I got the job and kept my other two jobs. I had a little more income to my name, and I started shoveling it towards my loans.
I became obsessed with reading personal finance blogs. I would spend HOURS reading other people’s debt payoff stories and learning new ways to save money or to stretch a dollar further. It changed my whole world view. I felt like I was a part of this community. I didn’t feel so alone or so sad anymore.
Plus, all those tips and inspiring stories just fueled my desire to get out of debt. I applied as many tips as I could to my life. I drew strength from reading about people who had been where I was and had made it out. Catering continued to be busy throughout the fall holiday season and the nonprofit work increased a little too. I had more money, I was learning skills and gaining real work experience. I was starting to feel better.
By the time December 2014 rolled around I felt like a new person. I was down to seeing my therapist every other week. I didn’t talk about my loans like a burden anymore, but rather a challenge. A challenge that I felt capable of meeting.
Paying off loans was a part of my daily life. The nonprofit loved my work and wanted me to continue into 2015 with more hours. I paid off two loans (one in October and one in December) before the end of the year. I felt like I had a purpose and that I was actually doing something with my time and energy.
Now here I am. I’m debt free, I work almost full time for the nonprofit, I have started my retirement savings and I’m happy. Like, really happy. I like my life. I don’t feel stuck. I feel powerful! I have a full life that I enjoy and am proud of.
I’m no longer standing still. By zeroing in on my goal of paying off loans I was able to find a way to move forward. Not only did I give myself a huge financial gift but I gave myself a huge personal gift. I found out that I have the strength to go through tough times. I found out that I can depend on myself. I found out that I am an incredibly capable person, no matter the task. I’m smart, I’m driven and I get my shit done. I really like knowing that about myself! I feel much more prepared for the next phase of my life.
And when more rain falls in my life, as it inevitably will, I will be ready. I know that I can see myself through it.
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.