Facing a desperate situation – a six figure student loan debt with no six figure income – I did what many graduates do at first.. I ignored it. I decreased my spending enough to make slightly more than the minimum payments. In some months I relied on the credit card float and then paid it off in others with tax returns or bonuses. I never felt like I had enough money to get through the month. I tried to budget and almost always failed to stay on track. I felt like I was waiting for this ten year sentence to end so that I could finally just start from zero again.

I want my life back. Please tell me … how much is enough? How big does this pile have to be?

I spent the first year of my debt repayment journey tracking my spending and pretending to budget. I made $15,000 in payments to my debt that year, and at the time I felt proud of that accomplishment. I’d paid about $800 more than the minimum payments, which seemed like great progress.

At the end of the year, I had to calculate the interest I’d paid on my student loans for a deduction on my tax return. Out of $15,000 in payments, the interest totaled almost $5,000. FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS. Just in interest. To this day, I have a vivid mental image of throwing stacks of bills on the ground and setting them on fire.

It all hit me then, harder than ever before – I was staring down another ten years of payments, and another $20,000 in interest. I was making an average salary for my city, but I was struggling somehow.

At the beginning of my second year of payments, I knew I had to make some major changes. I was ready, but I wasn’t prepared.

I’m a relatively privileged person – I’m white, educated, and I was always encouraged to be productive. When it came to money, I started out well behind the curve. Money was never something positive during my childhood – it was something you needed, something you fought about, and something that you earned somehow but that disappeared somehow. Our house was always ringing with the noise of money fights – I’d lock myself in my room with headphones in for hours to find some quiet. My parents always made sure we had enough, and I’m grateful for the way they provided for me and pushed me to succeed. I was just missing the money framework that seemed to come so naturally to others.

I knew generally that frugality was beneficial, that you should live within your means, that you shouldn’t take on debt, that you should save for retirement. I knew the theory, but I didn’t have the practical skills. I didn’t know how to budget properly, or what you should do if your numbers weren’t working out. I didn’t know how much more prepared food cost, or how to cook inexpensive meals at home. I saw how others were spending their money, and I emulated it. I thought I just needed a higher income.

The moral of the story is: I chose a half measure, when I should have gone all the way. I’ll never make that mistake again.

There was one thing I did know – my plan wasn’t working. I needed to find other plans. When I searched for resources, there was one name I kept running into over and over: Dave Ramsey. At first I was skeptical, particularly about taking advice from a person who was so opposed to some of my major values, but I decided to be an adult and listen to the plan – even if I didn’t fully agree with the personality behind it. I started listening to his podcast on my commute, and I listened for the full three hours every single day. I haven’t missed one episode in an entire year.

Every month another lightbulb went on as I listened to all of the debt free screams and the millionaire calls. I started doing the math on how much my debt was costing me every month. I compared prices on groceries. I used habit trackers to mark days where I spent $0. I did challenges and experiments. I went 100 days without any meals out. I stopped buying clothing for a year.

Every month I felt a little more confident. I went from making $40 in extra payments every month to $280, to $700, and now to $1,200+. This wasn’t a switch I turned on that suddenly gave me the skills and habits I needed. This was a constant daily struggle to overcome more than a decade of ignorance.

Dave Ramsey gets a lot of love, and a lot of hate. I’ll just say this – if you’re privileged or lucky or educated enough not to need his help or understand why others do.. just be grateful for that and shut the fuck up, okay?

It is not easy to budget and follow through on that budget if you’ve never been shown how to do it correctly.

It is not easy to meal plan and buy groceries with a list if you’ve never been shown how to do it correctly.

It is not easy to defer your desires and save for things instead of paying with credit if you’ve never been shown how to do it correctly.

For some reason we treat managing money like an innate human ability and if someone isn’t successful at it right away it must be because they’re lacking in intelligence or willpower or strength of character. We should be treating managing money as a necessary skill that some of us were just fortunate to have mastered early on.

If someone’s trying to learn how to swim, you don’t just show them a chart and tell them how obviously easy it is. You wade in. You instruct them to float. You teach them how to tread water. You demonstrate different techniques. You get in the water with them and show them how to splash around for fun. If they’re drowning, you don’t shout physics equations or insults or misplaced words of encouragement from the deep end like a total sociopath. You jump in the water and help them, or you stand quietly to the side while the lifeguard helps them.

You clearly don’t know who you’re talking to, so let me clue you in. I am not in danger. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot, and you think that of me? No! I am the one who knocks!

Coming up on two years of this journey, I’m not the same person I was before. I’m not at the mercy of a bank. I don’t nervously log in to my accounts after avoiding them for weeks. I’m not afraid to check the mail. I don’t panic at the thought of an emergency. I’m the one who knocks now. I say when I’ll be paying this debt off. I say how much I’ll be earning. I say how much I’ll be paying in interest.

I didn’t start with this confidence – it grew as I learned how to manage money, month by month. I’ve cut my spending by thousands of dollars per year. I’ve received raises and bonuses, and directed most of that to my debt too. I started a side hustle to shorten my timeline even more. Instead of $15,000 in payments, I’ve doubled that to more than $30,0000 this year.

I plan to pay off my debt in 2019 instead of 2026. That’s more than SIX YEARS of my life that I’ll get back because I started to pay off this debt faster. If you saw my spending from last year to this year, you would swear they belonged to two entirely different people.

The best part? It wasn’t a sacrifice.

I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really — I was alive.

It’s amazing how much we can adapt. When I started to make changes, the first few days and weeks were tough. I wanted to quit. I relapsed occasionally. I made mistakes. I overspent. I caved. I stumbled.

It was all worth it.

The truth is that I feel happier and more content now than I ever have in my life.

Now say my name.

13 Replies to “My Heisenberg Moment”

  1. Damn, what a powerful post, I love it!! Reducing your debt payoff debt from 2026 to 2019 is a MASSIVE change, congrats on being so aggressive with that goal.

    I agree 100% with your point about adaptation as well. I’m always amazed at the human ability to adapt to high-spending OR low-spending, whichever we happen to choose.

    Best of luck on your journey, I’ll be following along 🙂

    1. Thank you! Every little bit I could put towards the loans has inched my date closer.. from 2026 to 2022 to 2021 to 2020 to *hopefully* if everything goes as planned 2019.

  2. Growing up, I was clueless about money. It’s like you said: it came in, and then it left. I never really knew where my family stood with finances – other than that my parents were always stressed out about it. My husband, meanwhile, grew up in a house where the neighbors often provided food because his mom couldn’t afford it. For both of us, money carries negative connotations.

    We have made SO MANY mistakes with our finances, and I wish we’d figured it out sooner. But like you, we reached our Heisenberg moment and made the decision to improve our situation – even if we didn’t know the best way to do so. It’s taken the last six months to really dial in our budget, stop being scared of our bank account, and figure out how much we want to put towards debt each month (it started at a few hundred dollars, then went to $1600, and this month we’re ramping up to $2200). It’s been a bumpy path, but we keep moving forward, and the road gets smoother as we go.

    Really great post.

    1. Congratulations on all of the progress you’ve made so far! I’ve really been enjoying following along with your journey. It is definitely bumpy at first, especially when you have so much baggage around money.

  3. “if you’re privileged or lucky or educated enough not to need his help or understand why others do.. just be grateful for that and shut the fuck up, okay?”

    100% this. I actually am one of the lucky ones who grew up well educated with my finances thanks to my dad, which is why I was able to pay off my student loans in 3.5 years on a low salary (and bought a house along the way). That said, MOST of my friends have zero financial literacy and are in a place now that they don’t even want to hear it – Dave Ramsey would be spot on for them if only I could get them to pay attention. Our country as a whole would be in such a better place if he was standard high school education.

    1. I also think that when you’re not doing well with money it can feel like you’re the only one who isn’t, and this is absolutely not true. Most aren’t. I’m sure that my life looked amazing on the outside last year. I went out with friends when I wanted, posted pictures of me at fun events, and didn’t really say no much. Now ironically I’m in a MUCH better position, but I’m sure the image I’m projecting is that I’m doing worse with money. We absolutely need money instruction on everything from basic to advance.

  4. I absolutely LOVE this. I really enjoy reading about your journey and admire how far you’ve come, as well as how laser-focused you are on getting out of debt.

    This also was pretty timely, because I was trying to write (and having trouble with) a post about how to actually save. Like, what the steps actually are. I was prompted after I got a few emails from ppl asking me how it works. At first, I didn’t understand what they were asking. Wait, doesn’t everybody understand the concept of saving? But like you mentioned, the practicalities of it are too often brushed over. Things like tracking your spending aren’t intuitive. And let’s be real, simply dialing up a budget isn’t gonna cut it.

    I was hesitant to write a post about how to save, but you’ve convinced how important it actually is. And I’m sure other PF bloggers will turn they’re noses up at it (ugh, isn’t this SO OBVIOUS?), but you know what, there are some people who are clueless about it, and they should be helped!

    1. If anything we need way more articles on how to save because I think most – not some – people are clueless about it, including me a year ago. Not the SEO worshipping ones like “10 Ways To Save Money” either. Those have their place, but there are just so many already. We need more gritty, complex ones. Ones where you share what YOU personally do to save, or a roundup of how different people use different techniques to save – in their own imperfect lives.

      Some personal finance bloggers write for other bloggers, some write for algorithms. We have enough (one might say TOO MANY) of those. We need more humans who blog. Not bloggers who blog.

      I await your basic AF savings post with sheer glee and I will re-tweet the hell out of it.

  5. I applaud you for getting super aggressive with paying off your student loans. I had the same image of throwing money at my loans and it being set on fire, but unfortunately, I haven’t mustered the discipline to put all extra money towards getting rid of them once and for all. I’ve avoided them for nearly a decade, and I still avoid them because I don’t feel that I have enough money to pay them off and live a life where I won’t want to gauge out my eyeballs every day. Still working on a strategy that will work for me.

    1. I hope your strategizing goes well! Sometimes it’s about starting slowly. Can you pay some extra money rather than all of it? I started out only paying slightly more than the minimum and gradually increased it if I made more money or spent less. Even now I don’t pay all extra money towards them..

  6. Well representation done Veronika of your own experience about debt repayment journey. Your own mind setting helped you in getting such positive result. I also agree with Mr. Chester that, “We should be treating, managing money as a necessary skill ”.

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