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I’ve been writing and re-writing the first few sentences of this post over and over. It’s taken me a while to write because I didn’t know how to just come out and say it. It feels almost surreal to even say it to myself, let along the internet.
Let’s talk about debt. Debt is a turbulent and pesky little (big?) thing. It sneaks up on you. It shows you that anything is yours even if you can’t afford to fully pay for it at that very moment. I used to have the typical view of debt. I thought it was normal and just a fact of life since lots of other people had it too.
My first tango with debt happened when I was 17 years old. I was going to high school taking several AP classes, working a part-time job, doing tech work for my school’s theater productions, and also doing 1-2 community college classes every semester.
My parents had gone through a lengthy and trying divorce that left both of them with several thousands of dollars of credit card debt and emotionally drained. Due to my parents spending habits, they said they wouldn’t be able to contribute to my university expenses.
It was a shock even though I sort of knew it was coming given that I was paying for the textbook and class expenses for my early start community college classes. Debt suddenly became there for me. It consoled me and showed me that I could go to university and get my bachelor’s degree.
Everyone else my age was signing the loan documents without a worry. The adults around me assured me that my student loans were “good debt” and that I would get a good-paying job right after university and be able to pay the loans back. I believed them.
Throughout university, I stayed conscious of my student loan amount and tried to minimize it as much as possible. I opted not to stay in dorms my first year of college, instead choosing to live out of my car. I took a full schedule of 15-18 hours every semester, worked several jobs, unpaid internships (ugh…), and went to events with free food whenever I could.
After graduating university in 2.5 years with my bachelor’s degree, I soon found out getting an entry-level job in my field was harder than I ever imagined. The worse part of it was I started getting letters and emails about my debt. $21,000 in student loan debt.
I had all of these things I wanted to do: move out of Texas and to a different state, travel, contribute to retirement. But I couldn’t do any of those things to the extent I wanted because I had debt creeping up on me, the grace period slowly winding down.
I ended up in a dreadful job unrelated to my major and got to work. I stayed late, took extra work, came in on some of my days off, and worked to make as much money as possible to pay off my debt. Whenever I had more free time, I hopped on Craigslist and Upwork to find extra work.
Debt was no longer my friend who consoled me. It was my enemy and I was determined to get rid of it as soon as possible. I set a goal to pay off my debt in 2.5 years. In a charged fit of anger and motivation, I grabbed a piece of paper, jotted down some words and taped it to my bedroom door and in my car. The paper read:
How bad do you want it?
I looked at those words every day and kept them in mind whenever I got exhausted and wanted to quit. That piece of paper was my accountability when I had no one to turn to. People around me called me cheap, stingy, and teased me about driving an old car and not going out often.
My parents preached the benefits of getting a new car. It was hard not to listen to them. It was hard because I was a guy whose car would break down every few months and I didn’t have a someone close to lean on when I needed an in-between car. My mom’s husband would shake his head and tell me to stop being stingy and just finance a new car. I didn’t want to.
Then things got worse. My dreadful job started to take a heavier toll on me. I fell deep into depression, lost my appetite, and started losing weight at an alarming rate. I became pale and would wake up in the middle of the night sweating. Everything felt wrong and I didn’t know how to make it right. I still had my debt. I was still in my shackles.
Fortunately, after some care, I started to get slightly better. My mood was in a better place and I began to look at options. I came across a post about teaching English in Thailand and decided to move abroad for work. I quit my dreadful job, my mood started to get better, and I was finally able to start traveling.
But I still had debt.
So, after getting settled into my new full-time job, I began doing a tutoring side job, working at a language center and also offering private lessons to students. I found some online work and started doing that as well.
And the same situation as back home started happening. People around me didn’t understand it. My fellow foreign teachers would joke about me being too cheap and not knowing how to have fun. While they went off on weekend trips and holidays to other countries, I stayed in my small apartment, typing up blog posts and doing private tutoring lessons. They paid their minimums while I paid extra.
Whenever I did travel, it was usually in a basic manner. That Great Wall of China photo? It was taken during a hurried 20-minute walk while I was on a layover in Beijing to go visit back home. The original 3-hour walk didn’t happen because of delays. The Myanmar photos? Those were taken during a hurried 1-day trip to Bagan in which I had to argue with several taxi drivers because they kept trying to rip me off. I only got to spend 2.5 days in Myanmar because I had gotten a flight deal and it was all I could afford. And the reason you don’t see me in a lot of my photos? It’s because I was usually a haggle sweaty mess from hauling my small Jansport backpack everywhere since I didn’t have any suitcases and didn’t want to pay for luggage.
People back home continued to like my photos and thought I was living a wonderful life abroad when in reality I was usually working all the time with not a lot of vacation time.
My work from putting in extra hours became more evident as money continued to pile up in my savings account. I noticed something bad was happening. I was hoarding money in my savings account instead of putting it towards my debt. I did it because I was scared. I was scared of not having a lot of savings and having to go back to a dreadful job again. I was battling a financial scarcity mindset and it was hard to beat.
I mention all of this because, like many, the journey to becoming debt-free is a turbulent one. There are ups and downs and everyone just doesn’t seem to understand your mindset. You’re looked at as weird and cheap. Instant gratification and FOMO constantly rear their alluring heads at you.
People look at you with a dishearting smile and say “You shouldn’t focus so much on your debt. Live your life” to which you could whisper back “I’m doing this so I can fully live my life.”
A few days ago, I made the decision to take a large chunk out of my savings to finally pay off the rest of my debt. It felt scary at first because of my scarcity mindset but ultimately I knew it was the sensible thing to do. It made no sense to keep a lot of money in my savings account while also having debt.
I logged into my student loan service provider and made the final payment.
And suddenly, just like that things changed. My name is Colin Ashby, I’m 22 years old, and I just finished paying off $21,000 in student loans in 1.5 years. I’M DEBT-FREE!!!!
I envisioned my “debt-free day” to be this big action-packed movie sequence where I would bust through window, glass shattered and drive off into the sunset waving dollar bills in the air. Tom Cruise would be portraying me.
As you can tell, I’ve got an over-active imagination sometimes 🙂
Even though I’m not blasting through windows on a motorcycle, being debt-free in reality still feels pretty badass!
Welp, this post has crossed 1500 words, I should probably stop. I made a some video talking about being debt-free and revealing the meaning behind my blog name Rebel With A Plan.
The video ran super long so I had to cut it up a bunch and make it into two videos. The first one about becoming debt-free is below. My 1 year blogiversary just happened so on Wednesday the self-titled post, Rebel With A Plan, will go up talking about the meaning behind the blog name. Stay tuned!