How I Went From Down And Out Graduate To Debt-Free Nomad In Less Than A Year
Recalling how my life was 3.5 years ago, I was embarking on a new business venture, creating a self-employed life as a dog-walker and pet-sitter. This was the result of leaving my previous job, and bumming around unsure of what to do with myself for 3 months.
It didn't feel like it at the time, but the spring of 2013 was about to be major turning point, after 2011 and 2012 had been pretty painful.
At the end of 2012, I was in debt and pretending I wasn’t, continuing to spend mindlessly, buying new trendy stuff I didn't need, trying to make myself feel better. I was also kinda lonely, having been single for a good few months. I didn't have the best social life and my whole week was being swallowed up by my crappy job in a bank.
It was a bundle of laughs guys, truly.
My debt wasn't disgustingly huge and ridiculous, but I believe it was around the £3000 mark by the end of 2012. It was mostly credit card debt but also an overdraft from University.
It doesn't sound a lot, but it was for someone who was on a low income, whilst avidly pursuing everything... Literally, trying to consume every single thing.
I gave in to my sadness and disappointment at where I was in life, and continued to build my mini mountain of debt, partaking in window-shopping that turned into a shopping spree. Always having had a weakness for pretty things, I was going beyond that, consuming too much, too often. I would put things on my credit card willy-nilly and worry about it later.
The funny thing is, for the longest time as I entered my early 20's, I never had a credit card, nor even considered it. I spent what I had, and didn't spend what I didn't have.
A (very smart) part of me knew that credit was a bad idea for someone with my mentality. I loved buying clothes and other random things, and I had grown up accustomed to having what I wanted when I wanted it.
God, spoilt much?
Fortunate and well-cared for, definitely. Spoilt? maybe a tiny bit...
Anyway, I knew that as soon as a credit card came into my possession, my eyes would roll into pound signs and I would see it as a free money despite my better knowledge.
Why the hell did I get a credit card then?
I can’t remember the precise reason, but it was mid 2011, and I was going through some big life changes; moving in with a boyfriend and going into my final year of study. I do remember the cherry-popping card had an 18-month-interest-free period, the ultimate clever incentive of essentially free credit for almost 2 years!
That is a dangerously long grace period of being able to let debt mount up without accruing interest on top.
I think that's a key part of consumer debt psychology; people ask themselves, how long can I use credit and not really feel pain from it? How long can I pretend that I'm not living beyond my means whilst not trying to change them? Well, the credit card companies will always have a solution for you.
So the credit companies are the enemy?
Many credit cards are built on solidly decent perks, beneficial to those who know how to use them; people with self-control and probably a decent income, able to make each monthly payment whilst gaining air-miles or whatever. But that wasn’t me, and yet, because my income was of a certain level, it was as simple as filling in an online-form and BAM, a credit card with a £2000 credit limit now had my name on it.
That’s a lot of money to someone who was earning under £1000 a month and was new to this idea of adult financial freedom. For a while after my card arrived, I used it cautiously, paying for small amounts with it near the end of the month before pay-day. I promptly re-paid the full amount when it was due.
It wasn’t until a few months later, when I experienced a fairly traumatic and unexpected relationship break-up (from the boyfriend I had moved in with), that I suddenly looked at my credit card, and it looked at me, and we gave into a full-on passionate affair.
Takeaway meals when I was too depressed to cook, online shopping when I was too sad to leave my house, my credit card was my crutch.
I fell into debt not out of necessity, nor because I had bills to pay or some big holiday planned, I simply used credit for random daily spending, with the full intent to pay it back as and when. Underpinning this spending was a story I was telling myself, that I deserved this 'free' money. This credit card bought me the things I thought I wanted, or needed, in order to overcome my sadness.
In my hazy state I perceived junk-food and new clothing that I wouldn’t even remember in 3 years time, as my treats. I didn't buy self-help books, or invest money in trying new experiences, which sounds like a healthier approach, one I was simply incapable of in my down and out state. Maybe that's a stage you reach a little while after the initial impulse spending blow-outs following a break-up. But I didn't reach that point for months to come...
You’d have thought that the spending would have stopped a few weeks later, when I emerged from my sad girl cave and re-joined the functioning humans, but it was too late, I had already formed bad habits.
A few months later, life was mostly back on track. I graduated Uni with top marks, and I was on the cusp of entering real adult professional life. The first financial decision I made in my new grown-up life, truly was a nightmare dressed as a daydream (I just quoted a Taylor Swift song and it works); I got a brand new expensive car on finance.
I didn’t know anything about car finance until right before I took it on. I truly believe it was a win-win situation and I failed to account for how much of a commitment it was to take on.
I remember the precise moment, when walking through the supermarket car-park, when I fell in love with this little cream car. Sat there, all alluring and feminine, I knew, as soon as I laid my eyes on it, it had to be mine. It was a nippy little cream Fiat 500. So petite! So cute! So out of my price range.
Until someone said, ‘Did you know you can get the same car on finance?’
"What is this finance you speak of?"
Okay, so lemme get this straight, I hand over a little bit of money as a deposit, and I get a brand new shiny car. All I then have to do is pay £129 a month for the next 3 years, and then it's entirely mine? I can afford that so it must be a good idea!
Plus, I deserve it, I DESERVE a brand new car. I was still peddling that woe-is-me story to myself...
I thought this was an awesome turn of events. Car finance was helping me live out a dream of luxury. Little did I know it would be a short-lived buzz that would take me further away from the dreams faltering at my core.
I still feel guilt at the way I fell in love with that car far deeper than I ever did for my starter car, a little blue Vauxhall Corsa. I feel actual sadness that I gave that silly tin can away. But at the time, it was a fun change and it was just another part of my effort to feel better about myself.
The steering wheel on my pristine new baby felt so smooth and agile, and the car was so clean, and just, beautiful. I felt accomplished, like I had stepped up a rung on some invisible ladder of life success. I had a nice, smart card, nd I believed it helped me appear, to the outside, that I was winning at life.
But the reality was more like this:
I was working full-time in the same job I’d had since I was 16, a small supermarket where I jangled my keys as a supervisor and general checkout operator. This little weekend job had stayed with me throughout 3 years of university, and then turned into my main gig.
It wasn’t inspiring or fulfilling, at all, it was convenient, and familiar. I was trying to move into something better, namely, something that earned me more money. Whether the job truly suited me and my core values, was a secondary thought, a bonus in fact.
I wrongly sought out something that would bring me more money to buy more stuff to be more happy. But had my consumption made me happy up to that point?
I ask myself this question a lot...
Was I unhappy because I spent my money impulsively to fill a lonely void, and thus wasn’t planning for a fulfilling future based on real experiences. Or, was I just suffering from a mental illness and using the incorrect tools to fix it.
I'm certain that I was unhappy in myself and perceived buying things to add to my image as a way to attract the right kind of people who could fill the space in my sad ickle heart.
I sound as if I'm making light of my situation, but I was, in fact, headed for clinical depression. I got there eventually and I fell into a dark pit that I tried to escape every time I went to a clothes shop. I was desperately hating my job in a bank, where I had to partake in awful sales stuff as well as be responsible for people's real actual money. To this day I hate sales-y people or anyone who targets me with bull-shit for their own monetary gain.
So that job didn’t work with me, at all. Yes, I had money, I was able to shop more, and show off my nice car to my colleagues, but I wasn't actually a happy or sane individual.
I had some traditional markers of success and yet, I was also deeply disappointed. In the pit of my being, I was asking, is this it? Is this my life, from now on and forever?
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How Did I Change Things For The Better?
Well, I overcame that difficult time through a variety of avenues. Prescribed pills were involved (for a short while), falling in love played a large part, and of course, time was a big healer. I moved through my issues gradually, grew my little business as a dog-walker, and I was finally engaging with the world in a healthy manner. I eventually began making exciting plans.
My exciting plans had no room for debt or financial over-stretching; they were geared to financial freedom.
I got rid of my car out of necessity. My expensive gift to myself was now a chain around my neck on my new low income, and it didn’t suit my business as a dog-walker. So I went through the rigmarole of advertising it, temporarily clearing the finance with a family loan, then repaying that back when my car sold. Yep, a total effort.
I rid myself of that 129 a month and then focused all my energy on debt repayment. I kept a diary of all the amounts I owed and to whom. I decided to clear the smallest debt first, because it would be a surmountable goal that would boost my morale. There was no doubt in my mind that I would clear all the debts, because I had a goal for doing so, it just made sense to me to start small.
My exciting plans were that I wanted to travel Australia with Taran. I did the research and got sucked in by the absolute beauty of this very far-away land, and I just knew I had to get there.
I didn’t want to just go away for a year, I wanted to travel for a long time. I decided that being out there in the world, exploring it almost without purpose, would be the optimal way to reconnect with all the best parts of living.
Driven by this goal, I threw literally as much as I possibly could at my debts each week.
I got paid sporadically due to being self-employed so if my money came in drib's and drab's, I threw it at my debt in drib's and drab's. If I had an unexpected booking that led to a lot of extra money, I didn’t hold onto that money for a second, I sent it on a one way debt-clearing journey.
That is certainly one of the difficult parts of paying off debt and an obvious reason for why people delay repayments. We see our pay-check as having a better or more exciting purpose in the present, instead of going into a black-hole that brings nothing. But it does bring something eventually. It brings back financial clarity, control and an ability to plan for the future.
I think even if I hadn’t wanted to save up for travelling, I would have put my new positive financial situation to a good purpose, and I would have developed smaller, every-day goals, centred around family, relationships, and experiences.
When my life lacked greatly in these areas, when my time, money and energy was going purely to consumerism, I was miserable.
Then again, it goes back to my question around shopping addiction as the cause or effect of my depression. It was mental health versus financial health, and neither side was fighting strong.
That's why the true approach to tackling debt goes beyond the common tropes of spending less, working more and going without. Those things help clear the debt, but they don't deal with what lies underneath. They don't prevent debt occurring later on, or alter your mentality away from consumption as self-prescribed therapy.
It’s a truth, not merely a pleasant idea, that we should build our finances around sustainable, long-term and deep fulfilment.
My motivation wasn’t to explore in order to ‘get it out my system’ or escape the trappings of real life, it was about creating a whole new path, based on experiencing far-flung places, doing crazy things beyond what I believed I could and ultimately, discovering myself. I believed that my long-term fulfilment could be built on solid foundations formed from these experiences.
The Key Is To Not Go It Alone
Many of my peers and fellow graduate millennials often say that they wish they had the money to travel. In truth, some definitely do have the money, they just choose to allocate it to other things, and that's their business.
Many people however are bound by extortionate outgoings and financial commitments, as I was, and are navigating the same personal battle I did. I came through it thanks to the support of friends, family, and of course, Taran. That's why I recommend surrounding yourself with people or positive influences that will encourage you on your journey to being debt-free.
If those around you bolster the behaviours that are the most detrimental to you, then it's time to get real, have some honest conversations, and be clear in your motivations for changing things.
If you lack a supportive circle of like-minded individuals, I get that it makes debt repayment hard. But plenty of people out there are super into these lifestyle ideas, of thrift, frugality, and minimalism. In fact I wrote a whole book on that last topic. And the idea of being 100% debt-free, as in owing zero to anyone and clearing a mortgage earlier, is a major movement.
There is a tribe out there with open arms awaiting you, without a doubt.
Some of my favourite finance-oriented and majorly inspiring people:
My journey from down and out, to who I am now, has been a relatively long one, but I've finally got to where I want to be.
A year into travelling, and 2 since I became debt-free, I’ve worked as a farmer, a cook/receptionist/housekeeper and a cleaner. These are definitely not dream jobs, but they are short-term ventures targeted at a specific goal. But that's just the boring necessary stuff.
I've also camped on a completely deserted paradise island, with ocean so clear my eyes couldn't believe it. I've jumped out of a plane, held a snake, stroked a kangaroo and rescued a koala (not all at the same time).
I opened myself up to the unpredictable nature of life, embracing what scares me.
The result is that I have lived, and it's been an awfully big adventure.
What did my debt experience teach me?
I learned in my early 20's, that debt, whilst sometimes unavoidable, can often be prevented if we are open and honest with ourselves and those around us. I lost control of my life because I was suffering alone, smothering my inner truth, and favouring my unhealthy spending habits over the challenge of building new ones.
But I don't do that any-more, and I'd like to think that others can escape that spiral too. We can spend our money mindfully today, in the pursuit of something amazing, someday.
And that someday needn’t be so far away that we can't picture it and keep focus.
We can take stepping stones, steadily moving to the other side, to a place where we can start over again, begin listening to our core values, and live by them, forming new habits that will fulfil our truthful needs.
What motivates you to become unencumbered by debt?
Thanks for reading!
Hannah here, one half of NomaderHowFar. I love reading, the beach, proper fish and chips, and a good cup of tea. But I mostly like to chat about minimalism, simplifying your life, the beauty of travel and sometimes I get a bit deep. Get to know us here!
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