Four years ago, I graduated from college with just over $US70,000 in student loan debt.
So far, I’ve paid off about $US20,000.
And while I’m looking forward to the day that I’m done making monthly payments for good, I’m grateful that I didn’t enter the “real world” debt-free.
If I did, it would have taken me a lot longer to figure out what I know now.
1. You need to plan out your spending.
In college, I wasn’t exactly bad with money, but I wasn’t great either.
On one hand, I managed to limit myself to spending the money that I made at my $US7.41-an-hour campus job, rather than using a credit card.
On the other hand, that money was usually gone within a few days of each biweekly paycheck, and then I’d have to go back to living off fruit and cereal I’d brought home from the all-you-can-eat dining hall.
Graduating and realising how much debt I’d accumulated was a reality check for me.
I immediately signed up for Mint.com and began obsessively tracking my spending and planning out my budget every month.
If I hadn’t had that black cloud of debt looming over me, I doubt I would have been motivated to become more educated about money. Most likely, I would have kept on living from paycheck-to-paycheck, and spending every dollar I earned as soon as the direct deposit hit my bank account.
2. Being too frugal can be bad for your mental health.
During my first year out of college, I lived in a constant state of anxiety about the amount of money that I owed.
I felt like I was doing something wrong if I spent a single dollar that wasn’t strictly “necessary” on something other than paying off my loans or building up a savings account.
I lived on dubious produce from the discount grocery store, felt incredibly guilty if I had one cheap beer at a bar after work, and turned down the opportunity to go on weekend trips in favour of reading books that I’d checked out from the public library.
I wasn’t much fun to be around, and I wasn’t enjoying life very much, either. Once I started to loosen up and allow myself to spend myself on “nonessentials” like an occasional yoga class or dinner with friends, my attitude changed. Not only was I happier, but my debt felt like less of a burden, because I wasn’t allowing it to ruin my life.
3. You need less than you think.
I’m always a little shocked when I spend time with my friends who graduated from college without any debt and immediately found well-paying jobs.
They’re always going to concerts! They have brand new cars! They live in expensive neighbourhoods just because it’s a short commute to work! They go on vacation and stay in real hotels, not the cheapest possible Airbnb!
The strange thing is that I’m not jealous. Over the past four years that I’ve been paying off my debt, I’ve been questioning every single purchase that I make, so I’ve realised what’s essential to me, and what’s not. I definitely need to be able to travel, for instance, but I don’t care where I stay when I do. I’d probably spend my money on the same things that my friends do, without considering whether they mattered to me or not, if the idea of paying off my debt didn’t motivate me to be more thoughtful.
Even if I’d graduated without debt, I’m sure I would have learned all these lessons eventually. But it probably would have taken a crisis or a major life event to change the way I thought about money. Facing my student loans was a wake-up call, and I’m glad that I had that experience in my early 20’s.
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