Nobody wants to talk about debt. Consumer debt is the taboo topic of personal finance, but it’s becoming more difficult to find a recent college grad who hasn’t incurred some student debt along the way. People will say, “But that’s good debt–an investment in your future!” But with predatory lending, tuition hikes, and less funding for students, student loans have become just as devastating as consumer debt. So let’s be honest, no one wants to talk about student debt either.
You might already know the story of how quitting school was the best decision I ever made. But I didn’t make it out completely unscathed. Now that Stuart and I are exponentially more stable and financially secure than we were one year ago, we are in the process of knocking out as much debt as possible. And I am proud to say that we are on a rampage. The progress we’ve made in our own financial journey has made me want to share what I’ve learned and also see what’s worked for you.
Creating a debt pay-off timeline depends on so many things–what you do for a living, what kind of debt you have, and whether you have the resources to dedicate to aggressive debt reduction. Instead of prescribing to one approach, I think it’s more useful to share the changes we’ve made to our life and the habits we’ve held on to that have helped us make progress at our own pace. Creating our plan to get out of debt has been more piecemeal and experimental than anything. We started with considering three things:
1) Be realistic.
Ideally, you should do this before you spend thousands of dollars you don’t have, but whatevs! In my case, life said, “Plot twist! The university system is an institution of lies!” (so dramatic). But I don’t deal in the ideal, so you can go ahead and forget that nonsense. My breaking point came when I voiced my concerns to my adviser about the lack of funding and making ends meet. I was advised to take out more student loans. Every alarm in my head started going off and all of my dad’s financial lessons began to play on loop. I probably looked like I was having a stroke. Or, at the very least, like I was waiting for Ashton Kutcher to pop out from behind the bookcase.
At that very second, only three words came to mind–GET. OUT. NOW.
After I made the decision to leave academia, I could have felt sorry for myself that I didn’t make different choices. I could have dwelt on the debt I already accrued. But this is reality, and ain’t nobody got time for that. Woulda, coulda, shoulda–get over it. The time is now and, no matter what situation you’re in, you still have choices. Be realistic–is what you’re doing now contributing to where you want to be in the future?
2) Decide what you want and what you’re willing to trade for it.
What do you live for? What keeps you in the game? My life wasn’t in shambles, by any means. I still had a good idea of what kind of career I wanted. I took for granted all the skills I’d acquired along the way and forgotten they’re the reason I’d gotten this far. This is where that saying comes in: “Be stubborn about your goals and flexible about your methods.” What did I want to do? Research and writing. I had plenty experience with both of these things. The key was being flexible about where and how I did them.
3) Mount your mission.
We made the biggest decision of our lives one dark, winter evening in 2014.
We were standing in the kitchen of our tiny Cape Cod duplex in Lexington, KY—quite frankly—dreading the coming year. We were floundering in the dead end limbo that is the current state of academia and had to make a choice. Both of our departmental funding had run out, so Stuart was deciding whether to A) take out additional student loans and try to bust out a dissertation in four months to graduate in spring of 2015, or B) dedicate his time to process improvement and find a full-time position in that industry, which would provide more financial security, but prolong completing his PhD. I had already decided that I just wasn’t about the academic life anymore and I was going to begin my own job search.
So that night, in our tiny kitchen with the bad lighting, we said, “Let’s do this. Let’s change our life.”
Everyone has to begin somewhere, and this was our first step.