Reader Story: The Value of Financial Struggle

This guest post from Devon Mills is about how she was able to overcome her crippling debt after college by using the three keys to freedom from debt. When I first heard Devon's story I realize how similar it was to mine and immediately thought of how she should share it here on Pocket Changed. Take it away Devon! In December 2006, I got my first credit card. I was a sophomore in college and just barely scraping by on the money front, which is not the best situation to be in when you first gain access to credit. But I was instantly approved for a student card by the almighty Citi gods, and I first used it to buy Christmas presents for my family.

It all started out innocently enough.

I used my card to buy groceries and books, as any college student would. Then I threw some clothes onto the tab, plus a flight to a warmer climate for spring break. And, hey, how about a cruise to Mexico with all my friends? Why not?

Four years and many more purchases later, I was a college graduate with an excellent academic record, a great full-time job and a big secret: I had racked up more than $6,000 of credit-card debt. On top of a modest student loan and the money I owed my mom for a car repair, I was nearly $9,000 in the hole with hardly any idea of how to get out.

Giving Up

I had tried and failed many times during college to whittle down my debt, but any effort I made dwindled after a few months of backward progress. I could barely scrape together the minimum credit-card payment each month, let alone throw more money at the balance, and the interest always filled in any dent I’d made anyway.

Eventually, I just gave up. I would hold my breath waiting for the next statement, hoping I’d have enough cash to cover just the minimum payment. I always did, and that’s exactly what I would pay. Then I’d take another deep breath and wait for the next month.

I figured I’d live this way for the next decade or so, if not for the rest of my life.

However, that’s not my story. My story is that I became debt-free in July 2010 at age 23. In the end, it took me less than six months to pay back every red cent.

Here’s why.

The 3 Keys to Success

My feeble efforts to pay off my debt while I was in college showed that I lacked three elements that are vital to achieving any goal: patience, passion and a plan.

When I saw little or no progress in paying off my debt each month, I gave up. I had no patience.

I became content with living paycheck-to-paycheck, just barely scraping by. I had no passion.

I blinded myself to how much trouble I was getting into, afraid to take a hard look at the numbers and figure out exactly what I needed to do to free myself. I had no plan.

I finally succeeded in becoming debt-free because:

  • I became extremely passionate about it as my number-one goal.
  • I crafted a written plan of attack, including a monthly budget and payment schedule for each of my three debts.
  • I found the patience to stick with the plan through the days of undetectable progress.

The Passion

To quit doing something you’ve become comfortable with and start doing something different, you have to become passionate about making a change.

After years of floating along financially, I got really sick of barely scraping by each month. I became angry with myself for the poor money decisions I’d made. At 23, I wanted to be independent and comfortable with my finances. Instead, I was living at my mom’s house and feeling ashamed about my secret debt.

I had half-assed my previous attempts to pay off my debt, but in January 2010, I finally made it my sole focus. Thanks to that complete and fervent dedication, I developed a plan.

The Plan

Zig Ziglar said, “If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time.”

A goal as vague as “paying off my debt” never sufficed; that’s obvious by the number of times I tried and failed to achieve it. I needed to get specific. I needed a roadmap with excellent directions.

First, I wrote a budget and determined how much money I could throw at my debt each month. Then, I created a payment schedule for each debt using Dave Ramsey’s debt snowball method. The schedule allowed me to project when I could pay off each debt if I stuck to the plan.

I realized that I could wipe out my mom’s loan in March, say goodbye to my credit-card debt in May, and then embrace my complete freedom by demolishing the student loan in July.

I wound up with one piece of paper that showed each payment I needed to make toward each debt in order to achieve my goal. All I had to do was follow the plan, and I’d be completely free in less than six months. Bullseye.

The Patience

I was sufficiently fired up. I had my plan mapped out. And then? Then… I waited.

My lack of patience during previous attempts to repay my debt was what ultimately derailed me each time. And this time, it remained tough to stick it out.

I was thrilled to make a nice dent in my debt on the 1st and 15th of each month, but the stretches in between paychecks weren’t so exciting. Staying home from pricy bars on yet another Saturday night doesn’t sound so great when you’re a few weeks into the plan and progress seems slow.

But the difference this time was that I had that plan. Every time I wanted to go out and blow money like I used to, I’d remind myself: Wipe out the loan in March. Say goodbye to Citi in May. Embrace complete freedom in July.

I scraped together all the patience I needed thanks to the promise of my own personal Independence Day.

The Value of Financial Struggle

Whether you owe $9,000 or $90,000, freedom from debt won’t come easily. We all have to fight the same battles: the relative ease of floating along financially versus buckling down to make a change; the mental anguish of running the numbers and seeing just how deep in debt you really are; and the constant pull to ditch the strict budget and revert back to your spendthrift ways.

My six months of militant debt-repayment weren’t exactly a barrel of laughs, but I look back on them with joy. Sure, I would have loved to stumble upon an extra $9,000 via a forgotten trust or a lucky lottery ticket and paid off all my debt with the push of a few buttons. But what would I have learned from that experience? After all, the hollow pleasure of instant gratification was what got me into such trouble in the first place.

Oddly enough, I wound up loving the process of crafting my budget, and I took pleasure in scribbling all my purchases on post-it notes and stapling the receipts together each month. I savored the thrill of watching my debt dwindle helplessly in the face of my ruthless payments. I took pride in knowing that I was, for the first time, really in control of my financial future.

That type of satisfaction never comes from anything that was easy.

The Perks of Freedom

Since I’ve become debt-free, I’ve bought my first digital SLR camera, purchased a new laptop, run my first half-marathon, gone on another cruise (paid for by me, not some credit-card company) and put more than $20,000 into savings.

All of that required diligent budgeting, saving, research, training and, perhaps most of all, restraint from blowing all that time and money on stupid stuff just because I could.

It required me to identify what it was I really want in life, and to reject anything that didn’t align with that.

It required me to have patience, passion and a plan.

I have big dreams to run my first full marathon this year and to start traveling overseas in 2012. Eventually, I’d love to travel indefinitely, taking photos and writing and soaking up every new place at my leisure.

Back when the Citi gods owned my life, that’s all those plans would have ever been — dreams.

Now, I own my life. What’s keeping you from owning yours?

Devon Mills is a 24-year-old writer, runner, personal-finance nerd and aspiring photographer. She blogs about her adventures in lobster-costume making, naked bicycle-riding, and what she plans to do with her one wild and precious life at