How I Paid Off $35,000 Of Debt In 12 Months

Let’s talk debt for a minute.

It’s a subject close to my heart and something I always seem to be discussing with people. Personal finance is the last taboo these days, but I’m very honest about where I’ve been and where I am.

Let me give you a bit of timeline:

In 2011…

I had $56,000 in student loan debt.
I had $8,000 in judgments against me for defaulted credit card debt.
I had $10,000 in delinquent medical bills that were in collection.
My basic living expenses were around $800 per month.

…and I was making $24,000 a year in a retail.

These figures don’t add up.

Because they don’t add up, my phone never stopped ringing. The collectors called for me all day…

They called my cell phone, but I never even turned it on anymore.
They called for me at work, and my co-workers had to pretend I wasn’t there.
They called my family looking for me.
My wages were being garnished (25% per paycheck) due to the judgments the credit card company had gotten against me. I never even showed up to court. I was miserable.

All my friends were blowing their paychecks at the bar, talking about buying houses and furniture and expensive toys and I was making sweeps of my apartment parking lot to look for people who might be waiting to serve me a summons.

Life sucked.

I didn’t know what to do. Paying rent with a meager salary on top of everything else wasn’t going to work. Friends offered me a place to live for a bit, but I didn’t want to broadcast how much I had failed. Because it felt like failure.

When we were growing up they never told us we could be making the same amount of money at age 30 that we were at age 18 because the entire American economy got flushed down the toilet and nobody wanted to pay a dime over Minimum Wage unless it was completely necessary. I never envisioned a scenario where I was dead broke at the age my parents had me.

But all that self-pity wouldn’t do anything for me. It wasn’t going to pay off creditors or get the phone calls to stop. Feeling shitty and worthless may have been totally valid, but it wasn’t going to solve a damned thing.

If I ever wanted to get myself out of this whole I would have to either start making an obscene amount of money or take my expenses down to near nothing. Preferably a combination of both.

There was an opportunity to live rent-free with family, like people used to do before we were convinced we all needed the suburban lifestyle starter kit by age 18. The only stipulation was I would have to move across the country, from where I had lived all my life to a whole new state, a whole new life. I didn’t want to leave all the friends I made over the years, but I had to make a decision. Tow the line, keep walking the same path that had gotten me to where I was, or take a chance.

In late summer of 2011 I packed my whole life into a U-haul and relocated to Nashville, Tennessee. For the first time since I was 14 years old I didn’t have a job. I gave up the “security” of my former job for the possibility of a different kind of life.

To say the change was dramatic is an understatement. Going from living the solo bachelor life for many years to living with anyone, let alone family is going to be an adjustment. There were tense moments and a lot of wondering if I had made the right decision. I not only had to find a new job, but make a whole change in career if I wanted to put my getting out of debt on the fast track.

I spent a few months applying for jobs in IT and hiking in state parks to get alone time. Eventually I landed that first job which led to the next and suddenly I was making practically double what I had been in retail. The work was more intense, but this was always meant to unbury myself as fast as I could and start incorporating the things I wanted to do more with my life, like writing and photography.

I didn’t go on vacations. I didn’t drive back to Michigan to see friends. I didn’t eat out, didn’t buy more than a couple of shirts in a six month period, and never saw the inside of a coffee shop. Tax refunds never got to my wallet. I worked my ass off and when the paychecks cleared my bank account, almost all of it went to paying off debt.

It’s hard working those jobs, especially ones you may not love just to see a digital number tick down every two weeks. So I started reading blogs like Altucher Confidential and Becoming Minimalist and writing about the journey on posts on jameslcarey.com which eventually inspired me to create JustLiveSimple.com just to talk about getting out of debt and living more for what you want to get out of life than for some imaginary scoreboard that everyone seems to have.

After paying off the credit card collectors and all the miscellaneous medical debt I looked toward the mountain of student loan debt. Did I want to live with this for the rest of my life? Just make payments and hope the whole thing was paid off in 20 years or so? I didn’t. I wanted to start a different life. I was thankful and humbled by the opportunity that I was given and decided this was the universe throwing me a bone and I wasn’t going to walk away.

In the past two years I’ve paid off approximately $45,000 in debt. $35,000 of that was student loan debt I began paying down since September of 2013. From the original balance of $56,000, I’m down to $22,000 of student loans left. If all goes to plan, I should be done by Spring of 2015.

My original loan repayment plan lasted until 2036. I think that’s a win.

My phone no longer rings with “unlisted” at all hours.
The only mail I get is Popular Science and my car insurance.
I sleep a lot better.

Getting rid of all that debt and mental clutter has left room for personal pursuits like writing and photography, working on the blog and connecting with other making the same kinds of changes in their lives. 

I’ve taken hard steps to ensure the rest of my life will not be spent worrying about looming debt or having to miss out on the life I want to keep regular payments going to the government. It’s tough, but it’s possible and feeling the weight lifting off of me is amazing.

I couldn’t have gotten to where I am without the love and support of friends and family, but the important first step was acknowledging that something was wrong with my life and I could change it if I asked for help and took a chance.

Have the courage to try something new if the path you’ve been on doesn’t work. Ask for help when you need it. Take a chance. You can do it.


Sign up for the Just Live Simple newsletter when you get chance and keep on going.

You’re gonna make it.

If you want to check your own debt repayment progress, check out Unbury.me.

5 Responses to “How I Paid Off $35,000 Of Debt In 12 Months

  • Hot diggity, I love this. I have been doing a lot of weighing about my own debt weight. I CAN DO IT.

  • What about the college grads who aren't making more? I've been out of college for four years – I work full-time as an Editor making $33,000 a year. I still have to work an additional second job as a waitress (the same restaurant I worked at while attending college) – just to stay a float. My college debt is now at $36k. I rent and am unable to live rent free – what are the other options for adults who have to pay rent and aren't finding higher paying salaries??

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