I’ve been meaning to write about debt. But it’s just such a soul-sucking, anger-inducing topic to me. I have had debt, in one form or another, since I was eighteen. Eighteen!! That’s twenty-one years. Twenty-one years of being prisoner to some company or another.
My first debt was for school. Before I ever had a credit card, I took on five figures of debt. I know I didn’t understand the gravity of my signature on that promissory note. After that it was credit cards, health care debt, bankruptcy (which doesn’t discharge education loans), more credit card debt, an auto loan or two. At one point, I had around a hundred thousand dollars worth of debt.
I was always told that debt is just a part of life. Debt was something I had to learn to use and manage correctly. You’ll always have an auto loan, I was told. Everyone has debt was a common refrain. And so, after my bankruptcy, I bought a new car with an interest rate of 9.59%. I continued to make purchases with my credit card, which included a brand new MacBook, dinner out with friends, and new clothes.
The thing with debt is that it’s a trap. It feeds the little piece of yourself that says you are what you own. Having a new car and computer and watch and all the other things that are flashed across the television screen or popped up on banner ads are the things that define you. They tell the world who you are. I’ve bought two Jeep Wranglers in my life because of what I thought they said about me (you know, that I’m outdoorsy, ballsy, and edgy…a little bit of a bad ass, if you will).
And then, one day, I stumbled upon Mr. Money Mustache. I read his posts on early retirement. I read about how debt doesn’t have to be a way of life. There was this whole set of people that lived on considerably less than they made. They didn’t subscribe to the belief that debt was a given. They used money as a way to buy freedom rather than consumable bullshit. Their belief was that time and experiences is far more valuable than the type of car in your driveway or how fancy you were. It was liberating.
This was about the time I started making decent money. I started adding numbers into spreadsheets, tracking every dime I spent, budgeting every dollar, and cutting back on all the non-essential things. I looked for ways to cut out the extra crap that I didn’t need. My ex wasn’t exactly on board and often wanted to open the purse strings wider, instead of tightening them (even though I was paying off her debt as well).
After a few years, a divorce, a new job, a new place, and a new car later, all I have left is my car loan. I’ve gone from a ridiculous negative net worth and living paycheck to paycheck to maxing out my 401k last year for the first time and a positive net worth. I’m sorely tempted to sell my car, pay off the loan and buy a beater of a car to become debt free by the time I hit forty (which happens in August so I still have some time to decide).
I realized what those two Jeeps had said about me; I was a god-damned fool. All of the things I bought with credit cards—carrying debt month-to-month—did not define me. Rather, they kept me in line. They kept me shackled. I am still at their mercy. When you buy something on credit, using debt as a way to finance the needs of your present self at the expense of your future self, you royally fuck yourself. Debt takes away your choices; it most definitely took away mine.
I still use credit cards but I pay them off every month. My credit score hovers around 800 or so. I am diligently saving and investing in my future self. I always pay more than the minimum than required on the auto loan. I’m looking forward to the day when I won’t have that burden on my shoulders any more.
Twenty-one years of this weight; it’s a long time to carry anything. It’s especially a long time when you think of all the things I’ve missed out on because I had already tied up my money—both the money I was making and the money I had yet to make. When I pay off the last of my debt, I think I’ll go buy myself a pint of good ice cream and then start socking the rest of my excess money into Vanguard funds. That seems like a lovely way to celebrate.