Over the past 200 days, I've watched my student loan balance rapidly shrink. Even though my $14,000 worth of student loans was less than the national average amount of $35,000, it still felt like a heavy burden. I watched my friends struggle to make their payments, just like I had watched my parents struggle to pay their own student loans throughout my childhood.
I dreamed of a life of freedom from monthly payments and accruing interest. But most importantly, I wanted the freedom to leave any job, relationship or situation that was no longer right for me.
I wanted the freedom to choose, and I knew the first step toward accomplishing that was to pay off my loans as fast as possible. I sat down, crunched the numbers and set a goal. I would give myself seven months to hit debt freedom.
In April 2016, I accomplished my goal. I'm proud to be debt-free. But, that doesn't mean the journey was easy. Trust me, there were tears, exhaustion and moments when I wanted to give up.
Here are the seven things I learned from paying off $14,000 worth of debt in seven months:
1. I'm not special.
Since I've become debt-free, I've had countless friends and acquaintances ask me how I did it. Their question is immediately followed by, “That's awesome that you did it. But, I could never do that. I'll probably be paying my loans until I die.”
My response is always the same: “I'm not special. You can do it, too.”
Yes, it might take you longer than seven months. Maybe your loans are bigger than mine, or maybe your salary is smaller. But, you might be able to do it faster than I did as well.
Maybe your loans are smaller than mine, or perhaps you have a significantly higher salary. All people have unique financial situations, but we're all capable of achieving our goals. I'm not special.
2. Having a goal is key.
I would be lying if I said I didn't make any sacrifices throughout my loan repayment journey. I sold my car, started biking to work and said “no” to outings I couldn't afford.
Sometimes, this was hard, and I felt frustrated. But, the one thing that kept me focused was my goal of reaching debt freedom. I knew the sacrifices were for a finite amount of time, but my debt freedom would be forever. My goal made it easier for me to stay focused, motivated and excited about the journey.
3. Some months were easier than others.
Throughout those seven months when I paid off my loans, there were a lot of ups and downs. Some months were easy, and it felt like money wasn't an issue. Other months were more challenging, like the time I had a destination bachelorette party and destination wedding to attend in the same month.
Some months were only difficult because of my mindset. There were times I just wanted to be done and not think about my payments anymore. The takeaway is simple: Life is a journey, and it has a lot of ups and downs.
4. Certain things are worth the money.
Throughout my aggressive loan repayment, I learned I'm unwilling to compromise on certain things in order to save money. For example, unless I absolutely have to, I will never again live with random roommates.
During my final year of college, I lived with two other girls in a one-bedroom apartment. On any given day, I was faced with dirty dishes, scum-filled showers, random strangers passed out on the couch and a host of other horrors I've tried to forget. As I prepared to slash my budget in order to pay off my loans, I did everything in my power to find affordable housing that wouldn't require roommates.
5. Having a car is the ultimate luxury. Enjoy it.
Americans love cars, and I'm no exception. When I turned 17, my parents bought me a used car.
It seemed like cars were a necessity. When I got serious about my loans, my car was the one expense that didn't make sense. I drove a broken-down 2000 VW Cabrio, complete with no airbags and a broken roof. Yet, between parking costs, repairs, insurance and gas, it still cost me upward of $500 each month.
There was only one thing to do: I had to sell it. Instead of driving, I began to Uber, bike and take the bus. Occasionally, I would use services like Zipcar as well.
I quickly learned that navigating life without a car is time-consuming and exhausting. But even beyond that, I realized how lucky I was to have ever owned a car at all. It was a huge privilege I had taken for granted. If you're a car owner, consider yourself #blessed. (Seriously, though.)
6. There's no limit to how much you can earn.
In the age of the Internet, there is truly no limit to the amount of money you can earn. Whether you know it or not, you have a skill other people would happily pay you for.
Maybe it's freelance photography, graphic design or writing. Perhaps your skill is babysitting, excellent customer service or dog walking. Whatever it is that you're good at, find a way to harness it and make extra money.
With my full-time job, there is a finite amount of money I can make each month. As a result, there is a finite amount of money I can save. Luckily, there's no limit to the amount of money I can earn on the side through freelance writing. Trust me, the hustle is worth the extra cash.
7. Money is emotional.
Money is an emotional topic. Things we didn't choose for ourselves largely define our relationship with money, like the tax bracket we were born into, our parents' beliefs or society's demands.
In many ways, it's impossible to make positive financial changes without examining our feelings about the topic. Paying off my debt was an emotional process because money is more than numbers. It's the tool we use to create our lives.
Taylor Milam is the author of TheFreedomFromMoney.com, where she helps people combine money and self-care to create a life they love. Sign up to receive her free Money Toolkit, so you can start living a richer life today.