The quote on a shirt from my first race says it all: “The miracle isn’t that I finished, but that I had the courage to start.”
It's a fitting statement, seeing as training for a marathon was the key reason why I was able to dig out from under $15,000 of credit card debt.
Although I've now been running for more than a decade, at 35, I’m what you would call a “late in life” athlete. My hobbies prior to running? Shopping, drinking and socializing with friends—habits that started in college, continued well into my mid-20s and ultimately landed me in my bad debt situation.
I had no clue where my money went or even what interest rates my credit credit balances carried. And I certainly didn't have a monthly budget. I just assumed that debt was a fact of life—I mean, everyone I knew had it.
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The crazy part is that I actually considered myself to be financially responsible—for the most part. I'd secured a good marketing job just a month out of college. I wasn’t driving a fancy car. I had a roommate, and I paid my share of the bills on time. I even kicked a few dollars each pay period into my 401(k).
Yet, despite all of this, I was a financial disaster by the age of 25.
My Financial Wake-Up Call
The proverbial lightbulb moment finally happened when I realized that, although I had a well-paying job as a creative manager for a toy catalog in Columbus, Ohio, I didn’t have so much as $1,000 saved for a down payment on a car. I did, however, have seven credit cards with high balances, a closet full of clothes and designer handbags, and plenty of vacations under my belt.
To get a better sense of the damage that I'd done, I added up all of my credit card balances—they totaled more than $15,000!—and then drafted a plan to pay each one off by prioritizing them from highest to lowest interest rates. I also created a spreadsheet detailing what I made each month, less my living expenses. Once I accounted for everything, I was left with just $80 a month to put toward my credit card debt—beyond the minimum payments that I was already making. Given that my debt was about half of what I earned in a year then, it was clear that I’d have to make some major lifestyle changes if I had any hope of resolving my debt.
Finally having that clarity was a great start, so I hung the sheet with my credit card balances on the refrigerator to serve as a constant reminder that I needed to pay off my debt—and to keep the fear of the beast I had created alive and well.
How My Persistence (Literally) Paid Off
Initially, running was simply a free distraction to keep me from spending money. To give myself some focus, I set a goal to make my way around my local park loop three times, which totaled just under three miles.
Many times, I had to take walking breaks because my legs would itch, and my lungs would burn, after just 10 minutes of running. But I refused to give in until I logged those three laps. Eventually, I was able to sprint the entire stretch, teaching me my first tangible lesson in persistence.
Digging my way out of debt required a similar persistence. If friends suggested that we go out for a night on the town—which usually resulted in splitting bottles (and bills) to the tune of $70 or more—I had to limit my drinks and just order an appetizer. I declined many invitations from coworkers to go out for lunch because I knew that it would throw me off budget. And I had to pick and choose whose weddings and baby showers I could afford to attend.
When a friend heard about my efforts, he challenged me further by asking me to run a local half marathon with him. I downloaded a training plan online, and followed it to the letter. Each morning I’d proudly cross off my completed mileage—while also recording any money that I'd spent the previous day on a spreadsheet that tracked my progress toward diminishing my debt.
If I cheated on either plan—meeting my running goals or my goal to pay down my debt—I was the only one who'd suffer.
I discovered that both processes were strangely similar in that there was no quick fix, and ultimately, I was the only opponent to beat. If I cheated on either plan—meeting my running goals or my goal to pay down my debt—I was the only one who'd suffer. Tracking my progress for both projects also presented me with an oddly exhilarating challenge to conquer each day.
Once I was more financially confident, I was no longer willing to waste my hard-earned money on things that weren't necessary. So I did things like eliminate premium cable service to save $50 a month, and downgraded to the most basic cell phone plan that cost just $33 a month. I also learned that not everything can be cut: I tried coloring my hair at home to save the $120 that I was spending on a cut and highlights every three months—a bad idea that I won't be repeating!
I Conquered the Race ... and My Debt
Three months later, race day finally arrived. I finished feeling great—one hour and 53 minutes after the gun went off—and ready to see what else I might be able to achieve that I'd never considered possible before.
So I adopted a new training plan for my first full marathon, which would serve as a critical blueprint to keeping me moving forward. Following it also helped me to see that I could rid myself of habits that were no longer useful—like self-doubt. Despite all of the miles that I’d already logged, I still didn’t consider myself a runner. I didn’t feel that I’d earned the title yet.
Each Friday I’d look at the long weekend runs outlined in my training plan, which were now distances of 18-plus miles. Many times, it seemed impossible, but I always stuck to the plan. And after every run—even those that got ugly—I learned that I really could do it.
As I chipped away at those miles, I also slowly chipped away at my debt. When one card was finally paid off, I moved down the list to the next one. I fueled the momentum by seeking out balance transfer offers that promoted low interest rates, and then marked my calendar to pay off as much of the balance as I could the week before the low introductory rate was set to expire.
As an endurance runner, you learn that only you can decide the fate of your outcome.
In the midst of my marathon training, I had my annual performance review at work. Although it was highly complimentary, and included a raise that reflected the highest percentage offered that year at my company, I was still underpaid—a fact that I had long known but felt powerless to change. The old me would have politely thanked my boss, faked a smile and gone home bawling tears of frustration later that night. But conquering seemingly unending miles and debt had changed me.
As an endurance runner, you learn that only you can decide the fate of your outcome. So the day after my review, I worked up the nerve to confront my boss about my disappointment, explaining that my compensation should better reflect the asset that I was to the company. To my surprise, he agreed. Human resources re-evaluated my position, based on the many responsibilities I had assumed above and beyond my job description, and I was given a $6,000 raise—in addition to my merit increase. That boost provided $200 more a month to put toward my debt.
Later that year, I ran my first full marathon in Columbus, Ohio, and then began training for the New York City Marathon—at which point I was even more determined to crush my financial battle. So I posted flyers around the neighborhood advertising my dog walking and sitting services to make a little extra money, and picked up a daily dog walking gig during my lunch break. Seeing the difference that extra $50 each week (sometimes it was as much as $150 if I scored weekend gigs) had on my debt reduction plan kept my hope alive.
Although it took me three years and three marathons to pay off my debt completely (boosting my income from $31,000 to $40,000 in three years also helped!), training for my first marathon was especially transformative because it showed me who I am, what I'm capable of, and what ultimately fulfills me. When you’re out on a long run—far from home and all distractions—an amazing sense of clarity, pride and peace emerges that no amount of money can buy.
It’s been nearly a decade since I ran that first marathon, and although my life since that time has brought new jobs and salaries, a husband, a home and a child, I’m still running—and I’m still debt-free. It all began with one step.