This was me three years ago: I was two years out of college with a degree in English, making less than $20,000 a year waitressing in Austin, Texas, while carrying $20,000 worth of student loan debt.
Yes, I owed more than I was making at the time. That money hung around my neck like a stone, but it was a stone that just about all my friends were also carrying. Debt was a fact of life for us Millennials as we struggled to find good jobs in the aftermath of the recession. And because it seemed financially impossible to pay it all off, the thinking went, why even pay attention to it? So I didn't, until I was hit with a smack-to-the-face reality check.
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Get started with a free financial assessment.
Choosing Fun Over Financial Responsibility
Like my peers, I spent what little extra cash I had on experiences that made me happy. I took off on a three-week trip to London, Belfast and Dublin. I went out to bars and restaurants and ran up big tabs a few nights a week. I attended trendy music festivals. I told myself that I was working hard and I deserved to use my paychecks to enjoy life.
Problem was, I wasn’t making myself happy. No amount of globetrotting or happy hour-ing could prevent me from becoming crazy panicked about the mountain of debt I had to deal with. I felt sick when I thought about my financial future. I finally admitted to myself that I was depressed and had no plan. I couldn’t live like this any longer.
So I slashed my expenses to just the necessities (like rent and food) and jacked up my income by taking on side hustles like coaching lacrosse, freelance writing and nannying. I quit going out, gave up traveling and funneled my earnings toward debt freedom. Ten months later, I’d paid off all my debt.
My anxiety dwindled along with my balances, and I've managed to stay out of the red (and enjoy life as well) by lowering my spending and sticking to a budget. Now, I want my fellow Millennials who refuse to face their student loans to stop justifying blowing money on trips and nights out, as I once did, and consider getting their debt under control.
What Experiences Really Cost You
Even if you're not a Millennial, you've still probably heard about this trend, according to a Harris Poll commissioned by Eventbrite: Rather than buying things, Millennials prefer to fork over money for experiences. The average Millennial will spend $174 a month eating out, reported marketing company Restaurant Marketing Labs. We're expected to shell out $200 million a year on travel, states a report from travel marketing company MMGY Global. To our thinking, a few days in Cancun or at Coachella are superior to, say, a fancier car (or a car at all — thanks Uber!).
So why does my generation love experiences? After talking to some of my friends about it, I think experiences make us feel as if we’re actually getting something out of a world that, in our opinion, has been unfair to us. Stagnant wages, high debt burdens and a global economy in flux have hit Millennials hard.
Take this example: the Wall Street Journal reported stats from student loan pro Mark Kantrowitz that show the class of 2016’s average student loan burden is $37,172. It can take years, decades even, to pay off that kind of debt. So we turn to experiences to remind us that life can still be good. After all, a $50 concert ticket is much easier to afford than a $500 monthly loan payment. Maybe we can’t pay off our loans or buy a house or plan our weddings just yet. But we can afford that pricey meal or long weekend out of town. These smaller price tags fit in our budgets.
I have a good friend who owes more than $35,000 in college loans, yet he has traveled extensively this year and routinely blows $100 per night when he goes out with his partner. We’ve talked a lot about how I managed to pay off my debt, and I know that his balances bother him. So I asked him why he would rather spend money on a fancy dinner or entertainment than make an extra loan payment.
His answer didn’t surprise me one bit. "Making an extra loan payment is better, I know. But I take home $27,000 a year and after budgeting for bills and loans, I don’t want to crunch more numbers. I want to live my life."
He thinks of his payments as a distraction from the experiences that make life fun, and he’s not alone. But Millennials simply can’t afford to think this way any longer. It’s time we stop including student loans on the list of “things” we won’t spend our money on, and reframe paying down debt as an “experience” that will enhance our lives and give us financial freedom.
Taking the First Steps
I’m not rich; I simply refuse to ever deal with the anxiety of debt again. Trust me, the peace you’ll feel once it has been discharged is a thousand times better than the thrill of trips to Europe or nights out at trendy eateries. Need a push? Here are three ways to make the debt payment journey a lot easier.
1. Set up auto pay. That way, your monthly payment leaves your bank account without you having to do a thing — and likely before you've even had a chance to miss that money. Even better, many lenders may give you a small discount on your interest if you go the automated route.
2. Dial back on fun — but don’t go cold turkey. Life is meant to be enjoyed, of course, so I'm not advocating you deny yourself of all experiences. But if you cut down on meals out or opt for a less pricey vacation destination, for example, you'll still be able to have a blast and socialize with friends while working toward financial solvency.
3. Imagine yourself without the yoke of debt. Rather than view your student loan payment as something that gives you a bad case of FOMO, try thinking of it as a "deposit" on future experiences — after all, the sooner you're rid of your debt, the sooner you'll be free emotionally and financially to fulfill other goals. And that's priceless.