December 10, 2016

One year later.

365 days since I made my last payment on my student loans.

Two degrees. $81,000 in student loans. Nine years of repayment. Nine years of having my money pay for my past, rather than my future.

I paid the minimum on my debt for the first five years, but after graduating from NYU and taking on a lot more debt, I knew I had to get serious. I ended up paying off $68,000 in 4.5 years.

My journey into debt was easy. Getting out of debt? It was the hardest thing I’ve done (aside from building a business).

There were moments when I felt so overwhelmed by my debt. When I realized I had taken on so much debt, but no full-time job was in sight. I felt consumed by debt and felt that every choice I made was predetermined by what I owed.

The lack of choice felt so limiting, so constricting. Finding myself on food stamps shortly after moving to Portland was a personal low. The master’s degree from a fancy private school — which I thought would be the key to career success — suddenly seemed meaningless.

I couldn’t help but think that everything I had done up to that point was a mistake. I was stupid for quitting my job and going to New York. I was an idiot for getting a performing arts degree from a private school and taking on more debt than I ever made in any previous annual salaries.

I carried the shame, guilt, depression and anxiety with me. The burden was heavy and the financial cost, very real. At my highest, I paid over $300 a month in interest.

When I found myself feeling hopeless and alone — after trying therapy and dealing with daily bouts of tears and anxiety fits — I turned to writing. I started this blog on January 3, 2013.

In many ways, this blog saved my life. I don’t say that lightly or with a hint of a hyperbole. It helped me climb out of the deep, dark place I found myself in.

It helped me acknowledge the feelings I had and made me realize I was not alone. I found cheerleaders, a community, and a creative outlet.

Through this blog, I created a new career as a freelance writer and event planner. How everything changed.

Making that last payment a year ago was such a surreal experience. I was in debt my entire adult life and for the first time, I was free.

Once I saw my balance at zero, I started to hyperventilate. It was not the reaction I was expecting.

But it felt like the last straw, the final “goodbye” in a love affair that was both exhilarating and tumultuous. Though I started a blog about breaking up with debt, actually breaking up with debt turned out to be far more emotional than I thought.

Who was I without debt? What would life be like without monthly payments? The fear of the unknown scared me. After about ten minutes of freaking out, I started to move toward excitement. I screamed and jumped up and down like a child on Christmas day. In twenty minutes, I went through all the emotions. Then, a breakthrough.

A feeling of lightness. A burden lifted. A breath of fresh air. I will never forget that feeling.

Over the past year, I have been able to keep that lightness and actually live the life I dreamed of. No longer was debt my master. I was in control of my choices.

This year, I finally got to act on what I wanted — I moved back to Los Angeles to be near family and be in a big city again. I celebrated and finally got to take my mom abroad to Italy. I traveled more than I ever have, both for business and pleasure. It was everything I wanted and everything I dreamed of. The guilt of spending money on things I wanted or needed was magically gone. I could use money for things I wanted. I started investing and saving for my future. My money belonged to me.

Though all my debt-free dreams did come true, it has still been a tough year in many ways. I had to start a new relationship with money. I had to figure out who I was without debt.

I increased my income even more and hadn’t realized I went into another tax bracket. After dealing with the expenses of moving and going to Italy, I then found out I owed the tax man everything I saved up. My savings went back to zero and I had to start over. It felt like a financial setback, though I was grateful to at least have the money in my account and not go back into debt.

I also found myself as the sole income earner. We knew moving to LA was a risk, but it was worth it. Luckily, I have a job I can do from anywhere, but my partner has struggled to find consistent work. Things are starting to change, but as you can imagine this affected my finances.

On top of the financial stress of taxes and making sure bills are paid, I experienced so many business growing pains this year. The more successful I got, the harder things got. I’ve dealt with some setbacks that have made me rethink everything. Some things that have deeply affected me. All of this affected my mental and physical health, too. I don’t think I’ve ever been so sick in my whole life as I was this year.

I am starting to make changes so that I can stay well and continue to thrive in my career and continue to be debt-free. There’s no doubt, though, that my first year being debt-free had the highest highs but also the lowest lows.

In the end, it was all worth it. To be here. With this blog, this book, this community that changed my life.

For everyone still fighting the good fight out of debt, I want you to know that it is possible. Life is much sweeter after debt and choices open up for you. Getting out of debt is so hard, but once you do, your whole life is waiting for you.

Melanie

Melanie is a freelance writer currently living in Portland, Oregon. She is passionate about education, financial literacy, and empowering people to take control of their finances. She writes about breaking up with debt, freelancing, and side hustle adventures at DearDebt.com.

Currently she puts more than 50% of her income towards debt, while living a frugal, fun life. In addition to her love of personal finance, art and music, she is also a karaoke master. Follow the adventure @DearDebtBlog.

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26 responses to “One Year Later”

  1. Happy one year debt-free anniversary, Melanie! I’m sure you know how much your journey has inspired others (myself included). Those who struggle will always need people like you.
    Kate @ Cashville Skyline recently posted…Free Money Resolutions CourseMy Profile

  2. Your story still continues to inspire me so much. Happy one year of being debt-free and thank you for talking about what life is like after paying off debt (both the good and bad!).

  3. Thank you so much for sharing your journey, Melanie! You continue to inspire me and I appreciate your honesty about the good and the bad times.

    Over the past year things have gotten easier and harder for me in many ways as I’ve seen more success too – but I wouldn’t change a thing. 🙂
    Lindsay @ The Notorious D.E.B.T. recently posted…20 Frugal Christmas Gift IdeasMy Profile

  4. Congrats on one year Melanie! I’m sorry this year has been so tough in a lot of ways. I wish I could say more, but I’ve probably already told you it in person. 🙂 Hope to see you soon again!
    Tonya@Budget and the Beach recently posted…November ReviewMy Profile

  5. LaTisha says:

    Happy one year! I still remember when you announced you had just paid everything off. I’m right behind you haha Just a few more things to take care of. I want to use my business income to pay it off in one piece.
    LaTisha recently posted…My November 2016 Passive Income Report – $2,114.09My Profile

  6. Kara says:

    I feel like my blog helped save my life too! Writing definitely helped me fight depression and build an online community where I found support and advice. I am SO proud of you and everything you’ve accomplished. You are a hero to me.
    I know things in LA have started off a little sticky, financially, but you will overcome. That’s what you do, and this blog post proves it.

  7. Centsai says:

    Your story is so inspiring to everyone out there still struggling with their own debt! Happy holidays from Centsai!
    Centsai recently posted…5 Reasons Why Disability Insurance Is A MustMy Profile

  8. Huge congrats on your one year anniversary, Melanie! I’ve found in life that major problems seem to be dealt with survival mode, and when the problems end there’s this time when somehow the safety of having conquered the problem allows all of the hell you went through during it to come out. I went through something similar this year after a super tough 2015. But now it’s on to wellness, my friend. You got this.

  9. Chonce says:

    Happy one year Melanie! I love that you’re talking about the reality of debt freedom and how there are still ups and downs yet and still, freeing yourself from debt is one of the best things you can do to improve your life 🙂
    Chonce recently posted…How My Husband and I Paid Off $14,354.81 of Debt This YearMy Profile

    • Melanie says:

      Thank you! Yes, debt freedom is not the end goal. It’s A Goal, but life moves on and there are other financial issues to deal with. It is much sweeter on this side, though 🙂

  10. This was beautiful, Melanie. I remember when you told me you pulled the plug on your debt and I can’t believe it’s been a year already!! Thank you for putting your journey out there for everyone to learn from and be inspired by, and thank you for continuing to share the struggles. I imagine becoming debt-free doesn’t mean automatically having no money problems; it’s just a different set. But you made it through tougher times before, and you’re getting through it now. I’m sure you’ll be in an even better place this time next year, and I’m excited to see what changes are ahead.

    • Melanie says:

      Thanks, friend. You’ve been such a great friend and support! I can’t believe it’s been a year, either. It’s gone by SO FAST. Yes, debt freedom doesn’t mean everything is magically perfect with money. There are more issues, but it’s easier to deal with!

  11. A little belatedly, happy anniversary!

    Also, I read “expenses of moving and going to Italy,” as “expenses of moving to Italy” and got really confused about how we were still in the same time zone 🙂
    Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life recently posted…Real Estate Investing: reducing costsMy Profile

  12. Matt Spillar says:

    Congrats Melanie and happy 1 year anniversary of being debt free! You story is very inspiring!

  13. E says:

    You are so incredible, Melanie! Thank you for sharing your journey with us and for being so transparent and open about your experiences. You are one of the people who has helped me to believe that paying down my debt is possible. Thank you for all that you do!

  14. So, so late to this party. Congrats on the 1 year anniversary. I can attest to the debt free journey being so worth it. It will be emotional, and different for everyone, but the end goal is so worth it. Here’s to a great year two for you Melanie!
    Brian @ Debt Discipline recently posted…Net Worth Update: December 2016My Profile

  15. ZJ Thorne says:

    Thank you for writing it. It gives me so much hope, but also is realistic that debt is not the entirety of our problems. Things will still happen to our money and our lives. Money is just a part of it, and without debt it can be a much smaller part hopefully.
    ZJ Thorne recently posted…Net Worth Week 40 – Birthday EditionMy Profile

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