For too long, I have allowed myself to use debt to live outside my means. Credit cards and a car loan permitted me to disregard my actual income, living in the falsehood that as long as I could make the monthly payments, I’m in good shape. This lie was even easier to let myself believe, given I had very good credit despite being in a large amount of debt.
It wasn’t until my credit card debt hit almost 10k that I finally took a painful look at my spending habits. I realized the cycle I was in was unsustainable and would never lead me to wealth. When I decided to get out of debt three months ago, I did not realize how thorough of a life change it would be for me. Beyond my bank account, making a goal to get out of consumer debt by the time I turn 30 also came with some mental and physical shifts that have altered what I value and how I live my life. Here are five of the biggest changes I’ve noticed.
1. I drive more carefully.
A contributing factor to my first change in behavior came in the form of an insurance check from someone rear-ending me. The damage was minor and only cosmetic, so I took the money as opposed to getting it fixed. Besides being the first boost to my emergency fund, however, it also made me realize that stupid decisions can lead to stupid losses of money. I have an hour commute to work and up until now have not always been the most cautious of drivers; however, someone else’s mistake reminded me of the ones I’ve made that resulted in loss of income.
Rear-end someone and your insurance costs go up. Get a speeding ticket and you’re out $200-500. When I had no concept of my actual worth, a speeding ticket was just an annoying inconvenience that I solved through using my credit card to make up for the loss of cash in the bank. I wasn’t thrilled, and my automatic reaction was not to change my habits, but rather to patch things up with my credit card. Now, however, I can see how these unexpected expenses will negatively impact my monthly budget and interfere with my ability to meet my goals. I’ve since committed to not speeding and treating my car a little more nicely.
2. I take better care of my belongings.
I think one of the events leading up to me changing my debt-loving ways was when I fried my laptop’s keyboard with about a tablespoon’s worth of bourbon. It was a purely dumb and clumsy mistake, but I wasn’t that upset about it. Part of this was due to a difficult situation at work that was distracting me, but part of it was also because my first thought was that I would just buy a new computer primarily on credit.
What?! How had my mindset become so accustomed to debt that the thought of adding another $1,200 to my name was only mildly upsetting? I did not buy the computer and have been getting by with borrowing my boyfriend’s laptop when necessary. It hasn’t been the easiest choice as a burgeoning freelancer, but it’s teaching me patience and to work for the things I want. I realize now that I need to take care of my belongings and not just assume they can be replaced with a new line of credit.
3. I avoid having an excess of free time.
I used to treasure having a Saturday with no plans. The freedom of a day with no constraints was refreshing and a source of major stress relief. It also, however, often turned into a long span of time in which I would be faced with opportunities to spend money or be faced with boredom that was cured by spending money. I’d linger over recipes, overfill my grocery cart with unnecessary items, or grab drinks or dinner out to fill the time.
My free time comes in smaller pockets now that I have a second job and am taking on odd jobs to make extra money. Because my free time comes in shorter and more infrequent spans, I use that time more wisely. I spend it walking my dog, enjoying quality time with my man or family, or indulging in one (or two!) hard-earned beers after a long day’s work. Especially when my man is out of town, I try to keep myself busy with projects or work that add value, not debt, to my day.
4. My day still holds worth, even without certain conveniences.
There were things I was unwilling (or unaware that I was unwilling) to give up to save money. These were the things that even after I had axed my budget in the past, still got left behind. I held out on downgrading my Spotify premium account because I had an hour-long commute and I “deserved” music without commercial breaks. I’d let myself buy lunch out a couple times a week because I “deserved” a break from planning out every meal.
Now that I’ve finally axed the premium account and committed to only one lunch out a month, has my life dramatically changed? Am I exhausted from all that meal planning and are my ears bleeding from stupid Spotify commercials? No. Sure, those things were nice to have, but were they really enhancing my life as much as I thought they were? Nope. I am not against allowing myself some breathing room when needed, but I take those opportunities less often and more seriously now.
5. I’ve lost weight.
This was an unplanned, but welcome, side effect of my debt reduction plan. With a streamlined budget, there isn’t an excess of snacks in the house. I buy enough food for our meals and that’s about it, so mindlessly snacking is much harder to do. I’ve also cut down on grabbing beers out or picking up a bottle of wine on the way home, which has also cut my caloric intake.
Besides eating and drinking less, I am also more active. Now that my focus on my lunch hour isn’t grabbing a bite out or enjoying a super gourmet meal I cooked up for myself, I go walk at a nearby park instead. After work I grab my dachshund and hit the sidewalk again for a free stress-relieving activity. Lastly, my side gig as a caterer has me on my feet most Saturday nights, and odd jobs have me cleaning houses or engaging in other physical work. I’ve probably lost about 8 pounds unintentionally with these changes. For me, this was a healthy shift from a little extra weight I had been carrying (for which I mostly blame the growing craft beer scene in Cincinnati).
I think all of these changes show a greater consciousness not only about money, but also about my time and what I value. I feel I am approaching life more sincerely, and while it hasn’t always been easy, I do feel prouder of my decisions and sleep more soundly. Partly because I’m busy being annoyingly pious about my life changes, but also because a weekend of catering gigs and painting bedrooms is really exhausting.
Sarah is an international student advisor and freelance writer living in Cincinnati, Ohio who is currently on a path to become debt-free. She has a dachshund named Gayle who she loves dearly and spends most of her free time cooking, over analyzing the best way to make iced coffee, and re-listening to old episodes of This American Life.
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