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Paying Off My Student Loans Didn’t Make Me Happier

My life with student loans was as fun as swimming with sharks. Starting your adult life out with nearly $40,000 dollars of debt shackling you down is debilitating. The anxiety and depression over my debt permeated every aspect of my life. Watching the interest grow (I had one loan I took out on my own at 13%! Thirteen percent, oh my gosh!) made me want to gauge out my eyeballs. So, I set a plan. A genius plan to pay those pesky things off as quickly as possible. Ok, well, as quickly as my lazy self would allow. I lived with my sister for 3 months to save money, I worked 2-3 jobs, lived below my means, and I didn’t go on vacations. I had this laser focus on getting debt free. Every fiber of my being focused on paying the loans down. I am not the kind of person that sets goals and completes them. I am the kind of motivated individual that sets goals, has one misstep, and then forgets them. It still amazes me I don’t have a student loan balance, and I was digging through old budget spreadsheets and planners to see my thought process behind the debt pay off. Why did I pay off my student loans? What made this goal so easy for me to stay focused on? Why did I do it then, but can’t seem to meet any other goal or follow through with my life plan? I looked to the old Steph for the answers, and found the beliefs behind why I stuck with the goal:

Happiness was on the other side of my student loan debt.

That is why I kept chugging along. If my loans were gone, I would then know true happiness. My life wouldn’t be a never-ending pity party, with self-loathing and bitterness as the star guests. No, these loans would be gone and my dream life would materialize. Hello, that $500k mansion in the nice neighborhood downtown. Goodbye, stress and anxiety. I’d envision what life would be like running into people from high school that bullied me. Why, yes, this is my brand new BMW; thanks for my latte, you peasant. Debt Free Steph was going to be way better and cooler than Indebted Steph. Anxiety and depression over money would be a thing in the past without student loans. Heck, how can you feel any hint of sadness when you have no student loans?! It was not possible in my book. I was always one payment closer to true, blissful happiness. And so, every penny went to debt, and I traded my life hours to grind away and chip the debt out of my life. For the first time in my life, a goal was set, a plan was made, and it was executed flawlessly.

That last student loan payment.

I remember the last student loan payment I made so clearly. It was winter, the best season, and it was right around the holidays. I had gotten some Christmas money, about $500 combined from all family and friends, and I used that to pay off my student loans. My last student loan payment. Bought off with Christmas money. It was so fitting to me, since winter is my favorite time, and obviously Christmas is the best holiday ever. This was it, this was my new life, and I was finally going to be able to be happy. No more worrying about money. Now, we can buy a mansion and a luxury vehicle. Now, I will love myself. My whole adult life, since I turned 18 and took out loans for school, I had been shackled by debt. I didn’t owe any money until my 20’s, but my debt was there, growing interest and reminding me I’m a failure. I did not know what adult life was like without student loans. I had no comparison. No idea what the world would look like without my debt. No idea how it would feel to wake up without worrying about Wells Fargo and Sallie Mae — and oh my god, why are my Great Lake balances not going down, I just paid them last week. Naturally, I assumed life without those worries would be freaking cake. Like a three-tiered, Great British Bake Off cake, life was going to be sweet.

Why is this the only goal I have ever met?

The reason I ever set any goal and worked towards was it was because of my assumption that happiness was on the other side of it. It is very similar to why I’d try to lose weight. The handful of times I’ve been able to shed pounds, I thought a flip would switch in my brain. My insecurities, bad childhood memories, and self-loathing would evaporate. Even at my lowest weight, I was never truly happy. The self-loathing and self-doubt would inevitably overpower my fleeting willpower, and the inner monster inside me would tell me, “eat that cupcake, and the second, and the third. Don’t work out, it won’t change anything.” Happiness didn’t lie on the other side of getting thin. I’ve been there, done that, and still felt discontented. But having no student loan debt was a reality I’d never experienced. That was the white whale, the key to happiness: no student loans. And I was hellbent on getting there. Then, the major life-changing event occurred that perfect winter day. I was absolved of student loan debt. My life was finally going to be capital PERFECT. I logged onto my Great Lake’s account, saw the few hundred dollars taunting me in the balance, and paid off every single penny. Now, my perfect life was about to begin. No more money woes, no more hating myself for getting me into the situation. I could finally buy nice things to impress people. This was a failproof way to self-love and acceptance, I thought. 

This plot twist should not have been surprising, but I certainly was flabbergasted: It didn’t work that way. My life didn’t radically change the next day I paid off my loans. I still had to work, had bills to pay, and pets to feed. Afterward, I was still awkward in social settings, unsure of myself in my career, and worried people didn’t like me. I was still reluctant to take risks in my career, frustrated that I couldn’t grow my income, and unable to quit a job I hated.  Most surprisingly of all, I still worried about money constantlySure, the anxiety was different, and honestly not as all-consuming had it been. But the money worries were still omnipresent: will I have enough money to cover retirement? What if I have a medical emergency? What if I lose my job and miss out on prime earning years? What if my house blows up?!!!!? Why is everyone making so much money and I’m making $30,000 a year!?

Life after student loans.

There is no denying my life is easier without student loans, but it is by no means perfect.  There is more breathing room in my budget. I have been able to save, invest, and grow my net worth to over $100k, which is a number I thought impossible when I was suffocated with student loans. During my debt payoff saga, it was unthinkable for me to spend money or do anything fun without feeling guilty. Any dollar spent that wasn’t on student loans or bills felt filthy. Now, I have been able to splurge on a few vacations, we adopted two more pets (pets are expensive!), and we did some home remodeling. Life after student loans is not as stressful, but perfect? HA. Not at all. This post is not to deter you from paying off loans or crushing your money goals. Life is easier when you achieve those wild money goals. Not having to worry about student loans is such a freeing feeling. Saving money and investing feels great. But I wish I had struck balance between debt payoff and living. At the time, I wish I allowed myself to be happy,  free, and still have fun, even with debt.

I set a giant goal and achieved it, for the first time in my life. That feels amazing to say, to put on paper, and to remind myself I am capable of doing damn near anything. But, I had tied my self-worth and happiness to meeting that goal. After I conquered it, I still wasn’t happy, my self-esteem didn’t skyrocket, and there were still a lot of things in my life causing discontent. It taught me a very valuable lesson: if you aren’t happy with your life before achieving a goal, you won’t be happy with your life after you achieve it. You’ve heard this advice before, in many different flavors. “Losing weight doesn’t solve all your problems.” “Money doesn’t buy happiness.” Blah blah blah. The people that spew those banal mantras clearly never had student loan debt. They couldn’t comprehend that the only way to be happy is to be free of that crushing debt. It was a firm belief of mine that everything would be easy without debt. People would like me more, I’d like me more, and my brain would rewire itself to make have less anxiety. I had made myself miserable to reach this goal, and that misery intensified when I woke up the next day, went to my same dead-end job, stayed too afraid to change careers, and still felt unhappy. Why isn’t life perfect after student loans?!

If you’re not happy with debt, you won’t be happy without debt.

Having student loans or any other debt does not make you a bad person that is unworthy of love. It doesn’t mean you cannot spend money on a few purchases that bring you joy, go out and have fun every once a while. You’re allowed to be happy with student loans. You’re awesome, with or without debt, a 401k, or a mortgage payment. Paying off your student loan debt feels great, but it doesn’t make for a perfect life. There will still be other money struggles, surprise bills, and maybe you’ll still be stuck working that job you hate because you’re afraid of change. A weight will be lifted off your shoulders once you send that last payment in, but adulthood is luckily filled with thousands of other weights to bring you down. 

Don’t let those student loans hold you back from living your one precious and wild life like I did. Sure, you’re going to have to make some sacrifices, maybe no more lattes every day, eating out every night, and traveling to wherever, whenever. Paying off debt leave you forgoing everything you want to do and things that spark joy. Allow yourself to still take calculated risks in your career and life. And learn to love yourself and be content, even with student loan debt. Go out there and crush your goals, but allow yourself to be happy while you’re on the journey. You don’t have to be debt free to live a fulfilling life. Learn to love your life now and understand it is ok to be happy with debt. I can promise you, happiness is not on the other side of student loan debt.

Steph lives in Nashville, TN, and spends her working days droning away in a cubicle. You can find her attempting to blog at simplisticsteph.com, at an Indian buffet, or at a local coffee shop.

Image via Unsplash 

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