It’s been a little over a year now since my husband and I have started paying off our student loan debt. Sometimes I put my whole paycheck into our student loan account and it feels like we should be making lots of progress. But mostly it actually feels like we’re moving at a snail’s pace. Slower than that. A sloth’s pace?
***Okay, fun fact. Google says that snails go 0.029mph and sloths go 0.07mph. So I guess sloths are actually a little faster. Back to your regularly scheduled personal finance post***
At any rate, it can feel like paying off this debt is taking forever. Keeping myself grounded is so important, especially on days where I want to say “screw it, I’ll just make the minimum payment this month and go buy new clothes and shoes with the extra.” Because sometimes it really doesn’t feel like that extra I’m paying is doing a whole lot. Sometimes it feels as though there just isn’t enough money and we’ll never make it to financial freedom from debt, let alone financial independence. Like we budget every month and there is no wiggle room for “extras.” And I’m not talking about anything extravagant. I’m talking about new shoes because the ones I’ve been wearing for the last 2-3 years recently had to be thrown out because they had holes. New clothes because I haven’t bought jeans since high school (and I graduated in 2009).
I don’t know who first said “you can have it all, just not right now,” or some variation of the phrase, but I’m finding that they were entirely accurate. I want it all, which for me right now means:
- Debt-free (student loans, car, house)
- Functional shoes and clothing
- Furniture that isn’t falling apart (I’ve had my dresser since 1994. I was three in 1994.)
- A large emergency fund
- Financial independence
I’m at the same time excited and sickened when I imagine what we could do with the $1,200+ that we spend monthly on student loans. I want them to be paid off NOW, but it feels like I’m only putting drops in the bucket. I know we’ll pay all of our debt off eventually (in the not-so-distant future), and much faster than many of our counterparts, but when you’re chugging along in the thick of it and almost can’t even see the finish line yet (how many clichè metaphors can I use in one sentence?), staying grounded and content along the way can be a challenge. Here are some ways to bring yourself back down to Mars (name that song/band) when things aren’t progressing as quickly as you’d like.
Look around yourself right now. I mean it. Take your eyes off the screen and actually LOOK around you. I’ll wait.
Where are you? Work? Coffee shop? Home on your couch or bed? School? Library? In the car (not driving, I hope)? Do you have clothes on your body? Shoes on your feet? A roof over your head? YOU ARE DOING OKAY right in this moment. Let yourself BE in this moment. Chances are, nothing alarming is going on in the physical world around you. All the feelings, planning, stress, and not feeling enough is literally inside your brain. Get out of that brain and take a good look around you and know that you’re doing just fine. You’re exactly where you’re meant to be in this moment (if you weren’t, you wouldn’t be there), doing exactly what you’re meant to do in this moment. As they say in Moana, “you can find happiness right where you a-a-are!” And like, I know the movie is all about Moana proving them wrong, but just let me have this moment, okay?
We can get so caught up in our own minds that we really almost never leave. When was the last time you just let yourself be? I know I can go through my whole day mentally checking off and adding to my to-do list, thinking about what I’m doing next, planning for tomorrow and the rest of the week, and obsessing over my loan payoff spreadsheets, but rarely do I just stop, slow down to be present, and know that I’m okay right where I am. The bills are current, I’ve got a car, a home, warm food, a sweet dog, and a loving husband. As much as I can try to tell myself otherwise: that I’m not paying enough or side-hustling enough or cutting down my expenses enough, I. AM. ENOUGH. I have enough. And I’m doing okay. You, too.
Look at how far you’ve come.
I track data on how much I’ve paid toward debt, how much has gone toward interest, how much I still owe, etc. Looking at the numbers of how much I owe is what can be pretty frustrating and discouraging because it seems like so much. What is encouraging and impressive to me is when I look at how much I’ve actually paid. Right now that number is $16,279.43. When I think about that number, I think about all the things I will be able to do with that much extra money once the debt is gone. I think about how much discipline it took to pay that money and how that money has gotten me that much closer to my goal of being debt-free.
You can use a visual to help. On my refrigerator, I have a printed out thermometer template where I track our student loan debt paid as we work toward a zero balance. This chart does show how far we have left to go, but seeing how far we’ve come and the excitement I feel when I know I get to color a section in because we’ve reached a milestone is so cool. Satisfaction and pride can be found in reflecting upon how hard you’ve already worked toward your goal.
This is something close to my heart. Volunteering has consistently brought me fulfillment and a greater sense of purpose. Giving back through volunteering or anything else you can think of can boost your confidence, give you new perspective, and expose you to new experiences, all while helping others. It truly is a win-win.
Volunteering is a great way to get out of your own bubble and make a positive impact on the world. There’s an episode of Friends where Phoebe tries to prove that there is such a thing as a “selfless good deed.” She eventually ends up letting a bee sting her, to no avail when she learns that not even this can be chalked up as a selfless act because bees die after they sting. The reason Phoebe can’t find a selfless good deed is because there really is no such thing. And that’s okay! You WILL feel good about doing good in the world. As you should!
So find a way to get out of your own little world and give back. Serve at a soup kitchen, donate clothes, start a fundraiser, raise awareness for a cause you care about, play with animals at the humane society, volunteer as a mentor, make blankets for the homeless; the possibilities are seriously endless. Find where your interests and talents lie and get out there and give back.
Spend time with people in similar situations.
Sometimes you just need to know you’re not alone. I’m fortunate that my husband and I have many close friends in similar situations with whom we can swap stories, complain, and encourage each other. Several of my coworkers are also millennials paying off student debt in similar low-to-mid income brackets.
Finding community along your financial journey can be relieving and motivating. In contrast to my own situation, you may be a young millennial with no debt who’s focused on saving and building wealth. There is community out there for every stage. Even if you really don’t know anyone else in person who is in a similar situation, I guarantee you can find people online who are going through the same things. Lift each other up. You’re not alone, and no one should feel alone.
I know a lot of people around my age who try to keep up appearances by buying cars and houses they can’t afford, while making the minimum payment or less on their student loans, and racking up credit card debt all the while. In that kind of world, it is such a relief to have friends I can relate to who are living within or below their means in order to lay the foundation for a better future, just like me.
…And last but certainly not least:
Seriously. Sometimes when you’ve been working really hard, have cut back on little luxuries (eating out, trips to the coffee shop, all of my examples are food-related so you can tell where my priorities are…) it’s okay to give yourself a treat. Everything in moderation, right? So if you’re feeling burnt out chugging away at your goals, if you’re tempted to give it all up because “it’s not making much difference anyway,” go get yourself a tall java chip frap with extra chips (my go-to) or whatever little splurge does the trick for you, enjoy the hell out of it, and keep on trucking, my friend. You’re doing great.