This is the second post in the new series called “How I Got Out of Debt” where I interview real people who have paid off real debt and been through some real struggles. All of this to show you that it is possible to pay off your debts sooner than 25 years after you graduate. You can find the other interviews here.
I hope you find this story as inspirational as I did!
Name: Sam Lustgarten
City: Iowa City, IA
Debt Paid Off: $40,000
Time it Took: Less than 2 years
Sam is a personal finance blogger at Frugaling.org. He started blogging in March of 2013 to tell his story and to inspire others to pay off debt.
Tell us about the moment when you realized you needed to pay off your debt.
I cannot tell you when I decided to go to graduate school or college or invest in one stock over another. Each of those “decisions” were years in the making, and took subtle nudges along the way. It’s rare in life to recognize a delineated precipice, where I could choose one path or another. And yet, I can’t seem to forget the exact day that spawned my war against debt.
My girlfriend (at the time) and I were driving to Des Moines International Airport, which is on the outskirts of Iowa’s capital city. We sped along in my beautiful blue Honda Civic (2006, no less). The car had cost me about $11,000, but it was financed to the hilt — not to mention insurance, repairs, and various maintenance costs. It was a machine meant to create carbon emissions and debt.
About 45 minutes from the airport, she said, “Just out of curiousity, how much debt do you have?” I sat there motionless for a moment. She noticed and backtracked, “You don’t have to tell me, but…” It’s not that I didn’t want to admit it. It’s not that I didn’t want to be honest. It’s not that it was any larger than other students’ student loan debt. But I struggled to speak.
Finally, I said, “If I include credit, car, and student loan debt, I have nearly $40,000 — give or take a bit.” She looked visibly stunned, and quickly tried to hide her reaction. But I saw it out of my periphery — too distracted to solely focus on the road in front of us. I saw it, and felt embarrassed — judged. It was then that I decided this was a problem to be tackled and faced head on.
How much debt did you pay off? Was it all student loans?
As mentioned, a hefty chunk was in a car loan. About a year-and-a-half after starting my website, I sold my car and paid off the loan. That cut some extra payments, too. I started making more money from Frugaling.org. And then I also started spending less. In total, I paid off around $40,000.
How long did it take to pay off?
…In less than two years.
Did you have a specific plan?
A specific plan? Great question. Horrible answer: Not really.
I was always a reader of personal finance gurus’ books and advice. It flowed through me. I knew what I was “supposed” to do well before and during the debt. When I had that epiphany in the ride to Des Moines, it hit me hard. Rather than a plan, I thought about taking out this debt — ceasing to be controlled and affected by its pull. The change wasn’t in plans, but in psyche and focus. I vilified debt. It held me captive, and I wanted no part of its game.
I focused on three important themes along the way that gave me the mental fortitude:
- Greater good
- Social justice
- Psychological wellness
Greater good is my higher power, if you will. It’s the rocketfuel that I eat, sleep, and dream about. I don’t know how many days I have on this Earth, but by golly, I’m going to try and contribute positively! My greater good might look differently from others, but it centers on this planet. We are consuming too much — everything. In entering this fiscal journey to zero debt, I kept a keen eye towards reducing my consumption (and bills) to help cut down on greenhouse gas emissions.
Social justice is about acknowledging others’ experiences. As a personal finance blogger and advocate, my “goal” was to write about my experience, while noticing my own privileges along the way. For instance, I would still be crawling my way out of debt, if it wasn’t for Google ranking me higher in search engine results, Reddit users visiting my more viral-friendly articles, and many other factors. My success is a reflection, and not solely my doing. I relied on others, and hope that others can someday rely on me.
The last is psychological wellness. Every day in debt felt hopeless. I was powerless to the red getting redder. Every day I saw my bank account continue a precipitous decline. I was getting more and more anxious, and desperate to change my circumstances. I knew — and now know — that ridding myself of debt meant greater mental health functioning.
Did you stumble along the way? i.e. make any mistakes, relapse into your old ways? If so, what happened?
You bet I stumbled along the way! Still do today!
My hardest challenges have been in saying “no” to social functions that might be more expensive. Also, eating out. Ughhhhhh… I love eating out. From the convenience to the smells and flavors of something new, eating out is this sanctuary of fun. It’s my guilty pleasure. Even now, the frugal guy I am, I walk past places and nearly grab my own shirt collar to resist temptation.
Over the last couple of months I’ve been trying to work on this, but I’m a “work in progress.”
Did you know what you were getting yourself into when you originally took out the loans?
When I took out the loans they were numbers on a screen and digits on paper. My signature was ink from a cheap pen. There was nothing real about the student loans. They were mere figments of economic imagination. Nobody said, “Here you go, Sam.” Nobody handed me stacks of cash. And nobody wielded a baton in a threatening manner — suggesting that punishment would be near for improper allocation of funds.
No, I was a naive student. And then again, nobody said anything. See, student loans are considered “good debt.” Even more, I was a graduate student with a “future.” Nobody questioned, helped, or aided me in the process of taking tens of thousands in loans. They just pointed to the signature lines along the way.
While you were getting your loans paid off, what was the craziest thing you did to save money?
The craziest thing I did to save was selling my car. That was the most radical move I’ve made to date. I had that car for almost three years, and felt pangs of sadness as I contemplated life without it. We humans are terribly connected to cars, and I was no exception. There was history in that car! How could I possibly let go of something that carried me so many places?!
As I handed over the keys, I still didn’t know about my decision. But it was done. Now, about 7-8 months later, I feel great about it.
What was the hardest debt for you to pay off?
All debt is equal in my book. I know a lot of people that would disagree, and that’s okay. But my experiences around debt were awful, and I’m not somebody that will ever embrace debt or reframe it as “good debt.” Rather than tell you the hardest, I’d say the easiest debt was credit-related. With high interest rates and nasty customer representatives, I wanted those bankers out of my pockets ASAP.
Were you saving while you were paying off debt? (retirement, regular savings, etc.)
Until I paid off all my interest-bearing loans, no. I didn’t save a penny. Now, I had a little in my bank accounts that I pulled from here and there, but without a car I didn’t feel that same need to develop an emergency fund. Savings and investments started as soon as I paid off the last dime. Then, I didn’t hesitate.
Did you reward yourself at mini-milestones? What about when you were debt-free, did you buy anything?
Sure, I went out to eat many times along the way to celebrate various milestones. I enjoyed traveling a bit, too. Nowadays, without a car and on an even stricter budget, I celebrate in my head and with those I care about. I don’t need fancy dinners or drinks. Nah, good conversation and caring people matter more than anything material.
Looking back, what was the easiest thing to get rid of/stop spending money on that made you upset you hadn’t done it sooner?
Nothing’s been easy for me. Every budget reduced and material good sold has been challenging. I’m a firm believer that we get attached to our lifestyles, and changing them is brutally difficult once we are rooted. If there’s anything, it’s clothing that’s been the easiest. I have been able to slash my clothing budget to zero in most months.
Growing up, I spent countless thousands of dollars on clothes. I wanted to look good, and represent myself in the best possible light possible. It worked — to an extent. In the background, bubbling underneath me, was debt and anxiety about that spending, though.
What do you think was the key to succeeding at paying it all off?
The “key” isn’t any one thing. I needed that ex-girlfriend to question me. I needed to make more money on the website. I needed to sell my car. I needed to embrace minimalism and frugality. I needed others encouragement. I needed my parents to cheer me on. I needed to hear friends ask me about my journey back to zero.
How does it feel to no longer owe money on student loans?
Feels amazing. Try it as soon as you can.
What did you start spending money on again once you paid off your student loans?
The only thing I’ve spent money on now is investment accounts and savings. Every “extra” dollar works for me. I refuse to let it sit around, getting dusty. That money needs to work to make more!
Will you ever put yourself into debt again?
I’ll do everything in my power to prevent and avoid it. That being said, if I had to feed a family of four and had no money left, you bet I’d pull out the credit card again.
What is the one piece of advice you would give to those who are still feeling like they are stuck in debt with no way out?
There’s hope. Give yourself the opportunity to see a better life. It sucks to be in debt, doesn’t it? Ask yourself what kind of life you need – not the one you “dream of.” Modesty and minimalism can lead to internal happiness and accomplishment that no amount of money will ever give you.
Sam Lustgarten is currently working towards his PhD in Psychology. You can visit his blog to find out more about Sam here.
A huge thanks to Sam for providing so much detail about his story, and for being kind enough to want to help us all along our personal journey’s!
Want to be part of the “Goodbye Sallie Mae” series? Even if you aren’t ready yet, reach out to me here.