Opinion

I'm 41 and I just paid off my $60,000 Masters student loan — here's how

Debt-busting doesn't have to be miserable, and other things I wish I knew.

Debt-busting doesn't have to be miserable, and other things I wish I knew.

(Credit: Getty Images)

Last December, at the age of 41, I made the final payment on my student loans and officially became debt-free. Words cannot describe how ecstatic I felt. I can't say for sure, but I suspect that winning the lottery would have felt only slightly better. I had graduated with a Master's degree thirteen years prior, overwhelmed by a debt load of more than $60,000. Add to that: I was making my living in the precarious world of journalism. In order to find a way to pay off my enormous loans (plus interest) – and stave off despair – I read every personal finance book and blog I could get my hands on. The secret, I learned, was in sweating the small stuff.

I invested a lot of time and energy into lowering my expenses and raising my income, while being sure not to deprive myself of the little luxuries that make life worth living. The lessons I learned on the road to getting solvent were hard-won, and hold me in good stead to this day. So, for all those out there drowning in debt – a huge portion of Canadians these days – allow me to share my top ten debt-busting tips.

Track spending

The first piece of advice I got, from Jerrold Mundis's super readable How to Get Out of Debt, Stay Out of Debt and Live Prosperously, was to keep records of spending and earning. I created spreadsheets for weekly and monthly income and expenses, and logged every penny. It took just moments a day, but proved invaluable for getting control over my finances.  

Don't incur new debt — ever

You'll never get out of debt if you keep adding to the grand total, so cut up those credit cards and promise yourself you won't borrow money, under any circumstances. If you find yourself too broke to make hefty student loan payments, don't default! There are government programs to give you a break while you get on your feet.

Know the power of an emergency fund

It's crucial to save as you pay down your debts. Twice during repayment, when I was briefly out of work, and had to draw on my nest egg to ensure I didn't incur new debt.  

Never deprive yourself of the basics

With such a staggering debt load, my first instinct was to cut costs to the bone. But I learned pretty quickly that deprivation isn't sustainable over the long haul. It's important to be energetic, happy and healthy to tackle your debts. You need nourishing food, decent housing, reliable transportation and a solid social life. Better to spend a few more years paying off loans than to be miserable.

Seek out little luxuries, on the cheap

Early on, I started looking for ways to indulge in simple pleasures, at little or no cost. I went for deeply-discounted manicures, pedicures and blowouts at hair and beauty schools. I hit the library to read The New York Times, took advantage of introductory offers at yoga studios, entered online contests for free movie tickets. Each gave me a much-needed boost.

Focus on experiences, not stuff

In our consumer-driven society, it's easy to find yourself pining for the latest handbag or gadget. But these are not actually the things that bring us the most pleasure in life. Thrifty living guru Mr. Money Mustache has a great exercise to illustrate this. He suggests listing the top ten activities that bring you joy, and are good for your long-term happiness and health. These activities, he says, are almost always cheap or free. My own list certainly confirmed this, including low-budget pastimes like reading, listening to the radio, hiking, biking, cooking, and enjoying walks with family and friends. The list helped me reframe my lifestyle. I wasn't missing out, I was doing the things I most wanted to do. (Added bonus: buying less stuff turns out to be way better for the environment.)

Don't throw money at your problems

As Mr. Money Mustache also points out, we often try to buy our way out of problems instead of solving them through community. But creative solutions end up being more fun. Example: last Christmas I was hosting a dinner and didn't have enough table space or seating. Instead of spending $100 on a folding table and chairs I would then have to store, I canvassed everyone I knew and found a friend who owned a card table set. She delivered them Christmas Day, and wound up joining us later for pie!

Share and share alike

To that end… Why buy when you can share? Canada has all kinds of nifty sharing services – from The Toronto Tool Library (for household tools) and The Toronto Seed Library (for green thumbs) – that can save you big bucks, not to mention save you the burdens that come with ownership such as storage, repairs, or, in the case of vehicles, gas, parking or insurance. Car sharing saved me during the monsoon months in Vancouver when it's too wet to bike or walk, and transit is sardine-can-packed.

Become a freeloader

If you need something you don't have, the time has never been better to beg or barter. Check out Craigslist Free for gratis goods, or download the Bunz app to make a trade. (Items in need of light repairs can be fixed, free of charge, at places like The Repair Café.) Plus, giving can often feel as good as getting; when I moved home to Vancouver after a decade in Toronto, I gave away a bunch of stuff online, from coffee grinders to winter coats.

Turn hobbies into money-making ventures

Lastly, if there's something you really love to do that you can't afford, turn your passion into a business, and let it pay for itself! I adore books — so I began reviewing them. Adventure is a big for me, too, so I started travel writing on the side as a way to justify and offset the expense of trips. Huge bonus: In doing so, I learned that there's always a way to make your dreams a reality – without breaking the bank.