At any given time, there are a few key numbers floating around in my head: Five months ago, my student loan balance was almost $14,000. Today, it’s less than $3,000. In just two months—by the end of March 2016—it’ll be zero.
Each month, I hand over at least 50 percent—between $1,000 and $1,300—of my modest media relations salary to my student loan servicers, plus any money I earn from freelance writing and social media jobs and from special occasions like my birthday. I’ve sacrificed the convenience of car ownership—opting instead to take public transportation, bike, and use ride-sharing apps—buy in bulk at Costco, and cook at home in order to reach my goal faster. It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it to see what I owe decrease by $2,000 or more some months.
Yet more important than the how in my debt story is the why. Money is never just about numbers or dollars or savings. In a lot of ways, money has been about fear to me—specifically the fear of not having enough to be safe.
When I was in college, I got an email from my father, stating that he no longer intended to pay for my tuition or living expenses, which I’d been counting on. That was it—there was no further explanation or reason.
I was upset, but I shouldn’t have been surprised. Money had always been a source of tension and anxiety in our home.
The power in my family was extremely lopsided. My father was an officer in the military, and my mom stayed at home. As my dad climbed the ranks, his salary grew and eventually reached six figures. My mom, who supported him emotionally through the many twists and turns of his career and raised my two sisters and me, technically made $0.
When they fought, I remember him screaming at my mother: “If you leave me, you will be destitute.”
As a teenager, I’d overhear them fight and frantically try to the crunch numbers I had no business knowing. How much does a house cost? Could we survive without him? I was petrified that if my mom left him, we’d be homeless.
My mom did finally leave when I was 15. The decision was especially difficult, of course, because it wasn’t only about ending her relationship, but about whether she could support her children on her own. Without a college degree or any work experience, she was forced to survive on small alimony payments, as she worked hard to secure an entry-level job.
Even after my parents’ marriage ended, my complicated relationship with my dad and money persisted. All major purchases—like running shoes for track and field or a car—had to be approved by dad. As a result, our relationship was strained and became defined mainly by money. And he could give it or take it away as he pleased.
That culminated in nearly $14,000 worth of debt when I decided to transfer from the University of San Diego to UCLA a few years ago. After filling out financial aid forms, documenting his six-figure salary and declaring me as a dependent (which essentially ensured I wouldn’t receive a penny of government grants or loans), my father exited the picture with that blunt email.
I didn’t want to drop out. So I emptied my bank account, sold the stocks I’d been gifted from my grandfather, took on three part-time jobs, and applied for private loans to pay for the tuition and living expenses.
I know that $14,000 is a smaller student loan burden than many borrowers take on these days. But the impact of this debt on my life has been profound. It reminds me that my future will be defined by how I spend and save. That’s why, even before I started paying off my debt, I grew my emergency fund to three months’ worth of living expenses. And after I’m debt-free, I’ll continue to save aggressively, jump into the world of investing, and continue growing my net worth.
Although the lessons were painful, my father inadvertently taught me a lot about money in the end—namely that having it in order grants a special kind of freedom: the freedom of choice. The potent combination of being debt-free and having savings grants you the ability to leave unhealthy relationships, quit soul-sucking jobs, and, quite simply, alter any situation that no longer makes sense.
To me, that freedom is priceless.
February 1, 2016