Five weeks ago, I paid off my debt. Ever since I made that last payment, I’ve been living in a strange debt free zone. Life after debt is an odd place. You’re in a transitional period. You have more money, but you’re not sure what to do with it. You no longer have debt on which to focus all of your energy. It can be daunting. You might feel lost. I know that I wasn’t really processing it until I heard Cait and Carrie’s podcast episode, “Life After Debt.” I do know that I want to buy a house, and it has made my transition into debt free life a lot easier. I have somewhere else to immediately focus my energy. But when I started to think about my life over the last few weeks, I realized that a whole lot more has changed.
1. I am way more relaxed about unexpected expenses.
In 2012, my big dog needed knee surgery. I was told it would cost $3,000. Back then, I wasn’t making that much to live on over two months time. I despaired. Fortunately, he qualified for a clinical trial. We were able to get the surgery for free. But, I always remember how impossible that number seemed. I could not imagine how I’d save $3,000. I had so much debt and I had to pay the minimums. I wasn’t making much money, no matter how much I hustled. I felt trapped.
A few weeks ago, I had a house inspected. The inspector went up into the attic, and then called for me to follow him. He showed me some problems that were caused by the bad roof. He said, “A new roof on this house will run about $5,000.” I was still glancing around, thinking of what a cool room I could create in the space. I must have been silent for too long, because he said, “I’m so sorry.” I was startled and replied, “Why?” I was not afraid of $5,000. I was not afraid of the $800 of work that the crawlspace needed, either. I knew I could find the money. I’d earn it and save it. My past year of debt repayment taught me that I could do that. I was relaxed. It didn’t phase me, let alone make my blood boil and my heart rate go through the (damaged) roof. I was a long, long way from despairing over $3,000. Life after debt is like that.
2. I’m not working 10 jobs, so I’m more focused and effective in my full-time gig.
Even before I paid off the debt, I was working a bunch of jobs to create a full-time income. I drove to three campuses throughout the week. It was exhausting. It felt like I was treading water. And, I was just barely making ends meet. I wasn’t paying off debt – I was lucky to get all the minimums paid. Money was a constant worry, which was distracting to my teaching efforts. Shifting between schools every day is hard. It’s hard for the instructors and it’s hard on the students that they’re instructing. Plus, you never really feel like you belong at any of the institutions…and having an occupational home is nice (even if it’s just your laptop.)
I gave up my last part-time teaching gig before the current semester started, and I’ve found that I’m suddenly more invested in what happens at the school where I teach full-time. I’ve been spending more time in my office, and creating new workshops and assignments to help students. I don’t have to worry about what university I’ll put on my name tag at any conference where I’ll present. I represent one school now. I can give more of myself to the students at one institution, instead of spreading out my attention over three (or more) colleges. One job and one income is enough now that I don’t have debt. I can focus on that one job and be that much more effective.
3. I’m more willing to try what works for me, instead of doing what might sell.
When considering more side hustle income, I thought about offering services that a lot of other bloggers offer: virtual assistant services, staff writing, etc – business to business services. I procrastinated changing my “Work With Me” page. I wasn’t really interested in offering those services, but that’s how people made money online. Those were the services that I saw would sell.
After reading Michelle’s post about changing her business model, I knew immediately why I was so reluctant to change my page. I was still in “desperation mode.” I was still trying to make money as if I was still in a large debt emergency. I took a minute to think about what I wanted to do with my time, and it completely changed my outlook, and my “Work With Me” page. Now, I’m not focused on “what will sell.” I’m much more focused on work that resonates with me. I don’t NEED the money now that I’m debt free. I’m grateful for what work comes to me, and if it doesn’t seem right for me, I can say “no” without worry.
4. I’m more interested in my creative work.
Not only am I more interested in my creative work, but I’m also more desperate to have a place of my own in which to do it. I’ve been tinkering with the essay collection I’ve been working on. I’ve been writing pieces about essays. As my student loan balance decreased, my interest in my creative endeavors increased. Without debt, I didn’t have to spend all my time making money to pay it off. Now, I can work on pieces that may not ever yield a profit, but will definitely feed my spirit, and my body of work.
For years, I felt pulled in two directions: pitch articles that will sell or write essays for the non-paying literary market. Ideally, I would like to do both. But, with $48,000 of debt hanging over my head, the need to GET PAID was more important. Yet, really, the debt kept me in limbo for a long time. I didn’t pitch or write either type of nonfiction. I just drove around town to teach, and came home too exhausted by the trajectory of my life to do much about it. I was floundering, and it took a major mindset shift to change my life. I’m so happy I did. I’m so happy to be tinkering with essays again.
5. I feel that more is possible.
I am constantly surprised at what my debt repayment journey has brought: a full-time job that I love, renewed interest in long-neglected creative work, an online community, an in-person community… Not only do I believe that things I once thought were not possible for me now are possible, but I also believe in my ability to make things happen. For instance, I have some crazy savings goal for the rest of the year. I could not have imagined such an audacious goal if I still had debt hanging over my life.
I also want to buy a house – for my dogs, for my creative work, for my sanity. They are not inexpensive in the area I’m looking (or anywhere in my city, really.) I could not have imagined managing a mortgage with my previous debt load. Now that I’m debt free, I can spend money on things that contribute to my well-being. That’s possible in life after debt.
So is tipping. Now that I’m debt free, it’s possible to leave better (bigger) tips. I can be more generous. When I got my hair cut recently, I added a big tip. When I got my little dog’s hair cut recently, I added a big tip. It feels good to reward the people who do good work for you.
All in all, life is better without debt. I’m savoring this time, and the money I can save from it.
Are you debt free? What have you learned since paying off your debt?