I used to be $40,000 in debt.
Five years ago, with little knowledge of finance (and some help from a Vermont janitor), I embarked on a journey to pay off my debt and create financial wellness.
Not only did I learn how to manage my finances to give myself peace of mind and greater power over my life, but I discovered a passion for helping other women do the same.
I’m going to share practical steps of how I got out — and have stayed out — of debt as well as some lessons I learned through the process.
By sharing my story, I want to help you avoid making some of the mistakes that I did. Or, if you’re in a situation similar to mine, to let you know that there is a path forward and give you a little advice for learning to manage your money and creating a financially sustainable lifestyle.
How I Accumulated $40,000 in Debt
My parents didn’t talk much to me about money, because they also didn’t know how to handle it. The only money conversations that I remember in my house were about how there wasn’t enough of it. It was a topic that was either avoided completely or caused fights and arguments.
Growing up, I didn’t learn about money management. No one ever explained the basics of personal finance, let alone topics like how to invest or save for retirement.
After college, I thought I was doing the right things to build my wealth. I didn’t make enough money on just my undergraduate degree so I went back to school to earn my MBA.
I wasn’t spending my money on crazy frivolous things, but I was still spending more than I was bringing in, and that accumulated to tens of thousands of dollars in debt.
The stress affected my relationship with my husband. We were falling into the same behavior patterns as my parents. I didn’t like feeling insecure and scared as a kid listening to my parents argue in the kitchen about finances, and I didn’t like those feelings as an adult, having the same arguments with my husband.
I thought that the answer was to work harder so that I could earn more. I even started my own business on the side. But that felt like running on a treadmill — I kept going faster and faster, but it didn’t get me anywhere. I was burning myself out without any payoff, and I didn’t know how to change. Until I came across an article about Ronald Read.
The Millionaire Janitor
You’ve probably never heard of Ronald Read. He’s never been on the cover of People magazine or Fortune’s list of most influential people. He wasn’t a savvy businessman or venture capitalist.
He was a janitor.
But by the time he died, he had amassed an $8 million fortune.
I didn’t know what Read made, but I was pretty confident that I was earning more than a janitor in my current corporate job. That meant that the problem wasn’t my salary; it was how I was managing my finances (EUREKA!)
I didn’t need to simply “make more money”. I had to take better care of the money that I was making. So, I started taking steps to take control of my money.
How I Started to Manage my Money
I stopped ignoring my money problems
Ignoring your money problems is like hiding a huge pile of trash in your living room under a sheet. You aren’t fixing the problem, you’re just temporarily obstructing it. But sooner or later, the smell is going to take over the whole house.
You have to take reasonable and decisive action to address the underlying habits or behaviors that are causing problems. If you aren’t taking control of your money, it will take control of you.
First step: admitting you have a problem and committing to deal with it.
I initiated conversations about money
When I started telling people about my financial goals, they started to help. They offered resources and encouragement that helped me get on my feet. By just sharing, I found a supportive community.
More importantly, my husband and I finally started talking about how we wanted to manage finances as a couple. We agreed on our money goals and how much each of us could spend on an item without consulting the other.
Instead of approaching our finances as individuals with different expectations — and then getting frustrated when the other didn’t meet our unspoken expectations — we started to approach and manage our money as a team working toward the same goal.
I didn’t allow debt to be an option
There’s a reason we say we “fell” or “slipped” into bad habits; we do them without trying to. There’s an immediate, feel-good dopamine spike when you buy yourself something. It’s easy to put something on a credit card and promise yourself you’ll find the money to pay it back later. So, if going into debt is an option, you’ll take it.
My husband and I figured out how to live within our means. We set a budget that we knew we could stick to, and we agreed that we would never charge anything to a credit card unless we knew how we were going to pay it off.
I invested in financial literacy
If you could stumble into wealth, the world would be full of millionaires. Making money isn’t purely a game of chance; you can’t win if you don’t understand the rules.
Instead of seeing financial literacy as a chore, I chose to see it as a form of self-care. I wanted to be able to make informed decisions and map out a viable plan to get my finances on track.
What I Learned
Thanks to these changes, I was able to pay off my debt in a matter of months. More importantly, these weren’t just short-term fixes; they’re lifestyle changes I still use to stay out of debt. Through the process, I learned a few things.
Ask for help
No one succeeds alone. Behind every successful person is someone who believed in them, encouraged them, or took a chance on them.
You may be surprised at how willing people are to help or who can steer you in the right direction. Just keep verbalizing your goals and prepare to be surprised by the ways they manifest.
Budgeting brings freedom
It isn’t easy to tell yourself “no.” When you’re setting a budget, you can feel restricted. But that’s not the case. Yes, you may be denying yourself things you would like to buy right this very second but living within the boundaries of your income right now allows you to live boundlessly in the future.
Finances don’t come instinctively
While I’m a big fan of “trusting your gut” when it comes to finances, our instincts aren’t always a reliable guide. Personal finance is more a science than an art. It boils down to formulas and is governed by rules you need to learn and strategies to follow in order to succeed.
Education can support you in pursuit of your financial goals. Ultimately, choosing to learn everything I could about personal finance helped me break out of debt and achieve my goals.
Being in debt was a hard time in my life, but if it wasn’t for that experience, Britt and I wouldn’t have started Dow Janes to help women+ on their own journeys to financial wellness. I hope that my story can help you manage your finances so that you can maximize your impact on the world and create the life you’ve always wanted.