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Stuff + Things

How I Got Rid of Credit Debt + 23 Lessons Learned While Paying It Off

My story

I debated whether to write about this on a public forum or not, but I’m proud of myself for the achievement, and writing the post has been cathartic. I also hope that sharing my experience will encourage anyone with credit debt to nip it in the bud and know that it’s okay to ask for help!

Since finishing my payments, I’ve taken some time to reflect on why I had the debt to begin with. It boils down to these two boring words: life happened. And funnily enough, I’d actually paid most of my debt off before it piled up on me again. I travelled. I had some things that I needed and ‘needed’. And I probably tried to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ a few times when I was in my 20’s, and shouldn’t have. And whatever money I saved was going back into credit payment or into something big (like my yoga teacher training). On the other hand, I’m not frivolous, and I’d never not been able to pay my rent.

Funnily enough, I’d actually paid most of my debt off before it piled up on me again.

The Catalyst

But the year I was turning 30, I was feeling like I was drowning (mentally and financially), and wanting to be making more than minimum payments. I also wanted ONE payment – one payment line item in a budget spreadsheet looks much less overwhelming than three. And rather frustratingly, and for no reason other than not being the ‘right fit’, I was denied a consolidation loan with my bank at the time. I mean, really. I cried after I left that meeting because I was so disheartened.

But when I was on the Skytrain on my way home that day, and I looked up and saw an ad showing a person with a man in a red jumpsuit on their back, weighing them down. Mr. Red Jumpsuit was debt, and that is exactly how I was feeling. I had seen that ad a lot in the past, along with it’s commercial – I still see them – and I really don’t know why I hadn’t related to it before, but I probably thought “That’s not me!” These were all ads for the Canadian non-profit organization, Credit Counselling Society.

CCS Debt on Your Back
An image still from a past Credit Counselling Society TV ad

The appointment

It wasn’t that day, but very soon after, I made an appointment for myself to speak with a debt counsellor at the Credit Counselling Society about getting on a Debt Management Program (DMP), which would give me one set monthly payment. My memory of that appointment is a bit of a blur, but I remember a few things pretty vividly:

  • I cried. Naturally.
  • My initial counsellor’s name was Gordon, and bless his heart, he had a tissue box ready for me and made me feel better by telling me it’s a common occurrence. He was very kind and a good listener. I am grateful for him – he helped me kickstart a big change in my life. (Random memory: He was getting married the following weekend and was so excited.)
  • I realized I felt so much SHAME for having let myself get back into debt. This is mostly what made me cry. I didn’t grow up with a  lot of money, and my mum worked so incredibly hard. I also used to deal with big marketing and event budgets and was very good at that. Why the hell couldn’t I do that for myself?
  • I left already feeling much lighter because I knew I had a solution to my problem.

I wish I could say it was easy, but it wasn’t. The things that are worth it usually aren’t.

I wish I could say it was easy, but it wasn’t. The things that are worth it usually aren’t. Which brings be to the things I’ve learned and was reminded of in the process of becoming debt free.

23 lessons

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Things are only as expensive as you make them.[/perfectpullquote]

  1. While I knew that being on a DMP wasn’t going to be a quick fix, the process of signing up took a bit longer than I thought. From the time I went in to my first payment, it was about two months. This is because they need connect with your creditors and so that an agreement can be made for the payment terms. I was fortunate as I was able to pay off my debt without any additional interest. I was also assigned a counsellor and an administrator for my payments.
  2. Debt is not exclusive to any one demographic. It is a very common issue, but perhaps a bit taboo. Gordon was pleasantly surprised that I wanted to take care of business at 29 years old, so I could get to my thirties without debt.
  3. Cutting up the plastic was actually a non-emotional thing. I was surprised by this.
  4. I can occasionally have a TREMENDOUS amount of pride. Which meant that I told maybe two people about my DMP. My office pod-mate at the time, who is like a vault with a secret (and who, it turns out, had also completed a DMP a few years before), and my then partner. But it took getting to having a year and a half left of my DMP to actually talk about it, and that was because I felt that the Brit needed to know the full story of me paying off debt. We were getting serious and when I told him, I cannot even express how supportive and encouraging he was and is.
  5. The experience made me even more grateful and appreciative of my maman. She was a single mum, and we didn’t have a lot of money. This is possibly the BIGGEST reason I felt so ashamed about my debt. I was feeling disappointed in myself because she had still been paying off her student loan from her masters degree. My dad paid child support and that helped, but I cannot tell you how hard my mum worked so that I could have ballet lessons that made me tremendously happy, and all the accoutrements that go with said lessons. And everything else a child and then teenager needs. Like food. My metabolism is quite fast. With all the cardio and strength training that comes with dance, I was a hungry girl and needed a lot fuel! (And can I get an amen for having dance teachers who never made me feel like I needed to be smaller – particularly when I was already small to begin with!)
  6. This is an obvious one, and wasn’t really so much of a learning as it was a reminder, but paying off debt becomes more difficult when you go from a double income to a single income. But life happens and you soldier on.
  7. Paying off debt is also more difficult when you decide to leave your well-paying corporate job to sell teacher training at your yoga studio. No surprise. This all happened when I was becoming a single income again, and I had to use up most of my most of my RRSP and savings in those ten months because I had taken a big pay cut. Good timing, right?
  8. Despite this, I was reminded to always listen to the universe. I was going through a divorce when the universe dropped the yoga studio opportunity into my lap. I’m so glad that I listened because working there was very healing at a time when I needed to be in a more chill environment. I loved my corporate job, but I’d been there for five years and had been feeling a bit lost with what I wanted to be doing at work (even before the chaos of my marriage ending).
  9. Travelling without a credit card is scary, especially when you don’t have a lot of disposable income. I knew it would feel that way, but I was always very hyper-aware.
  10. I learned to get over myself and that it’s okay to ask for help. There’s that pride again. And the fact that I kept telling myself that I should be able to take care of these things on my own as an adult. There are four times (three of which were while I was making much less money) when I had to ask for help, and I’m glad I did. Even if it killed me to admit I needed the support. My mother is my heroine for three of them, and the Brit was my hero for the fourth.
  11. Always the reminder that it’s okay if you screw up. Just fix it. And don’t feel like you always have to fix it on your own.
  12. I am incredibly resourceful. (I am my mother’s daughter, after all!) Determined that I would still be able to do the things I enjoy, I did and I do. Yoga, travelling, eating well, reading, and taking care of myself. I also completed my yoga teacher training the first year of my DMP. My use of #GetThrifty in my social posts and here on the blog comes from realizing and sharing that you can still enjoy the things you love without having to sacrifice quality. Because — and this is a big one — things are only as expensive as you make them.
  13. Set monthly payments are great because you know how much is going to go out every month.
  14. Set monthly payments are also very limiting. See #6-10. 
  15. Because of #12, my quality of life didn’t change, just the how I was able to do the things I enjoy. This was about expectations management and sticking to a budget. And example is that yoga and pilates classes are expensive. I have many workout DVDs, so I started using them more. I also started volunteering at my yoga studio so I could be in a positive environment on a regular basis during divorce hell, and very much appreciated that an unlimited class pass was the thank you for my time. This pass was also part of properly working there. After I went back into more of a corporate job and didn’t have that free pass anymore, I began to make good and proper use of my much cheaper membership for online classes.
  16. Cooking your own food is very satisfying, and a total money saver (especially for work lunches). I already knew this, but it was magnified while on a super strict budget.
  17. While stuff is just stuff, it’s important to take care of it. I have always taken care of my things, but I was/am particularly careful with my clothes and my more expensive possessions. Taking care of my clothing was also partly practical and partly a vanity thing. If I wasn’t already active, you better believe I would have stepped up my game. My budget wasn’t allowing for much, if any, new clothing.
  18. Self-care is equally, if not more, important as taking care of your things. My DMP journey was an act of self-care, and I’m so happy I buckled down and did it!
  19. While I didn’t think I was very wasteful with food, I’ve stepped up my game on that.
  20. Always keep your eye on the prize. Because I did, and when I was making more money again, I was able to start making bigger payments to my DMP. Which meant I finished early. Not as early as I wanted to finish, but early nonetheless.
  21. Learning to live with less is much easier than you think.
  22. I appreciate what I have so much more, and I wasn’t unappreciative to begin with!
  23. If I had to change one thing about the entire experience, I would have done it sooner! I’m so grateful for the last four and a bit years, because they have taught me that I am a tough cookie.

Moving forward

So there it is, my greatest shame (a bit melodramatic, but it’s how I felt/feel), and what it has taught me. With these learnings, I’ve also been thinking about room for improvement with my relationship with money. A recent article from SELF magazine brought back the thought that I need to be better with tracking my spending within the amount I’ve set for myself for the non-essentials.

Which will also be important for when I eventually get a credit card again. There’s a bit of paperwork to sign still, but no more payments! And I’ve allowed myself to start looking at some other big dreams and goals. It’s only in the last six months that I could even think about these, and I’ve got some nice things in the works. I’m excited to share them with you in the near future!

Have you achieved a major goal this year? Was it about self-care? What were your roadblocks and successes en route to achieving said goal? Tell me all about it in the comments!

For more information on the Credit Counselling Society’s debt management programs, click here. (This is not a sponsored post – just me sharing my thoughts and gratitude for their support in the process of becoming debt free!)

All photos by Jana Josue.


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