Jul 01

Swimming in Debt or Lifeguarding?

noguardAs I meet more and more people who are paying down down, I’ve noticed a few similarities in the things they tell me. Specifically when they’re describing their debt, the same language seems to come up again and again. You know, sayings like, “I was in over my head” “I had a big hole and a little shovel” “I was drowning in debt” etc.

So pardon the following ridiculous analogy, but it really resonates with me.

Hang with me for a minute and it might make sense to you too.

drowningA few years ago I was “drowning” in $30,000 of student loan debt. Sadly, it wasn’t until I started to sink below the surface, that I remembered, “hey wait a minute, I know how to swim.” Actually, I didn’t just “know how to swim”, I used to be pretty good at it. In fact I was a lifeguard for the majority of my high school and college years.

Getting Back in Financial Shape Hurts!

So largely out of necessity (and a fear of still being in debt while I was paying off my own kids’ college), I put on my old swimsuit and got back in the pool. But I was out of practice and those first few months getting back in shape were pretty grueling. They were painful and frustrating and I often left the pool feeling worst than when I started. My splits were bad and I remembered what things used to be like in the “good old days” when I was in shape. Sometimes I wanted to quit, but I knew that quitting wasn’t an option.

Ironically I experienced the same feelings when I started paying off my debt. I used to be pretty good at saving money and balancing my checkbook. But several years of free spending and taking out large student loans left me out of financial shape. And as you’d expect, when I finally started watching what I spent again, budgeting my money and paying for things in cash, it wasn’t very fun! I had to make sacrifices and cut my lifestyle to get back in shape. And when you’re overweight with debt, those first swims aren’t very pretty.

Visualizing Positive Change

swimmingI spent the first few weeks treading water and keeping my minimum balances paid. But once I built up my, “debt paying muscles” I began to swim again and it felt really good. I wasn’t as quick as I used to be, but I remembered what my pre-debt days felt like and I could imagine swimming again without the wight of the debt on my back.

Celebrating Small Victories

trophyAs I began to reach some of my small goals, I let my friends and family know about my debt repayment plan. I explained the “debt mess” that I’d gotten myself into and I told them that I needed their help. I explained that I wanted to pay down my debt as fast as possible and I asked for their support. I didn’t want to get relaxed with my repayments so I told them to hold me accountable and ask me for progress updates. And they did! As I paid off debt they were there to support and cheer me on, and when I got lazy in the pool they motivated me to keep swimming.

Gaining Momentum Towards the Finish Line

When I replaced my bad happens with good habits my debt dropped quicker than I had imagined. The more I swam the better I felt, and the better I felt, the more I was motivated to keep swimming. I wanted to drown my debts and let them sink to the bottom of the pool.

Finally, in a short (or really long – depending on how you look at it) 2 years I was completely debt free. I wasn’t swimming with the “debt-weight” behind me anymore and it felt amazing!

So Where Am I in My Financial Journey Now?

lifeguardI guess I’m the lifeguard again. It’s funny how cyclical life is, isn’t it? I’m making good financial decisions again and trying to save others before they sink below the water. Truthfully, sometimes I let people sink a little bit to scare them. Not because I want them to drown (I’m not an evil lifeguard), but I think there are important lessons to be learned when it comes to debt. I know I needed one big gulp of water to realize I was in trouble. For me (and many people) that fear of drowning forces you to swim and now I know I never want to sink again. 

Images: JenniFromTheBlock, thelazydba, dno1967b, Jim Bahn, terreninVirginia


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  1. Brian @ Luke1428

    Great analogy KK! I think I almost drowned my instructor trying to pass the retrieval swim portion of my lifeguard certification.

    1. KK

      Lol, I think my friend Herm also almost killed our instructor. I hope they get paid a lot 😉

  2. Mrs. Pop @ Planting Our Pennies

    haha, love the analogy.

    1. KK

      Thanks Mrs. Pop

  3. Laurie @thefrugalfarmer

    Love this, KK!!! An inspiring and introspective analogy – thank you, I needed the encouragement today. 🙂

    1. KK

      Thanks Laurie, I hope I can be encouraging, I know you and others are so encouraging and inspirational to me.

  4. John S @ Frugal Rules

    Great analogy KK! I think celebrating those small victories is key. It is what helped keep me going many times as I was repaying my debt.

    1. KK

      Thanks John. Baby steps and little victories, that’s what kept me going too.

  5. anna

    Great analogy, KK, and I agree – I definitely didn’t want to sink anymore, so it was time to swim!

    1. KK

      I did a good bit of sinking before I got my act together. It’s never easy, but so worth it in the end.

  6. Rachel@Mobilligy

    Great analogy! I think being able to visualize positive changes and celebrate small victories are key. It’s true that once you’ve replace the bad habits with good ones, your momentum really builds; for me, seeing the effects my positive changes had on my finances excited me and kept me going.

    1. KK

      Thanks Rachel. Visualizing positive change was huge for me. When I imagined what it would feel like to be debt free and then started paying off little debts the momentum it gave me was huge.

  7. Thomas

    More put should find something are or were good at and use it as motivation. I had a friend lose over 100lbs but fear his debt. I asked why he didn’t take the same approach as he did with the weight loss. Baby steps and one day at a time. There will be days that are hard and times when you feel like quitting but stick with it. I like the analogy. Great job not only getting back in the pool but being a lifeguard again.

    1. KK

      Wow that’s amazing. Good for him. I’m sure there was a lot of sacrifice in his situation. It’s funny how people can accomplish huge feats and then don’t associate one success with ability to have success in another part of life. Just like you said, if he could lose 100 pounds than you’d imagine he’s have the confidence to do anything.

  8. Michael @ The Student Loan Sherpa

    This analogy is so good. I would say I’m still swimming myself, but I’m using my time in the water to help others learn how to swim.

    1. KK

      Thanks Michael. I think that’s a great point, you don’t have to be debt free to help others in their own journey. We learn so much along that way that’s valuable and if we don’t share it while it’s happening we might forget what it felt like.

  9. Girl Meets Debt

    This analogy gave me a chuckle because ironically I don’t know how to swim. I don’t even know how to float. I do however have debt and luckily know how to celebrate the small victories 😉

    1. KK

      That’s OK 😉 Luckily you don’t have to swim to get out of debt. Fill in your own exercise analogy and it still “works”!

  10. Pauline @ Make Money Your Way

    That is great you had your close ones hold you accountable for your actions. Often when you lower your spending to pay off debt people don’t understand and try to push you to spend. If the whole family is on board, no more excuses!

    1. KK

      My family is pretty frugal to begin with, so they were definitely big cheerleaders of my debt payoff. Some people didn’t really “get it” but they weren’t close family.

  11. DC @ Young Adult Money

    I love the pics you choose for this post! Definitely a great analogy.

    1. KK

      Thanks, none of them are mine so I can’t take credit for them, but I was amazed at how many lifeguard photos there were on flickr.

  12. Holly@ClubThrifty

    Love this post. Being in debt definitely feels like drowning…especially when your debt is growing and you feel that you can’t get out! Been there, done that. Never again.

    1. KK

      Thanks Holly. Sinking is definitely a horrible feeling, both in debt and in swimming. Once you know that feeling you never want to go back.

  13. Budget and the Beach

    I like I was like you in that you felt you slipped up a little and forgot how to “swim” and it’s tough to get back in the game, but you can relearn!

    1. KK

      Just like riding a bike (oh no, another bad analogy post to come? 😉 )

  14. Grayson @ Debt Roundup

    Well put KK. I used to be the drowning victim and now I am the lifeguard. It feels good to be back in the stand and I hope I don’t have to be on the receiving end of help again.

    1. KK

      Me neither Grayson. But I think we’re both on the right path now. It’s much more fun to be the guard!

  15. Andrew@LivingRichCheaply

    Great analogy and I like how you let people sink a little to scare them I think people need to learn that debt should be feared otherwise they’d never learn to swim and continue flailing away trying to stay afloat.

    1. KK

      I feel the same way. I know some people would disagree with us, but honestly, if you don’t sink a little you don’t realize how scary it is and then you keep repeating the same bad behaviors. Debt is a vicious cycle.

  16. AverageJoe

    Wow! What a fantastic analogy. That really resonates with me. People always forget that they have the tools to swim. They’re often so panicked about a situation that they forget what they have and how easy it is to at least put together a plan of attack.

  17. Demaish @ Borrowed Cents

    Nice analogy KK. I guess I just went under the water last month and remembered I knew how to swim.. You are part of my inspiration. I am a bit rusty but I have to keep going or I’ll drown.

  18. Michelle

    I really loved this post! It’s an excellent analogy.

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