As 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.
A 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
I 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
As 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?
I 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.