Life after debt — experimenting with financial balance
I first became part of the Get Rich Slowly community six years ago. I lived in Austin, Texas, at the time and had to travel a lot between jobs. I say that I drove a scooter to save money on gas; but really, it was because I couldn't afford a reliable car. The fact it cost me less than $2 to fill up my tank for a week was definitely an added bonus.
I was working multiple jobs to pay off student loans and looking for answers after I reached the top of that mountain. But thanks to everything I learned here, I finally got totally out of debt. How did I do it? Through multiple sources of income and some tough budgeting decisions, I hustled my way into the commendable financial hat trick:
- I learned to budget and spend sensibly.
- I eliminated my debt.
- I built up an emergency fund and started saving regularly.
What it's like to put debt reduction front and center
I put paying off debt at the forefront of my existence. I got a little burst of dopamine every time I saw my debt number go down. I furiously cut every expense I could out of my budget. As a single guy, most cuts were easy to for me to make, like buying new clothes or fancy drinks with friends. However, some cuts were far more challenging:
- Not flying home to help take care of my mom after her knee surgery
- Missing my best friend's theater opening in New York City
- No more artisan tequila on the shelf (OK, maybe this one was less of a sacrifice than the other two, but it was still a tough one!)
What it's like to be done with debt
After a couple of years digesting and living as closely as possible to many of the cost-saving tenets advocated on Get Rich Slowly, I was able to send off my last student loan payment!
I remember the first scooter ride I took after clicking “Submit.” The air smelled different, sweeter even. I wanted to throw my arms out wide to celebrate like something out of Shawshank Redemption. Instead, I dutifully gripped the handlebars because a scooter crash is hardly a good way to celebrate.
Life after debt?
I remember getting home that day, sitting on the back porch, and thinking “Now what?” So much of my brain was taken up with getting my financial life in line that I never stopped to ask myself the question, “Am I happy?”
“What's money? A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do.”
I spent so much of myself getting out of debt that I didn't have much left when the debt was gone. Happiness and financial aptitude are obviously not mutually exclusive; but for me, after missing holiday after holiday away from my family because of work, it definitely seemed like they were.
Paying off the last of my debt felt great, but it gave way to asking myself new questions:
- Are my financial decisions getting in the way of my happiness?
- Is successful financial management coming at too high a cost?
- What is work/life balance for me?
- Do I get to see family enough?
Experiment to find balance
I'm not trying to throw a wrench into your financial life. J.D. Roth always says, “The road to wealth is paved with goals.” I know J.D. would agree that a sound financial life is an extremely worthwhile goal, but it isn't the only one. Managing our financial affairs is not an activity divorced from all other aspects of our lives.
Yes, pursue your financial goals — but don't forget about your personal goals and ambitions in the process.
Opening to this new horizon of thinking, I tried to even the scorecard between finances and other life goals. There is so much out there to be striving toward, not just seeing the number in your savings account go up.
Would your life be better balanced if you were to…
- Spend more time with your family and friends?
- Devote more time to your local community?
- Become more politically active?
- Take a class to learn something new?
- Change the way you divide the income-generating and child-caring roles in your family?
- Spend more time outside?
- Switch jobs?
- Switch locations?
This isn't about making a huge downshift. This isn't about quitting your job and moving abroad. Resist the temptation to go for a silver-bullet solution. Instead, try a series of small experiments. Here's a few ideas:
- Try living without a car for a week.
- Try a month of no purchases. Keep your debit card swipes to the basics, like food.
- Explore dropping just one shift at work each week, or maybe leaving a few hours early one day.
The five-minutes-more experiment
Small changes matter. I realized that, although I was making strides toward financial wealth, I was lacking richness in time. Gone was my debt, but so were my Sunday morning strolls and nursing a cup of espresso for hours. One of my mini experiments involved lingering five minutes more whenever I could. If I didn't have a place I had to be, whenever I would get up to leave somewhere, I'd sit back down for five more minutes. The only rule I had was that I couldn't pick up my cell phone in those five minutes. I had to simply be.
Yes, I do think that time poverty deserves its own Wikipedia page; but for many of us, our time poverty is a frame of mind. The free time I did have was spent stressing about how plentiful it wasn't, which isn't much fun at all. So I'd try to fill that time with yet another activity. The five-minutes-more experiment shifted my relationship with time, making it less of a commodity in a way that made me stress about it less. With this small experiment, I didn't have more time, but the time I did have felt so much better.
Bigger changes need to happen too
“Spending more time with friends and family costs nothing. Nor does walking, cooking, meditating, making love, reading or eating dinner at the table instead of in front of the television. Simply resisting the urge to hurry is free.”
Once I reclaimed my time five lingering minutes at a time, I dropped my evening shifts at one of my jobs. This allowed me not only to work less, but to work more efficiently. Dropping those shifts at one job meant that I performed better at another, which led to an increase in pay. In the end, I realized that even if everything is adding up on paper, it doesn't mean anything unless the system is working for you.
In other words, manage your finances, but don't let them manage you.
Are your finances more balanced than your life? What small experiments can you do to reclaim some of your time?