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.”

-Bob Dylan

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.”

-Carl Honoré

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?

More about...Debt

Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others

Subscribe to the GRS Insider (FREE) and we’ll give you a copy of the Money Boss Manifesto (also FREE)

Yes! Sign up and get your free gift
Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others
guest
18 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Brian @DebtDiscipline
Brian @DebtDiscipline
5 years ago

I found that once I got my finances in order that organization and discipline spilled over into other areas of my life. Being free from the stress that a heavy debt can cause I’m now enjoy the benefits of surplus of money and time to spend how I like.

Mike in NH
Mike in NH
5 years ago

A lot of what you mention seems to hit on mindfulness, something our society appears to struggle with. I like the idea of the mini-goals. For me I am trying something I read about called a year of minimalism. Each month, I give up something different and then have the opportunity to test/learn/reflect on the differences in my life. It’s also a great way to change habits, since 30 days is a good starting point for behavioral adjustment. In January I gave up fast food, and at the end of the month decided I was going to try and extend… Read more »

Mick
Mick
5 years ago

Very good article and timely for me. I am not totally debt free, but nearly, and at a point in my life that I need to consider stepping back and getting a better balance.
In short, I almost need to find myself again and find what gives me pleasure beyond work. It’s not as easy as it should be but I like your idea of baby steps (5 mins at a time).
Thanks!

Sanjeev Shrestha
Sanjeev Shrestha
5 years ago

I remember being debt free in 2008. It was so Liberating. I felt Life just started. Being DEBT FREE is the first step for Road to wealth. I used to feel that being in debt was a part of life. Everyone around has one. Once I changed my thinking to being Totally DEBT FREE, my whole thought process changed. Unfortunately, some of my friends and relatives were no longer in my life. Tough decision but I had to make one. After being debt free, next step was SOLID 6 months cash emergency funds, then ROTH IRA investment every year, then… Read more »

PJ Ryan
PJ Ryan
5 years ago

Thanks for the amazing article! I think this really shows how difficult it can be sometimes to remember exactly *why* we work hard to get our finances under control. When you’re in the middle of battle, so to speak, you just have to focus on slaying those debts, building that savings account, etc. You can’t lose focus or you might never get out. When things start calming down and you’re out of the worst of it, though, it’s often very difficult to modify your behavior to fit your new circumstances. People save money for different reasons -security, freedom to spend… Read more »

Linda W
Linda W
5 years ago

When I paid off my mortgage, it felt surreal. I’m down to one credit card that keeps a balance and one car payment. Since we had to replace my husband’s vehicle, it has thrown me off kilter. I’m the one that handles the bills. Whenever something major happens to our finances, like my retirement, etc., it takes me a few months to find balance. I have a spiral notebook that I log all of the bills in. I write all of the bills on the left of each page and fill in the amount and date paid on the right.… Read more »

A Reader
A Reader
5 years ago
Reply to  Linda W

When I paid off my mortgage in August 2011, it felt surreal as well! That was my only debt and I’ve remained without debt since that time.

Alea
Alea
5 years ago

I am at the point where I paid off all my debt a couple of years ago, have a good emergency fund, am contributing almost fully to my 401(k) and fully to my Roth, yet the fear of debt and failure are still there. I am light years of where I was in 2005, yet the insecurity is still there. The more I save, the less I seem to have. Weird huh?

Has anyone struggled with the feeling that it’s still not enough? I am still waiting for that feeling that the rug will not be pulled from under me.

Jerome
Jerome
5 years ago
Reply to  Alea

I totally recognize the feeling! We became debt-free in 1995 and for years and years afterwards I had the feeling you describe. In the end I realized that if you have nothing than there is nothing you can loose, but savings can be lost. Our fear of loss got better when about 10 years later we had a real and serious issue in our life and we could simply solve it with money from our emergency-fund. That feeling, that a very big problem just went away with a bit of money, helped us to realize how relaxed you can be… Read more »

Alea
Alea
5 years ago
Reply to  Jerome

Thanks, I look forward to that day.

I remind myself that this money perception is the same I had when I graduated from college, only it was the weight I had gained. Eventually I lost all the weight and although I was a size 4, in my head I was still the chunky college student for a good many years. I guess it’s the same with money, my brain has been on a “money emergency” level for so long, it will be hard to rewire it to the “Chill, you are doing well” phase.

Debi
Debi
5 years ago
Reply to  Alea

Yes, I struggle with it daily. We will retire in 2 1/2 years and I’ve run all the numbers and I’ve had an independent financial planner run all the numbers and the $2 million we will have at retirement is plenty to support our lifestyle yet there’s a tiny voice in my head that says “What if it’s not? What if all the saving and scrimping on luxuries, etc. wasn’t enough?” It’s crazy, I know, but it’s just how I’m wired.

Harmony @ CreatingMyKaleidoscope
Harmony @ CreatingMyKaleidoscope
5 years ago

My life has changed a lot since setting a goal for financial semi-independence. While there finally is a sense of purpose, I feel preoccupied with money. It’s intriguing to read about life after debt. Although I’m anxious to reach that point, for everything there is a season. Hard work and struggle allows us to appreciate success.

Kurt
Kurt
5 years ago

For me, getting my finances balanced was far easier and more straightforward than balancing my life. I paid off debt and began saving enough for retirement long ago, but working toward life balance is still, and I think always will be, a daily challenge, not so easily tackled with a spreadsheet and a resolve to succeed! How shall I spend my time today, and next week, and next year? I think about it constantly…

Jeff
Jeff
5 years ago

“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.”

-Bob Dylan

Did he say that before or AFTER he became wealthy?

Nate
Nate
5 years ago

Great article. This is very insightful. I’m looking forward to being debt free so I can enjoy my life to the fullest.

Jason @ Phroogal
Jason @ Phroogal
5 years ago

This is another great reason for practicing yoga – the opportunity for looking inward – even just for a few minutes.

Kelli B
Kelli B
5 years ago

Great article! So many “budgeting” articles talk about cutting, cutting, cutting without considering what your life is going to be like. Sure you save a lot of money by never eating out with friends, grabbing coffee on the way to the office, watching television, etc. but what’s you’re life going to look like? There’s being responsible and then there’s depriving yourself and finding the balance can be really difficult. Thanks again for sharing!

Robert
Robert
5 years ago

I really appreciated the article. It goes to show that happiness is not always what we think it will be and finding the end of the rainbow is just the beginning. The message I got from the article is that the journey is the most important part. Getting to financial freedom seemed less exciting once you get there. Did your bucket list grow?

shares