For years, I felt so overwhelmed by my student loan debt. I borrowed more than my annual salary and my payments were 50 percent of my income. Paying off $81,000 in student loan debt was the hardest thing I’ve ever done; at times, it felt all-consuming.
To be honest, tackling my debt sucked most of the time. I felt bitter and angry that I let myself borrow so much for school. But in the end, I’ve learned a lot from my student loan debt that I don’t think I would have otherwise.
Here are five unexpected lessons you learn from having student loan debt.
1. The power of a dollar
I’ll be honest: I was pretty clueless about money before I committed to paying off my debt. I wasn’t sure how much I really earned, how much I was paying in interest, or how much I even owed.
When I became committed to paying off debt, I calculated how much interest I was paying per day. At the time, I was paying $11 per day toward interest. I was earning a whopping $12 per hour.
Once I realized this, I started to calculate all of my purchases in hours worked — the Starbucks run would be 30 minutes of work, happy hour could easily equate to two hours of work.
Truly understanding how much debt I was in, how much I was paying in interest, and understanding what my income could afford shifted how I thought about money.
I no longer thought of money as this abstract concept, but rather, something concrete that was costing me time. Once I made that mental shift, I had a better understanding of the power of a dollar and my finances have never been the same since.
2. The value of hard work
I was living on a low income, trying to pay off debt for such a long time. At some point, I realized I couldn’t cut back any further and knew the answer was to earn more money instead.
I wasn’t quite sure how to go about it at first, so I took any gig I could get. I started cleaning houses, working events, being a brand ambassador, and doing odd jobs to supplement my income.
I’ve always been a hard worker, but paying off debt lit a fire within me to work even harder. I worked nights, weekends, holidays, and early mornings.
If I was awake, I was probably working. Though it was tough on me mentally and physically, I learned the value of hard work and perseverance. I pushed myself harder than I would have if I were debt-free. I learned new things, met new people, and got out of my comfort zone.
I did all of those things because I had to. If I had the luxury of being debt-free, I probably would have been stuck in my comfort zone, never feeling compelled to move forward or work harder. Working toward debt freedom taught me the value of hard work and how much it can change your life.
I truly do believe hard work pays off … eventually. It may not happen overnight and it could take several years before you realize the benefits, but working hard can change your life and career.
3. How to live on less
Paying off debt helped me understand how to live on less and illustrated the major differences between needs and wants.
I learned how to live on less and without many attachments. I adjusted to living in a small studio apartment with my partner. I found enjoyment from the little things, like baths or a hot cup of coffee, rather than the next shiny, pretty, new thing.
Looking at my income and my debt, my needs and wants became abundantly clear and I realized I didn’t need a lot to survive or be happy. Many of the things I thought I needed were just wants in disguise.
Sure, it was an adjustment at first, but learning how to live on less is something that will help my finances for years to come. It’s also shifted my values to treasure experiences, not things.
4. Patience is a virtue
They say that patience is a virtue — and for the most part, it’s a quality I severely lack. Many people my age have grown up in an environment of instant gratification. If we want something, we can have it NOW.
Through my student loan debt, I’ve learned the art of delayed gratification and how to accept the struggle of working toward something — and how those things make the payoff that much sweeter.
For example, I’ve wanted to move back to Los Angeles and go to Italy with my mom for the past few years. I could have just said YOLO and made it happen, but I knew that my number one goal was to get out of debt; those two things didn’t align with my goal.
So I pushed those secondary goals back while I focused on paying off debt. It was hard, but I stayed motivated knowing how great it would be to reach those goals later, once I was debt-free.
Now that I am debt-free, I have plans to move and go to Italy this year — which will be my mom’s first time abroad! While it may not seem like a big deal, I’ve wanted to do these things for years and have held back in order to continue to pay off debt. Being able to achieve these other goals, without the burden of debt weighing on my shoulders, is that much more gratifying.
5. How to manage money
Paying off debt, for better or worse, forced me to get real with my money. Debt led me to a financial awakening, where I started tracking my expenses, looking at my income carefully, and thinking about my short- and long-term financial goals.
Getting out of debt taught me so much about managing my money and making it work. Who knows? Without debt, I might still be oblivious and not really grasp many of the financial concepts I understand today.
Getting out of student loan debt is tough and definitely not fun, but there are lessons to be learned from the journey that can impact your life for the better.
It’s easy to complain and feel overwhelmed by debt — for today, try to focus on the silver lining. What have you learned from paying off debt that you might not have otherwise?
“If you take on a big financial project or goal, you will learn a lot about who you are and what you can do,” wrote Amanda on her blog Dream Beyond Debt. “Don’t be afraid. A few of the lessons are harder than others, but each and every one of them is a revelation that can change your life if you let it.”
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