Fork in the road flickr creative commons debt question

Photo: flickr/sacks08

The first-year anniversary of Frugaling.org is right around the corner. It’s been over 11 months since I started this journey and a tremendous amount has changed. Today, I’m taking time to reflect on what started it all.

How much debt do you have?

When I was asked this debt question, it seemed invasive and prosecutorial. The consequences were unfathomable and unknown. I remember feeling awkward, heavy, and embarrassed. I knew the number right off the top of my head, but saying it aloud made the situation more real. The answer to that question was personal and private. I was almost ready to react in defense of my debt!

I briefly thought, “I’m a student, I need this debt! It’s necessary! Look at other people! Hell, it’s an investment in my future career!” Can’t you read and feel the dripping indignation?

The question appeared to be an oxymoron, too. Frankly, I had less than nothing. How could I have less than nothing?! Nearly $40,000 in debt between credit cards, student loans, and a car loan, I didn’t own anything. Instead, banks owned me and all my stuff. With student loans, you either pay them back, enter a special governmental program for forgiveness, or you die. There’s no option to reduce your interest for good grades or make it magically disappear — not even bankruptcy can save you.

Despite the internal pressures to keep quiet or lash out against the person asking this loaded question, I decided to follow down a different path. I responded hesitantly — not knowing the response I’d receive — but also with combination of authenticity, genuineness, honesty, and openness.

Sharing the big, scary number

I plopped out this turd of a number: “I have about $38,000 in debt right now.”

The heft of that number and all the social pressures surrounding it seemed to be lifted. The veil of privacy and secrecy around my debt disappeared. Suddenly, I felt freer. Over the coming months, I began to tell more people about my problem. Some people reacted in shock. Others shrugged their shoulders and admitted they had more than me. Seemingly, my vulnerability and authenticity encouraged others to share their honest reactions and their own debt stories.

I wasn’t alone anymore with this staggering number. I wouldn’t be kept up at night anymore. Being able to share my story enabled me to take responsibility for errors and realize how I could improve. The two combined in perfect harmony into Frugaling.org.

The pressures of society are powerful

I was worried about the stigma of debt. I noticed in popular media and casual conversations that debt was comparable to ill morals. Poorer people are vilified for making mistakes and not working hard enough. I was told that if I share my bank statements and my debt load openly that that was tantamount to indecent exposure. Maybe they’re right, but by facing my problem head on and sharing freely, something beautiful happened.

Unsubsidized Student Loan Chart Debt Question

My unsubsidized student loans were going crazy. In August 2013, they reached $25,000. By the end of April, they’ll be paid off completely!

After I started Frugaling.org, I began to pack more lunches, choose more affordable clothing stores (haven’t purchased anything in 8 months), make a budget I could actually follow, and radically reduce my debt. I made more money and paid my loans off in huge chunks.

Being honest and risking rejection was one of the most difficult things I’ve done. But I’m certain now that this openness is the strongest method and pressure to fixing a bloated, dangerous debt course. Changing the path can seem difficult — you’re going to want people supporting you. By admitting your debt load, you’ll be making your first step towards zero and have a team of people cheering you on.

Have you shared your total debt with other people? What was it like sharing your story? How do you find support in your journey back to zero debt?