Discomfort: The catalyst for change
Two years ago, I sat in my then-girlfriend’s apartment in Manhattan Beach, California. Only a couple blocks from the Pacific Ocean, I felt like it was heaven on Earth. Frankly, I hadn’t found any place more relaxing and beautiful.
But that May 4th, 2013 was complicated for me. I was powerfully distracted by student loans. The numbers continued to worsen, and I wanted to stop the bleeding. The debt was hurtling towards $40,000. I was afraid I couldn’t or wouldn’t be able to reduce it as a graduate student.
Everybody in my life said they were proud of me — of making it to a Ph.D. program and helping others through counseling psychology. And yet, I felt hopeless to do anything about my financial situation. Doing good didn’t mean money followed suit.
I told my then-girlfriend that I was nervous. I told her I didn’t know what to do. I told her that when I was younger I used to write, blog, and share my thoughts. Maybe I could do that again?
Neither of us truly believed that writing could suddenly pay off my student loans and credit debt. I was green and naive, but my eagerness and openness pushed me into action.
The start of something good
With trepidation and giddiness, we sat down and talked about the idea of starting a website.
She asked, “What would you call it?”
We played around with some ideas — back and forth. Nothing really stuck. Or, when we liked something the domain name was invariably taken. Darn it! Maybe I was just too late in the game to join the personal finance community?
Then, as we decided to table the discussion, I suggested “Frugaling.” The name danced across my vocal cords and tongue with a playfulness, which also acknowledged finances. And there it was: available. I bought it immediately.
Energized, I sat down at the kitchen table and coded the basic structure of the website. I found a theme and we designed a header logo. The site was rough around the edges and certainly wouldn’t have won any design awards. With her help and my passion for personal finance, I wrote my first article. Half a day had rolled by, but it was live!
Would you marry me?
Initially, I asked my readers, “Would you marry me?” The question was bouncing around in my head ever since I was asked how much debt I had. I worried that having tens of thousands in student loans might hinder my chances at a loving, long relationship. Questions such as, “How would you provide for children?” or “How would you afford a mortgage?” stopped me in my tracks. I felt awful. After all, monetary concerns often break up marriages.
When I published that first article, I had four readers: mom, dad, bro, and Lisa. Each of them read the article, and supported my decision to start this website. Albeit, there was definitely some skepticism from them.
When I hit that “publish” button, I was awash with a familiar, but dormant, feeling. It was a rush of excitement and energy, which reminded me of a brief foray into opinion-editorial writing at my college newspaper. It had been years since I wrote publicly, and I was instantly hooked back in.
Over the coming months, a torrent of articles flew through my fingertips and onto the screen. I loved the feeling of being a writer, editor, publisher, and advertiser. I was doing it all in the cracks of free time that graduate school occasionally presented. And few even knew I existed. The love was in the process of writing, not the paycheck.
Shifting ideals, writing styles
To summarize and contain two years of thoughts, critiques, and articles is nearly impossible. The time period is collected and framed on this site for all to see. It’s a time when I hurt immensely, and saw few ways out of tens of thousands in debt.
My first articles were rudimentary. Inspiration came from other personal finance websites and, mostly, well-tread territory. Sadly, I’m not sure that I was providing earth shattering revelations.
Despite my skill level (or lack thereof), I enjoyed the process of sharing openly about debt. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t embarrassed, ashamed, and guilty about my choices in life. I was finally facing my demon.
As I continued to write, two things happened unintentionally:
First, my writing improved and developed a voice. I could write faster, and with greater clarity. My audience grew with every additional article. I learned how to write better by treating this process like a science. What worked? What didn’t? How could I improve my titles? How could I attract more diverse audiences?
Second, I noticed a missing element in the personal finance world. It centered on diversity. Many of the financial gurus and role models for debt-free living were white, middle-class, and had terrific educations. They didn’t represent the common person struggling with outsized credit and student loan debt. Writing about simple methods to save didn’t have the same caché. I wanted to appeal to an audience of disenfranchised and underrepresented. Suddenly, I took on more of a social justice role.
Look at how much I just made!
In late summer 2013, I climbed a popular trail in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. I looked down off the majestic mountain and saw only beauty. The summer sun basked upon me, and I soaked up the moment.
I had been writing Frugaling articles for about 6 months, and was enjoying a nice break from everything — school included. But there was a surprise awaiting me when my cell service came back. I was $500 wealthier.
Something must’ve gone wrong, I thought. How’d I just make about $500?! What happened? I checked my website and saw increased traffic to some key articles. People were actually taking up my advice and buying a product I was recommending. Four people had actually used my links!
I freaked out, and called the company that handled my ads. I immediately questioned the staffer, “Is this number right? Do you see this amount? Is this real money?” He calmly replied, “Yep, it looks good. We’ll just have you fill out some tax information because you’re going to be earning more than $600 this year.”
Over the next 12 months or so I would go on to make tens of thousands of dollars, repay my student loan debt, begin investing in retirement accounts, and create an emergency fund. My life was and will continue to be forever changed by this money. It felt like winning the lottery, and was completely unexpected.
The amount of money felt comical. Here I was, a naive, green graduate student with this crazy idea to start a website and write about my student loan debt. And the endeavor had rewarded me.
My out-of-debt mood
When the debt was squashed, my mood lifted. I saw my future with greater clarity, but more importantly, I recognized the importance of the present — this moment. The debt was this cloud that followed me around. I hated owing companies money.
Freedom comes to mind, but that’s too simple. Getting out of debt cemented a logic and rule change: don’t ever lend someone your future. I never want to be beholden to a behemoth bank again. From mortgages to car loans, I’m done.
Take your “age-old” advice and wisdom and shove it. That’s not for me. I’m a Millennial that has been caught up in a business-based system of higher education for too long. The debt that can incur is dangerous and restrictive. I don’t see “good” debt anymore. No, I just see debt.
If you forego the “features” and “great benefits” of debt-inducing products, life can be a bit more reserved and boring. I don’t travel often, I sold my car, and I tend to eat out once a month. Before my journey began, I was a crisscrossing world traveler, with a stunning car (and hefty loan), and ate out for the majority of my lunches. All on the take — with the interest running against me.
Debt is too frequently a cyclical problem that people unintentionally enter — myself included. Without debt, the cyclical problem cannot occur. Life will be restrictive for certain, but I won’t be working countless hours to pay back the moments I have now. And that’s worth focusing on.
Featured and published in big-time blogs
In time, Frugaling picked up steam. The traffic and subscribers increased as a result of featured articles and influential writers. Additionally, a massive viral article made the rounds of Reddit. There were over 100,000 views in a day! But even greater was the incredible honor of being shared by two of my favorite sites over these two years: Becoming Minimalist and The Minimalists. They were both inspirational in my writing.
The site is now growing exponentially. It’s rare to see a day with less than 1,500 visitors. There was a clear shift that occurred, where 5,000-visitor months became 5,000-visitor days.
I have an incredible group of over 1,000 email subscribers who contribute, comment, and email me. They’re involvement and commentary is vital — they keep me going. From Facebook to Twitter, people write their responses and experiences with depth and clarity. I’m impressed by their input, and humbled that they care to share.
Looking to the future of Frugaling
Frugaling has constantly been my “work in progress.” It’s never finished, I’m always tweaking the site and my writing style — trying to see what works and sounds best. The future of Frugaling is something that brings me great joy to think about.
Over the coming months, I will be announcing my biggest project yet for the website. I’m hoping you’ll subscribe to see what happens next, and help share the news when I announce it.
I’m excited and grateful to have an outlet like this, where I can share my thoughts, opinions, and lessons with an incredible audience. Thank you for being one of them. It’s a home for me to sharing about social justice, making and saving money, and avoiding the traps of debt.
We only have so much time in our days and lives. Your time is precious. I want to thank you for taking the time to read, subscribe, and comment.