Paying Off Debt: My Biggest Financial Lesson


It’s no secret that I’m passionate about intentional living (knowing what your goals are), making conscious choices (frugality) and having a plan on how to spend your money to achieve it all. I’m passionate about personal finance as a means of turning your dreams into goals so they can become reality. I’ve mentioned that I accumulated $15,000 of credit card debt. It all started with the unexpected coma and death of my 57 year old mother. Paying Off Debt was My Biggest Financial Lesson. Yes, that’s right. I call it my biggest financial lesson, not my biggest financial mistake. Would you like to know why?

Paying Off Debt: How It All Started

It was early April when I got the call, “Your mom has been rushed to the hospital, you might want to look at flights”, which was followed up with another call half an hour later “It looks more serious than we thought, get here as soon as you can”. She underwent emergency surgery to relieve pressure from the massive cerebral haemorrhage she had suffered. She remained in a coma for three weeks, with a worsening prognosis.

We eventually made the decision to take her off life support and I sat holding her hand for the 18 hours until she passed. Over the next year and a half I lost three other close family members, my 18 year relationship to my high school sweetheart evaporated and I went through a job loss. So, it was a bit of an intense period in my life!

How I Got Into Debt

In that year and a half, there wasn’t an aspect of my life that hadn’t changed. There was so much intensity, I felt like life was too short, I wanted to feel alive. I started living exclusively in the present. I didn’t plan for the future or watch my finances. If there was something I wanted to experience, that was my priority and I made it happen. After about six months, I noticed I didn’t have enough in my account for paying off debt on my credit card. That momentarily caught my attention long enough for me to cut back on spending and make some headway on paying off my credit card balance. I was about $5,000 in debt by then.

Sometimes You Need To Repeat Your Mistake Before Paying Off Debt

It wasn’t long before I stopped making headway on paying off my debt. I stopped paying attention and didn’t notice my credit card balance surpassing the original 5K. I guess you could say I wasn’t done wanting to live in the moment or seeking the feeling of being alive. Eventually there came a point where the results of me not caring became too scary to look at. I spent a lot of mental energy feeling anxious and doing my best to ignore it.

Paying Off Debt

One day ignoring the debt became harder than facing it. I was mentally exhausted. I was willing to do anything to change my reality. I no longer wanted to carry the mental and emotional debt stress. I sat done and formulated a plan for paying off my debt; I wanted to be debt free by my birthday. How did I do it?

Emergency Fund
I know it sounds nuts, but I had maintained an emergency fund all that time. I emptied it out and paid back part of the balance. Unless you have 5K or less of debt that can be paid off relatively quickly on a lower interest credit vehicle, DO NOT maintain an emergency fund. It’s a false sense of security. You’re giving up a lot of money in interest by not paying off debt sooner. I figured IF an emergency did happen I could

  1. Hold off that months debt payment by paying only the minimum, so that I could cover the unexpected expense and not go into further debt.
  2. Slow down my debt repayment for several months to cover the emergency expense
  3. Or worst case scenario, if I was really cornered, just need to pull out money from the line of credit temporarily. In any case, I’d still be further ahead.

One limit I had was that I wasn’t willing to pull money from my retirement savings accounts. That was off limits. Avoid this unless you have absolutely no other choice (read bankruptcy).

Cut Back On All My Spending
I became singularly focused on paying back my debt. For the first time in — what seemed like forever– I had a goal and developed a financial plan to achieve it. Basically I cut back on everything expect absolute survival necessities. All leftover money went straight towards paying back my debt. While this can be hard long term, I got satisfaction in being creative and finding joy with what I had, finding free entertainment and motivation from aggressively eliminating my debt. Not only did I achieve it, I got a surprise: It became an EARLY birthday gift to myself.

Why Paying Off Debt Was My Biggest Financial Lesson

In life, I believe there are only lessons. People choose for a situation to be a mistake or a failure. Say What?!? When something doesn’t work out, it’s only a mistake or failure if you choose to look ONLY at the result. Instead, step back to analyze and take what lessons you can from it. Ask yourself:

  • What new skills did you gain?
  • Figure out what didn’t work. When you know what didn’t work, it turns it into knowledge. Which is a positive!
  • Make a list of the related knowledge you already knew and what worked.

You need to do two things with this: apply it to everything you can in your life and share it with others so they can benefit.

So What Did I Learn?

I learned a lot of things. Aside from the obvious that debt isn’t worth the stress and how to repay it, there are some key things that are imprinted into my memory.

Support Network

Even through all that craziness, I felt lucky. I had a massive support network of family and friends. Part of what I remember most from the weeks spent in limbo with my mom is being surrounded by my family.  It wasn’t an ideal situation, but we had quality time together. There were big family dinners every night, meaningful conversations out on the back porch, ritual night caps of vodka and whisky with my uncle. My relationships with family and friends deepened. I made a point to spend more quality time with them. I had a new sense of what was important.

Taking Calculated Risks

Before that year and a half, I had been unsatisfied in some aspects of my life. Though I liked IT, I wasn’t passionate about developing software myself. For years I was complacent and procrastinated on trying a new career, unable to decide what to do. I was deadlocked in making a decision or taking action out of fear. Fear of taking a risk, making the wrong decision or failing.

Well let me tell you, there’s nothing like death and forced change to give you perspective. All of a sudden, worst case scenario didn’t seem so bad. The key is to arm yourself with knowledge — as much as you can without it turning into deer in headlights, create a plan, a backup plan and take the plunge. Within one month of my mom’s death, I threw caution to the wind and engineered a change of career within the same company. And lo and behold, not only did it work out, I liked it and was good at it! After the lay off, it gave me further courage to take the leap into contracting. So I gained both greater employability and increased my income.

Memorable Experiences

Remember all that debt I wracked up? While I wouldn’t encourage using this as an excuse, or want to do it again, I spent it on experiences and not material things, so I had some great adventures that changed my life and created life long memories.

  • Learning to lindy hop including being part of a competitive blues dance team for fun. I found out I could dance, a new hobby I love and made great friendships
  • Got over a fear of flying and found a love of travel. I’ve now been to 9 countries!
  • Had a life changing backcountry trip through Killarney Park. Backcountry camping even had personal finance lessons hidden in there for me.

For The First Time In My Life, I Felt Strong

There’s a quote from a book by Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild, that has always stuck with me:

It’s not always necessary to be strong, but to feel strong.
-Jon Krakauer

It doesn’t matter if you fall, fail or make a mistake. It’s not a failure unless you give in and don’t get back up. You can even abandon what you were trying to do, as long as you pick yourself up and walk away recognizing a new skill or knowledge. Then it becomes a lesson, not a mistake. Turning what could be a mistake into a lesson by recognizing those skills or knowledge will make you feel strong, even if you weren’t in that moment when you stumbled.
I can’t change what happened in those 1.5 years, but I’ve learned so much paying off debt that I wouldn’t because I recognized all the good that came out of it.

Has there been a time when you felt strong? Or maybe you have some life lessons to share? Share in the comments.


0 Replies to “Paying Off Debt: My Biggest Financial Lesson”

  1. I would definitely call that a lesson and not a mistake. Now if you dig yourself into credit card debt a second time, then it’s a mistake 😉 So sorry to hear about that rough time in your life though. I think your response was completely understandable given the situation you were in.

    1. Thanks for reading! Yes I admit I should know about that blind spot in the future. It was a rough time, but mostly I felt and still feel so much gratitude for everything in my life. Even for all the roughness, it lit me up to blaze a trail to a better place and I learned so much on the way. I can’t complain 🙂

  2. hanks so much for sharing your story with us! It takes a lot of guts to get through all that and use the lessons to help yourself become a stronger person. I knew very few people who could get through all that and end up wiser and stronger in the end. You are amazing and thanks for the inspiration!

  3. You definitely went through a pretty tough year and a half, not hard to see how that may lead to debt problems. Good advice and lessons learnt from the situation though. I find having a support network of people who can help or at least give you an outlet of talking about things so important in my life.

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