Four years ago, I graduated from college with just over $70,000 in student loan debt.
So far, Ive paid off about $20,000.
And while Im looking forward to the day that Im done making monthly payments for good, Im grateful that I didnt enter the real world debt-free.
If I did, it would have taken me a lot longer to figure out what I know now.
1. You need to plan out your spending.
In college, I wasnt exactly bad with money, but I wasnt great either.
On one hand, I managed to limit myself to spending the money that I made at my $7.41-an-hour campus job, rather than using a credit card.
On the other hand, that money was usually gone within a few days of each biweekly paycheck, and then Id have to go back to living off fruit and cereal Id brought home from the all-you-can-eat dining hall.
Graduating and realizing how much debt Id accumulated was a reality check for me.
I immediately signed up for Mint.com and began obsessively tracking my spending and planning out my budget every month.
If I hadnt had that black cloud of debt looming over me, I doubt I would have been motivated to become more educated about money. Most likely, I would have kept on living from paycheck-to-paycheck, and spending every dollar I earned as soon as the direct deposit hit my bank account.
2. Being too frugal can be bad for your mental health.
Antonia FarzanOnce I gave myself permission to spend some of my money on weekend trips, instead of putting it all towards my student loans, my life got infinitely better.
During my first year out of college, I lived in a constant state of anxiety about the amount of money that I owed.
I felt like I was doing something wrong if I spent a single dollar that wasnt strictly necessary on something other than paying off my loans or building up a savings account.
I lived on dubious produce from the discount grocery store, felt incredibly guilty if I had one cheap beer at a bar after work, and turned down the opportunity to go on weekend trips in favor of reading books that Id checked out from the public library.
I wasnt much fun to be around, and I wasnt enjoying life very much, either. Once I started to loosen up and allow myself to spend myself on nonessentials like an occasional yoga class or dinner with friends, my attitude changed. Not only was I happier, but my debt felt like less of a burden, because I wasnt allowing it to ruin my life.
3. You need less than you think.
Antonia FarzanMy tiny, out-of-the-way apartment is all I really need.
Im always a little shocked when I spend time with my friends who graduated from college without any debt and immediately found well-paying jobs.
Theyre always going to concerts! They have brand new cars! They live in expensive neighborhoods just because its a short commute to work! They go on vacation and stay in real hotels, not the cheapest possible Airbnb!
The strange thing is that Im not jealous. Over the past four years that Ive been paying off my debt, Ive been questioning every single purchase that I make, so Ive realized whats essential to me, and whats not. I definitely need to be able to travel, for instance, but I dont care where I stay when I do. Id probably spend my money on the same things that my friends do, without considering whether they mattered to me or not, if the idea of paying off my debt didnt motivate me to be more thoughtful.
Even if Id graduated without debt, Im sure I would have learned all these lessons eventually. But it probably would have taken a crisis or a major life event to change the way I thought about money. Facing my student loans was a wake-up call, and Im glad that I had that experience in my early 20s.