Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash
First off, thanks for being patient while I took a little “scrambling frantically with the end of the semester” hiatus from this newsletter. But now work has quieted a bit as we lead up to our MFA’s residency, so I’ll be popping in to your inboxes on Tuesdays and Thursdays for the summer.
Today I want to talk about what I’ve learned from paying off my credit card debt. I wrote about how I got into debt and how I tackled it, here. This was written when I was still in the middle of that process, and as of Friday (pay day!) I will have completely paid off my credit cards.
I learned a lot about myself and money and all the things I talk about in that article, but, now that I’m about to come out of that tunnel, I’m realizing how much I learned about accomplishing any big goal. And I’m thinking through what that means, and how to implement in other parts of my life. Here’s what I’m thinking about:
1) Hard things are hard!
By “hard things” I mean those feats that seem almost impossible when you think about doing them. They feel like going from zero to sixty, when you’re pretty sure your tires are flat or you don’t even own a car. They can be goals like writing a book, or learning to play an instrument, or getting fit when you haven’t worked out since high school PE. These are goals that are so daunting, you don’t even know where to start. That’s where I was at with my debt. I had terrible money habits, no idea how to fix them, etc. So I did some reading and some asking, and books gave me a strategy and my friend helped me make a budget.
But then I had to DO THE HARD THING. And IT WAS SO HARD. I wasn’t used to telling myself no. I wasn’t used to skipping fun things to save money. I couldn’t buy whatever I wanted. I couldn’t go wherever I wanted. I had to NOT TRAVEL, when I have friends I MISS VERY BADLY. In other words, it really, really sucked.
Until it didn’t?
2) Hard things get easier!
My next big takeaway from my experience was that hard things do get easier. When I first did my budget, I put so many things into my “absolutely necessary” categories that I could only put about $200 towards my debt. But, as I kept budgeting month by month, I realized how much quicker I could be out of debt (and how much less I would pay in interest per month) if I knuckled down and really slashed my “necessities.” I didn’t really need a clothing budget for every month. I didn’t really need to eat out so much. I didn’t really need fancy coffees every month. What I really needed was to get out of debt as quickly as possible so I didn’t have to make so many sacrifices anymore. In other words, it became increasingly obvious that the thing I was after was worth the effort, and this realization made it increasingly easier to do the work in the meantime. I could see the rewards in my falling interest payments—which I would visualize as me lighting that amount of money on fire, so I would be as angry as possible with throwing that money away. And I would picture what I could do with the money I was shoveling into my debt. How I could save it and spend it, instead of throwing it away.
Everything is really hard when you start. But it does get easier. Habits are formed. You see progress. You feel progress. My debt is just a number, but as it shrinks I feel so many things: pride, increased security, relief, excitement. These feelings counteract that sense of sacrifice or compromise that I felt in the beginning. I’m not missing out on things; I’m achieving a goal.
3) Hard things are worth it.
Whenever we start something really difficult, it’s because we want the end result. I didn’t start down the road to paying off my decking thinking, “I can’t wait to sacrifice for months in order to pay off my credit card debt, and then start a rainy day fund.” Instead, I imagined myself living a debt-free life of luxury.
Similarly, if we want to get fit, we don’t get excited about the months and months of being sore, punctuated only by doing things that actually hurt. We just imagine our perfect bodies doing effortless activities.
When we think about writing, we don’t visualize sitting alone at a desk for months on end. We imagine ourselves ourselves triumphantly signing books.
And in those first few weeks of doing the hard thing—when it becomes obvious that we’re not going to jump directly into our fantasy—that’s when we’re at our most vulnerable. That’s when it’s most tempting to quit. You’ve got to make those weeks WORTH IT. Do that by focusing on every single little achievement. Did you pay an extra $50 towards debt, or write or work out or practice for 30 minutes every day for a week? These are all FUCKING ACCOMPLISHMENTS. Celebrate them! Who cares what the results were—you did the thing! Celebrate just doing the thing for those first weeks or months, or however long it takes for the results to start kicking in. Because they WILL kick in. You’ll suddenly effortlessly do a one-minute plank that used to kill you. You’ll suddenly have a quarter, or a third, or a half of a book! You’ll suddenly have shaved off a digit on your debt.
It feels like yesterday that I sat down with my friend in California and we looked at my money situation. I know it’s not, and I know it was really hard, but right now, as I make a plan to make my final payment THIS FRIDAY, it feels like I started yesterday.
And that’s really the beauty of hard things. They feel like they’re hard, until suddenly they’re accomplished or they’re easy. If you keep chipping away at goals, if you do the work, then you see the results. It’s about getting over that desire to jump from nothing to everything, and to endure (even celebrate) the process in between.
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