POPSUGAR Smart Living

How I Paid Off $440,000 in Debt in 5 Years

May 26 2014 - 3:05am

Even if you're swimming in hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, there is always a way out. DailyWorth [1] shares a story of a woman who paid off $440,000 in debt in five years.

I've just deboarded a multiyear financial roller coaster from hell.

In 2005, when my career as a creative director and tech writer took off, I was an überconsumer, and things were good. Credit, and a lot of it, was available to me with seemingly no consequence. In fact, it was a lot like Monopoly money: I got the giant house, the great cars, the beautiful clothes, and it was all on credit — to the tune of about $500,000.

Sure, I was earning more than $250,000, but it wasn't enough to cover the unforeseen (at least for me) collapse of the housing market, followed by America's financial Armageddon. That left me at a significant loss, as creative projects (and therefore, my income) began to decline, a number of costly medical disasters cropped up, and a big stack of bills increased. What's more, I got a divorce and was paying out 50 percent of my income to my ex-other half, while I also assumed 100 percent of our debt. Ouch.

RELATED: How I Paid Off $30,000 in Debt in 18 Months [2]

I drained my retirement account to pay off nearly $380,000 in debt and still ended up with less than zero. Left with taxes and $120,000 in debt, my life was starting to resemble the Titanic, sans lifeboat.

But the wonderful thing about arriving at the bottom is that there is nowhere to go but up. I couldn't help but be optimistic — I'm a glass half full kind of gal.

I knew that my life could not go back to what it was before everything came crashing down, and frankly, why would I want it to? It was stupid and frivolous. I came from very humble, do-it-yourself beginnings on a farm, so I knew I could get back to the basics. I just had to remind myself that the frugal life can also be a fun and creative life. Plus, I was newly single, and I wanted to get my stuff together in order to be a viable dating candidate. I'd have to start from scratch.

I began with a spreadsheet. Anything having to do with numbers makes my head spin, but I wanted to put all the figures in one place and look at it from a global point of view. I rewarded myself with a (cheap!) bottle of wine and got down to business. Laying it all out helped me to determine, cell by cell, what debt I could tackle immediately, what I should make payments on, how much I could pay, etc. I learned how extremely gratifying it is to highlight a row in red and mark it "PAID." I made sure not to delete these paid lines, ever. It was a game: once the spreadsheet is 100 percent highlighted, I realized: I am FREE!

When I set the spreadsheet in motion, I found my groove, paying everyone and their mother, and then I took a step back. This getting-out-of-debt thing is awesome, but what about my future? Without my 401(k), I was screwed. What would I do, work until I dropped dead?

No. That would not be me. Retirement was — and is — very important to me. I want to write books until I drop dead, for sure, but that's not work. Sometime in my 60s, I want to peace out of clock-punching and travel around with my laptop, banging out brilliant words.

That being said, I didn't know the first thing about 401(k)s or how to save. Before, when I was contributing to my 401(k), I was automatically doing so through my job. I didn't think about it. I needed to do my homework and maybe talk with some smart people who could explain to me what I needed to know in very simple terms. To the Internet I went.

What I found is that women are decidedly not the audience the financial and retirement industry prefers to talk to. If anything, we are talked down to, more so than our male counterparts. I talked to multiple financial advisers (old white guys in suits), but felt like I was being patted on the head. The nerve.

It didn't make sense to me. We women are a totally neglected audience. Yet we historically own the purse strings for the household. How does that math work? Did you know that we are not even the primary decision-makers as it applies to retirement? Only 35 percent [3] of women are.

Fortunately, I found amazing women writers online — women who were experiencing the same frustrations but were paving the way for other math-challenged ladies like me to learn about retirement and savings. They helped me demystify the subject. I learned about compound interest (which has become my favorite thing). I learned about bear vs. bull markets. Scary things that were totally fluffy bunnies in wolf suits.

I started my sparkling new and shiny baby 401(k) plan early last year, with a measly four percent pretax contribution from each paycheck. I didn't even see a dip in my take-home pay. So I bumped it up to five percent. Then I saw a $2 loss in pay. It became yet another game to me. I was excited and wanted to get to a double-digit contribution. So I upped my contribution to 10 percent, then to 15 percent. You know what? I actually received a bump in income because it dropped my taxable income just enough to fall into a lower tax bracket (read: less taxes taken out). So I was saving 15 percent each check, while seeing more money in my pocket. Every penny counted because I still had debt to pay. (Now, it's down to about $60,000.)

No one told me I could save money and have it positively impact my cash flow.

If I had known this sooner, I would have been saving even in the midst of my personal financial meltdown. Because I am starting over later in life, at 40, I have a lot of ground to cover in order to retire comfortably, while I am still young enough to enjoy those golden years. The four percent would not have been enough to cover any unforeseen disasters, and I likely would have run out of money.

In March 2011, I started working for The Online 401(k) [4], a company whose sole purpose is to provide affordable, flat-fee-for-service retirement plans to the super small businesses the rest of the industry won't touch with a 10-foot cattle prod. This was a really strange career move for me, going from big-time tech and advertising rock 'n' roll to the perceived snorefest that is retirement. But it was truly serendipity.

I had zero experience in the financial world, but they were looking for a director of marketing and creative who could do for the masses what those amazing women writers had done for me — translate the jargon and make retirement understandable and accessible. It didn't pay the ridiculous sum of cash I made in the past, but it was a fair salary with benefits, and it offered wonderful flexibility. I needed to have balance in my life — to ditch the 100-hour workweeks and launch myself into a career where I could truly care about other people and their futures. It fit in perfectly with my new outlook on life. I was a single lady who represented the 99 percent. My problems were everyone's. I had something to lend to the conversation.

With a new job and outlook, I began focusing on approaching everything in a much more simplistic manner. I don't need to live in a 2,500-square-foot house as an empty nester. I don't really need to own a house at all. I love the idea of renting something small, where I can call someone up when something goes wrong, and they come fix it! I love that I can move to another place with 30 days notice. I love that I can get a place that is walking distance to everything, reducing my carbon footprint, while also not paying absurd amounts on fuel. I also lost the "I want what I want when I want it" mentality. I think twice before purchasing, and I am all about DIY [5] now. I cook 99 percent of my meals at home, I actually look for coupons (groan) and I award myself for good behavior.

I've also started Financial Friday in my house, where I sit down with a bottle of wine, and I go over my spreadsheet, create goals for myself, and dream big. I think about where I want to travel; I write lists of the things I want to achieve. Really, I've gamified the process for myself. And I am totally winning.

It's a slow build to financial stability, but one that I am on a personal mission to make happen. I am dedicated to my future self. Because she really needed an advocate.

— Sylvia Flores

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