When I was 26 I got a financial wake-up call. I was underemployed, making $900 a month and carrying student loan debt. I’d graduated college three years earlier with $25,302 in debt and hadn’t been able to find a full-time job. I was stuck in the part-time job and low-income loop, and I didn’t know how to get out.
I knew I needed to get my financial life under control, but I had no idea where to start. So I did what everyone else does today and asked Google for some answers. Budgets and money management tips from all over the world popped up.
I found stories of people who had paid off hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Stories of people who had retired at 30. Stories of people who had doubled their incomes or started their own businesses.
The 50/30/20 Rule
I also found a common mantra: the 50/30/20 budget rule. This is a simple budget breakdown that says:
- 50% Essentials — Things like rent, food, gas, etc.
- 30% Personal — Goes toward personal expenses such as travel, meals out or your cellphone bill.
- 20% Savings — For retirement and paying down debt.
There are hundreds of blog posts on this method, and I found that many people swear by it. Investor Junkie even reviewed a money management platform, LearnVest, which is a major supporter of the 50/30/20 budget.
But 50/30/20 Was Not for Me
Let’s remember: I was making $900 a month and carrying student loan debt.
Spending 50% of my income ($450) on rent and food wasn’t possible. And the suggestion to spend 30% of my paycheck on personal expenses was crazy! That would have kept me in debt longer. Worse, it would have encouraged my already bad money habits.
My debt and low income were negatively impacting every area of my life. What I needed were financial tools to get me out of the hole I was in, not permission to continue treating myself.
I didn’t want to set up a budget like the 50/30/20 rule that dragged the debt out. I wanted to chuck the debt completely and focus my future energy on growing my wealth. So what I needed was a drastic change to eliminate this debt ASAP.
The Debt Avalanche Method
My goal was twofold. I needed to cut my spending and increase my income. After all, there’s only so much budgeting you can do on $900 a month. I ended up choosing the debt avalanche method. This method advised paying off high interest debts first to pay down my remaining $18,000 worth of loans.
So in order to do this, I ruthlessly cut my budget to free up funds. I eliminated all eating and drinking out and stopped buying meat at the grocery store. I hosted clothing swaps instead of buying new clothes. I didn’t give birthday presents to friends or family for a year.
I asked for a raise at my catering job, and I picked up three new part-time jobs. Side hustles became my religion. Between 2014 and 2016 I worked as a caterer, lacrosse coach, nanny, receptionist, bus driver, freelance writer and social media manager.
In what I now see as a stroke of brilliance, I also opened up a Roth IRA account in 2014. I put in $500, a huge chunk of money for me. I was still in debt, but I had learned about how to make money work for me. I knew that investing is the key to building wealth. As much as I needed to pay down my debt, I also needed to start having my money earn money. Investing favors the young, and I needed to get going.
In the end, my budget breakdown was 70% toward debt payoff and 30% toward bare-minimum living expenses. It was extreme, but it produced extreme results:
- In 2014 I made $15,000 total. That same year I also paid off $2,000 worth of debt.
- By June 2015, I had paid off all my student loan debt.
- Between 2014 and 2015, I doubled my income.
Becoming financially literate changed my life’s trajectory. If I could pay off $25,000 worth of debt without ever making more than $30,000 a year, what couldn’t I do?
I could start investing. I could start a business. Money is just a language, and I was starting to speak it.
In 2015 I invested $5,500 (the maximum amount allowed) into my IRA. In 2016 I did the same thing, and that’s the plan again for this year. My finances now invigorate me, instead of making me anxious. I am excited to consciously manage and grow my wealth, but this never would have been possible if I didn’t tackle my debt as aggressively as I did.
Readers, what do you think? Is it crazy how fast I paid off my debt? I sacrificed a lot for those two years; do you think it was worth it? Or do you think the 50/30/20 rule makes more sense?