How I paid off more than $17,000 of debt in 16 months

When I moved back to St. John’s after living in Berlin, I had racked up an enormous amount of debt. Paired with lingering credit card debt and student loans, I was more than $17,000 in the hole. I’d throw money at my credit cards and it’d hardly make a dent. Then I borrowed from my parents so I could continue travelling.

Let me preface this entire blog post by acknowledging the fact that everything I did was stupid as hell. There is no excuse for my fuck ups. When I moved to Europe, the Canadian dollar was tanking and all of my freelance gigs had dried up. But I should have come home.

I made really terrible decisions, and I paid dearly for them. In fact, I had done this all before. (Slow learner much?)

I don’t regret it; my time living in Germany was life-changing. But there will be no self-pity coming from me. Even my father — who would literally give me every last penny he had if I needed it — told me to suck it up and get back to work. So I did.

(Hilariously, I’m writing this blog post on a long bus ride, and the movie playing is Confessions of a Shopaholic. It makes me feel better about my life.)

When I started working at the film festival, I knew major changes had to be taken. None of this is revolutionary, but here’s where the journey took me.

I started house-sitting so I could live for free

The first step was a small one: I took on some house-sitting gigs from July to October, and managed to live rent-free up until then. In doing so, I saved at least $500 a month.

(This only worked for some time, though. Having my own space was pretty necessary by the time I signed a year contract with the festival! But it did help me get on my feet.)

I started working non-stop

Although I had been working entirely freelance for about six years, I needed some regular cash flow. I applied for a communications position at the women’s film festival on a total whim, and it ended up being one of the best decisions of my life.

I was still working on other projects, though. My workload wasn’t ideal. I’d work from 9-5 every day at the festival, and then I’d carry on with freelance work until late in the evening. I worked most weekends, too.

By the time I started doing regular freelance work for Nomadic Matt, I was working 60-70 hours a week. Free Candie went neglected, and I was uber stressed about everything…except my finances.

The hustle was so hard, you guys. But I did manage it. Having a regular income flow was a big deal for me. I had health insurance, I had living money, and I was (sloooowly) paying down my debt…while still having a bit of fun in the process.

Me + summer deck beers = life.

I set up an emergency fund and a biz account

At the end of every month, I took a fair chunk of my freelance income and set it aside in an emergency fund. I was also using this account to save up money to buy some property in rural Newfoundland (I was hoping to open a business…that’s a story for another time).

While it doesn’t seem to make sense to set aside a lot of cash while you’re paying down a ton of debt, one of my biggest problems as a freelancer was that I’d often be short on cash by the end of the month, and then something major might come along (emergency alterations to a bridesmaid dress, for example) and I’d have to charge it all to my credit card. I’d continue the vicious cycle. But with that little bit of savings, I didn’t have to fall back on credit.

And believe me, it feels way worse to dip into your hard-earned money than it does to swipe your credit card. I was way less likely to tap that savings if it wasn’t completely necessary!

I hired a really awesome financial advisor

I know/knew very little about how to manage my finances. Taxes, RSPs, TFSAs…it’s always been over my head. I needed some tough love to get myself straightened out so I’d never find myself in a bad situation again, and so my roommate referred me to her advisor.

Krista didn’t gloss over the facts: my spending habits were insanity, and I had to either earn more or cut myself off. If my goals were to pay down debt while saving for the future, I had to make some HUGE changes.

It also helped that she was an Excel spreadsheet wizard, and budgeting was her thing. She created the sexiest budget spreadsheet I have ever seen, and I’ve been (mostly) following it religiously. In it, she breaks down everything I need to set aside for my RSPs, TFSAs, taxes, entertainment, rent, groceries, etc. About half of each pay check would go into my special savings account for emergencies/business, and before I knew it, I had a handsome amount saved for that potential property in rural Newfoundland.

I set up spreadsheets and meticulously tracked every last dollar

My spreadsheet is incredibly simple, and I log everything in Google docs. Each month, I set up a new page and I tracked every single item I spend money on — whether it’s the $3 charge I get for using an ATM, or the $2 I spent on coffee at Tim’s. After a few months of assessment, it was painfully obvious that I was blowing tons of money on eating out, and entertainment. So I started scaling back my social life.

I also had pages set up for debt repayment (where I logged everything I paid off, so I could see those numbers gradually decreasing), and my freelance income (as well as money owed to me). The spreadsheet was plain as hell, but it didn’t have to be fancy. It just needed to be clear.

I have to admit, I was a bit fanatical about this. I checked my account at least twice a day to make sure things were as they should be.

I rewarded myself by paying things off one-by-one

By July, I had whittled my student loans down to under $1000. I had a really excellent freelancing month, so as an early birthday present to myself, I paid off my student loans. It only took TEN YEARS!

I can’t explain how incredible that felt. Comparatively, student loans weren’t as big a deal as my credit card debt, but the end goal was in sight and so I wanted to relieve myself of that burden. It worked wonderfully, because then I was more determined than ever to tackle the rest. And I felt like I had accomplished something.

Finally, in October, I sat down with my advisor again and we discussed my plans to purchase property and becoming a business owner. Although I had been working on a plan for some time, I knew I had to slow down and perhaps think of this plan as a longer term thing.

I had grown a beautiful savings account, and it was time to pay off all my credit debt.

So I did.

I paid off nearly $8,000 in one go, and still had some cash left over for emergencies. It was madness.

(And yes, I weep thinking about what I could have done with that money…but just three months later, and my savings is on the mend.)

I stayed determined and learned self-control

It’s been several months now since I’ve been credit card debt free, and although I have a small amount still owing to my parents, I’m proud to say that I’ve stayed wonderfully on track. I only swipe my card when I’m collecting points, and I’m still meticulously tracking every last cent and expenditure. I’ve cancelled most of my credit cards.

Not spending money I don’t have is the biggest obstacle for me. My advisor understands that travel is a vital part of my life, and that if I want to be happy, I have to set aside a large amount of money each month just for travel.

In the past, if a good flight deal came along, I’d take it because they’re rare finds in Newfoundland. As luck would have it, in January some insane seat sales came along: Bejing round-trip for $800, Dublin round-trip for $375…but I didn’t have the money saved up after having recently booked a Cuba vacation, and so I didn’t do it. I did not react to that impulse. For the first time ever.

Travel makes me happy, but so does financial peace of mind. I didn’t do anything exceptional or breakthrough or new or exciting — It was a hard, balls-to-the-wall kind of year, but it was all worth it. Now: to keep from repeating these past mistakes.

  • January 22 2018
    Candice

    Proud of you! I want to book holidays and buy clothes and eat out alllll the time. Luckily my man is a voice of reason So I understand how hard it is to resist the urge!

    • January 23 2018
      Candice

      Hahaha, I’m the same way, to ALL of it. I can’t imagine the struggle when you have kids as well, Lol. I feel like the more I have in savings, the more I don’t want to spend? That’s some weird reverse psychology shit.

  • January 22 2018

    Oh wow- congrats! I thought you were a bit quiet for a while there- but it was obviously a nose- to-the-grindstone quiet! You are an inspiration to the rest of us…and now you have me curious about that property in Newfoundland!

    • January 23 2018
      Candice

      Hey, thank you! Yes, it’s been VERY quiet! Lol. I hope to fix that soon. It’s a bit hard to write about anything when you have zero life. I will keep everyone updated on the property. :)

  • January 22 2018
    Stephanie

    That’s incredible!! Thanks for being so honest about your process. (Super proud of you!)

    • January 23 2018
      Candice

      Thanks so much!

  • January 23 2018

    Congrats! How exciting!

    • January 23 2018
      Candice

      Thanks Christine! :)

  • January 23 2018

    That’s a serious accomplishment – congrats! I always appreciate the honestly of your posts :)

    • February 04 2018
      Candice

      Thanks, Amiee! :)

  • January 23 2018
    LC

    Well done! That’s no easy feat… what an accomplishment (especially re the student loans!). I think I might have to try budgeting this year, Melbourne is expensive yoooo and there is so much delicious food to sample here. :)

    • February 04 2018
      Candice

      Oh god, I’ve heard that about Melbourne! And I love eating out SO MUCH, hahaha. Fingers crossed I can keep myself under control this time around.

  • January 24 2018

    Congratulations! Took me ten years to pay off my student loans too. And another 20 years to get my debt and spending under control too. It’s like dieting. You never end it. It’s a “lifestyle,” as they say. Good job!
    Lisa recently posted…Like an Angel Passing Through

    • February 04 2018
      Candice

      Thanks, Lisa! That’s a really awesome way to look at it — a lifestyle.

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