Digging Up My Ugly Financial Past


If you follow me on Twitter, you may have caught me live-tweeting a Sunday night shred-fest of old documents. I’m pretty diligent at hanging on to things, particularly financial documents for the required 7 years (I’ve heard rumors that digital copies are now sufficient for record-keeping, so you don’t actually have to keep every receipt on file anymore). Since we’re into the second half of 2015, it seemed as good of a time as any to get rid of my financial docs from 2008.

Man, that was a trip.

In 2008 I was 22 and in my second year of university (I had taken 2 years off between high school and college, originally believing I would NEVER go to university. Naturally, this ensured I would end up with a graduate degree). At 22, I worked part-time in various capacities: as a nanny, a server, a tutor. I was living in rundown apartments with a bad boyfriend, and since I was paying my way through school, my costs were high.  My parents couldn’t help me pay for school because they couldn’t afford to, and I couldn’t live at home because they didn’t live in Canada. My part-time income was not enough to cover anything, so I ended up with debt.

Lots and lots of debt.

I had a $16,000 line of credit (which, by some miracle of god, I never maxed out but did push over $10,000), and two student loans for approximately $10,000 each. I realize this is petty change compared to the six-figure loans many students graduate with, but it was still a crippling amount to owe at a time when I had never earned more than $10,000 in a single year. Money After Graduation was borne out of this student debt, so my entire payoff story is available if you scroll back far enough in the archives.

I actually had forgotten just how crippling my debt was, until going through these old documents I found things like declined payments and bounced cheques. I suddenly remembered being perpetually out of money. If I had had overdraft, I would have lived in it. Thankfully, I don’t think I qualified because of my credit.

It’s been a long, long, long time since I’ve had to live on the edge. That dark place where you already know you don’t have the money, but you’re trying to juggle everything just to meet the minimum payments. You never think about being debt free, you just think about getting to next month without your bank accounts seizing up. You’re always desperately treading water chanting “don’t drown, don’t drown, don’t drown” but never being entirely sure you can swim to shore either.

My life cost even more than I remembered. The braces I wore at 23 were actually $6,800 not the $6,000 I thought they were. I got multiple scholarships for being low-income because of my pitiful income and going without parental help, but they barely made a dent. I was a sad case from age 21 to 24. It hurts my eyes to look back.

I found T4’s listing my annual income from jobs here and there and they were pitiful numbers. I found a very old tax slip from Kohl’s department store, where I worked for a year while I lived in Salt Lake City with my parents. It was for $1,700. I earned $1,700 for the whole year as a sales associate at Kohl’s. I make that in a week now, which is strange enough to think about, but then I remembered my old wage was $6.10 per hour which means that $1,700 actually took me 280 hours to earn.

It made my stomach churn, because I could remember how mind-numbingly boring it was to fold shirts for 5 hours on a Saturday, how hard it was to pay for gas to even get to that job in the first place, and how rapidly I spent every paycheque on things I saw in the store.

I remember that job particularly vividly because it was the last one I had before I moved back to Canada and enrolled full-time in university. I didn’t care about funding my entire degree with student loans, I just knew I needed to be paid more than $6/hr in my future to feel ok.

Debt was my ticket out of poverty, but it was a demon all on its own.

When you have debt, it feels like a monster sitting on your back with its claws digging into your shoulders. The weight is added to everything you do: it feels heavy at work, because you know all you earn is just going towards it,  and it feels heavy when you’re out spending with friends, because you think you could be putting that extra money towards your debt. There’s always blood running down your back. There’s always a dull sting.

Debt hangs over your whole life like a dark cloud. Sometimes it rains and thunders, but for the most part, it just blocks out the sun.

Not to get totally melodramatic on you guys, but reading these documents was like running my fingers over old scars. Those ones in my shoulders from my personal debt-monster. I had forgotten what it was like to not to have money. I still have moments now where I’m like, “omg where is all the money?? how am so broke?!” but it’s self-imposed and it stems from privilege. There was a time when I earned nothing and had nothing, and would think the life I have now was an untouchable dream.

Because you will forget how much it hurt to have nothing.

Not entirely. I still have the vague recollection of frustrations of not being able to afford the clothes or trips I wanted in my early twenties, but until I saw my old loan statements, paystubs, and bounced cheques, I had forgotten all the nights I spent sobbing in pure despair, wondering how I was going to pay for it all. That was the only life I had ever had. My family had never occupied any other space than the limbo between personal bankruptcy and barely scraping by, and my early adulthood was merely an extension of that.

For years, I managed money the only way I knew how: very poorly.

I know I didn’t just suffer mild frets here and there. No. There was genuine weeks, months, years when I doubted anything would turn out ok. When I understood that it took me 280 hours to earn a pitiful $1,700, taking out $20,000+ in student loan debt was a real-life nightmare that haunted me day and night. I think that, for a very long time, I thought I would never get out. Now, I can’t believe those are the things I forgot.

Why do I remember the $85 sweater from Anthropologie I never got to buy, but I forgot the $800 that was tacked on to my dental bill?

So for those of you in the thick of it, where it’s really bad and you’re filled with regret and worry, you will forget how much it hurts. You will get past this, and enough time will pass that you won’t remember how rundown or broken you were, or how doubtful or hopeless you felt. You will get to a point where you take your wealth (broad definition) for granted, and only vaguely remember the times when you were pushed to your limit as “hard years”, that will disappear gradually from memory over time.

Then you will shred all evidence and you will never, ever have to go back there again.

Except maybe one document, that reminds you of the battles you’ve won, and that everything is ok.

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28 Comments. Leave new

  • What a great opportunity to remember just how far you’ve traveled Bridget! Congratulations! Not only have you defeated the debt monster, but you’ve also inspired so many of your readers to do the same.

    While I’m sure Sunday was an emotional journey for you, I bet you felt like you were on top of a mountain by the end! Thanks for sharing!

  • I still have that “Loans Paid in Full” statement too, I’ll be keeping that forever.

  • Kudos to you for all your success and hard work. You’ve come so far, and you’re inspiring so many others. How cathartic is must have been to bag all that up and toss it!

  • Wow – that is quite the journey you’ve been on! I also find that I sometimes gloss over the most harsh moments of my past, and when I’m confronted with them again, I wonder how I made it through. We are all much stronger than we believe.

  • Sometimes it’s hard to confront the past, but it definitely provides a gradual timeline of how far you’ve come. I also have the email (I opted for paperless billing) that notified me of paying off my student loans in full. I remember it being underwhelming (just a one page, black font email – kind of like your letter above!), and I almost glazed over it as I scrolled through my inbox. You’ve been through quite the journey & it’s inspiring that you choose to help those throughout theirs as well!

  • How wonderful! You must be so proud. I looked back recently to a time when I was in a similar situation (once, as a student, I had to put food back on the shelf at the grocery store because I did not have enough in my account). I remember the gut-wrenching feeling of being unable to get everything I need and the embarrassment when a stranger offered to help pay. After 6 years of post-secondary education, moving out and living on my own and working through the tough times made me more resilient and better prepared to deal with more recent setbacks (like losing money in the stock market). I am far from being one of the wealthiest Canadians, but I am doing well and am NOT taking it for granted. Financial security is a gift that too few have.

  • I signed and closed my student line of credit in person and me and the associate did a little happy dance. I will remember that FOREVER. haha.

  • Great post! I’m a very new reader to your blog, having only recently become interested in getting a handle on my personal finances, and your story is inspiring.

    I’m quite differently from you, I think. I’m one of those people who has just graduated from an American graduate school with well into six figures in debt, though I’m also lucky enough to be entering a high-paying job that will allow me to pay it all off in about five to six years or a little less without overly significant sacrifices in most other areas of my life. Even so, I think I have a lot to learn in terms of making smart financial decisions to pay off that debt. I cringe at the (very) many foolish decisions I’ve made with my money since my undergraduate days.

    • Thanks so much for your comment <3 That's a significant debt, but if you're in a job that can afford it, that's all that matters. My debt became easy to pay off once I landed a good job! Good luck!

  • Wonderful post! I love hearing how debt was the ticket out of making $6/hour but that it was also crushing to be in that situation. You’re on the other side now and you’ve learned a lot about yourself along the way. So inspiring!

  • This post was like a trip down memory lane for me. This, plus, Timehop’s reminders of my old tweets about being a poor, former college student – I was dismissed from my university with over $25k in student loans and no degree. I am now 2 years removed from having paid off all my student and consumer debt. It would be great to forget how helpless and lost I felt, but I don’t want to forget what it took to get myself out from under all that debt. I was so focused and driven, that is a part of me I want to keep with me always. Thank you, Bridget, for reminding me of all the good that comes from our struggles!

  • Such a thoughtful post. While I’m still in the midst of paying off my school loans and having that tightness of chest, I’m looking forward to when I can finally move past that! It won’t be for a while, but with every loan I pay off, I feel a little lighter.

  • I love this post, B. I’m so fortunate to never have been in dire straits, but I do remember being 19, in my second year of college that I had to pay for nearly 100% out of pocket, living on my own, and paying tuition with a credit card which I’d foolishly already practically maxed out at the mall in which I worked (I had to call the credit card company to beg that they increase my limit because I wouldn’t have enough to pay down my tuition payment until the next Friday). I remember feeling like I was being strangled. And I remember actually thinking to myself: “If only I could make $15/hour. That would solve everything. $15/hour is all I want”.

    Of course, that’s laughable now, but as I watched the (luckily only ~$3,000) credit card balance climb rather than decrease every month even though I was paying more than the minimum, I remember a lot of sleepless nights. NEVER AGAIN!

  • I was actually better off when I was 22 than I am now at 32! I was still in school, but I had a great part time office job, and about $10k in the bank. I wish I had that now! Here’s hoping I can turn things around long before I’m 42… ?

  • The only period in my early 20s where my heart was constricting was when I quit my job without a plan

    No prospects, $2K in the bank, only a hope and a leap into being my own boss. Could have gone very wrong…

  • I remember those days. I had to be very careful with money and even a $1 purchase was too much.

    I am a lot better at tracking money now, although I have way more expenses.

    My brother is a freshman and I am encouraging him to watch his spending and to not get any loans for college. So he’s going to community college the first two years (basics) and then will transfer to finish his degree. By far the most affordable option.

  • This was a really great read. I am lucky that I have never had to struggle with debt but I am super interested in personal finance and savings. Reading this was really inspiring. Thank you for sharing your story. You did and continue to do incredibly well. Congratulations!

  • You’re truly inspiring, Bridget. Great read. You’re living proof that anyone can turn their financial situation around. Kudos to you!

  • I was praying for a way to get a hold of my finances this morning while pushing my two toddlers in a half broken stroller on the way to preschool. I know all to well the monstrous demon of debt, fighting the battles daily. I want to take even more control, and have made strides in the past two years learning a little about the basics of budgeting. Financial peace is my goal and I am certain your blog was an answer to my prayer. Coming from a low income family as well double the amount of debt and seeking for a job that requires my qualifications and expertise while paying enough. the struggle is real right now. Thanks for your advice.

  • I DID frame my notice of debts paid off!


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