IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Paid Off My College Student Loans in a Year...And I Was Miserable

How far should you go to get debt-free?
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Emily Zak
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How far should you go to get debt-free?

When I have a goal, I attack it with a single-minded focus. I disregard all common sense, personal inconveniences and even my own happiness until The Job gets done.

Case in point: I paid off all my student loans in the year after graduation. While I'm grateful they're out of the way, my methods to meet that goal saddened me in the process.

But let me back up: I decided as a freshman at the University of Montana that I wouldn't be slave to student debt after college. I graduated with a bachelor's in journalism in three years after transferring most of my general education requirements in from high school. 

I worked voraciously—briefly, I had up to four jobs at once—during the summers, staying at home with my parents for free rent. (They weren't paying my tuition.) I took out few loans as a result, allowing me to owe about a third of what other graduates from that university owed, but the ones that I did take offered a challenge to eliminate them as soon as possible.

Debt symbolized dependence to me. I didn't want to be beholden to anyone and felt I couldn't call myself responsible if I ignored them or put off their repayment. With only two international trips to Canada under my belt—I always wanted to study abroad but didn't so I could graduate college early—I wanted to travel the world without any material obligations holding me back. 

Because once I stopped roaming, I couldn't fool myself about my lack of freedom because my debt would still be there.

Maybe I just needed a goal to work toward. As a child and teen, I'd gotten used to making honor roll and lettering in varsity sports; in college, I had graduating early with honors and doing extracurricular activities to aim for. 

After graduation, I'd dreamed my goal would be developing the skills that I would need to be a successful freelance writer for regional and international magazines, maybe by working as a staff writer at an alternative-weekly paper. I think I made my goal about the money because I didn't think I was good enough to do that.

I dug my first hole for myself when I took the first job I was offered out of college. As a fresh grad specializing in print journalism, I wanted a position that would allow me to write regularly—even it was as rote as reporting on city council meetings. Instead, I took a position as a copy editor at a New Mexico paper, where the most routine writing I'd do would be one-sentence descriptions for the events calendar.

I took the position because I thought it was my only option. Living with my parents that month after graduation while job-searching made me fear that I would never leave my hometown in Idaho, that I wasn't qualified for the entry-level job that I actually wanted, that I would be stuck with student debt into oblivion like many of my peers. (My obsession with becoming debt-free pushed me into melodrama.)

My housemate Arin's art opening brings out a handful of the people I live with.

My housemate Arin's art opening brings out a handful of the people I live with.

Funnily enough, although I took the job mainly for money, I didn't think to negotiate my wages, but decided to send three-quarters of my paltry salary to loans and housing costs anyway.

My faux pas continued when I moved into a two-bedroom house with eight roommates to save money on rent. For $235 a month, I slept on a borrowed mattress on the floor in a windowless basement I shared with two other people. I was too cheap for a bed, and privacy was nonexistent. I got used to being woken up by housemates' sex noises at 6 in the morning. 

Plus, I refused to buy a car to find solitude. So, mornings were often filled with frantic bike rides to work, or runs when my bike tires inevitably popped because I ran over a goathead.

As the year passed, I worked myself into a misery. I avoided calling my sister and friends because I was embarrassed about how empty my routine felt. I had stopped doing activities I enjoyed like going running and dancing downtown. 

I felt micromanaged by a hot-tempered co-worker at my job, and I started to hate how he would approach my desk each week and point out copy errors that had slipped into the published paper. 

I came home to a house buzzing with emotions and activity, and I would shut myself in my room to stare at my Facebook feed for hours. 

Conversations with my live-in partner often regressed to complaining about work or my housemates.

Not once did I think that I should reevaluate the steps that I was using to pay off my student loans—or at least the attitudes I had toward them. Looking back, I probably should have. I had reached the point where delaying gratification to reach my goal was hurting myself. I was using that goal as justification for being miserable, turning myself into my own personal martyr to look at all the sacrifices I was making.

To be fair, those quote-unquote sacrifices weren't even that bad, in the scheme of things. I was choosing to think negatively and that was ruining my perspective.

My insular thinking pushed me away from other opportunities as I tried to achieve my goal. When I finally pressed the button to pay off my loans' remaining balance online, I took a few days to tell my family and friends because I had gotten so used to disappointing myself that I couldn't believe that the payment would actually go through. 

But it did, and I pulled through too. A week later, I left my job and started pitching stories to magazines and training to be a raft guide. I know I can find success. Here's to learning that I don't need to be miserable to do that.