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Gen Y money: I’m sick and tired of repaying student debt

In Toronto's Yorkville neighbourhood, Amber's back patio in full swing

jj thompson The Globe and Mail

Thanks for reading our Gen Y money blog, where a recent grad chronicles her real-life journey to becoming a financially independent adult.

It happened twice this past summer.

The sun was shining, the streets were abuzz and the rooftop patios were open. After a long, cold winter, I was more than ready to let loose and partake in the seasonal fun, but my bank account dictated otherwise.

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I've spent the past year and a half hacking away at my student debt. Even amid a recent pay raise and a frugal lifestyle, this is has proven to be a slow and painful process. Between rent, hydro, transportation and other basic living expenses, my entry-level salary doesn't allow for many indulgences.

Exhausted that my paltry financial situation was constantly reeling me in, I cracked. Out came the credit card.

Over two separate spendfests (which consisted of a couple of fancy dinners, a pair of concert tickets and lavish trips to Winners and Etsy.ca), I not only racked up a decent tab, but also a hefty amount of guilt. What had I done? Where had this unprecedented binge spending come from? How had I so easily abandoned my frugal ways?

My reasons for succumbing to debt repayment fatigue are nothing new. I graduated from university with $22,000 in loans, but my job-hunting struggles initially hampered the repayment process. Over the past eight months, I've managed to find financial footing on an entry-level salary and pay off almost 18 per cent of my debt.

Though I was thrilled that I had adopted good spending habits and was putting a solid chunk of every paycheque toward my student loan repayment, I felt like all I ever did was pay bills and rent. After months of suffocating financial diligence, it was liberating to finally do something fun with my money – or at least, spend it on something instead of responsibly tossing it into the seemingly bottomless pit of student debt.

Fortunately, I was able to quickly recover from my binge-splurging damage and pay off my balance almost immediately. I didn't want to add consumer debt to my remaining student loans.

Looking ahead, I was terrified of what another (potentially worse) wave of debt repayment fatigue would entice me to do. Realizing that this spending interlude was as much a mental setback as a financial one, I knew I needed an attitude adjustment. I set three rules to ward off the spendfests, which seem to be working for me so far:

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1. I choose one thing.
Instead of putting a hard stop to any unnecessary spending, I've been putting limitations in place to stay in control of my finances. I'll either pick one "big" thing or a couple of little things to save up for each month – for instance, last month I treated myself to a new winter coat. These planned splurges allow for a pretty happy compromise between living frugally and enjoyably.

2. I use cash for the weekend.
I also try to use cash as much as possible during the week, but weekends are a slippery slope. On Friday night, I'll take out a predetermined amount of cash I've budgeted for that particular weekend and use only that amount – no exceptions. Not only does this keep my spending in check, it has also allowed for me to find new ways to stretch my dollars.

3. I visualize.
To stay motivated, I'm constantly picturing the life I want to live in the post-student debt nirvana. I want to travel, I want to rent a less-shabby apartment (maybe even own a house one day), and I want to be able to afford a $20 bottle of wine every so often. Making a bucket list is one thing, but actually envisioning my future financially autonomous life actually helps me focus when I'm tempted by Macy's free online shipping.

Of course, I don't condone indulging in the name of debt repayment fatigue, but I think experiencing the consequences of overspending gave me a necessary scare into understanding the reality of my situation. More importantly, it made me understand that indulging every once in a while is okay, so long as it helps to prevent random bouts of overspending.

Debt repayment is a lifestyle, and one that I'm going to be living with for at least the next three to five years. Like most lifestyle changes, managing and repaying debt requires realistic expectations, persistence and good habits.

Besides, these good habits will come in handy when my student debt pit is finally full and I have some solid financial ground to build upon.

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