Debt Isn't Always About The Numbers
When you think of debt, numbers and interest rates probably come to mind. But debt isn't always about the numbers. My guest today is Melanie Lockert, a blogger at Dear Debt and someone who recently paid off $81,000 in student loan debt. Melanie explains that the reason we go into debt and have a hard time getting out of it, is emotional. She points out that,
If it really was just about spend less, earn more, all of us would be rich and never face debt. And we'd all be successful, but a lot of us aren't and that's because we're dealing with these money issues, these emotional issues that come out through debt and finances and a scarcity mindset and there's so much to deal with.
During our conversation, she uses words like panicked, anxious, stressed, overwhelmed and depressed to describe how she felt about her debt. As trustees, we hear these kind of emotional descriptions from clients daily, so Melanie offers listeners a few strategies for facing debt head-on.
The Emotional Side of Debt
Melanie's biggest piece of advice is to remember that debt does not define you or make you a bad person. It can be depressing and overwhelming so the key is not to internalize debt. That's why she started the Dear Debt blog, where she invites readers to write a break up letter to debt to address the "human heart of debt".
She finds that by explicitly breaking up with debt, it gets it out in the open and makes it easier to pay it off because you're recognizing that it's there and getting rid of the negative emotions associated with that debt.
Melanie gives listeners a few pieces of advice based on her personal experience with debt:
- Don't internalize it.
- See the numbers. Make a list of all of your debts, including interest rates, so you can visualize the problem. She advises that "if you are currently in debt, definitely don't bury your head in the sand. I know it's so tempting, but you have to face those numbers, even as painful as it is".
- Start by paying off the highest interest rate debts first.
- Question all of your expenses. Do I really need the gym membership, Netflix and those magazine subscriptions? Call your cable and internet and cellphone provider and see if you can get a better deal.
- Make the hard choices. She moved from a big city she loved (New York) to a smaller city (Portland, Oregon) that was less expensive and had better job prospects.
Change Your Mindset
Throughout the show, Melanie talks about having to change the way you think about your debt and about your life to become debt free and gain control over your finances. In her own personal experience she explains,
I've had to make some mental changes and say, you know what? This isn't what I thought my life should or would look like at this age, but I'm okay with making these sacrifices for now because I know it's only temporary and it will get me to the bigger goal of getting out of debt.
Listen to the full podcast for more about:
- How moving to a more affordable city helped Melanie get out of debt.
- Why knowing the interest rate on your debts is essential.
- Side hustles - what they are and how they can help you increase your income.
- Melanie's goals now that she's debt free.
Read the transcript below.
Resources Mentioned In The Show:
FULL TRANSCRIPT show #73 with Melanie Lockert
Doug Hoyes: Today I've got a first time guest who has a very interesting story about getting out of debt. She can tell her story better than I can so let's get started. Who are you and what do you do?
Melanie Lockert: Hey, everyone my name is Melanie Lockert, I write the blog Dear Debt. It is a blog about breaking up with debt and all about my journey about climbing out of $81,000 in student loan debt.
Doug Hoyes: Excellent. Well, thanks for much for being here, Melanie. I really want to hear this story so why don’t we start with the back story, then? So, you said climbing out of $81,000 worth of debt. So, first of all let's start with how did you get into this debt. Did you go on some big spending spree? Were you travelling the world? What happened to get you into this level of debt?
Melanie Lockert: That would be a lot more glamorous. But unfortunately, all of my debt is educational debt, I got my undergrad at Cal State Long Beach and was a pretty affordable state school and got $23,000 worth of debt there. But really where I got into a lot of debt was I went to my dream school which was NYU for graduate school and took on another $58,000 in debt going there.
Doug Hoyes: Wow and so, when did you finish graduate school? What year are we talking about?
Melanie Lockert: May, 2011.
Doug Hoyes: May, 2011. Okay, so, when you finished school, you had $81,000 of debt you said.
Melanie Lockert: Not at that point. At that point actually I had $68,000 left because from when I graduated in 2006 with my undergrad and then by the time I graduated in May, 2011 with my MA, I had paid off, you know, $10,000 or $13,000 or so. And so, it was down to $68,000 at that time. But in total for the past, you know, eight years I've been paying off $81,000 total. But when I graduated in May, 2011 I had $68,000 left.
Doug Hoyes: Which is still a big number obviously. So, what was the time period between your undergraduate degree and going back to school to do your masters?
Melanie Lockert: So, I would say I worked full-time for three years between my undergrad and graduate degree. And during that time I just paid the minimum on my debt, which is why it sounds like a lot from $81,000 to $68,000 but that was over three of four years just paying the minimum. And then once I graduated with my MA in 2011, I still had $68,000 left and just was a huge wake up call. It was just like, oh my gosh, what did I get myself into? I had so much debt and it's just, it felt so overwhelming 'cause I had a really high interest rate because graduate plus loans in the States at that time at 6.8% and 7.9% interest rates. So, it was quite expensive for me to have so much of my loans, I think 58 of that whole 68 was the graduate plus loans at high interest rates.
Doug Hoyes: Wow. And we're going to talk about your website in a minute. So, walk me through then the, I mean you kind of already hit on it, the psychology of having that much debt. So, when you finished your second round of schooling and had this $68,000 worth of debt, what was your mindset? Were you freaking out? Were you blasé about it? Where were you at mentally with it?
Melanie Lockert: I was panicking. I felt so anxious about it. I felt stressed, I felt depressed. It's actually quite funny, I remember I really wanted to get my finances together after I graduated. So, I signed up with Mint to track my finances and my loans all that kind of stuff. And I swear I must have been on Mint for at least two to three days and I saw my total debt number in black and white compared to my income and I deleted the whole thing. I just could not deal with it. I deleted the app, I couldn’t deal with it. I just felt so completely overwhelmed with my situation and I was like I don’t know how I'm going to get out of this debt. It just felt so paralyzing at the time.
Doug Hoyes: That's interesting. So, you're talking about mint.com I guess, m-i-n-t, which is a site that can pull your banking information details from your different financial accounts. And so it wasn’t until you really saw it in black and white in front of you that the enormity of the situation hit you?
Melanie Lockert: Uh huh, just seeing it in black and white and seeing what I really owed, the interest rates. And especially compared to my income, my bills, it just felt so completely overwhelming.
Doug Hoyes: And that's interesting because obviously you're an educated person. You've got two degrees, so it's not like you weren’t aware that you had this debt. But it didn’t become real to you until you saw it in black and white or black and green, whatever colour it was on the screen. That's what really made it real to you.
Melanie Lockert: Yeah.
Doug Hoyes: And so, you had this, you know, epiphany where you said oh my goodness I got this huge amount of debt. So, your first response was denial, let's delete the app, maybe it will make it go away. I'm guessing that didn’t work. So, what happened next, then?
Melanie Lockert: So, you know, I knew that I was getting into debt going into grad school but it didn’t really hit me until once I graduated and I realized I don’t have all these opportunities knocking down my door like I thought I would. And I'm living in New York City, a very expensive part of the country. To not have a full-time job, I had all these part-time jobs cobbled together, but it was barely enough to cover my rent and my bills. And so, I was freaking out. And at that point I really got into making more money on the side because I had to. My current jobs were barely just paying my bills and it was very important to me that I stick to my student loan payments and start paying those things off, even before the grace period was over with - even started rather.
Doug Hoyes: And so, your primary strategy for dealing with the debt was increase your income as much as possible.
Melanie Lockert: Yes. At that time in particular because I was making such little amount of money and that income is going straight to my bills. And so I just figured out how can I just really increase my income quickly at that time.
Doug Hoyes: Which makes sense because mathematically there's only two things you can do. You've either go to raise your income or reduce your expenses. And even if you reduce your expenses to zero, there's still only so much money coming in.
Melanie Lockert: I've still got bills.
Doug Hoyes: Yeah, that's right and you can't reduce it to zero, you're right, you've still got bills. So, we're going to talk a bit as well about raising your income. But let's talk a bit about your website, then. So, the URL is deardebt.com and the title of the website is Dear Debt. It's a blog about breaking up with debt. So, when did you start that website?
Melanie Lockert: Yeah, I started the blog in January 2013. It was called Do or Debt at that time. And I officially re-branded it as Dear Debt in July of 2013 after I got some clarity about my vision and my goals for the site. You know, I really felt like I wanted to create a space online where I talked about the emotions related to debt. I had been a personal finance lover for a few years, really trying to consume information to help get me out of debt.
But I kept feeling like there was something was missing and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until one day in that July 2013 after I had been blogging for a few months already and I thought this is what's missing, I feel like we're not addressing this human part of debt, this relationship part of debt. And money affects our emotions, it affects our relationships. So, I just thought it would be a fun, cute way to talk about money; blog about breaking up with debt. I write break up letters to debt, I invite other people to write break up letters to debt. I encourage starting a conversation and, you know, with people that are feeling down and out. And I encourage people to feel empowered by writing a letter and saying dear debt, it's over. We are completely through, I am moving on.
Doug Hoyes: A break up letter with debt and that's a very interesting perspective. Your perspective is completely different than mine because I'm an accountant. And so, to me it's numbers, let's crunch the numbers. Can we reduce $10 here, can we increase $10 there? And obviously, you've had to look at the numbers, you're not ignoring the numbers. But you're looking at this from a much more emotional point of view because what you're saying is debt does have a significant impact on your psychological well-being. I guess that's really the point of writing a letter to debt.
Melanie Lockert: Definitely and if you think about it, you know, personal finance is all about the numbers but it really is about the emotions, psychology and relationships. Because if it really was just about spend less, earn more, all of us would be rich and never face debt. And we'd all be successful, but a lot of us aren’t and that's because we're dealing with these money issues, these emotional issues that come out through debt and finances and a scarcity mindset and there's so much to deal with. So, a lot of my blog is about facing that money mindset, really empowering yourself to take back your life and really get financially empowered.
Doug Hoyes: And I really like one of the lines in your dear debt manifesto. You said that Dear Debt was founded on a few principles, everyone matters and we can all learn from each other. So, that's the reason for having people write letters to debt that everyone can read. Although we're all in debt for different reasons we're in this together and we'll help inspire each other to get out of debt. There is no judgment. And then my favourite line, you are not alone, you are not a loan. And so you've got to see it in writing to fully grasp that. But you are not a, the word and then loan, loan. What does that phrase mean to you, then? You are not alone, you are not a loan. What are you trying to say with that line in your Dear Debt manifesto?
Melanie Lockert: What I'm trying to say is that just because you're in debt it doesn’t mean that that debt defines you or that makes you a bad person. I know when I was in so much debt and I couldn’t really find a job and I just thought what did I do? I went to this fancy private school, I can't pay it back, I don’t have the opportunities to support this and what did I do? And I just internalized that debt so much. And I think especially as women we can really internalize some of these things as personal failures.
And so, that line is really to encourage other people to say, we've all made mistakes, some of us have gone to fancy private schools that we couldn’t afford, gotten into credit card debt, or some people haven’t gotten anything, they've gotten into medical debt. Whatever the situation may be, we are not our debt, we are more than that and that I think it's really important to remember that when we're paying off debt because it can feel so isolating. It can feel so depressing and frustrating like this is all my fault. And it can be an emotional experience. So, I just want to encourage people to know that they are not alone, they are not a loan.
Doug Hoyes: Now, you said that debt does not define you and you made the comment about another area about which I am not an expert and that is you said that you think this affects women differently.
Melanie Lockert: Not particularly, I'm just making a reference, mostly personal, in my experience as a woman and from what I have observed in other women. But I think it's very easy to internalize certain things and blame it on ourselves.
Doug Hoyes: So, let's get into the practical advice, then. And again, speaking to someone who has paid off a significant amount of debt. So, you just gave us one tip there and that's don’t internalize. So, okay don’t internalize is a negative statement, what's the positive thing that I can be doing, then? Obviously one of the things I guess is actually writing a letter to debt. Is that a way to not internalize it?
Melanie Lockert: Yeah. I think, you know, what I have heard from people who have written dear debt letters is that it is such a cathartic process. Because once you sit down with a pen and paper or a keyboard and put your little fingers to action, it can really sort of get rid of those negative emotions and really take back your life. And at that point say, you know, dear debt, you're over with and you can address those thoughts and those feelings that you've been dealing with for the last few years and just start fresh. And I think that's what I want to offer people is an opportunity to really start fresh with their debt and start thinking about themselves and their lives differently.
Doug Hoyes: So, if someone is listening to this today, I'm trying to kind of make the point forms here. So, is the first step to do kind of what you did with Mint, I need to see it in front of me?
Melanie Lockert: Yes, definitely. If you are currently in debt definitely don’t bury your head in the sand. I know it's so tempting but you have to face those numbers even as painful as it is. You have to know how much you owe and also the interest rates. I think the interest rates are so important. They may seem secondary, but I think for me I had three different interest rates, 2.3, 6.8 and 7.9, so, I focused on paying off the high interest debt first because that's where the majority of my balance was at. And it was costing me so much money in interest every day.
Doug Hoyes: And you have to focus on the interest rates again because that makes it real I guess and helps you show which ones you have to pay off first. And I agree with you, it's not just because I guess it was the highest amount of debt, the highest amount of interest rate is where the biggest bang for the buck is. If I'm paying the highest one off first, I'm saving the most interest by doing that.
So, okay you need to see the numbers in writing and not internalize it, in other words stand up to it and writing a dear debt letter is a great way to start. And what I'll do is I'll put a link to the show notes but it's again a pretty easy website to find deardebt.com. And you've got a link there called dear debt letters. And in fact one of them is written by my partner Ted Michalos who obviously from a slightly different perspective than someone who's in debt, but he's written one on there too.
So, what is step three then? So, I've made a list, I see what the scope of the problem is, I've mentally said I'm going to attack it head on, then what?
Melanie Lockert: Then go through your budget and your expenses and question everything. See if you can get anything cheaper. See if you can get rid of an expense altogether, especially those recurring expenses like do you really need a gym membership? Are you really using Netflix? Are you really using that magazine subscription? Those things can kind of just be recurring and constantly charging you money, but you might not be using them all the time. Think about what expenses you can cut out completely; see what expenses you can just lower, sometimes you can lower some of your bills by just calling your service provider; for your internet, your phone just by asking. It doesn’t hurt to ask.
And in addition, I would say sometimes you have to make hard sacrifices if you're really wanting to get debt free sooner rather than later. I did eventually move from New York City because I realized it was too expensive for me to pay off debt, especially 'cause I didn’t have a full-time job. So, I moved to Portland Oregon to be with my partner and, you know, also just live in a lower cost of living area.
Doug Hoyes: It sounds like a motorcycle area too.
Melanie Lockert: [laughter] We have a very small studio apartment. So, if can hear that, you guys are experiencing what I've had to do to pay off debt and that's live in a very small studio apartment with my partner.
Doug Hoyes: But I think that's a great illustration of it, then. If you want to generate the access cash flow each month, you can't spend more than you've got coming in. So, it means living in a small apartment, not living in a big place. It means, in your case, moving literally from one end of the country to the other. These are significant sacrifices. Do you think the sacrifice will ultimately be worth it?
Melanie Lockert: Oh definitely. I, you know, what I always tell people is that I've really had to think differently about what I thought my life would look like right now. I mean I'm 31 years old and a lot of my friends have houses, they're getting married, they're having children. I still live like a college student and live in a very small studio apartment with my partner that's facing the street. And I moved to another city, which I didn’t really want to do. We have all free or used stuff from Craig's List. I've had to make some mental changes and say, you know what? This isn't what I thought my life should or would look like at this age, but I'm okay with making these sacrifices for now because I know it's only temporary and it will get me to the bigger goal of getting out of debt.
Doug Hoyes: And so, you said you're 31 years old now. When you're 40 years old looking back on this, what's your situation going to be? Presumably you won't be living in this exact apartment.
Melanie Lockert: No, I will not. I definitely have big goals once I'm debt free. And I want to probably move to a bigger city again. But actually be able to afford it and definitely, you know, not go too crazy, I don’t want to have a lifestyle inflation totally go off the other end. But start prioritizing travel and prioritizing some other things that I've put off for the past couple of years.
Doug Hoyes: And so you're, I don’t want to say suffering the pain now, but you're making the choices now to get the debt eliminated. You're going to be able to start saving money I guess at some point in the next year probably. And that then builds you up to the point where you've got the flexibility to live where you want. At this point right now you're hamstrung by the debt, you can't just go move to a different city, well I guess you could, but it makes more sense to stay where you are now. But for you it's a long-term journey then and you're close to the end of one phase of it and looking forward to the next one, then.
Melanie Lockert: Yeah, it's all about choices. I think a lot of people don’t want to do what I've done. And that's totally fine. I don’t judge anybody that doesn’t want to take such extreme measures. But I think if you're really serious about getting out of debt, you really do have to think of what choices need to be made and sometimes they're not the most fun or the most glamorous but they are temporary.
Doug Hoyes: Excellent, well I think that's a great way to end the segment. You have to make choices, that's what it all comes down to. And in your case they were conscious choices. You crunched the numbers, you looked at the numbers and you made that decision. And you're, I assume, quite comfortable with the choices you've made and where you're at.
Melanie Lockert: I am now. [laughter] I will have to say, moving from New York to Portland was quite difficult for me. I'm a big city girl at heart. And even though Portland's not the smallest place in the world, it was pretty small for me and it was a pretty rough transition, culture shock wise, environment wise.
So, it was a rough start for sure especially coming from New York, coming from grad school, thinking that I was going to have this certain kind of life and then absolutely not having that kind of life. So, definitely there was a point of transition and change that was kind of difficult on me emotionally, but where I'm at now, now that I'm closer to the end and I can actually see the light at the end of the tunnel, I know that it's been worth it.
Doug Hoyes: Excellent. Well, I appreciate that, Melanie. Thanks very much for being here with us today. Deardebt.com is where people can find you. I'll be back with the next segment in a moment after this break. You're listening to Debt Free in 30.
Let's Get Started Segment
Doug Hoyes: It's time for the Let's Get Started here on Debt Free in 30. My guest today is Melanie Lockert, who writes the blog at deardebt.com. And in the first segment she talked about increasing your income to generate the cash to pay off debt. Now Melanie, I've heard you refer to using a side hustle to generate extra money. Explain what you mean by the term side hustle.
Melanie Lockert: Yeah, a side hustle is essentially anything that you do on the side outside of your main job or your full-time job. So, when I was in New York and now that I was in Portland I had a couple of part-time jobs and eventually a full-time job. But even on top of that I was always looking for a side gigs to make more money because I just simply wasn’t making enough.
Doug Hoyes: So, give me some examples then of what you're talking about. So, I understand exactly what you're saying. You're not saying quit your job. You're saying no, no the full-time job, that's definitely a good idea. And make as much money as you can at your full-time job. But if you're working five days a week at your full-time job there are things you can be doing either evenings or weekends to increase your income. That's what you're talking about with a side hustle. So, give me some examples. What are some of the kinds of things you've done?
Melanie Lockert: So, actually the primary side hustle I've had for four years has been a brand ambassador. So, a lot of people are like what is that? But a brand ambassador, I know probably you've seen them, but if you've ever gone to a concert or a sporting event or a festival and there's people out there giving out free stuff or free coupons and saying hey, have you heard of XYZ brand? You want to try a sample? That's a brand ambassador and essentially they are a face of a company at a specific event. They don’t actually work for that company, they're just representing that company for a specific period of time.
And that's a really flexible side hustle because it's just as your schedule permits, as you can, you get to work with a lot of fun brands, you get some free stuff. Pretty much all you have to do is be able to stand on your feet for long periods of time and also chat with people. Don’t recommend that one for the introverts though. But that has given me several thousand dollars more per year 'cause I would say that the typical pay is between $18 and $25 per hour. And so, working a long weekend gig, a festival, that can give you several hundred dollars just in the weekend.
So, that was my primary side hustle, but I've also done pet sitting, I've also done a lot of event work, meaning that during the holidays, which it is right now, I've worked a ton of holiday parties. I've worked as a coat checker for a holiday party; I've worked as a wine server, a food server. Of course they have to have a food and liquor license for that. I've done a ton of different things for the holidays, for the New Year. I've worked at a church organization helping plan their events, pretty much anything you can do on nights or weekends.
I recommend looking on Craig's List and I'm not sure if Canada has Task Rabbit, but here in the States Task Rabbit's a really unique site that people can post things they want done and then people like me say yes I can do that for you. I've gotten some weird gigs from there. I remember one time I got paid $15 to attend a Google hangout for 15 minutes because some DJ just wanted to do a sound check. So, side hustles can be weird and fun. You meet new people, you make extra money in a new way that you probably wouldn’t have from your full-time job.
Doug Hoyes: And is the focus - well, obviously the focus is to make money, but how much importance do you put in having fun while you're doing it.
Melanie Lockert: For me it was primarily about money, but of course fun is always appreciated. So, that's why I really did the brand ambassador work, some of the easier odd jobs like attending a Google hangout for DJ was kind of fun. I would say some of the event stuff I've done for the holidays, I've also worked as house cleaner, that was not very fun. So, I would say for me money was a primary motivator because I was using the side hustle to pay off debt. But you can definitely find fun side hustles and do something that you enjoy.
Doug Hoyes: Yeah and I guess if it's going to take a year or two or three or four to chip away at all your debt or to begin a savings plan then it would be good if it's something at least that you don’t hate. So, if you're an introvert then being a house cleaner would be great. Cleaning offices at midnight when no one's around would be fantastic. But for someone like yourself who's more of a people person then being a brand ambassador is exactly what you want to do 'cause you're out there doing things. So, your advice then is check the budget and if you need extra income, the side hustle is the way to go.
Melanie Lockert: The side hustle's great. And even if you don’t like what you're doing, 'cause as I mentioned I've done side hustle's that I didn’t like, it's just a gig. Usually it's like a onetime thing or it's a two time thing so even if you don’t like it you're like, okay well, I'm just going to be doing this for four hours and then I'm never going to see these people again or I'm never going to do this again and you move on. It's not like if you hate your job that you can't just quit that, but side hustles are just very time sensitive. Holidays are a great time to make more money. Just if you can think of any sort of service or offering that people need help with, you can really monetize your skills to help other people.
Doug Hoyes: Perfect. Well, that's a great way to end it. That's side hustles, that was Melanie Lockert from deardebt.com and that was the Let's Get Started segment here on Debt Free on 30. We'll be right back.
Doug Hoyes: Welcome back. It's time for the 30 second recap of what we discussed today. On today's show Melanie Lockert shared her experience with debt and said that it's important that we don’t let debt define us. She said it's important not to internalize our struggles with debt and that's why writing a letter to debt can be cathartic and can help you get on track to be debt free. That's the 30 second recap of what we discussed today.
So, what's my take on Melanie's approach? As I said on the show, I'm an accountant, a number's guy. But I fully acknowledge that debt is more than just numbers. It can be depressing and cause emotional issues. So, it's important to recognize the negative impact debt is having on your life and take steps to deal with it. Melanie's approach makes sense. Make a list of all of your debt, with interest rates, so you can see the problem and then question all of your expenses and make the lifestyle choices necessary to free up cash and get out of debt. It's not easy, but as Melanie has demonstrated by paying off a lot of debt, it works.
That's our show for today. Full show notes are available on our website including links to Melanie's DearDebt.com website and links to consumer proposals, which are often necessary to deal with debt. So please go to our website at hoyes.com, that's h-o-y-e-s.com for more information. Thanks for listening, until next week I'm Doug Hoyes. That was Debt Free in 30.