My Journey to Financial Freedom | Part 1: The Fall

DenaMarch 8, 2010

fleurs //

Three years ago, I was nearly $60,000 in debt. I had a Bachelor’s degree that didn’t appear to be worth its weight in salt and a job that couldn’t cover a fraction of my monthly bills. I was terrified.

Today, I am closer to complete financial freedom than I ever dreamed possible. Last week, I paid off my last remaining credit card balance. This two-part post is a celebration of this incredible milestone in my journey.

In part one, I will explain how I got to that terrible place. In part two, I will explain how I’m getting out of it (and how you can do it, too).


A financial prison is the worst sort of prison to be stuck in. A financial prison does not have steel bars or a prison warden. You will not get sent to financial prison for committing a crime. There is only one person that can sentence you to financial prison. That person is you.

There are two primary types of financial prisoners:

1. There are those in financial prison who got there because they truly did not know any better. This type eventually realizes the error of their ways and breaks free.

2. There are those who knowingly commit themselves to financial prison. This type is well aware of the consequences of living beyond her means; but she does it anyway.

Of course there are also those who fall somewhere in the middle, like me… (Cue dream sequence.) It all started when I was 18. The guidance counseling systems in my high school and college were either completely inadequate or I simply refused to pay attention. I can’t honestly remember which it was, though I think it was the former. Either way, I was screwed.

Before me, no one in my family had ever been to college so I didn’t receive much advice. I was thrilled to be out of high school and ready for the next step. I took my SATs one time and applied to one school. My parents, being average folks, made just enough money to prevent me from receiving financial aid; but not enough money to be able to pay my full tuition. For me, this meant loans: “lovely” student loans from “lovely” Sallie Mae.

My mother co-signed and it was a cinch from there. Each semester I filled out a relatively simple form and like magic, Sallie Mae sent me a check. In fact, Sallie Mae was so generous that they allowed me to take out as much “extra” money as I needed every semester. It was fantastic! Yes, I had money to pay for books, meals, and extra curricula. I also had money to go out and binge drink, buy clothes I didn’t need, designer purses, and more. Sallie Mae was wonderful to me. And the best part of it was that there was no need for discussion. No one guided me, no one advised me, and no one asked me any questions. I showed up at the financial aid office a couple of times each year and it was always smooth sailing.

On top of that, another great thing happened when I was 18! The credit card companies started to send me applications. And that was just as easy. I got one and then another and then another. Whatever I couldn’t cover with those pretty little checks from Sallie Mae, I could simply charge on my credit cards. College was good to me. I joined a sorority, I partied hard, I shopped until I dropped. What more could a girl ask for?

It wasn’t all fun & games though. I worked through college. I worked at a children’s camp each summer; I was a Spanish teacher for two years; and toward the end of my college career I was a bookseller at Borders bookstore. All of the money I made working was spending money for me. I had Sallie Mae and the credit cards to pay all of my “real” bills.

When I finally graduated, I was making a cool $8.25 an hour at Borders. I loved it. I was happy… until one day, out of no where, a letter came in the mail. I had a six month grace period and then I would have to start paying back those loans. My paychecks barely covered my minimum credit card payments. How was I going to make loan payments on top of that?

So I sat down and did something that I’d never done before. I wrote up a budget. It was horrifying when I realized that even if I’d had no other bills, my monthly wages from Borders wouldn’t even cover half of my monthly student loan payments. The jig was up.

All told, I came out of college with about $45,000 in student loan debt and almost $15,000 in credit card debt. I hadn’t even lived on campus; I commuted from home; my parents paid for some of my tuition; and I only went to a mediocre school. How the hell was this possible?

All of a sudden Sallie Mae and the credit card companies didn’t seem so lovely anymore. There was one thought that kept repeating over & over in my head: Why didn’t anyone warn me? I felt cheated, betrayed, angry, afraid, and helpless. I wondered what the people in the financial aid office had been doing all that time. I wondered why my high school guidance counselor didn’t press me harder about applying for scholarships or grants. I wondered a lot of things, but mostly I wondered how the hell I was going to get out of the mess.

I started sending out resumes for jobs with starting salaries that would at least cover my monthly student loan payments. I sent out resume after resume but before long, I realized another harsh reality. That Bachelor’s Degree in English with a Creative Writing Focus wasn’t so great either. Nobody was calling me back. I couldn’t even get an interview.

The clock was ticking. I was halfway through my grace period. Then one day, one of my best friends mentioned an opening in her office. I looked over the job description and realized that it had nothing to do with what I’d gone to school for. I didn’t even know what it actually was, but the starting salary was more than what I needed. The rest was history.

I’ve been at my current company for almost three years now. And yesterday I paid off my last remaining credit card balance! Additionally over these few years, I’ve cut my student loan debt almost in half and by next Winter, I will have it down to a quarter of what I started with.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post, where I will share how I am doing it and how you can do it, too.

Comments (12)

  • David Damron

    March 8, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    An exciting tale I look forward to reading tomorrow…

    David Damron
    LifeExcursion & The Minimalist Path

    1. Dena

      March 8, 2010 at 2:38 pm

      Thanks a lot, Dave. I am really glad that you enjoyed the post. Tomorrow’s post should be an exciting (enlightening!) conclusion.

  • Baker

    March 8, 2010 at 2:26 pm

    Great work! Looking forward to seeing the rest of this series. 🙂

    1. Dena

      March 8, 2010 at 2:37 pm

      Hey Baker, thank you so much! It is a privilege to have you stop by. I’m a big fan. I appreciate the positive feedback.

  • Brad Chaffee

    March 8, 2010 at 4:59 pm

    Wow Dena, that is some story. It sounds similar to so many other students out there, and that’s the scary part. This is the kind of post I absolutely love!

    I for one, am extremely proud of you for coming as far as you have. That is so awesome! I cannot wait to hear the rest of the story on tomorrow’s post.

    I have said it before. You are an inspiration to so many that have experienced the same reality. Unfortunately, it is very easy to find yourself where you ended up, but getting out, is a different story all together. That’s where you have shown strength, determination, and resolve! Those are some amazing characteristics for someone to have!!

    Most people refuse to accept their circumstances, and sit around blaming others for how they ended up where they are. You took responsibility for your actions and came up with a plan. Your plan is working and I know you are so glad to have accomplished what you have. No CREDIT CARDS! (Awesome job Dena!)

    I have to say that I would love to post this as a guest post on EOD. If you ever want to let me post this two part series as a guest post on EOD I would be honored. It is so inspirational!

    I stopped studying just so I could respond to this wonderful news!

    Keep up the great work and please keep moving forward. 🙂 You have done a great job!

    1. Dena

      March 9, 2010 at 9:01 am

      Brad, I can not tell you how much your kind words mean to me. You are so generous & thoughtful. I am truly grateful that my story can be used to inspire others.

      Despite how difficulty the journey has been (can be) I am glad that it happened. I have learned invaluable lessons that will carry me through the rest of my lifetime, wiser. Also, it is a blessing that I am able to share my story with others so that they may avoid my mistakes or if they are in the same position, I can give hope that there is a way out!

      Being able to share this post with your readers would be a great honor. The more people that read these words, the better. Knowledge is power!

      Thank you so much, my friend.

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  • Lisa

    March 9, 2010 at 9:07 am

    Wow Dena, This was great to read. Who would of thought this was you. You seem so perfect! I wish you could talk to Krystal. Cant wait for part two!!!!

    1. Dena

      March 9, 2010 at 9:12 am

      I am so glad that you liked it. It has been a long road, but I am on the upswing now! I would love for you to share this with Krystal and hopefully we will have a chance to talk soon, too. I miss & love you guys always. Thank you so much for your support. XO

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