Confession: It Took Me Decades to Get Out of Debt for Good

By Jackie Beck   Updated 05/10/2021 at 11:33 am

Some debt stories are SO inspiring. But they can be hard to relate to. If you’ve ever thought “Wow, that’s amazing, but how is that even possible?” this debt free story is for you.

So let me confess:

It took me decades to get out of debt, if you count from the very first moment I decided I both hated debt and wanted to see it gone.

Why did it take me so long?

Not because I didn’t know how, or because I had some obscene amount of debt or some kind of extenuating circumstances that kept me in debt. No, I was pretty normal.

I knew how to get out of debt all along.

The process boils down to this: Quit borrowing money. Pay back what I already borrowed. Don’t buy things unless I already have the money in my hot little hands.

It’s simple, right? So why the long journey?

Why it took so long

It took me decades to get out of debt because it felt overwhelming and pointless to keep trying.

Oh, I’d try for a while — sometimes a long while, and sometimes really hard — but then something would come up and I’d give up for a while.

I felt like I was bailing water out of a leaky boat during a thunderstorm.

When the skies finally cleared and I had a shot at making real progress (or when I thought the boat was going to sink no matter what) all I wanted to do was rest. So I did nothing. My arms were tired from bailing and I needed a break. But you can’t rest for long in a leaky boat.

I also didn’t have enough incentive. (Read: motivation.) It wasn’t until I became a divorced mom who was about to lose her job that I started to get my act together with money. (And eventually, with debt.)

Suddenly it was make it or break it time, and I was going to make it or die trying.

All the difference

In short, getting out of debt finally mattered enough for me. Not because I wanted to be debt free, but because I had a deeply motivating why. A reason for doing so that mattered so much to me that it overcame all of the impulsive rationalizations, exhaustion, and whines.

A clear idea of FREEDOM made all the difference. Freedom to spend time with my family. To travel. To work because I want to help people and make money, not because I “had” to have a job so I could eat and pay back money I’d borrowed. And having a partner who shared and joined in with my vision sure didn’t hurt!

Freedom made the whole journey worth it.

I can’t even tell you how worth it. My husband and I have been completely debt free for nearly 3 years now, and I still get teary-eyed about how lucky we are. Lucky that we get to live this life and help others; because we stuck with it, supported each other, and gave ourselves planned and paid for breaks during the process.

Why I’m telling you all this

So why am I telling you all this? If you’re like me, maybe you’ve read the stories of people who pay off a big chunk of debt in a short amount of time. (I have a student loan story like that myself.) They’re inspiring, right?

Except…has a little part of you ever thought, “Wow, that’s really inspiring, but [insert reason why it doesn’t apply to you here]”. Or, “But how is that even possible? It doesn’t make sense. There aren’t enough facts here to see how they really did it.” Or maybe even, “Yeah right. I could do that too if I made $x thousand per year. I need something I can relate to.”

I thought things like that myself. I just couldn’t connect with those pie in the sky stories, especially not at first. I wanted to, but…

Where were the struggles?

Where were the stories from people who stood in the grocery store debating between buying peanut butter and toilet paper? Or the stories from regular people with normal salaries who just had something go wrong that was beyond their control? Or the ones from people whose spouse wasn’t on board?

Those stories ARE out there too. Usually on smaller blogs. Or maybe even in your own neighborhood. Or in your own LIFE.

But you’re not going to read about them on major news websites because “It took me decades to get out of debt” doesn’t sound very inspiring. It doesn’t promise the secret to getting out of debt.

Instead, “decades to get out of debt” sounds like endless work, and a whole lot of screw-up time. (Times where I thought, oh, but I really want that pizza. $20 bucks won’t hurt. Or oh, we need ceiling fans in our new condo because it is so hot here and it’ll save on our electric bill, so why not charge it?)

Times where I said no to getting the air conditioner replaced in JULY in Arizona because we didn’t have the money for even a second opinion, let alone a new AC unit. Times where I said “oh yeah I know we’re paying off the mortgage and we’ve already planned a trip to New Zealand but PARIS! How can we pass up this awesome deal? I have the cash! [that was earmarked for the mortgage].” Times where we were unemployed, and hospitalized, and where the cat got sick and the car got crashed.

Normal times.

Why the details get left out

Stories that start from the very beginning and include all the nitty gritty details don’t create page views on websites, or sell newspapers and magazines. They’re also kind of impossible to write and messy, like real life. (Quick, tell me how much you were earning X years ago, and how much your debt and expenses were. I’m betting you can’t do it. Also, were they the same the next year? Probably not. Does anyone really care?)

And then there’s picking a starting point. How do you define the moment where you actually set down the path toward getting out of debt instead of just wanting to do so? (I can do that fairly easily, because I know when my ex and I separated. But for most people, it’s probably not so easy. For the record, that was 15 years ago.)

And what if the path toward eventual debt freedom looked like starting an emergency fund because the dot com you worked for seemed really unstable, and you knew no one else was going to put food in your child’s mouth if you lost your job?

Everyone who successfully gets out of debt has a different, complicated story. One that is in some ways also similar.

Why it matters

Reading the detailed ones — in addition to reading the inspirational get out of debt stories — matter because they show you that REAL PEOPLE can and do get out of debt.

They stumble, and get up again.

They go backwards from time to time.

They get discouraged. They feel like they’re making little or no progress. Or (sometimes worse) they see progress and then BAM! they’re right back where they started.

Except, they’re not.

They’ve actually made progress and done some hard work, even if it’s not visible yet, or not as visible as they’d like.

Because it takes time to change. It takes time to figure out what you really want. Time to be tested along the way and come out the other side as you gradually change the way you see and interact with…the world.

With your money.

With debt.

And one day, the time just drops away and you are THERE. Standing in the land of the debt free.

You’re making progress too

Those changes matter, and they are things that anyone can do. YOU can do it. It took time to become who you are right now, and it will take time to become the debt-free person you want to be.

As you move in that direction, it will take less and less time. Until one day, you will have the amazing story about how you paid off a big chunk of debt in a short amount of time.

Stories aren’t inspiring when you’re in the thick of them. But boy will you feel great when you’re at the end. So keep writing yours.

And if you found this particular atypical debt-free story worth sharing with others, please do so.


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Some debt stories are SO inspiring. But they can be hard to relate to. If you've ever had that experience, then this debt free story is for you.

4 thoughts on “Confession: It Took Me Decades to Get Out of Debt for Good

  1. Jackie, I love your site because you are so REAL. I don’t think I know anyone who has successfully gotten out of debt who didn’t have some sort of pivotal moment. I wish I could create those moments for them, but it has to come from within. Great post!

  2. Wow, your right. I have been up and down so many times, my story is too long. Sounds like you understand. Thanks! I pray this time I have found the right motivation. I turned 41 last year and had a mid life financial crisis realizing I live no better than at 20. It is depressing but I seek out the real stories like yours to motivate further when I do want to say it is easier to just keep on keeping on. Can’t wait to check out rest of your site!

  3. When I talk about debt, I always mention the “pain point” you described in the article.

    It could be a few months from now when you’re unable to make your minimum payments, or it could be 30 years from now when you realize that you can’t keep spending the way you did your entire life.

    If you don’t fix the issues, the pain will come. You just don’t know when it will occur. That’s why you need to grit your teeth and take it today. It will be much less pain than you’ll face if you do nothing.

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