This time last year, I was in dire straits because debt was drowning me.
As a freelancer, I had only worked three months of the year (2019 was my personal 2020) and I was barely keeping my head above the water.
I didn’t know it at the time as I was too scared to look but I owed just shy of £48,000.
My life in debt started with me spending my entire NatWest student overdraft in Fresher’s Week at university – mainly in a charming ski-lodge themed bar at Oceana Nottingham.
Even when I started work, my debt grew more aggressively, as I turned pissing away my pay cheque into an art form. I lived like a king for the first week, then played debit card roulette for a packet of ham for the final three. True story.
I was on what a friend aptly described as a misery-go-round. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was an alcoholic, with drinking so non-negotiable that the £450/month left over after bills and rent was disappearing before I even knew it was there.
At points, during those final few weeks until payday, it got so bleak that I couldn’t afford the Tube, or even lunch, so I lived off biscuits in meeting rooms, even asking my mentee to buy me a drink at our mentor session. That was pretty mortifying.
Throughout my twenties, I thought I was getting better with money but I wasn’t, I was just getting paid more. And, as I got paid more, I spent more on alcohol. I didn’t need to pester people for drinks any more. I could finally afford my own.
However, it also meant I started to pay a bit more off on my credit cards, and with it, they offered me credit increases, in some instances even without me requesting them.
And whilst I take responsibility for spending these extensions, it felt like a brand of kindness similar to giving an alcoholic a £50 bar tab.
My approach to finances up until this point was head in the sand. I knew I was in debt, but I was so scared to look that I lived in denial, always believing that I’d deal with it at some point.
And as my monthly repayments began to rise, I felt that I was so bad with money, I never considered there could be another way. I felt doomed and, despite being a ‘hopeless optimist’ as someone called me, it weighed on me every day.
In October 2017, I went freelance – something I would’ve been terrified about doing financially had it not been for a moment of grace. On 4 September, I finally realised I was an alcoholic and put the drink down.
I started being able to get to the end of the month with money for food, clothes, and Christmas presents. Not fishing receipts out of my pocket for £50 from pubs I didn’t even know I’d visited. I didn’t even have to bunk off train fares by pretending I was asleep anymore (that never works, by the way).
For the first time in a long time, I genuinely felt free. Not obsessively having to move money around. Not being scared that every time I went to an ATM I would get an ‘insufficient funds available’. No more asking people to bail me out.
However, two years later, I was still too scared to look at the elephant in the room. The debt that had been operating covertly under this new-found freedom.
My new life had affected my desire to look at debt, and my attitude had remained the same. I truly believed I was never getting out of it so I didn’t bother budgeting.
I went on lavish holidays, all on credit, because I couldn’t bear to tell my partner at the time that I couldn’t afford it. Australia, New York, and when we parted ways, I went to Patagonia on a whim.
I was living a £75k a year life on a £45k salary. Debt was, once again, starting to paralyse me, but I was so terrified by a situation that felt so out of control, I stuck steadfast to my: ‘buy now, pay mentally later’ attitude.
I desperately hoped that one day I would just get it. I wanted to pretend that I wasn’t ‘that’ guy – the one, my shame was telling me, who couldn’t be an adult. And, as my friends got on the property ladder or had kids, I felt like I’d missed a crucial lesson at school. I felt like less of a man.
But during the Christmas period last year, a time when according to National Debt Advice 75% of us put food or gifts on credit, things were escalating. I was using debt to pay off more debt, and I needed to make £1,500 every month just to cover the interest across all my credit cards and loans. It was crippling me.
I made it to February, when, at the eleventh hour, my bank rejected me for a consolidating loan, and I was crushed. I broke down in tears in a recovery meeting. I needed help.
Coincidentally, I mentioned to a friend in passing that I was in debt and he kindly offered to help me. I surrendered, knowing that I didn’t have the mental strength to fight the shame and anxiety for any longer.
He got me to layout all my debt in a spreadsheet, with interest rates, minimum payments and amounts. I then applied the snowball method – whereby you pay off debt in order of smallest to largest, which helps you gain momentum.
He also taught me to pay yourself first. So, whenever I was paid, I gave myself money for the month, before working out how much I could pay on debt, rather than vice-versa. Might seem simple but this was revolutionary – I was so anxious about debt, that I’d been paying that off first then had nothing to live on.
For every £1,000 I paid off, I had to call him to celebrate, and give myself a £50 reward, which, I won’t lie, mainly went on pizza and sparkling water. Living the dream, guys.
Another tactic was when I was weighing up an impulse purchase for a luxury item, that I immediately take that money and pay off debt instead. As in my head it was already mentally spent. That was a game-changer.
And slowly but surely, the debt started to drop.
It helped that the UK has spent much of the year in lockdown so I could see how much I genuinely needed to spend, and actually, that more stuff didn’t make me happier. As someone wise said, ‘if I can touch it, it won’t fix me’.
Eight months since I faced up to my debt – and I still struggle to believe this – I’ve paid off £24,000, including the overdraft I took out in Fresher’s week 15 years ago.
Last week, as I walked home, I broke down in tears again, albeit this time tears of relief – partly because I was listening to Jeff Buckley on repeat, but mainly because I only realised how heavily debt weighed around my neck until someone helped me to lift it off. My friend had saved my life.
Today, I’m no Martin Lewis, but I do have a handle on my spending now, having a monthly figure I set myself, but not living like a monk, as otherwise debt is stripping yet more fun from my life, on top of what the emotional bailiffs have already taken over the past 15 years.
Even though I still have £23,900 to go, I now have something else I’ve never had before: belief that one day, I’ll be free of this. And ironically, you can’t put a price on that.
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