Wednesday, April 15, 2015

What I Learned From Spending My Entire Twenties In Debt

Sian Butcher/BuzzFeed

"I want to share what I learned about spending my entire twenties in debt," I said to a friend in the pub when we sneaked in a quick drink before dinner at a new restaurant we'd finally bagged a reservation for. "Tips on how to avoid it would be so useful for young people," she nodded sagely before taking a gulp of her pint.

"That's not quite what I was thinking," I said, wearily familiar with the fact that anyone who's admirably managed to keep their finances in order seems to think that all you need to know about debt is: Don't get into it.

Everyone knows only stupid people get into debt. Only frivolous, silly people spend money they don't have. It's easy to keep your bank account in check if you just exercise a bit of restraint and caution, right? Plenty of other people manage it, so why can't you?

I have as many tips on staying in the black as there are now credit card companies who will let me have access to their plastic, which is to say: zero.

What I do know plenty about though, is how easy it is to spend almost a decade swimming upstream against expensive rent, with ever-mounting pressure to feel like you're living "the best years of your life". Life in your twenties can take unpredictable turns. I have all sorts of insights into how hard it is to stay afloat when your life feels out of control and your money feels like sand through your fingers. And I can hands down assure you that finding yourself at the bottom of a pit of financial despair does not make you a stupid person, even though you will almost definitely feel like the biggest idiot on the planet.

I know that quitting the job that's causing you to spend every evening lying face down in bed crying to take an unpaid internship, even when you've not got a penny to your name, can completely transform your career prospects, and can be worth all the money it costs you in the end.

I know that borrowing £3,000 from a partner to cover debt accumulated while interning is a risk that is impossible to see when you feel like your relationship is solid and you're offered a lifeline you desperately need.

I know that it is time to end things when it is obvious that the financial implication of breaking up is one of the things keeping the relationship together, and that you have to find a way to cover those costs even if you have no idea how at the time.

I know that when you find yourself unexpectedly in need of a rental deposit because your partner paid the whole of the last one on the flat you shared, getting a £750 bank loan before someone else has snapped up the only house-share you can face living in is sometimes the only option.

I can tell you that you may as well call it £1,000 when you take into account that there'll be estate agent fees – wait, up that to £1,500, because the laptop was theirs too, and you're never going to be able to do your job without one.

I get that sometimes all you can do is take the loan and worry about the consequences later, and you shouldn't let anyone make you feel any lower than you already do.

But I can't pretend that you won't feel like your friends are judging you when they see you with a new laptop and say, "I thought you had no money?"

I can advise that you're better off keeping details of your situation to yourself as much as you can, because even people you consider to be close friends might surprise you when it comes to their attitude towards money, and they're highly unlikely to feel as sorry for you as you hope they will.

I truly believe that when you find yourself single for the first time in years, it's important to be getting out and meeting new people, so it's not entirely frivolous to prioritise the little funds you have for socialising.

I am well aware that in a lot of jobs, promotions start in the pub, and that buying drinks you probably can't afford may turn out to be worth more than you think.

Sian Butcher/BuzzFeed

I have worked out that even when you've got no money, you can pretty much always use your debit card for less than £20, but that won't get you anywhere when you realise the restaurant you're eating in turns out to be cash only and the ATM is coughing up nothing.

I am thankful that true friends will reserve judgment and foot the bill when this happens, and assure you that they probably don't think nearly as ill of you as you feel like they do.

I implore you not to take advantage of these good people and to be damn sure you reimburse them the second you are paid before the bank gets on your case and drains your account dry again, or they might not always be around to help you.

I applaud you for not throwing homemade lentil soup over a work colleague who says, "I just don't know how you can eat that for lunch every day."

I know that when you feel powerless to chip away at your debt because the payments you can afford to make from your low-paid job will barely dent the interest, making yourself even more miserable by putting your life on hold can feel pretty counterintuitive.

I get what it's like to feel trapped in a cycle of paying a bit off and racking even more up.

I assure you that you'll start to recognise the bank's phone number pretty quickly, and when you ignore the calls, it'll start using an anonymous number, but you'll know that's the bank too.

I know that that ignoring the calls from your bank when your monthly repayments bounce doesn't get you anywhere in the end.

I can vouch that coming close to tears in the Camden branch of HSBC when they tell you they can't simply spread your debt over more years – because your credit's so bad, and there's nothing more they can do but chase what you owe them already – is up there in the top 10 worst ways to spend a grey Wednesday lunchtime.

I can honestly tell you that when the bank asks you how much money you spend on haircuts when they're working out your expenses for a repayment plan, you won't feel any better by shouting "If I could afford to get haircuts, I wouldn't be in this situation!" at them.

I know all too well that sick feeling in the pit of your stomach and the grip-like tightening of your throat that will overcome you every time you need to check your bank balance.

I understand that no matter how stoic and professional you manage to be most of the time, there'll come a day when you crack and break down at work because it's three weeks until payday and you've discovered you've got less than £20 to last you.

I believe that there is at least a catharsis in how utterly low you'll feel when that happens, because things can really only get better from the point at which you resign yourself to openly crying at your desk wondering what the fuck you're actually going to do.

I can assure you that everything will be OK.

There is always a way out.

There is always something that can be done.

Sian Butcher/BuzzFeed

I discovered that debt collection agencies are not actually to be feared – around the time the bank washed their hands of my dodging the payments I couldn't afford and passed my outstanding loan and credit card their way.

I was surprised to learn that once the debt was in their hands, I could stop paying interest and my monthly payments started to have a meaningful effect.

I found out that I could surrender my debt to them voluntarily. I didn't have to wait for the bank to do it.

I became aware that although being involved with a debt collection agency would lead to my credit rating being utterly screwed, it was only temporary and more credit was the last thing I needed at the time, wasn't it?

I found that life often takes weird and unanticipated turns that can change everything. Last year, having at least got myself back on track with repayments, the magazine website I worked for folded, but with my employer being obliged to compensate me for immediate dismissal, I was able to wipe my debt out.

I was reassured to find that even when something as awful as losing your job happens, good can come out of it.

I felt liberated by the knowledge that terrible situations can be turned around, even in the most unexpected ways.

I want you to assure you that even when it seems like your fortunes will never change, it's important to remember that actually, nothing lasts forever.

I'm proud to have found my way out of that situation, one way or another.

I want you to know that you can too.

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