On the evening of March 15th 2007 I sat in a small bar in Northampton confessing to a friend of mine that I was struggling with debt. I didn’t know how I had reached that stage but all of a sudden my bank account was so far in the red that it didn’t even make the black when I got paid. Debt collection agencies were calling me both on my mobile and landline a number of times a day. I was too afraid to check my phone. I knew that things were out of control when they began calling my work place and my parents’ house at regular intervals.
To be honest, I knew that things were out of control before that stage but it was easier to just ignore the problem. I managed to justify all the money that I spent: I needed my own car for work, my gym membership couldn’t be cancelled—it was the only thing that I did that I enjoyed, and going out for dinner every now and then couldn’t do THAT much harm, could it? The more debt I got into, the more I ignored the problem and it is surprising how an occasional shopping splurge becomes so tempting when you know you can’t afford it. I had recurring dreams where my teeth fell out and I learned that this is a common dream associated with financial stress. I had this dream three or four times a week. But I had no one to blame but myself.
My debts mounted up when I started university and had no idea of how to budget. I ate out, went to fancy bars, and spent an obscene amount of money on outfits for various college balls. It all seemed so necessary at the time but what do you do with a tiara and feather boa after the ball?! My first job, working for the Halifax bank paid a measly £9000 a YEAR and I signed a lease on a beautiful apartment that was far too expensive for my meagre salary. I then took a TEFL job in Tokyo: it was not too smart to move to one of the world’s most expensive cities when my financial situation was already so unstable.
So, there I was in a bar in Northampton telling a friend about how things had spiralled out of control. Four student loans, a bank loan and credit cards had left me about £18,000 in debt and my newly qualified teacher’s salary only just about covered basic living costs and a small repayment of the debt each month. It seemed like a mountain that I would never be able to climb. As I was sitting in the bar thinking that things could not get any worse, I received a text message from my housemate. It said “The police have just been to the house, your car has been stolen.” My world fell apart.
I was barely making ends meet and now my car was gone too. I went back home to discover that the car had not, in fact, been stolen but broken into and hotwired. The driver’s door had been wrenched off its hinges and the ignition was damaged beyond repair but the thieves had not been able to take the car. It would have been better for me if they had. The car was written off and my insurance company managed to find a way to refuse paying out. I could see no end to my financial situation and now I had to pay for a new car.
After a long meeting with my bank manager I consolidated all of my loans into one loan and my bank account became a ‘managed account’. I negotiated an extra £1000 to help pay for a new car and bought a Peugeot 206 which had previously been damaged in an accident for £600 from an auction. And I vowed that I would turn my situation around.
It has always been my desire to travel but this now seemed like a fading dream. How could I possibly travel with such a financial burden? Even if I saved enough money to travel I would need to save the same again to pay my loans when I was out of the country. Dejected, I filed ‘Travel’ under the list of things that would just have to wait, who knows for how long?
A few weeks later I received a call back from a job that I had applied for and given up hope on. The job was for an International school in Vietnam. If I couldn’t afford to travel then maybe I could work abroad, that way I could earn money and maybe see a bit of the country that I was living in. I got the job and a matter of weeks later I was moving to Asia, determined that I would not leave before I was solvent.
In Vietnam I committed myself to sending half of my salary back to my UK account every month without fail. I thought about every purchase that I made and booked weekends away with caution – taking the bus rather than flying and staying in the cheapest guesthouses. I tried hard to avoid the expat luxury of eating out for virtually every meal and cooked at home. When we went out to bars at the weekend I limited myself to one or two drinks.
I know I am lucky, not everybody has an opportunity to move to a foreign country as easily as I can. One of the main attractions that led me into teaching was the prospect of one day working abroad. During my second year in Vietnam, the dollar strengthened and the pound plummeted which helped my savings significantly and before long I could see light on a far-off horizon.
On the evening of March 15th 2008, one year to the day of my car getting stolen, I was once again sitting in a small bar. This time I was surrounded by palm trees and I could hear the sea lapping on the shore and I had a cocktail in my hand. I was confessing to a friend that I had once been in terrible debt and although I still had a long way to go before it was paid off I had certainly made a good start. I had not dreamed that my teeth were falling out in almost a year.
It took over three years to completely clear my debt but I could never have achieved this so quickly in the UK, especially in the wake of a recession. Even though I could pay my debts off in Vietnam with relative ease, I did have to make adjustments. I was a long way from my family and a flight home for Christmas or Easter was out of the question.
Now that I am free of debt I can realise my dream of travelling and have booked a trip to South America on August 31st 2011. It scares me that I could end up in debt this year but I think that my attitude towards money is now more mature and I am in control. I feel that I have my life back.
I would urge anybody to pay off any debt before they think about travelling. I regret going to Japan before I was able to fully support myself and my parents had to bail me out once or twice. I honestly believe that if you choose a nomadic lifestyle you should not expect others to pay your way. I have heard many travellers say that they are not lucky but if you are free from debt and able to travel then you are lucky. Very lucky.
My top tips to break free from debt:
- Don’t ignore the problem in the early stages
- Talk to a close friend or relative, maybe they can help you budget
- Whether you like it or not you will have to give up some of the things that you enjoy. Prioritise what is most important to you.
- Take on extra work: bar work, waitressing, writing (I offered individual English tuition)
- Is is possible to get by without a car?
- Speak to your bank
Have you had to overcome any barriers before you could travel? Has debt affected your plans? Please leave a comment, I’d love to hear from you!