Free to Travel – How I Broke Free From Debt

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

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.

Fully appreciating the cocktail!

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!

19 thoughts on “Free to Travel – How I Broke Free From Debt

  1. so great that you are going travelling in South America
    Have a ball and keep on blogging, as I want to go there at some point.
    PS – feel really sorry for the poor buggers having to pay 9K per year now.

  2. I know Alex, it’s not good to have so many people in that much debt when they are barely 20.

    I’ll certainly keep you up to date on the South America travels. Hopefully I’ll see you on the road someday?!

  3. enjoyed da blog.. keep sharing your travel experiences + travel tips 🙂

  4. Its such a shame these student loans, and tuition fees. My generation are going to be in debt until their last working days. Happy that you managed to get out of it, however I am sure you had a great experience at university, learned an important life lesson about money, and it has got you where you are to day. So all things considered- it probably wasn’t such a bad thing.
    Jordan recently posted..Dont Call Me- Swedish BullshitersMy Profile

    1. You’re right. I learnt a lot of life lessons by being in debt at 21. Hopefully it will never happen again!

  5. What a fantastic post! and quite a story you have there – from the “stuck in debt” to the “travelling and debt free” feeling in one year is quite an achievement if you ask me. If there is a tip I would add, it would be – “be self disciplined”, this is how it works for me. When I put my mind to something then I don’t allow any let off’s – for that matter, if I’m managing a tight budget, restaurants are out (and anyway I’m a good cook! :)).

    In any case, I am happy it worked out for you in the end – and in style, financing your resurgence out of debt, while enjoying Vietnam. Have you tried couch surfing? that saved me quite a bundle in my latest trip to Scandinavia.

    Have a great time in South America, I’m sure you will.

    Guy

    PS – Great photo by the way

    1. I agree that self-discipline is really important, although it can be really hard sometimes! I haven’t tried couchsurfing but I imagine that it’s the best way to see Scandinavia as even hostels can be insanely expensive here! I will be travelling with my boyfriend so I don’t know how viable couchsurfing is – can you still do it if you are not travelling solo?

  6. What an inspiring story, great idea to live somewhere cheaper so you can save more money to pay off the debts.

    It always surprises me how many people move to Norway to work and save up some money. Yes, the salary is higher, but so are the living costs.

    1. I don’t really understand how people can afford to live in Norway either. I’m living in Sweden at the moment and it is really expensive here but apparently it is quite common for people in Norway to come across the Swedish border to buy groceries and alcohol because they are much cheaper here!

  7. Thanks so much for such an honest post. Money is such a huge part of a traveller’s life, yet the only travel bloggers that seem to talk about it are the ones who brag how they managed to save 20k before their trip by moving back in with their parents and not socialising for six months. I am in debt after my RTW travels last year (totes worth it) and am feeling a little stuck in my job for now because I know I have to knock that debt over. However, it’s so nice to read of your experience with working overseas and being able to have the best of both worlds – a travel experience AND a way to pay back the debt. I’m not trapped in my office cubicle, huzzah! Anyhoo, be sensible about money, but no regrets, eh?! You don’t want to be that person loitering around the hostel kitchen with no drive to do anything. Good on you!
    Lindsey recently posted..And this is why I travel.My Profile

    1. Thanks for your comment and good luck with the debt repayment, there is life after debt! I understand why people move back in with their parents to save money but I don’t feel comfortable with it – my parents have not had the opportunities that I have had to travel and I would feel too guilty letting them pay my way as such. It is hard to break the frugal mentality though, I need to find a balance between having fun and splurging now!

  8. hey there thanks for sharing your story. I came across your story while googling ” I have too much debt I want to run away.” I think faceing the reality is the worst part. I know I have to cut down my spending big time …..but its hard….. yet a nessecary “evil” *sigh* yet I still feel the need to run away. I will rsave your story for when the tough gets going. thanks again for sharing. Greetings from south Africa.

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