How debt changed me

From when I first reached adulthood, personal finances has been a constant road of trial and error. And mostly error. I remember leaving home at the ripe age of 19 to move into my new digs in student accommodation as I began my four-year stint at University.

Very quickly, I faced challenges I had never had to deal with before. First, there was the whole debacle with applying for, and budgeting around, my student finance income. Then realising that funding wasn’t even barely going to stretch past my accommodation costs, so I’d better get a job – fast.

So there I was throughout my university life, studying to get a foundational degree and then a Bachelor’s, and working the rest of my time to be able to afford to live. Even then, my finances were out of control.

I didn’t understand the impact of my choices when it came to personal finance, until it came back round to bite me, and even after being caught in vicious cycles of maxing out my student overdraft, direct debits getting rejected and then subsequently being charged £20 for every time it happened (which was a lot) – I largely allowed it to continue, just scraping money wherever I could get it to tide me by.

I let it continue because I didn’t really have any idea what I was doing, I wasn’t in control of my finances at all, they were just happening to me as I sat aside and watched. What began just as student finance, quickly turned into a maxed out student overdraft, and not long after my first ever credit card.

That credit card became 2, then 3. Taking them out was as easy as filling out a few boxes on an online form. By the time I was 22, I was already drowning in debt I knew I couldn’t pay back. What was going through my head to do something so mad?

Looking back, I can see now that I was yearning to find a sense of self in the stuff I bought. What originally began as an intention to “start building my credit rating” soon became an easy way to feed my spending of unnecessary stuff. It began with new clothes and moved into the far more costly gadgets and tech gizmo’s I just needed to have.

To this day I am still feeling the sting of those decisions. They haunt me every single day and each moment I take out my card to buy something. Do I really need this item? Or do I just want it? If I just want it, can I afford to treat myself this week, this month?

These thoughts aren’t necessarily bad, in fact, they have become a useful tool in my arsenal of keeping on track, staying within my means and remembering to think about what is truly important. Though with these thoughts can arise the feelings of doubt, guilt and pressure I put on myself to make the right decision, or to do the right thing.

But with each wound and scar, I have learnt. With every poor decision I have made for my financial well-being, I have gained knowledge. I’ve uncovered a huge understanding of myself because of my difficulties with personal finance.

I’ve learned about how my emotional state can cause triggers of spending sprees, and how my hunger and fatigue makes my brain opt for more expensive takeaway foods in a heartbeat. Money spent, and often money wasted.

Most importantly of all, I have discovered what is actually important to me, what I need to have to live a fulfilled life, what isn’t as important and what I don’t need to be happy and content.

Now, with an improved understanding of myself when it comes to money, things are clearer and I can see my bad habits coming to light before they take over and make decisions for me.

Instead of thinking from the short-term perspective I think more about the long-term. I’ll ask myself questions like “how can I set myself up for success now?”, “what can I do now to make sure future Joe doesn’t hate past Joe?”, and even as specific as “what does buying this thing actually say about me? And does it, or should it, be saying anything at all?”

By aligning each decision (financial, or otherwise) with my long-term goals,  I get closer to a more content version of myself. I’m not all that successful, I’m nowhere near rich, but what I do have is security in control of my goals and my financial life. How in control do you feel?