Money Mistakes: Lifestyle Loans

Time for another installment of HYDMS presents Money Mistakes where a fellow finance blogger shows that even we “experts” messed up at some point. Hopefully by reading others can avoid the same mistakes we have or learn how to pick themselves back up from a money mistake, happy reading!

Tell us a little about yourself

Hi, I’m Adam and I am the founder of realworldpersonalfinance.com, a personal finance blog dedicated to covering real world challenges everyday people face in the pursuit of financial knowledge and freedom.

The truth is, achieving overnight wealth is unlikely for many of us; building with wealth is a long-term game. However, with incremental improvements over time, financial freedom and becoming financially responsible can be possible for all of us. I’ve made some mistakes along the way, and that’s ok; it’s part of the journey.  

I’m here to share my personal, financial journey with my readers so that they can learn from mistakes I make and maybe throw in a laugh or two along the way. 

What was your money mistake and when did you make it?

My worst money mistake was in college. I took extra loans (about $40,000) to help support a lifestyle I could not afford. These loans (between 6-7% interest rate) allowed me to rent an expensive off-campus apartment, go on vacations I wouldn’t have been able to afford, and maintain the appearance of wealth that was seemingly ubiquitous among my friends and peers. 

What led you to making the mistake?

I went to an expensive, private college. The school tended to attract a lot of wealthy students from the Northeast. For some reason, all the friends I made at that school all happened to be very wealthy.  They had luxury cars, stylish clothes, and cutting-edge gadgets. 

I naively thought that this was just the way it was at every college campus, so I felt compelled to keep up with appearances. Clearly, I was just young and trying to establish my own identity as a young man. While doing so, I paradoxically tried to fit in with everyone else to establish my identity. I simply did not want to come off as a broke kid from PA and therefore found myself escaping through the culture of wealth at this private university. 

Nonetheless, when I graduated I had about $108,000 in student loans, including the extra lifestyle loans I had taken at throughout my college years. I did not have a six-figure job when I graduated – in fact, my first job was a temp position making $17 an hour with $108,000 in debt. 

Look at this screenshot from 2012:

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How did you recover from it?

I started making standard repayments even with my $17/hr job – I was living quite a different lifestyle post college.  I eventually landed a full-time job about 8 months later with a decent salary. For the next two years I lived with my parents. I didn’t spend any money going out. I just pretty much spent 85% of my paycheck paying back my loans and helping my parents out when I could. 

I eventually learned to accept the situation I was in, and to just keep moving forward. There was no point in harping over the past. 

Since I had this large debt hanging over me, I think that was part of my motivation to continue to push myself career-wise. I moved jobs quite a few times, with each move came a substantial raise. That allowed me to keep hammering away at the debt. At the same time, I continued to live cheaply. In fact, the nicest apartment I ever had still to this day was the one I rented with the borrowed money in college – haha!

I finally paid off all my debt in the middle of 2019. It was a great feeling. I wouldn’t have been able to do without the realization that I needed to live considerably below my means because of my above average debt burden. Leading up to this loan repayment, I didn’t go on any vacations for almost six years and lived in an apartment with five roommates. My bedroom in that apartment was in the basement and the heating intermittently worked. On one winter evening, a pipe burst in my room due to the arctic-like temperatures of my bedroom! 

A lot of people talk about lifestyle creep in the personal finance space. I lived the reverse of a lifestyle creep for years and it is ultimately what led me to successful loan repayment. I now live more frugally than I ever have. 

What would you have done differently?

In addition to not taking an extra $40,000 to support a lifestyle I couldn’t afford, I would have tried to do a better job learning to accept where I am and who I was at that time, so I can get to where I wanted to be. I didn’t like the cards I was dealt, and I wanted a new dealer.  Instead, I was focused so much on how I was going to be perceived at that point in time. I didn’t consider the bigger picture and what a mountain of debt would do to me financially and psychologically. 

Also, going to state college instead of a private university would have been a better option for me. I could have saved myself an additional $50,000 by making that choice. 

How can others avoid the same money mistake?

Learn to accept where you are in life so can get to where you want to be. I grew up in a pretty blue collar town, and I think part of the reason I went to such an expensive school and took those extra loans to live an extravagant college life is because I wasn’t happy where I was. 

I’m sure there were plenty of people who were in a similar situation as me, I just think subconsciously I wanted to “start fresh” when I went to college. 

Most importantly, what did you learn from your money mistake?

Instead of understanding the work, patience, and time it takes to generate income and wealth, I thought if someone will give me the money now, I can worry about it later – which is the wrong way to think about things. Yes, taking loans out for college is an investment in yourself, but to do so in order to “keep up with appearances” ended up being to my detriment in the early years of my career.

Benjamin Franklin famously quipped, “HAVING BEEN POOR IS NO SHAME, BUT BEING ASHAMED OF IT IS.”

What Franklin communicates here is that where we come from helps shape who we are today, something that no one ought to be ashamed of. And my experience is very much the case. That said, personal finance is an emotional experience. In today’s world of cryptocurrencies, meme stocks, and NFTs getting “rich quick” seems to be more prevalent than ever.  Everything is Insta this or Insta that. Instant gratification is human nature, but there’s a reason the proverb “slow and steady wins the race.” Because it stands the test of time. 

Anything else you want to say?

Nope

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