Blogger Chonce Maddox had more than $30,000 in debt from student loans and a car loan. Read how she’s paying off debt and en route to becoming debt-free.

I made a pretty imprudent choice while in college to deal with my debt later—after I graduated. Notice I used the word “choice.” I believe, no matter the circumstances, our choices are what put us in control of our lives. I chose to take out student loans to help me get through college without hesitation. Instead of considering alternative ways to avoid loans and save on the cost of college, I figured I would just deal with my loans after the grace period was up and develop a game plan from there.

I was the second of five children, and the first in my family to go to college. My parents weren’t able to save up any money for me to attend college, so I had to rely on what I could get from financial aid. My conditions definitely told me I couldn’t really afford to go to college, but I chose to pursue my degree and take on the debt because I knew that it would pay off in the long run—because it had to.

Did I mention I was a new parent at the time? Nationwide, young single moms don’t earn much money. I didn’t want to limit what my career could be, just because I didn’t have money and couldn’t feasibly earn the money while parenting and getting an education. I took out student loans, signed up for public assistance (welfare), and secured a part-time job to make ends meet while I was in college.

Throughout the four years I spent in college, I innovated my college experience by getting involved with activities and groups with other moms, joining organizations, landing internships, and even taking the big (but exciting) risk of studying abroad in Europe. At the time, I didn’t worry about paying off all my debt in the future—I thought about surviving and succeeding.

Upon graduation, I had racked up just under $21,000 in student loans. I was flat broke and had no job leads. To make things worse, I took out a car loan for just under $10,000 and went on a cruise to celebrate.

Feeling Caught in the Middle

I landed an entry-level job in my field after just a few months of job hunting. The pay was decent, and I felt semi-relieved to know that I could start paying down my debt immediately. My job didn’t pay anywhere near six figures, but it was enough to require me to get off welfare and completely support my son and myself.

Welfare is cut off when, on paper, you appear to earn enough to make ends meet without any support. But it’s difficult because you barely earn enough to get by. I felt positive about my income boost and motivated to use it to pay off debt, but I also felt a bit nervous about my ability to provide for my child and myself so we would no longer struggle to be independent.

Choosing a Path

At that point, I realized I could either continue to earn just enough to get by and live a paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle, or I could do something unusual and make a sacrifice to accelerate my debt payments so I wouldn’t end up on either end of the spectrum.

I chose to get my act together, stop spending on anything but needs, and pay off my debt with lightning speed. I was motivated by the responsibilities of being a parent and my desire to set a good example for my son. Kids grow up very fast, and I knew I didn’t have much time to make any financial mistakes.

Working with My Assets

To go from welfare to financial stability is no easy feat. When I decided to accelerate my debt payments, I made less than $40,000 per year. I was left with only a little money to make extra payments toward my debt after paying for our cost-of-living expenses each month.

I created a budget that would allow me to have some leftover money at the end of the month and cut my expenses as best as I could. I got rid of anything that was not a necessity. I started clipping coupons to save money on groceries, I stopped buying clothes for myself, and I sought ways to bring in extra money on the side. I used my entire tax refund and put extra income and monetary gifts I received toward my debt. It was hard to say no to my wants, but every month I felt reassured and motivated when I saw my debt balances decrease.

By the end of the year, I paid off more than $11,000 in debt. Who would’ve figured that a young mom with a moderate salary could squeeze out that much extra cash and still live comfortably?

Having (Almost) No Regrets

I don’t regret choosing to take out student loans because I might not have learned as much as I did in college or landed the job I have now. After I pay back the investment in my education, it’s nice to know that I can still keep my income and experience.

I do regret the other choices I made that added to my debt total. I don’t like how I simply signed the promissory letter to take out student loans without exploring my options first and considering how the debt would have a negative effect on my life later. However, the experience of being in debt taught me a lot, and I still utilize my budgeting and financial management skills today. One of the most important things I learned is that, even when the odds were stacked against me, my determination and resilience helped me make great choices—choices I think all Grownups are capable of making.

This photo shows freelance writer Chonce Maddox

Chonce Maddox runs the blog My Debt Epiphany and contributes personal finance stories to many online publications.

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