Life After Debt: The Biggest Downside to Being Debt Free

life after debt

Getting out of debt is tough and if anyone tells you otherwise they are either lying or delusional. And being debt free is a goal I never thought I’d reach.

But thankfully, after much hard work and dedication, I paid off $14,000 in just over a year. To do this I was living on 2/3rds of my income and cut back my lifestyle to almost nothing.

But for me it was totally worth it! Because having control over your money and dictating how you spend it is, well…priceless. The sacrifice is definitely worth the reward in the end.

The scary truth about life after debt

Once the excitement of paying off all my debt wore off, I slowly discovered there’s a big downside to living debt free. It’s not something many people talk about, or at least I never hear it mentioned much. What is this downside?

It’s the fear and temptation of getting back into debt. It seems like everywhere I go there’s a credit card or loan application being thrown at me. And people are pulling at me left and right to spend more money.

It’s very overwhelming.

Our whole society is geared towards getting into debt and staying in debt for a long, long time. It’s actually a daily struggle to stay out of debt, because the idea of being in debt is so widely accepted and mainstream that I look like a crazy person for saying “no” all the time.

It’s an uphill battle

Not a lot of people talk about life after debt, but for many of us it’s a harsh slap in the face once reality sets in. Even normal purchases scare me into wondering if I’ve overextended myself. Then the fear of evolving back into a debt filled lifestyle slowly creeps into my mind.

After working so hard to become debt free, I found a life without debt is also very difficult. It seems like an uphill battle no matter what stage of life you’re in.

There are still uncertainties and money concerns like, how I’ll pay my bills, if I can afford certain things and if I’ll make enough money.

Whether you’re paying off debt or living a life after debt, the fact remains – you need to spend money to survive. Which means it’s a daily struggle.

The economy does not cater to people trying to forge out their financial path, without the use of debt. And it’s definitely not nice to those of us who are going against the grain.

And then there’s the questions.

Can you really save enough money? What is enough? Will you ever reach true financial independence away from the loan sharks, big banks and endless credit card applications?

Is it worth it?

But even with all those questions running around in my head and the constant struggle every day, I’d still prefer to live a life without debt. Instead of my fate being placed into the hands of a debt collection agency or a bank, I control it.

No matter how alarming that perspective may seem at times, it still leaves me with hope. The hope that I have the potential to overcome any financial obstacle placed in my way and unlimited possibilities to create a life worth living – without debt.

That kind of freedom is totally worth it!

Are you struggling with life after debt? What’s your biggest worry about living a debt free life?

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59 comments

  1. Greg@ClubThrifty says:

    “Our whole society is geared towards getting into debt and staying in debt for a long, long time. It’s actually a daily struggle to stay out of debt, because the idea of being in debt is so widely accepted and mainstream that I look like a crazy person for saying “no” all the time.”
    This is so true! Being in debt is the American way. It can be hard to stand up for yourself when all your friends and family are telling you that you can “afford” things. We are always the weirdos who say no. I think we used to be a bit embarassed by that. Now, we wear it as a badge of honor.

  2. Club Thrifty says:

    “Our whole society is geared towards getting into debt and staying in debt for a long, long time. It’s actually a daily struggle to stay out of debt, because the idea of being in debt is so widely accepted and mainstream that I look like a crazy person for saying “no” all the time.”
    This is so true. Being in debt is the American Way. It can be hard to be the weirdo who says no to everything, especially when all of your family and friends are telling you that you can “afford” it. We used to be a bit embarassed by that. Now, we wear it as a badge of honor.

  3. Jordann says:

    I’m not debt free yet, but my biggest worry is that I’ll have to get back into debt again, whether it’s to replace my car, or buy a house, or go back to school. I’m working so hard right now to get out of debt, I don’t want to undo all of that by getting back into it.

  4. addvodka says:

    I’m not debt free, but I got into debt like 8 months ago with my car loan. It really doesn’t bug me that much – I’m probably the only one. I’m trying to get out of it faster, simply because I’d like to have an extra $220/month in my pocket that I’m not paying toward my car (+the $600/mo extra I’m throwing at it). But I can imagine a whole new set of struggles that come out of the woodwork when debt freedom comes.

  5. Modest Money says:

    It definitely is the way society works. Sometime soon I’ll pay off the remainder of my car loan that is sitting on a 0% balance transfer. Then I know it’s just a matter of time before I take on a mortgage and deal with some real long term debt. It seems that the only way to truly avoid debt is to make a massive amount of money or just be content without certain major purchases. I guess the fact that everyone else is in the same kind of cycle gives me some comfort. So I know it’s not just me being a slave to the banks.

  6. I think being newly debt free is probably on par with being a recovering addict. There is always that fear being newly sober that you will revert to your old ways. While obviously not as severe a repercussion if you ever use your cc again versus drugs/alcohol, there is still a real fear there. If you slip, just catch yourself faster. Eventually the urgency that you feel will probably lessen.

    • Carrie Smith says:

      You’re absolutely right! I never thought of it that way, but I mean there’s such a thing as a shopaholic so I can relate to being in debt the same way.

      Yes, I’m fearful about slipping back into debt, not the kind of fear that’s paralyzing, but the good kind that’s healthy and keeps us from making terrible mistakes.

  7. Kaolee says:

    I never thought of this, but it’s so true. There’s so many “new” things that come out that just yells “Spend, Spend, Spend!”

  8. Veronica @ Pelican on Money says:

    Wow, I’ve never really thought about it. I guess I would just direct the money that was going into paying off the debt into a separate account, and just continue saving it instead of paying down the debt?

  9. Mrs PoP says:

    I get where you’re coming from, but I really hope these fears don’t keep you from taking some well-thought out and responsible risks with debt in the future. Understanding interest rates and investment returns can allow you to make intelligent decisions and let other people’s money work FOR you. Borrowing $50K at a 5% interest rate for 5 years to buy a duplex may well turn into one of the best long-term investments we’ll make in our lives. It certainly is so far. And it’s way different than opening a credit card and maxing it out on clothing.

  10. Jeremy Carver says:

    Nicely done! (on the post as well as being debt free)
    Nobody talks about the temptation & “Savings Anxiety” of life after debt. Here’s what I believe… When you make positive progress in anything, the “opportunity” to undo that progress knocks harder and faster than ever before. The world seeks to find equillibrium and you are out of balance with it when you live better! Stay that way!

  11. Shannon_ReadyForZero says:

    Wow Carrie, this is so interesting. I’ve been so focused on getting myself to debt free that it never occurred to me that there may be difficulties to face afterwards. I guess once you eliminate one worry it’s easy for many more to follow. Hopefully as time goes on this will get easier for you and you’ll trust your financial decisions more (as you should because you’ve worked so hard and done so well already). Keep us posted on how this goes for you.

    • Carrie Smith says:

      Yeah, this is something I didn’t realize or give much thought to either. I guess I thought once I made it over the debt hurdle, everything would be smooth sailing. But anything worth getting comes with a price, and the price of financial freedom is something you constantly have to guard. Thanks for the encouragement along the way, and I’ll definitely keep you posted on the rest of the journey.

  12. I’ve thought the exact same about saving: How do you save enough, and what is enough? Dealing with money is so much about numbers for me that it’s frustrating when there’s no answer for things like this.

    I’ll just say another downside to paying off my debt last year is that I often wonder if I would’ve been better to save more rather than going so hard at paying debt free. I don’t regret it, and it was a personal decision for me. But it’s a little more of something to think about now that my self-employed income is less stable than when I had a job.

  13. Jon White says:

    I think this is a common occurrence Carrie. We spend all this time, energy, and money getting out of debt and after we climb up that mountain we ask ourselves the question “Now What?” and then we realize that being debt free isn’t the end of a journey . . . just the beginning. But hand in there, the more times passes you will get more comfortable and the temptation to go back will lessen.

  14. Robb says:

    This sounds similar to how I felt after I started working again and had gotten a few paychecks in the bank – over the last 6 months my all consuming obsession had been finding work so now that I had achieved that I found myself asking the question “Ok where do I go from here?” For you, you’ve been really focused in on this one task and now that you’ve crossed the finish line it is time to figure out what the next goal is. In my case now that I’m working again I’m back to paying off my student loan and rebuilding my savings. On the non-financial side I’m trying to be more social and do more activities outside of the house – suffice to say when I was unemployed I felt like a failure and didn’t really want to be around anybody or do much.

    Something to consider as a next goal would be to build up an emergency fund of 3-6 months of expenses – or even possibly 12 months if you feel so inclined. In the May 2011 – May 2012 time frame I only worked for 3 months and one thing that was a huge help to me was the fact I had spent the previous year stockpiling money because I knew layoffs were coming so that helped me weather the storm a lot better than I would have been able to if I was living paycheck to paycheck. I remember hearing a speech buy a member of the European Parliament using the example of a ship about to sail into a storm and preparing by caulking the hulls and clearing the rigging and that is what everyone should do if they have an inkling a storm is coming.

    The reason for the emergency fund is a) it keeps you from going back to the debt well and b) helps with feelings of security. I know the second one is kind of hard of quantify and for me I didn’t really “get” the idea of feeling secure until I got walloped and didn’t feel secure at all. Something I’ve become increasingly aware of is how stressful modern life is and I know it can’t be healthy mentally or physically to be under that kind of strain. I imagine if you took a poll of most people the biggest cause of stress to them in money related and according to every study I’ve seen that is also the biggest cause of strife among married couples as well.

    Something I’ve noticed when comparing myself to my friends who are married – and I want to be careful here because I don’t want to come off as single guy trying to arm chair quarterback married people. But I feel that as a single person it is much easier for me to turn the proverbial boat and build wealth. Quite honestly I think a lot of people squander their single years by failing to build savings of any kind because that is prime time to do so. Plus listening to Dave Ramsey made me realize that many times a husband and wife are of a different mind set on how financial things need to be and it takes time to reconcile that. Dave himself admits to being both a numbers guy and a spender where as his wife, Sharon, is more interested in feeling secure and saving. Not to mention people calling in and explaining how they’ve scared their spouse to death with the total money makeover and turned Dave’s name into a cuss word in the house. That is why I think single people need to get financial discipline while they are just responsible for themselves, that way if and when they get married there is less weeping and gnashing of teeth on the financial front.

    I am in total agreement with you about our society’s view of debt – that it is ok and worthwhile. I mean I would love to ditch credit cards and never use them but I can’t because I need a FICO score to be able to rent an apartment so I charge a token amount every month and pay it off over and over just to keep that score. The other thing is just the temptation of instant gratification “Oh you don’t need to save up for that new computer, just finance it with our handy, dandy finance plan!” Thank you Best Buy, you evil enablers…. Dave Ramsey had a great line on his show once ‘Wealthy people ask “How much?”, Broke people ask “How much down, how much a month?” Now I don’t want to sound cavalier about this because this temptation has been eating at me for the last 2 months like crazy. I spent a year having to lock down my spending and I really would *love* to get a new computer, new clothes, and a lot of other things, but there is other stuff that needs to be done first and I don’t particularly like it. But then again what I want to do and what I should do many times aren’t the same.

    Lastly, I agree with you that in the end it is worth it, for the reasons you stated and I would bold and underline a zillion times the word CONTROL. If you have all the money going in and out every month and are massively over extended in terms of debt you have zero control over your income and you sure as heck can’t build wealth that way. I remember in the Millionaire Next Door them mentioning a woman who lived on 50% of her income and invested the rest and was able to retire with a multi-million dollar net worth and that is a goal I would like to push towards. Thing is though you can’t build wealth if you don’t have control over the tools to do it – and that is your income.

    Congratulations again Carrie, hopefully I’ll be joining you in Debt-Free land next year!

  15. William_Drop_Dead_Money says:

    I went from a debtor to an investor – that’s a total change of identity. A nice change, for sure, one I wished I experienced earlier in life.

    But, better late than never, as they say. 🙂

  16. PK says:

    I thought you were going to say “less articles to write about debt”. It’s like second album syndrome for artists – if the life that led them to write the first album is no more, what do you write about? Haha, I kid… but seriously, congratulations on the milestone.

    • Carrie Smith says:

      Haha! Well that is true for sure. I notice I’ve written less about my issues with debt and more about saving/making more money since I’m looking to invest now. Thanks @pkamp3:disqus

  17. MoneyMateKate says:

    I saw my sister struggle with getting back into a fairly small amount of debt for a student loan to get her nursing degree after paying off $18K on credit cards 6yrs ago. And then there’s my post-bankruptcy mom, who’s like a little kid with her first savings account, all excited to watch it grow and hit milestones. My sister is now quite well off but still lives like she’s on the precipice of a pit of debt, while my mom breathes a sigh of relief that if she had to replace her car tomorrow (her only unpredictable expense), she could do it without a loan. I think the difference between them comes down to my sister still not really understanding money, while my mom always did (bankruptcy was my spendthrift dad’s fault). I hope you find a way to manage your understanding and comfort with spending, because I get the feeling that your fear encompasses all non-essential spending, not just the use of consumer credit. It’s not irrational, but neither is it uncontrollable 🙂

  18. Cassie says:

    I’m definitely struggling with life after debt. The urge to buy is still there, but I’m afraid of sinking into old habits. In a way I kind of did, but if I behave myself I’ll be able to get it paid off before the interest charges kick in. The biggest thing I’m struggling with right now is that I need a different vehicle. I don’t have enough to pay for one in full, and I’m terrified of the prospect of taking out a loan. The other thing is that once I put money into savings, I’m afraid to take it back out. So I could save up for the car, but then once the money is in the account I consider it my emergency fund. Things you don’t think about when you’re paying off debt.

    • Carrie Smith says:

      I have a hard time taking money out of a savings account after I’ve put it in too. I have to REALLY want something to take out money I’ve saved up for a while. I think it’s about finding a good balance though, between not sliding back into the debt trap but making good spending habits and financial decisions. With practice I know we’ll get there 🙂

  19. Debt Free Teen says:

    Congratulations! I am debt free and just starting out but even with a sizable amount in the bank to cover college, and a budget, I still wonder if I can really make it happen. I wonder if it’s fear or uncertainty about the future?
    Chase

    • Carrie Smith says:

      For me it’s a little bit of both, fear of all the unknowns. But I guess as life goes on, I’ll learn to cope with it better and prepare for all the uncertainties of life. Thanks Chase!

  20. Special_Ed says:

    Congratulations on being debt free.

    You should set your mind on your new goals: saving and investing.

    My wife and I have 4 accounts that we fund: A savings account or emergency fund. An investment account consisting of mutual fund, bond fund, and index fund. A retirement fund (actually hers and mine/Roth IRAs. And a vacation savings account. We put around 25% of o income into savings and investing.

    All of these are set up with automatic payments. You will not believe how quickly your money will add up funding these accounts over the years. Be sure to pay them first and your money will take care of itself.

    • Carrie Smith says:

      Saving and investing is definitely my next step. I actually already max out my Roth IRA but now you’re right – I need to set my mind on saving more aggressively. Doing automatic payments is the way to go for sure. I’m actually going to up my withdrawals right now! Thanks @23d439fd46aabd2a4ad4f5cf4eef9261:disqus

      • Special_Ed says:

        Saving and investing aggressively at your age will make all the difference in your later years. The power of compound interest is, unfortunately, lost on most 20-somethings (as it was on me in my 20s).

        My investing advice is to buy into a good long-term mutual fund and stick with it no matter what. Many “investors” got out of the market when it crashed and I admit it was very difficult not to panic and sell out in 2008-09, but I stuck with it and even increased my contributions during that period and ended up making around 5.5%/yr from 2008-2012. I would have lost a fortune if had sold at the bottom. You sound like you have a good head on your shoulders and you should do well.

  21. I am struggling with some of this, as we just paid off over $100,000 in consumer debt. Mainly, I am having to confront those things that straddle the want/need column, things like maintenance and upgrades that were put off to finance debt repayment.

  22. This is absolutely true! Every time we get close to paying one thing off, we tend to take on another. Its kind of a vicious cycle! While I don’t know the magic number for how much is enough to save, I do know that keeping your expenses in check is what you really want to sick the hounds on.

  23. Marissa says:

    Being debt free is a huge deal that most people are not able to accomplish at our age. I completely understand the moments of doubt, but that shouldnt take away from your accomplishments!

  24. Congrats on getting out of debt! Maybe it would helpful to set some goals for yourself to keep yourself moving forward. You could even pretend you have $10,000 debt! Then when you save $10,000 start over again 🙂

  25. Threadbndr says:

    What I did after getting out of debt was to make a list of my savings goals. Things on the list were pretty focused and precise like “save one/two/three months of expenses”, and “sign up for the 401K at work”, “increase 401K to match by saving 1% more per year”, and “start a vacation fund with $25 a moth/paycheck/week” etc, etc.
    Treating that list of goals like the list of debts (I even posted it in the same place on the fridge that my debt paydown list used to live) kept me focused. Another trick I used was to have seperate accounts or sub accounts for the major saving categories of efund, vacation, sinking fund (for taxes, insurance and other quarterly or yearly bills) and house/car repair and replace. That way, spending money on my vacation wasn’t a guilty feeling because those funds were earmarked for just that specific purpose.
    Congrats on joining the debt free posse. It’s rather fun on this side of the divide!

  26. FrugalPortland says:

    I’m so close to writing this same thing — I’ll be debt free in less than a month, and it’s at least as terrifying as it is exciting.

  27. LivingDebtFreeRocks! says:

    I am so conscious of how much sacrifice it took me to get out of debt that I am too scared to ever be in debt again. It took so much out of me that I am not remotely interested in experiencing that again. I also have savings goals that keep me focused. Great post!

  28. I’ve been debt free for three years. What my husband and I did was look at what we used to pay every month towards that debt, divided it by half, and funneled it into our regular budget The other half went into savings. That half we chose to spend could be for a short term goal like travel. It’s worked for us thus far!

  29. eemusings says:

    “Whether you’re paying off debt or living a life after debt, the fact remains – you need to spend money to survive. Which means it’s a daily struggle.”

    THIS! I’ve never really been in debt, but I always feel like it’s been a struggle to get by nonetheless.

  30. takabanana says:

    Although I do not have ANY temptation to get back into debt – the daily struggle is 100% right. Once you figure out how to turn yourself around (usually fear-driven – at least it was in my case), you have so much fear of “going back there” and it stays with you every day. And it’s true most people don’t talk about it – maybe because talking about it is also scary. I’m proud of getting myself out of debt (I did it by actually buying my first home and getting roommates to pay for most of my mortgage – allowing me to put a lot of my original living expenses towards my debt).

    That was about 15 yeas ago – since then, there is one more thing I learned that I think people in “our” situation can learn from – finding a soul mate that is on the SAME PAGE in terms of financial responsibilities. Yikes, yes, touchy subject – but money is the biggest reason why people get divorced. Yes – I got divorced a year ago – money was a big part of it (although in my opinion, it was a secondary, indirect reason; I consider *trust* the primary since the money issues were hidden from me) – we just weren’t on the same page on how important financial responsibility was. And considering people are SO sensitive about money and spending and shopping habits and such, especially during dating – it makes it even harder. Especially during dating, since that’s when people are trying to impress each other – no one is going to admit they have a spending/shopping problem or are financially irresponsible. Unfortunately, in most cases, that’s something you find out after you get married… the hard way… unless you are lucky to find someone who believes being honest and truthful is more important than protecting their ego.

    I’m very happy to be financially stable after my marriage – no more hidden credit cards (or even identity theft through credit cards obtained with my name – but that’s a whoooole separate conversation). But to add to your “daily fears” – finding a partner that is also on the same page is hard. In my case, moreso because of my experience, I also have a fear of people hiding their financial irresponsibilities and not being honest (or asking for help) about it.

  31. Stephen says:

    Life is expensive. We will always need to have savings and limit our spending in order to afford it, even more so if we want to be debt free. No longer is a $15K car and $100K house only $800 per month combined, now they’re $115,000!

    “What’s that? You only have $10K in the bank?” the wake up call can be heard. 🙂

  32. Keron Kelap says:

    You’re “struggling” to stay out of debt? You’re full of crap. I laugh at the debtors in this world who frivolously whip out their plastic for every god damn thing and then whine and bitch about it. I am OUT OF DEBT, 4 years now, and make TONS of money topped off with being handsome, witty and charming. The women LINE up for the debt free handsomeness. So don’t complain (whine/moan) about being deft-free. Life is good and you are insane.

  33. I know I’ve gotten out of small amount of credit card debt throughout college — although huge for me back in those days– back when I essentially needed credit to buy food and basic necessities, along with debt from life lessons learned. I struggle with that worry a lot of days, and now that I’m in student loan debt and carry very little to no CC debt, I feel as though I have increased worry of going back there; the feeling of being trapped and not making any progress. All you can do is keep positive and track your progress for savings. Each month take time to make note that you’ve kept your budget in check another month and consider it another success!

  34. Meghan Cross says:

    I commend your honesty and your bravery in sharing. I am reading your almost three years later, and am excited to hear if you are feeling much better about how things are going today. Either way, congratulations on the awareness!

    I believe financial “issues” are part of some of our journeys to higher evolution and greater self-awareness. The work that I do is with folks who get into debt again and again despite, and for folks who have anxieties about money even though they have never had any difficulties or debt.

    We dig deep, make some serious transformations, and create sustainable and life-enhancing changes. Blessings to you as you move forward!

  35. David says:

    What to do once debt free? [Abridged ed.] 1)Invest in your financial ed. 2.)Learn the difference between bad debt vs. good debt. 3.)Use your new found wealth to control assets (see #1). With knowledge, good debt will make you wealthy. You will stop asking “can I afford it?” and start asking “how can I afford it?” Paying off bad debt is great, but now it is time to create positive cash flow and ditch the fear.

  36. Thomas Falater says:

    I’ve been out of debt for a long time and one of the benefits to me is knowing that I have access to lots of credit should I need it. If something were to happen to me, I could easily get a loan as an emergency.

    • Joey Duggan says:

      You’re right, Thomas Falater, but not only that you don’t have the stress of having to pay the bills that debt brings. People buy junk that fills up their garage that they never use and then spend the rest of their lives working a crummy job to pay for it. Good post.

  37. Lucky7 says:

    I have been debt-free since July,had a very comfortable summer and stashed away 10K into a tax-free savings account. Now that my chequing account is at $68 and payday is 3 days away…I am already dreading the thought of having to access my security funds(as I call it). Being debt-free made me realize that it requires so much self-control that if I had that I would actually be skinny. 🙂 As a society we are so intrigued by instant gratification, be it food, spending, instant lottery games and living mindlessly that it’s almost impossible to maintain a “healthy lifestyle” of stretching only as far as our duvet reaches. I am not sure if this is in response to stress, or an attempt to take our minds off the things that really matter be it relationship issues, things we never finished or even started, pressures by external factors, etc.. I remember watching a decorating show as I was on maternity leave with my 3rd child and found myself slipping into depression, by constantly being exposed to ideas of others on what my house should look like, what to buy for the baby (that really only needs, food, love and air) – so I made it my mission to remind myself every day that $ can’t buy happiness, and that the most wonderful things in life are free. Now I have to remind myself again, that I only have $68 bucks until Friday! 🙂

  38. Paul says:

    Carrie,
    Great article and so true! My wife and I just paid off our house and are completely Debt Free at 43! However, the struggle is real as we are planning on purchasing our first vehicle with cash. It would be so easy to take out a loan considering we have no payments except taxes and utilities (and savings and donations). It makes us be even more conscious of the value we are getting if we are going to part with $15,000 to $20,000 for a gently used vehicle. Nowadays, we prefer to spend money on experiences which provide memories and true value rather than possessions that take space and time for things that are really important.

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