It’s not every day you read a story like this. I was lurking on Reddit in their /r/personalfinance section and I stumbled on an incredible story. Anyone who has been drowning in debt can relate to this. The embarrassment, depression, hopelessness.
Here’s the quick cliff note version of the story:
John tells the story of how he lived off $7,000 in one year. He didn’t borrow much money, only $750 from a friend. He ate chicken soup 7 days a week and had his friends check up on him every week. His friends really couldn’t understand this kind of “poorness”. The thought of a simple “bank fee” can destroy his plans of having food on the table for the next two days.
If his friends were having a get together, he would always be afraid that one of them would ask him to bring a case of beer, but how could he afford it? This beer could be your lunch money for the next 3 days. How would he even commute? Would paying a bus fare be worth it?
He finally got a job and went from $7k salary to nearly $58k and now we have the pleasure of hearing his side of the story.
RFZ: Could you tell us a little bit about your day to day life? How were you making your $7k/year?
J: I was working for a startup business and had no idea how to get out of it. It became a fairly hopeless situation. I didn’t know how to leave, but I didn’t know how to survive on the money I was making. I had been working for a couple of years for a company that couldn’t give me a reference for another job. I didn’t know if staying and fighting through it or cutting my losses would be better for me.
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Day to day life was dull. At the absolute lowest I started living like teenager on holiday, except I was nearly 30. I’d wake up at 10, surface at 11.30. Start my first “task” at 1.30. Since I had no money or options I’d feel accomplished after completing 3-4 “things” in a day. Washing the dishes was an accomplishment. Having a shower was an accomplishment.
RFZ: Could you give us a quick background on how everything spiraled out of control? Did you have a nice stable job prior to making $7k/year?
J: This startup was initially succeeding, but slowly (and very surely) it earned less and less money by the day. I started making pay cuts to ensure other staff got paid. I started expecting failure. I wanted the business to succeed but steadily saw the roof caving in and didn’t have any idea on how to exit. How do you know at what points the ship is sinking? And what do you do next? It’s difficult to know when to quit, and it can be easier to go without food than to admit that you failed at something.
On that note, the “spiral out of control” happened so gradually I didn’t even notice until I couldn’t afford to eat anymore. Once my friends started buying me food I realised that things were completely out of control.
RFZ: You mentioned you lost a lot of friends along the way. Moving forward, are you more cautious about who to be friends with?
J: Very much so. Before this I had a lot of fair-weather friends. The best of buddies when things were great, but never there when I needed them most. Now I have a better idea of who the *real* people are.
It goes both ways though. The interesting thing about pride is that when you don’t have it anymore you’re stripped of everything that you believe is important. I believed that I would do anything for my friends before this experience, and yet when I was going through it I found myself ignoring my friends to save $5.
RFZ: What was the first thing you did with your first paycheck at your new job?
J: I went across to the gourmet burger place across the road for lunch on a Friday. I had a burger and a craft beer and nearly cried. It seemed like such a silly thing to be proud of, that I could afford to buy lunch and a beer for myself.
The next thing I did was repair a watch and pair of sunglasses. it seems silly, but I had this watch and pair of sunglasses that I was very fond of but repairing them was way out of my price range (perhaps $20). So they had been sitting in my room for about a year, and I would always look at them on my table and think “stop being ridiculous John, that’s a luxury.” So I took them both down to the local jeweller. I was amazed that it took less than an hour and an inconsequential sum for something I had been worrying about for a year to get fixed.
RFZ: How has your lifestyle changed after getting your new job?
J: I had made a list prior to getting the job of all the things I needed to do to get back on track. New clothes (everything was completely worn), new phone (shattered screen), new glasses (broken). These were very satisfying to fix. Generally though, it’s the smaller things. I don’t have an anxiety attack when someone says “feel like a beer?”, or realise a friend’s birthday is this weekend. I enjoy paying rent. But the general thing about having any kind of money at all is the freedom to participate in everyone else’s lives.
The more interesting thing is how it has changed compared to when I had a job previously. I no longer took money for granted like I did before. I’d question buying a coffee in the morning when I could make it myself, or getting a taxi rather than taking the bus – things like that. It seems miserly, but I became very skeptical of accepted expenses. The most interesting thing is I feel sane again.
RFZ: What’s your single biggest advice for anyone that’s trying to get out of debt?
Ask for help. Debt is frightening, and if you’re anything like me you’ll sooner jump in a freezing lake than ask for advice. I think the biggest problem with debt is the problem becomes so seemingly insurmountable that you begin to accept the every day reality of it as normal, rather than fighting for something better.
That’s pretty generic advice. I think the best advice I can give is turn your insurmountable problem into a quantifiable and measurable problem. Work out what you need to do to overcome it on a day-to-day basis.