Life After Debt: An Honest Look After the Finish Line

Last month, I paid off the last remaining consumer debt (my car loan). Then, I was in an odd place. Free from debt. To be honest, I was a little (a lot?) hung up on the fact that I was buying a condo, and I worried that by buying a condo, I was keeping myself in a payoff debt comfort zone.

It took a little getting used to, but logic won in the end, and I can safely say that I’m on the other side of debt. My money is working for me.

I slogged away for years getting to this point. Years. I worked my tail off. I sold stuff. I took on extra jobs. The earnest go-getter in me started in full swing in 2010, and three years later, I reached the finish line.

It’s a little like starting to walk across the country. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, you wake up one day in Portland, Maine. You lace on your shoes and decide to walk to the “other” Portland. If you’ve decided to walk across the country, there’s simply only one way to do that: one step at a time.

And now, to take the analogy further, let’s say, instead of waking up and deciding to do this on a whim, you’ve awakened a deep desire to live life on your terms, and the only path that you see that can take you there is the long, slow walk. From Portland to Portland. From beginning to end. It’s a long, tiring process, and you’ll get fatigued. You’ll lose your step. Especially in the beginning, you’ll want to go back to the familiar Portland.

But something in you tells you that no, sweetheart, your life isn’t there anymore.

Once you wake up and decide, you can never go back to a blissful life of ignorance. You know that. You can’t throw caution into the wind and finance a pair of shoes, not now that you know who has to pay for that in the end.

Every step away from debt is empowering. And every time you pay down (or off!) one or more of your debts, you venture further into the unknown. “Oh, so this is how it feels to no longer have credit card debt,” I thought to myself when I finally paid that off. I poked my arm. “It’s not very different from yesterday.”

Every time I paid off a debt, I poked myself. “Self, do you feel different?”

Even now that I don’t have consumer debt, the answer is no.

I’m the same person I was ten years ago, before I had any debt. The same person who wrote a check from a credit card seven years ago. The same person who woke up one day in 2009 and couldn’t breathe because I couldn’t see where my next rent payment would come from.

I got out of debt, and that’s really something I’m proud of.

I walked from Portland to Portland so to speak. I arrived alone, without fanfare, and wasn’t greeted with hugs or high fives. No roses, no medals. Not for this race.

It’s lonely at the finish line.

Portland Rose Parade

no roses at the finish line

I’ve had time to reflect. Time to think about what this means.

Life After Debt is a really great life. But it’s just life.

I think I was expecting it to be like how Dorothy felt after her house landed on the witch and the world was Technicolor. But I didn’t see that. There are no munchkins here. There’s just life. Nothing has changed, except that the goal you worked SO hard to hit has been attained. You are where you set out to be.

Sure, I don’t check Mint every day, and that’s weird. But it’s a good kind of weird. The kind where I’m comfortable with the inflow and outflow of my cash. I still log on at least once a week, but mostly to categorize my transactions (and see which direction that IRA heads toward).

I have to work toward new goals.

There’s something funny about laser focus and human nature. I’m the kind of person who needs tough goals. Paying off $35,000 in debt was a reach goal. Knowing that I can pay that much money in that short amount of time makes me feel a little like Superwoman. I’m unstoppable, friends! I can do anything! But without something to strive toward, I’m a little adrift. My new goals are lofty, but only one has a time limit.

New Goals

  • I’m going to earn $10,000 in 2013 (net!) in addition to my regular salary.
  • I’m going to save $15,000 in a 2.25% interest bearing checking account (more on that another time, but why don’t you bank at a credit union? they’re better!) and after that, start investing in things that are less liquid.

It’s funny. I started this blog to keep me accountable, and for a long time, my favorite posts were those charts where I was tracking my debt progress. I used to update my spreadsheets and projections every single time I made an extra payment. Now? I don’t even publish those anymore, because I find them exceptionally boring.

Maybe I’ll start new charts and track my progress on my new goals!

Has anyone else experienced this?


  1. says

    While you may not feel a lot different the first day you wake up debt-free, paying off you debt–and more importantly, resolving to live within your means–will make a massive difference in your long-term quality of life and financial security. Just imagine–all those bucks you were sending to lenders can now go into your savings or to pay additional on your mortgage or make other investments. And you may feel freer to experiment and take a few exciting risks on the income side without the pressure of creditors hanging over your head if things don't work out perfectly. Paying off debt may not be a 'Munchkinland' experience, but it will sure be a huge benefit to you over time.

    • says

      I agree with you, Kurt — it's different in more subtle ways. I'm starting to explore more risky side things (and by more risky, I mean, I invest a few hundred dollars!) instead of simply plug plug plugging away.

  2. says

    I think the biggest thing for people to do is make sure you continue living how you lived while you were trying to get out of debt. Otherwise your spending is going to go back up and you will be right back in debt again.

    • says

      I think that's the point, Sean. Once you "arrive" so to speak, you can't continue on your journey. You have to come up with a new journey!

  3. says

    Thanks for this post! I didn't feel any different when I got out of consumer debt, but I thought it was because I didn't make a big deal of paying it off. I always think it's weird when on Dave Ramsey's show he asks newly debt-free people what it's like to have "no payments in the world!" and they gush. Being debt-free doesn't mean you have zero bills or obligations. Becoming FI is probably similar to becoming debt-free in that you might have a crossover date (or year) but that doesn't mean you'll stop working to have an even better lifestyle.

  4. says

    Congrats on the accomplishment! Nothing might of changed….but you have the satisfaction of knowing that you "walked from Portland to Portland." Something so many others will never achieve. :) I hope to make it there one day.

  5. Writing Heavy says

    They give you, a rose AND a medal at the finish line of the Portland Marathon, and frankly, it's not really that much more satisfying than when you just described. Plenty of high fives from the crowd, too.

    Hold on, lemme poke my arm…

    Nope, still don't feel any different than the day before I crossed that line. Go figure.

  6. says

    Congratulations! After 17 years, I replaced my car and took out a loan. It is only 1.99%, but I am on schedule to pay it off in less than 3 more years.

  7. plantingourpennies says

    ha! I'm pretty sure I'm going to dance in the street when we pay back Mr. PoP's parents the $50K they loaned us at the end of this month. But after that little jig… well, not sure it's going to feel a whole lot different! =)

  8. doordebt says

    Congrats, this is so exciting! We need to chat! I know you can make 10k in addition to your salary. I'd like to do the same or something similar. :)

  9. says

    First, congrats on paying off that consumer debt. Second, I remember when I paid off my last credit card and it was very anti-climatic. I didn't feel any different the next day, but after some time I have really enjoyed being out of credit card debt. The balance doesn't dictate my decisions and that is a great feeling.

    • says

      I think that's the key difference. Now, there's no negative self talk "are you really sure you should be buying lunch for a friend?" in my head.

  10. says

    That sense of let down is a little strange feeling once you accomplish one of your big goals. When I saved $50,000 I thought I'd celebrate a little, but it just made me hungry for $100K. You are unstoppable! Set big lofty goals!

  11. says

    Any investment goals? I seem to recall a few articles a bit back about you and your relationship to investing… haha.

  12. says

    I still have a little ways to go with my $10k in student loans, but I imagine it'll be much of the same. I do want to throw a small party to celebrate, but I'm assuming life will settle back in, and the only difference will be redirecting where my few hundred a month goes toward savings.

    But it's still pretty awesome to be done. And to know you're never going back there!

  13. says

    Great job on a three year marathon, and good luck with your new goals. Do you plan on paying off your mortgage early or investing in other things instead?

    • says

      Thanks, Pauline! I'm not really interested in hurrying to pay off the mortgage right now — my money is calling me to do other, bigger things.

  14. says

    A life without goals may feel like a life without meaning. You aren't the first person that has said that weren't sure what to do after they paid everything off. I can't wait to join your other supporters in encouraging you in your new dreams/goals. Go kick some a@@!!

  15. says

    Congratulations! That is something to be proud of!! I am in the beginning stages of my journey towards being debt free, I know it's going to be a long road but I can't wait for the day that I can say I am debt free!!

  16. says

    I think this is natural. My clients that were obsessed with debt conquered that mountain and suddenly moved their sites to better money-making opportunities. Suddenly the little "maybe I won't buy butter this week" items seem less relevant. While they're still important, there are now bigger fish to fry…or broil….or blacken. Whatever.

  17. says

    I am still plugging away at my student loans, so I haven't experienced that moment yet. I imagine that it'll feel like getting a raise or a promotion. There's some initial excitement at having more money to spend/budget but eventually life settles into a new steady rhythm.

  18. seedebtrun says

    Kathleen, you are awesome. Stacking up goals, knocking them down, and then wondering what the next targets are going to be. You are certainly a do-er, and it has been impressive to follow your progress.

    When we finally hit our zero number, it did indeed feel like a weight was lifted off our shoulders. Day to day- we still need to put in the work, and happiness doesn't happen by accident. But life is certainly a little bit easier without that backpack full of rocks to haul around.

  19. addvodka says

    You don't feel different without debt, because debt doesn't change you as a person. Sure, it makes things more difficult and can test a lot of things, but fundamentally something like debt just can't change a person. You should be super proud of yourself, though!

  20. Rick says

    Anti-climactic is what it was for me. 9 years of frugal living (that's now a way of life and in a very good way) to pay off the house. 100% debt free in every sense of the word. I don't know what I expected to happen but after the house was paid off… nothing happened. Now I'll just save all my extra money in investments so I can retire early I suppose… I don't need to buy stuff anymore because we've been cured of that mindset and I sure as heck am not hard done by.


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