Tax season brings the financial aspects of our careers into stark focus. Ledgers of our spending habits laid out in black and white. Nice and not-so-nice surprises in discussions with our accountants. What fun!
In this vein, the topic of financial literacy sometimes crops up in the practice management discussions I have with young professionals. The cost of living in Vancouver being what it is, student loan payments, social pressures to “keep up” with peers…it all adds up. Sometimes, it reaches a breaking point.
I recently sat down with an inspiring university graduate who fought her way out of deep debt.
Her name is Cait Flanders. You may know her from her popular blog, Blonde on a Budget or recognize her from the national media attention she’s received for her courageous decision to blog about her journey into and out of debt.
Q. How did you get into debt?
I had just started my fourth year at Royal Roads University. I was enjoying life, hanging out with my friends and not really thinking much about how much I was spending. Until I realized how little money I had left.
I owed my parents $4,500 for tuition, I had $6,500 in credit card debt, I had another loan, I had bought a new car on a “low interest” program. I was earning a good salary for the first time. And I owed a total of $30,000 in debt.
Q. What was the breaking point?
I was living on my own. I had $100 left in my chequing account. My credit cards were maxed out. I had to make my money last six weeks. I cried a lot.
Q. How did you pay off your debt?
I moved in with my parents for six months to pay off the first $10,000 of debt. It was humiliating, but I felt lucky to have their support.
It isn’t as though my parents never talked to me about financial responsibility, either. My dad talked to me about finances all the time. When I turned 18, he taught me about RRSPs and budgeting and warned me about living beyond my means. I knew that that my parents had credit cards – I just never saw their own budget or observed how they paid off those cards every month.
Q. What about your social life? Was there any peer pressure to spend beyond your means while you were paying off debt?
Truthfully, I didn’t want to talk about my situation with my friends. I avoided them for the first few months while I was paying off my debt. I stayed home on weekend nights, made up excuses not to go out and was actually quite sad. The thought of spending just $10 on a cheap dinner with friends stressed me out.
A lot of people feel ashamed about their debt; I was one of them. I even wondered how I could get into a relationship with someone when I was so focused on getting the financial part of my life in order. I also have a tendency to give gifts, which would have blown my budget to smithereens – I just didn’t trust myself!
Q. Any advice for young lawyers struggling with debt?
I can’t judge what other people spend their money on. When I was paying off my debt, I spent $30 on cake and wine for a friend, and almost had a panic attack. (I concede that I was probably far too regimented and aggressive with my repayment plan. There were months when I’d put 45-55% of my income towards debt repayment.)
- One thing that worked for me was to track spending. I took the unusual step of doing this on my blog, but 99% of people would be happy to do this on a piece of paper. It was a real eye opener.
- Once I started tracking where my money was going, I knew where I needed to cut spending. For me, the best decision was to stop dining out. I found cheaper ways to get together with friends, such as dinners at home. No one seemed to mind.
- Try to allow yourself one “vice”. Mine was Starbucks. When I stopped dining out, I kept my coffee habit so that I could still go out with friends.
- Some people are able to save money and pay off debt at the same time. I chose to pay off my debt first because I had such a strong emotional needed to get rid of it.
- Another trick is to know how many years it will take you to pay off your debt. You might be tempted by low bi-weekly payments and long-term payment plans. But all that interest adds up.
- Put extra money you earn towards debt repayment. It’s so difficult not to to treat yourself. Most young professionals feel deserving because we work hard. My wants just had to wait until my needs were met. And my biggest need was to get rid of the stress of debt.
Everyone’s financial choices are personal. I couldn’t tolerate the stress of being in debt anymore, but someone else might be quite comfortable with it. Every individual has a range of what they consider to be “normal” and “extreme” debt or spending, and everyone has different priorities.
My mindset is that for as long as I owe people money, my money isn’t mine. It belongs to someone else.
Q. There are a lot of people who stay in jobs they don’t enjoy because they “need the money”. Do you have any advice on sticking it out vs. pursuing more meaningful work?
“Clock watching” is a sure sign of career dissatisfaction. If you accept a paycheque, you are in a contract with your employer. Fulfill that contract to the best of your ability, or do the employer the courtesy of moving on so someone else can do the work. I don’t think this is unique to law firms.
I can certainly attest to the freedom that being debt-free gives a person. It opens up a variety of career choices and it gives you a feeling of control over how you spend your time.
Q. What about “lifestyle inflation”? Earning more, spending more….
I have an American friend who is a bankruptcy lawyer. She’s been practicing for 10 years and still has $100,000 in student debt (which is common in the U.S.). If she put her salary increases towards the loan, she’d likely be better off in the long-run than if she immediately spent the money on clothes or a vacation.
Most of us have already spent our bonuses, salary increases or windfalls before they are even deposited into our chequing accounts. For me, the best option now is to save that money and continue living on my old salary.
Q. Why blog about your “brush with debt”?
I blogged anonymously at first because I didn’t want anyone in my real life to know how much debt I had. I pretty much stuck to publicizing my boring spending reports.
I needed to stay accountable. I was always online; blogging seemed easier than writing in a journal. And then I started getting feedback on the blog.
Debt seems to be the last taboo subject between friends and people in general. No one ever talks about how much money they make, but it’s all relative depending on the tax bracket you’re in, the deductions that come off your salary and the amount you spend (or owe).
By sharing my story online, I hope I can show others that they can dig themselves out of debt, too.
Q. What are your financial priorities now?
Two months after I paid off my debt, I was in a car accident. I also had to move twice within a few weeks because my apartment was unsafe (inexpensive, but unsafe).
I learned that life has a lot of twists and turns – and that a savings account is really helpful in an emergency.
I’m trying to balance my tendency to be extremely regimented about my budget with a need to be realistic.
I live in a safe building now, I’m saving an emergency fund and healing from my injuries. I’m also freelancing and earning money in addition to my regular job. The Globe and Mail has asked me to be an ongoing contributor and I’ve been lucky to come across a lot of opportunities, such as writing for Gail Vaz-Oxlade’s “Other Voices” blog. I feel good about my future.
Cait’s story is not uncommon – she was a university graduate from a middle class family, earning a steady salary for the first time with limited financial responsibilities. She slid deeper into consumer debt and gradually pulled herself out of it. There are a lot of people in the legal profession who find themselves in a similar situation.
The final word in this interview goes to Cait, who advises young lawyers to pursue financial independence as a means to building the career and life they really want, versus the one they might feel trapped in. “If I can do it, you can too.”
To learn more about Cait or read her tips on financial literacy, you can visit her blog, or follow her on Twitter @blondeonabudget.
This blog post was originally published on April 30, 2014 on slaw.ca, Canada’s online legal magazine.