YNAB Podcast Episode 60: No More Harvard Debt! How One Guy Paid off $90k of Debt in Seven Months


J: It is interesting when people talk about luck or having opportunities to do this or that. It’s amazing what happens when you increase your flexibility by relieving yourself of that debt.

JM: Absolutely.

J: It’s pretty much… you know, you can’t really calculate it because a job is not just about maybe a bigger pay check, but it’s your life’s work. So it’s always kind of disheartening when you have someone say, “Well, I can’t leave this job. I’ve got to pay off this or that and make these payments,” and then you’re just thinking, “Man, that’s your LIFE,” you know.

JM: Absolutely.

J: It’s a life decision. So it’s cool. What was the… I mean, I guess I was expecting for you to say you had some epiphany, like I don’t know, some parting of the clouds; but you basically just saw what little progress you’d made over those past two years, I guess, and just decided.

JM: Yes, it was [?? 0:13:03]. I mean, I came out of it being sort of this… not anti-consumer, I wouldn’t call myself anti-consumer, but certainly I consume less these days. But really, it was… the auspice of it at the beginning of it was very… I mean, it was very… it was fairly superficial. I really just thought, “I don’t want to spend $1,000 on something I’ve already earned. Like I’ve already got the education, I’m sick of spending this money every month. There’s got to be a better use for it.” So I came out of it realizing that life’s not all about money and we don’t have to spend every single dollar that we make to be happy. But yes, there was no parting of the clouds.

And people ask me, you know, “What advice do you have for me?” And I used to say, “It’s not rocket science. Just spend less money than you make.” But really it’s actually more difficult than rocket science, spending less money than we make – at least in America, I think. Because number one, you’ve got an incredible amount of peer pressure. You’re with your group of friends – your comparison set, if you will – and you’re with people who are slightly better off than you; and you’re constantly comparing yourself to the people you’re surrounded by and the people you perceive as better than you. And so there’s this incredible amount of pressure to keep up with these people – keeping up with the Joneses, right? So in order to spend less than you make, number one, you have to say no to peer pressure, and that’s incredibly difficult. You just have to find ways to say no to peer pressure. Number two is you have to say no to yourself. So, everybody battles their own insecurities and I found that I was fairly insecure. And the way that manifested itself was in buying a lot of things because I thought that would make me happier or better – but it certainly didn’t.

So, you know, I think that it’s difficult, but on the flipside… It is a lot of saying no; it’s also a lot of saying yes – saying yes to what we have and saying yes to being happy with what we have in our lives already, and finding happiness in those things and just living a simpler life.

J: Yes. I like that you mentioned, you know, as part of the self-esteem, I think a lot of people that would say, “I don’t have a self-esteem issue, I’m confident…” I mean, you graduated from Harvard, you obviously… it’s no small feat to do that. So you would expect, and a lot of people I think believe, that these accomplished people – that most of these podcast listeners are – that they would be confident. But a lot of times I think we hide… some kind of questions of self-worth, we hide behind stuff to just avoid answering that.

JM: For sure. I mean, a lot of people are so successful because they’re driven, but what are they driven by? I personally was driven by… I moved around – Colorado, Oregon, New Hampshire, Upstate New York, Michigan, Italy, back to Michigan – all before I was 13, and so I didn’t really have a very good support network growing up outside of my family. I didn’t have a lifetime friend or lifelong friends or anything like that; I never really felt like I belonged. And then I had a birthmark on my face that I got bullied for constantly. People would say, “Ah, you got beat up. Ah, you spilled Kool-Aid on your face,” you know, they’d throw chewed-up gum in my hair and they’d bully me a lot. And so I had those two issues. And then I got acne – like a super-bad case of acne – all over my back, my face, my ears. I had to get syringe injections for my back just so I could take a shower, otherwise it was too painful to take a shower.

And so, you know, I got bullied quite a bit. I was eating lunch in high school in the cafeteria and just had no friends, and my goal in high school was to literally just graduate high school graduate college and land a job with a $100,000 salary. That was literally my goal. And it was so superficial, but looking back I didn’t have a lot of friends so it made sense. It sort of made sense, you know, looking back that I would try to seek solace or seek friendship in material goods, material possessions and money. Thankfully the acne cleared up and the birthmark got lazered away, but those are scars that tend to stay with somebody – at least they did with me. So it took a lot of time to develop a healthy amount of self-esteem and a high degree of self-worth – as you pointed out. And so I think part of this process, again, it’s more difficult than rocket science because self-esteem is so organic; it’s not something that you can just learn. You can’t pick up a textbook, attend a lecture and learn how to love yourself.

J: Yes. It’s deep, you know. I mean, you’re mentioning things that happened when you were 13/14 in high school – that’s years ago. And I think a lot of times people are saying, they kind of beat up on themselves – “Why do I do this? Why are my finances this way?” – and there are some underlying behavioral issues that I think we can get to the heart of and give people some reasoning, and then say, “Okay, I can’t beat that. I understand this now, and this is what I’m going to do.” This is cool. I’m glad you came on, Joe, just because I know everyone would want to hear, “Okay, how did this guy do this in seven months?” but I think to talk about the deeper issue of it is what will really bring people more results in the end. So, you know, you’re finding your motivation, discovering a real motivation underneath what was initially just kind of a gut check – like, “Hey, this isn’t right” – and then yes, just… I mean, it changes your life. You know, different job and…

JM: Yes. And Jesse, I’d go so far as to say that without developing a healthy level of self-esteem I would never have been able to be successful. It wouldn’t even have occurred to me to pay off the debt and to start cutting back in areas of my life; I just wouldn’t have been able to. So I really do think that is absolutely fundamental to anyone who wants to… who is entertaining the idea of paying off their debt. I mean, clearly they already see the value in that and they probably are seeing just the fact that you don’t need a lot of things to be happy or to have a high level of self-esteem. So, you know, they’ve already started if they’re already thinking along those terms of wanting to live a debt-free life. It’s just getting to the bottom of the issue and then pushing forward.

J: Awesome. Well, I appreciate you coming on, Joe. This is great. I’m sure it will help a lot of the podcast listeners, so I really appreciate it and wish you a Happy Thanksgiving.

JM: Thank you, Jesse. I’m very glad that you had me on. I really appreciate the chance to talk to you and your listeners.

J: Hey, is there a website that everyone can check out, maybe read more of your story? I forgot to ask you that at the beginning.

JM: Sure. Swing on by nomoreharvarddebt.com and check out the blog. I’m not really updating the blog anymore, but it is chock-full of stories from my adventure between August when I started and March when I finished, and even has several more posts after that – some reflective posts – and other ways to cut back and live a fuller life without debt.

J: Awesome. Yes, nomoreharvarddebt.com – we’ll definitely make sure everyone checks that out. I appreciate it, Joe. You have a great rest of the day.

Until next time, follow YNAB’s four rules and you will win financially. You have not budgeted like this.