Damien Kuchel: Lifestyle Creep and Student Debt
This week we have Damien* who shares his story of living paycheck to paycheck despite making 6 figures and the wake-up call that forced him to pay attention to this finances and start paying off his student loans.
Occupation: Nurse Anesthetist
Salary Range: > $100,000
Location: Metropolitan City, Ohio
Big Expenses: Mortgage
Student Loans: $180,000 remaining
Monthly Expenses: Spotify, Hulu, Netflix
Kavya: Tell me a little about yourself?
Damien: I've spent the first 6 years of my career as an ICU nurse. I got married to my wife who is also an ICU nurse during that time. We were each making around $55,000 a year. We spent our money as we got it and there was no rhyme or reason to how we spent it.
We planned on going to graduate school and thought that we'll be making more money after that, so we won't have to worry about finances since there will be a surplus.
Both of us got into graduate programs and completed them in 2017. I started working as a nurse anesthetist so my salary increased by 3x. Our son was born around this time so my wife became a stay at home mom while I continued to work, but overall we were still making more money than we did before.
We continued to live by not really paying attention to what we were spending our money on. We always tried to keep our housing costs low, from a faith perspective of not spending a ton of money on a house or a car. However, innocuous expenses like eating out, getting drinks, amazon purchases, etc. added up even though they didn't seem like large expenses.
After a year of working post graduate school, my student loans started to kick in. I went to an Ivy League anesthesia school so these were substantial loans. We also had a $20,000 credit card bill that we were paying off from expenses incurred when my son was born at the end of graduate school when neither my wife nor I could work. We also didn't pay attention to the interest rate on the credit card.
Kavya: What was the ah-ha moment where you realized you had to start paying attention to your money?
Damien: When the student loan payments kicked in we noticed we were living paycheck to paycheck. Which was just wild because were making more than we ever had before but we hitting close to zero before the next paycheck came in. We always thought we didn't have to focus on it and that the money would take care of itself, but it clearly wasn't.
Something came over me and I googled frugality and financial management. I came across the Frugal Woods blog which was about a family of four who were achieving financial independence through frugal living.
That's where I learned about budgeting. It's crazy that it took this long to budget and think about retirement funds, but we finally started to think about all the stuff we were buying and spending our money on.
I continued to read blogs and attended an online course on money management as well. From the initial budget, we increased our income and optimized our spending and changed our habits.
Kavya: Awesome, stepping back a bit, how did you make the decision about going to grad school? Did you think about the financial ramifications about it beforehand?
Damien: We were interested in grad school because we wanted to do more with our careers. The extra income was a secondary thought. It would be a nice add on but we were pretty content with what we earned before.
There was no real thought about the financial ramifications. We didn't plan to work extra so that we could take out fewer loans. Fortunately, we didn't have to take out any living loans because my wife was able to work during her grad program to help pay rent and cover other living expenses.
Kavya: When you took out your student loans, did you do any research or was it as simple as picking up the financial aid packages from your schools?
Damien: We picked up the financial aid package that came from the school. We did the paperwork each semester and signed up for the federal loans. It was what everyone did in the program. A lot of people had to also take out living loans.
Kavya: When you did decide it was time to make a change, how did you know where to start? I imagine it wasn't easy as you had a family to also think about.
Damien: We sat down and pulled up our bank statement and went through our spending for the past 3 months. We categorized every dollar we spent into rent, gas, car insurance, groceries, drinks, amazon purchases, etc. Everything was accounted for on a document and compared that data against how much money we made during those 3 months.
We quickly saw that our eating out expenditure was almost as high as our rent during those months, which was crazy.
Kavya: Once you dug into your expenditure, how did you go about changing them? What was the next step you took?
Damien: We also looked at our student loans along with our spending habits. I had some undergraduate loans as well that I was making the minimum payments on but I never looked into them. So we pulled up the websites and also spelled out each loan and how much we owed. I knew that the anesthesia school loans were near $200K but I had never looked at the details until then.
So we asked ourselves, how fast can we pay these things off? If we wanted to pay these off in 3 or 4 years, how much would that be each month? Could we liberate that much money from our spending to get rid of these loans? That was how we set up our goal of paying them off.
Kavya: What has your progress been since setting up the goals for yourself?
Damien: It's been really good but we had twins in October which derailed things for a couple of months with increased expenditure. However, we paid off the $20,000 of our credit card loan.
We did a balance transfer from our credit card to a new one to go from an 18% interest rate to 0% and weighed the pros and cons of the cost of the balance transfer. We stopped eating and drinking out and cut back on Amazon purchases and paid off the $20K in three months.
Kavya: That's awesome! How was changing your lifestyle and changing the habits you already had? What was that like?
Damien: We paid off the credit card and then I started doing a lot of reading. It was a lot of discussing things with my wife and talking her ear off about our habits. We needed to be intentional with our money in order to reach our goal.
The reading I did really clicked with me. We started to make small changes like downgrading out Verizon cell phone plan to a second-tier company like Ting. This cut down our monthly bill from $100 to $30. These changes started to have a snowball effect.
Kavya: What has been the hardest part of this process?
Damien: I have a pretty thorough plan set in place for how fast we're going to pay off our loans. It details what we're going to pay next month and which loans will be paid off by which month.
It's hard for me when my plan gets derailed. For example, a medical appointment bill for my twins comes up and I can't put away the full amount for student loans that I planned to. The rigid thinking isn't great for me but my wife helps me deal with it.
Kavya: Are you saving for the future through retirement accounts or is everything going towards paying off these loans as fast as you can?
Damien: I debated not saving for retirement and putting everything towards my loans but I realized that by maxing out my 401K and HSA I would decrease my tax burden and also prepare us for the future. So we max out both of those while paying off our student loans.
Kavya: What is one piece of advice that's helped shape your relationship with money?
Damien: You can tell where your heart is and what you really care about, by what you do with your money. If our heart is in our community and our friends and family, then spending our money eating out all the time doesn't align with that value.
Understanding that what you do with your time and money speaks volumes about who you are has really stuck with me.
Kavya: That's really powerful. Are there any financial decisions that you're considering for the future?
Damien: After paying off our loans we plan to pay off our house.
Long term, I would like to save up enough money so that I can work just one day a week. That way we can both be at home with our kids. We would also be able to be of service to those around us and be more involved in our community.
Kavya: Are there any mistakes or anything you wish you knew earlier that you would advise others about?
A very intelligent person said that you're the average of the five people you hang out with most. So if your friend group is full of people who are heavy spenders and are giving you a hard time about why you're not spending on the latest and greatest, it's going to be hard to make those changes.
It's useful to keep this in the back of your mind as it helps you resist the temptation to go with the status quo when it comes to money decisions.
Kavya: A lot of my readers are college students. What is one piece of actionable advice that you would give them to get a head start on their personal finance journey?
Damien: Grab a notebook and look at what you're taking out for your loans and where you're spending your money. Look at what your lifestyle costs and guard against spending as much money as other people think you should.
Another thing is when you think about money, try to think about it as units of time. Not everyone has to retire early like the FIRE movement hypes up, but you may not have to work overtime in the future if you manage your money well now.
The whole thing about optimizing your money and handling your money well is not really about the money, but it's more about the satisfaction that you'll get from it. Figuring out what isn't bringing you fulfillment versus what is.
Kavya: What credit cards do you own and why did you choose those ones?
Damien: Discover Card from the balance transfer. I use that sometimes for online purchases. We don't use any reward credit cards for travel points or anything - something we are looking into.
Kavya: How much of your income do you save annually?
Damien: We max out our 401K and HSA so that's $19,000 and $7,000 respectively.
Our lifestyle costs are around $2,000 a month, including mortgage and bills. So we've dialed that down a lot.
Kavya: What tools/apps/services do you use?
I tried Personal Capital but it didn't really work for me.
Having a document of recurring expenses document and looking at our bank statement is what we do for budgeting at the end of each month.
Kavya: Any resources you would recommend?
A Simple Path to Wealth by JL Collins
Early Retirement Extreme by Jacob Lund Fisker - loaded with ways to cut down spending in every aspect of your life. For example downgrading your car to a more fuel-efficient one, etc.
Most personal finance blogs only share stories of the people who have it all under control, save 50% of their income, and retire early. While that is impressive, some of us want a career and some of us just need our almond matcha latte every morning. However, we all still face the same woes when it comes to managing our personal finances. MoneyStories is a series of interviews with young professionals and recent graduates sharing their stories on how they have and are navigating their personal finances.
*Name changed for anonymity.
Disclaimer: Views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the interviewee, not the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, committee, or any other group or individual.
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