By Alan Helman
Chances are incredibly high that, at some point in your life, you will have to deal with debt. Thanks to increasing tuition rates and decreasing summer employment, students are leaving college and university saddled with large amounts of debt. Then add in the costs of starting a family and buying a house and a car and…well, you see the problem. A lot of people who had dreamed of a life as an artist or a designer find themselves having to switch gears in order to handle this debt, and then falling into a depression when they look at the seeming impossibility of becoming debt-free.
When I graduated, the first thing I had to establish was that it wasn’t possible to pay off all my student debt at once, and looking at the full amount due almost gave me a heart attack. I told myself not to freak out; paying off the debt was possible. It would take some creativity on my part, and might require I change my way of living a bit, but the thrill of realizing that I wasn’t so deep in debt was certainly worth the life change.
Build a Budget
After a lot of research, talking to friends and professionals, I found that the best way to reduce (and eventually get rid of) my debt is to set a good budget and follow it. I determined how much money I brought in each month, then figured out what percentage of that absolutely had to go to standing bills like my mortgage, car payments, debt payments, etc. The money that was left over could then be apportioned to my remaining monthly purchases. I started with the most important areas: figuring out an amount to devote to food, an amount for gas (and transit fees, for when I took the train or might need a cab), and an amount for entertainment. I tried to leave myself with extra money in the kitty, because I knew a few things already:
1. Chances were high that I would break my budget in one area or another, especially when just starting out.
2. The extra money could be used to pay down more of my debt.
3. It’s always a good idea to try to accumulate a bit of a savings to safeguard against emergency situations.
There are plenty of online systems that can help create a budget, so I took advantage of that in my planning. The New York Times suggested some great apps such as LevelMoney or Billguard–these systems often come with fees attached, and that money would have to come out of the budget, but it was worth it in the long run. Apps like this provide a valuable service and, for me, were 100 percent worth the money. It might not be the same for you, so make sure you know what you’re getting into before you jump for a service.
Search for Sales
I found one of the best things about the Internet is that it makes looking for deals much easier. I no longer had to scour the newspapers and local flyers for the right coupons or stand in line for the huge sales at stores; everything was online where I could access it easily. Since I’d already budgeted for my Internet bill, it was simple. I discovered coupon apps, which led to some pretty great savings (or refunds and rebates) once I uploaded my receipt to the app. Other coupons could be saved on my iPhone, and then shown to the cashier to be scanned. Though the amount saved on each coupon seemed pretty small, it added up quickly. For beginners, the Toronto Star has a great list of sites and advice from people who are quite successful at utilizing this method.
If I needed a new electronic device or piece of computer hardware, I just made sure I found the best deals online. This simple act saved me hundreds, possibly even thousands of dollars. I was amazed at the plethora of things I could find coupons for on the net.
Increasing Income Creatively
I didn’t have the time or the energy to take on a second job, but this didn’t mean I couldn’t increase the amount of money I was bringing in. This is actually where I found I could draw on that creative side that I’d come to fear was lost forever. Thanks to online eCommerce sites like Shopify, I found I could create an online store of my own to sell my art, design and products bearing them. I was able to set up a shop that held my unique designs, choosing a price that I felt was fair while still competitive.
While I worked to pay the bills, my designs were finally online for millions to discover. With a little bit of effort in my spare time (dealing with the orders, creating product), I found I could actually, at least in part, live my artistic dream — and still pay the bills. I never had to be a starving artist.
If you think the idea sounds like a silly fantasy, like I did at first, you should know something: this is actually how new designers are approaching the market. Cutting out the retail store middleman allowed both for increased profit but also increased creative control, and even beyond that I came to the realization that the online market is much bigger than single retail stores. It’s quite serious; the Wall Street Journal has touted this method as “the new black.” Online sales are always on the rise, so this was the ideal opportunity to live my dream while still keeping a foot in the regular working world.
Very few people will live a life of complete leisure, never worrying about their income. But having a budget didn’t mean I couldn’t have nice things (or, you know, things). It just meant I needed to be a little more creative when it came to choosing how to buy things, and left me to explore other ways to make money. The biggest thing I learned was that it doesn’t actually have to be a huge effort, thanks to the wonders of the Internet and current technology. Six months later, and I’m that much closer to living debt-free. You could be too.