self-compassion, student loans

Possibility C

Possibility C

One of the interesting (and/or awkward?) things about blogging is that it does a pretty good job of capturing ups and downs from week to week. And when I wrote last week’s post, I happened to be feeling fairly “down” about the current state of my finances. To review, here is my situation:

  • I owe about $51,600 in student loan debt.
  • I am 35.
  • I don’t have a ton saved for retirement and am not in a career with a crazy high earning potential.

There’s not a lot I can do to drastically change the reality of these facts right now. I can’t go back to my 20s and make different decisions. I can’t apply for jobs in engineering or hedge fund management and expect to be taken seriously (also, what is hedge fund management?). And while I have bought two—count ‘em, two!—Powerball tickets in the past 12 months, I’m disappointed to report that neither one turned out to be a big winner. I suppose I could rob a bank and/or flee the country, but somehow those don’t strike me as realistic options.

The facts, in other words, are pretty much the facts. At this moment in time I owe a certain amount in student loans. I have a certain amount saved for retirement. I am a certain age. And so on.

But here’s the thing:

The facts aren’t the whole story.

The rest of the story is: How am I going to choose to think about these facts?

There are at least a couple of possibilities:

Possibility A is for me to sit around beating myself up about the choices I made while I was in my 20s, feeling regretful for what today feel like questionable decisions.

Possibility B is for me to spend a lot of time mentally comparing myself to other hypothetical 35-year-olds with backgrounds that are similar to mine. For example, I could sit around wondering how likely it is that I have the lowest net worth of anyone in my high school class.

It’s very easy for me to get caught up in both Possibility A and Possibility B, often at the same time. Beating oneself up and comparing oneself to other people may not be particularly productive ways of thinking, but they are certainly very easy ones to fall back on.

What’s problematic about Possibilities A and B, however, is that they are almost entirely focused on the past, with the present seen merely as some sort of culmination or endpoint. And I’m not sure I like the idea of viewing today as the end of the road.

Good thing there’s a Possibility C.

Possibility C is for me to say to myself, “Okay. For better or for worse, I made the decisions that I made. And this is where I currently am. But hey, how awesome is it that I now have the chance to move forward from here in whatever way I choose?” Possibility C views the present not as an endpoint but as a starting point, with the future stretching out ahead.

And if I really get to choose how I want to think about my debt—and I believe that I do get to choose—then it’s a no-brainer. I choose Possibility C.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that it’s simple to choose Possibility C, or that I only have to choose it once and it’s a done deal. On the contrary, I have to choose it again and again and again, and whenever I slide back into the downward spirals of Possibility A or Possibility B, like I did last week, I have to consciously choose Possibility C yet again.

So how exactly can I do this? How can I keep choosing Possibility C when the other possibilities are always lurking around, ready to leap into the forefront?

I think the key to choosing Possibility C—the mindset that views the present as the starting point on the way to the future—is to find a way to prove to myself that I no longer need to spend time beating myself up about past decisions. To prove to myself that I can accept those decisions, particularly the ones involving student loans, as part of the unchangeable past…and simply let them go.

Easier said than done, right?

I’m still working on this, but I’ll tell you two things that I find incredibly helpful.

The first thing is to remember that even though having student debt involves a lot of downsides, it wouldn’t necessarily be fair to say that I “shouldn’t” have taken out those loans, or that taking them out was a “wrong” or “bad” decision. Because if I had said, “nope, sorry, no student loans for me!” then I wouldn’t have been able to go to grad school, and if I hadn’t gone to grad school, I wouldn’t have the city or the apartment or the job or the education or the career or the professional skills (or, by the way, the blog or the financial skills) or most of the friends that I have today. Sitting around being angry at myself for taking out student loans is basically the same as wishing I didn’t have any of these other amazing things in my life. Yeah, I hate having student debt, and yeah, I probably could have borrowed a somewhat lower amount or paid off the interest while I was in school, but wishing I could go back in time and avoid the loans completely makes very little sense. And so sometimes I try to remember that, and it helps me to choose Possibility C.

The second thing is actually the whole reason I wanted to write this post in the first place.

Here goes:

I don’t know what you were wearing in the 90s, but I was wearing baggy jeans, slouch socks, big lumpy sweaters, scrunchies, and snap bracelets, none of which feel like remotely appealing fashion choices to me today.

But when I look at photos from the 90s and see myself wearing these clothes, do I get angry at myself for my fashion choices? Of course not. I was wearing those things because by 90s standards they were pretty normal things to wear. It would be unreasonable for me to judge my 1990s fashion choices by 2016 fashion standards.

And I’m not sure that my decision to start taking out student loans is all that different.

Taking out student loans is not something I would do today (nor would I counsel anyone else to take out student loans without doing a TON of research and calculations beforehand). But that’s because I’m 35 today, and I have way more information than I did eight or nine years ago, and way more self-knowledge, and way more life experience. And there’s no point in repeatedly beating up my 26-year-old self for not having had that information, or that knowledge, or that experience, because she simply didn’t.

And so I just want to say, for the record, that I believe I was doing the best I could at the time.

Not only that, but:

I believe that for the most part, everyone is pretty much always doing the best they can, given the resources and information available to them.

In other words, at any given point in our lives, we have a specific set of psychological, emotional, and cognitive resources, a certain amount of energy, and a certain amount of information and past experience to draw from. And in general, we use these resources to try to do the best that we can.

I realize it’s very easy to poke holes in this statement. And yes, I do think there are definitely exceptions, like in cases where someone is purposely causing harm to another person. But I do really believe that the above rule applies to pretty much any personal life decision, small or large—like whether to take out a loan, whether to buy a house or a car, what to major in, whether to go to the concert or stay home and rest, what to cook for dinner, what exactly to say in that email, whether or not to have another piece of cake.

It doesn’t mean we get a free pass to do whatever we feel like going forward. It just means that in looking back on past decisions it’s okay to trust our younger selves, to believe that they were doing everything in their power to get things right, and to be kind to them.

And so sometimes, when I can sense that Possibilities A and B are starting to slither out from their dark corners once again, I sit and I just say this a few times, to remind myself:

I was doing the best I could at the time, given the information and resources available to me.

I was doing the best I could at the time.

I was doing the best I could.

*             *               *

Comments are welcome, as always.

Disease Called Debt

88 Comments on “Possibility C

  1. I know you feel behind. I blame all of that on you being new in your journey. Give it a year or 6 months or 2 years and then look back on how far you’ve come. You are headed in a great direction.

    Another thing to think about is that yes you are 35 with $51,6000 worth of debt, but what if you were older or had more debt or didn’t even care to turn things around because you didn’t know any different. You have a handle on your situation, to fix it is going to take time and until then you have to deal with all these feelings. Hold tight to Possibility C.

    1. Thanks, Kate. I’m sure you’re right that after I’ve made some more progress I’ll feel better about everything. Having the loans has actually taught me a lot about being responsible with money, and I’m not sure I would necessarily have learned these lessons otherwise, so that’s also a good thing. So for now I’ll just keep on keeping on. 🙂

  2. This is so well written! The hardest part about debt is that although almost everyone is going through the same thing as you, you couldn’t feel more alone. However, the reality is that there are a ton of people facing the same issues you mentioned above. We all want to change parts of our past to make better financial decisions, but we wouldn’t be or have done the things we wanted to do if we changed it. I love your comparison to 90s fashion – so true. We are always just doing what is right in that time period. Keep on keeping on, girl. You are already headed towards the best possible place!

    1. You’re so right, Alyssa: it’s so easy to feel alone when it comes to feeling like you’re not where you want to be with your finances, but actually tons of people feel the same way. That’s why the personal finance community is so great: we get to actually talk about these struggles and encourage each other. 🙂

  3. Well said!!! What I love about your posts is that no matter how tough it seems, you always have a resilient mindset. It’s always tough in that situation not to backslide and do too much ruminating, but the past IS the past. You can only help you let it inform present and future decisions.

    1. Ruminating is my specialty. 🙂 But I’m trying hard to do less of it because, as you say, the past is the past, and the only way it comes to bear on the future is by helping us to make good decisions based on previous experiences.

  4. Let me point out the positives here.
    You are 35. You still have time. 35 may not feel young to you, but it’s not 60. If you look around you will see plenty of success stories that started their retirement savings journey later, like Freedom is Groovy wrote about this week. Let them encourage you.

    You have $51,600 in student debt. That’s scary to you, and I get that. You are doing something about it. Your debt is on a downward slope. It’s not particularly high interest and not accumulated for something that will wear out or become disposable. You have already made progress in paying it down and will continue to do so.

    I not only want you to be accepting of your younger self’s decisions, but be proud of them too. Younger Sarah made a lot of good decisions. You aren’t still paying for scrunchies. There are people who ran up debt and are still paying off bad fashion choices of their youth with accumulated interest or bad credit habits.

    1. Thanks so much for the encouragement, Emily. I’ll have to check out Freedom is Groovy’s post too. And yes, I do feel good about having stayed out of credit card debt — I had to choose, I’d rather be paying for a graduate degree than paying for scrunchies, as you put it. 🙂 And of course you’re right about the age thing too. I think I just read so many articles that are geared towards people in their 20s, with messages like, “If you don’t save money in your 20s, you’ll never be able to make up that lost time!” I should probably just avoid those articles since they’re not relevant to my life.

  5. What a great post! I think about this all the time. I most regret not going to the state school in my home state that I had a full tuition scholarship for…what was I thinking??? But I met my husband in college and I am so glad that I did, so that’s just one thing that probably would be very different in my life now if I hadn’t done things the way I did (and accumulated a bunch of loans along the way). I also beat myself up for buying a brand new (mini) SUV a few years ago, but I always wanted to buy a brand new car of my choice and now I have and now I know that it’s not the smartest thing to do and why! At least I’ve come away with some valuable lessons learned and I’ve had a fun time doing it.

    1. Oh wow, meeting your husband as a result of going to a school that required you to take out loans is such a great example of this. Even choices that seem questionable in retrospect can end up unexpectedly changing our lives in really positive ways. I totally get your point about the car too — sometimes we have to try something out and learn for ourselves what the advantages and disadvantages are.

  6. Words of wisdom! I can say, at least for myself, it doesn’t get much easier as you get older, and you have “more past” to potentially beat yourself up over. Which is why it’s so important to choose Possibility C as often as possible. Not only have you been doing the best you could, but you’ve done lots of good things along with the things you might wish you had done differently. But focusing on what you can do now will serve you best of all.

    1. Oh, that’s such a good point! Better to learn how to accept the past at a relatively young age, since we’ll be looking back on more and more past as we get older. That makes me even more motivated to work on appreciating the present and not worrying about past choices.

  7. How I defeat Possibilities A & B:
    A: The past is the past. What’s done is done. These are sunk costs. Only dwell on it if I’m trying to learn something.
    B: I can’t control, or even know, other people. Assume that all people are different, and that they are doing what makes them happy. What makes them happy is different from what makes me happy.

    “I believe that for the most part, everyone is pretty much always doing the best they can, given the resources and information available to them.” YES. I believe in this whole-heartedly. I have been trying to assume the best of people instead instead of trying to figure them out and find their faults, and have basically come to the same conclusion.

    1. We’re probably not ever going to be able to figure everyone else out, are we? 🙂 I agree that assuming the best of people is a much better route to take — definitely something I aspire to do more of. People really are doing the best they can.

  8. To somewhat quote from the movie Van Wilder – worrying about the past is like sitting in a rocking chair – it gives you something to do but you really don’t get anywhere. I think a number of the commenters have touched on the most important point, that you are still young and have learned some great lessons to pull from in the future. I think one of the big problems is how we are told that student debt is “good debt” – which is kind of a crazy notion. It serves a purpose, but it would be better to get to the same place without the debt so it is hardly good. I’d rather call it a “often necessary evil”.

    1. An “often necessary evil”, yeah, that resonates with me. It doesn’t seem fair that education is so expensive, but it is (especially certain types of education), and that often puts us in a difficult position. I don’t know what the right decision is, but I do wish that “good debt” myth were less prevalent.

    2. That’s actually a quote from the late great Erma Bombeck: “Worry is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do but you never get anywhere.”

  9. Love your option C. It is ironic that we are all trying to do things differently from the rest of the population but it seems so human to compare ourselves eg to another 35 year old. And savings rates and net worth are so personal it depends on so many factors.
    Love the fashion analogy, I was something similar in the 90s (80s fashion was worse!)

    1. I honestly don’t know if my 90s fashion choices were even all that fashionable back in the 90s, haha. 🙂

  10. Sarah, I get where you are coming from. Plan C is the way to go!

    I returned to complete a grad degree in my 30’s, after an almost decade in a low paying (and relatively dead end) science job. Only a switch to a drug company would have boosted my income and career development, but that wasn’t the move I wanted to make.

    I had practically no savings upon entering grad school as I was paying off my undergrad loans and supporting myself. If I was more frugal then, I may have had some, but I travelled and lived solo, two things that I wished to do.
    So I took out loans for tuition AND living expenses- there was no other choice. Finishing at age 32 with $78k in debt wasn’t ideal, but it was what it was.

    For me the hard task was balancing paying off my loans while trying to build savings. I’d double my loan payments each month (paying around $2k versus the $800 I owed)
    After rent, living expenses, food, it didn’t leave much for significant savings. I did, however, feel that after creating an emergency fund I was ok with doing this for the first 2 years. It significantly lowered my balance.

    However, I just couldn’t keep doing it. I really felt the need to save (back then interest rates in a money market were almost 5% versus my 7% loan interest rate.) so I’d pay several hundred more than my loan balance, and would put “windfalls” (like cashed out vacation dollars, reimbursement checks for licensure, even a modest inheritance) towards it.
    I definately got there sooner than the 15 years I had to pay it back. However, had I focused solely on the loan I would not have had savings for our home down payment (we had a very small, inexpensive wedding, so that was never something I felt was worth saving for)

    I mention all of this because you have to find your sweet spot. It’s fine to go nuts with loan payoff for awhile, but consider your future savings goals and divide your money in a way that feels right to you!

    1. Wow, thanks for sharing your story, Kim! I’m so impressed that you were able to pay off this debt so quickly. I definitely hear you though: putting every possible penny towards debt means you can’t put money towards anything else, and that may not necessarily be the best option. I’m glad you found a “sweet spot” that worked for you. I’m still working on figuring out that balance for myself — how much to put towards debt vs how much to put towards retirement, etc. It’s an ongoing journey. 🙂

  11. *slow clap*

    My financial monkey isn’t student debt but rather how long I spent supporting a dead weight partner. Like you I’ve realised it only hurts me to dwell on the past and what could have been and where I should be. Ain’t easy to keep eyes focused on the future, but that is the best thing we can do now and let’s keep doing it! High five.

    PS – I watched, and read, The Big Short. I still have no idea what hedge fund management is.

    1. Hahaha, glad it’s not just me who can’t figure out hedge fund management! 🙂

      Eyes focused on the future, that’s it! Dwelling on what “could have been” is never going to get us anywhere.

  12. YES! For so long, I used to beat myself up and fall in the comparison trap. I’m 31 with hardly anything saved for the future. Would I go to a private school again? No. Do I regret it? Not necessarily. In some weird way, my debt turned into my new career. It’s a weird world. You are right, we are doing the best we can with the info we have at the time. We can only move forward and do our best to deal with consequences (which can be hard when you expect things to go a certain way).

    1. Yes, people like you who have turned their debt into a career are such a good example of this! I can relate a little bit: my blog isn’t a career, but I wouldn’t have it if I didn’t have debt, and it means a lot to me. We never know what good/unexpected things are going to come out of our decisions down the road.

  13. Sarah, I love your outlook. And, it’s true. Most of us do the best we can with what we have before us. That said, I want to encourage those who have college age children to seek out all options available for their children to avoid debt. As the mother of four college grads, it is imperative that adults add their wisdom and years of life experiences to the mix in these decisions! We DO have the knowledge (or should!) to guide our children down a path. It’s almost a travesty that we allow 17-year-olds to sign their lives away for student debt. Our children went to outstanding schools and had almost no debt. It would take too long for me to explain it all, but we were a typical middle class family with an income of about $45,000. My husband and I approached this with eyes wide open and investigated and researched scholarships, aid etc. on our own. We were astonished how little high school guidance counselors had to offer! And of course, our kids worked very hard too. And this was all quite recent, not back in the days of cheaper tuition. So, moms and dads, get on board!

    1. Yeah, I agree that expecting 17-year-olds to make decisions about tens of thousands of dollars is pretty unreasonable. I was lucky enough to escape student debt as an undergraduate (all my debt is from grad school), but I know it’s a huge issue for a lot of people. I personally would like to see more/better loan counseling options, ideally beginning in high school, so that all students have the chance to understand exactly what it means to take on debt, since not everyone’s parents are equipped to help guide them through this process.

  14. This is so unbelievably healthy! I’m sharing this with every person I know who is experiencing a slouch with the debt repayment monster. Mostly, I really appreciate that you’re reflecting on the pros of taking on the loans and the relationships and opportunities it lead to. That practice in reflection and gratitude is quite helpful. On a personal note, I ended up going to a college I didn’t want to attend (mostly to avoid student loans) and sometimes I still have some animosity about how the whole thing played out, but then I focus on the fact I’m with Peach (we met in college) and that my best friends from college are still people I speak with on a daily basis 5 years later and that the network from said college helped land me my first few jobs. From now on, I’ll think of it as option C!

    1. Thanks, Erin! Yes, I think focusing on personal relationships is probably the best inroad into making peace with our past decisions. If a past decision has led indirectly to a new friendship/relationship that is meaningful in our lives, how can we truly regret that decision or wish we’d made a different choice? What’s done is done, and chances are there’s a lot to be thankful for.

  15. I like your possibility C. Although I do find it hard to not kick myself for my student loan stupidity, particularly considering I had my grad school paid for (like you).

    My story when I had my Ph.D. was 33…no retirement savings and $98000 in student loan debt. Two years later the financial crisis hit and what I did have in savings went down. But I stuck with it and am doing much better. I look forward you to getting beyond C and looking at D,E, & F. And if you haven’t done so yet treat yourself to the Coastal Wine Trail in CT, RI, and MA. I take people all the time when they come visit. I guarantee you will enjoy it (that is if you drink wine). My wife and I love doing it.

    1. Ha, good point, Jason, there are probably lots more possibilities (D, E, F, and beyond!) that I haven’t even gotten to yet. 🙂

      Thanks for the recommendation of the Coastal Wine Trail! I had never heard of it. I will have to google it and find out where they are located in MA.

  16. Great points! It is easy to beat yourself up for the decisions you made, hindsight is 20/20 but accepting that you did the best you could then makes life moving forward so much easier.

  17. Sometimes it’s hard to stay positive when the journey you’re on seems so long and the end isn’t anywhere in sight. I love your mantra: “I believe that for the most part, everyone is pretty much always doing the best they can, given the resources and information available to them.” Why is it so easy for me to give that kind of faith and support to others, but not to myself?

    Remember that not only were you doing the best you could then, but I’d also add that you ARE making progress now. That’s one of the benefits of having a blog – visible, tangible progress of how far you’ve come, regardless of how substantial that progress feels in the moment.

    1. That’s a good point, Pia! I think I’m definitely more motivated to pay off debt than I would be if I didn’t have a blog. There’s something about sharing progress with others, and tracking your progress over time, that is really exciting. 🙂

  18. As someone who DID make the other decision in their 20s, I can tell you you still compare and beat yourself up. And have choose to take option C. I dropped out because I saw student loan debt as a hell no option. I later went back without taking out loans, but my earning capacity in the interim was severely stunted. Sometimes I think about how much I could have been earning in my 20s and how much further ahead I could potentially be salary wise now, but I have to do the opposite of you and remind myself that I don’t have debt at least. Everyone has regrets, what ifs and plays the comparison game, so I love how you’re highlighting the healthier approach!

    1. That’s a really interesting perspective; thanks for sharing it. The grass is definitely greener on the other side, eh? 🙂 But you’re right, it only serves to emphasize the uselessness of making comparisons. We never know what would have happened if we’d made a different choice, so we might as well work to accept our choices and move forward from where we’re at.

  19. I love the comparison between judging fashion choices and your student loan choices. I, another mid-30s woman, can definitely relate to that idea. I made a lot of decisions when I was younger based on the information I had at the time. Did that mean student loans? Yes, yes it did. Do I beat myself up over it? I have, but I try not to. The truth is, yes, the debt sucks, but I wouldn’t be who I am/where I am had I not made that choice, and overall I think my life is pretty great.

    The debt will be gone one day, what I learned because of it will be with me forever.

    1. I love that, Cathy: “The debt will be gone one day, what I learned because of it will be with me forever.” What a great sum-up of the experience of having debt. It can be hard not to beat ourselves up over past choices, but sometimes those choices teach us valuable lessons and bring really amazing things and people into our lives.

  20. Ah! I love this. I’ve been so fed up by those “if you didn’t start saving as a fetus, you’re screwed” posts or even the over abundance that emphasize you need to start making all the right choices at 22. At 22, literally ANY smart decision I made was a miracle.

    All of life has the possibility of being a starting point. I try to hold onto that (and I kind of love those dopey memes like Alan Rickman didn’t start acting till his 40s and Grandma Moses didn’t start painting till she was in like her 70s) Our society is so focused on youth and certain societal norms and, quite honestly, those norms are pretty darn boring.

    1. Hahaha, saving as a fetus, EXACTLY. I like those examples of Alan Rickman and Grandma Moses too. 🙂 Alice Munro is another good one: she didn’t publish her first book till she was in her late 30s, and she won a Nobel Prize a couple of years ago in her 80s.

  21. Sounds like a great and very healthy approach, Sarah Noelle! Beating yourself up doesn’t help you one bit, all you have is now to work on tomorrow. I hope you can stick to Possibility C, and look how far you’ve come in a few years from now.

    It’s easier said than done, I have a tendency to blame myself for past choices too. Maybe I’ll have a look at a picture from me from the nineties, as a reminder of a total lack of knowledge on certain subjects in my past (like fashion sense, ouch…) 🙂

    1. It’s definitely easy to blame oneself for past choices, but you’re right, all we can do now is to work on tomorrow! Thanks for the comment. 🙂

  22. I was wearing stirrup leggings in the 90s and windbreaker suits. Great times! Sometimes I look back at 18 year old me and question why I never thought about HOW college was going to get paid for and the impact loans would have on my life but like you said, you did the best you could do at the time. My parents also couldn’t counsel me because they didn’t have the opportunities and choices I had with colleges. I recently paid off the debt (and my fiancé’s debt) and it feels freeing! In some ways I am jealous of people who never had to start off with a negative net worth but at the same time, I am now in a good place.

    1. Haha, stirrup leggings. I’d forgotten about those! 🙂 That’s great that you were able to pay off all that debt! I’m sure you learned a lot throughout the process. Hopefully I’ll get to that place too in a couple of years!

  23. I fight not to judge myself a lot. It’s part of being a depressive. Like you said, I have to remind myself that I did the best with the resources I had. And at the time we were paying down debt, I couldn’t know that I’d eventually find a job I could do from home. So it made sense to barely focus on retirement. (Still not doing a great job, but that’s a rant for another day.) So we’re very behind. And… nothing to be done about it. All I can do is finally get my act together this and/or next year, now that the house has stopped imploding and Tim’s ridiculously expensive oral surgery is getting dealt with.

    Sure, I’ll still look back wistfully/angrily sometimes. But I’ll remind myself once again that it’s a waste of my very very limited energy. So move on already, brain!

    1. Yeah, judging oneself is easy to do. However, it doesn’t feel good, and it doesn’t change the past, and like you say, it takes energy that would be better spent on something more productive. I find that choosing whether or not I’m going to judge myself is something I have to do on pretty much a daily basis.

      By the way, you may feel you’re very behind, but from my perspective you actually seem like someone who got it together years ago, whereas I didn’t even start paying down my (longstanding) debt until this year. Even if you don’t have as much saved for retirement as you’d like, you’ve still already accomplished a great deal. Plus, you’re a published author! 😀

  24. So glad I finally got to catch up and read this! This is one of my favorite posts of yours ever. I’m so glad you’ve gotten to a place of possibility C, and I totally agree with you that it’s not a one-and-done choice, it’s a choice to make over and over and over. I’m like a year older than you, and in a different place in terms of net worth, but still struggle with a lot of those dumb second-guessing questions. “What if we hadn’t bought that first place and had just kept renting?” “What if we’d figured out our FIRE plan sooner?” “What if I’d gone into a more lucrative career path?” “What if I hadn’t bought all that stuff?” My questions might be different from yours, but it’s just to say that I think we all have stuff we wish we could do over, and it’s easy to look back and not give past us as much compassion as past us deserves. So I completely love everything about this post — how you’re viewing your past decisions (with love and compassion), your advice for all of us (do the same) and how you’re deciding affirmatively to move forward. xoxo

    1. Yeah, I think I’ve only recently realized that Possibility C is really a choice that must be made again and again, on pretty much a daily basis, rather than a one-time deal. I feel it’s basically a type of brain training, just like spending hours learning to play a musical instrument or learning a new language: in all cases, you’re teaching your brain a new way to process something, and that takes lots of practice. (And hopefully choosing Possibility C will get easier with more practice, just like the instrument or language would.)

      And yeah, that’s a good reminder to me that basically everyone feels this way at some point, and I would probably question my past decisions to some extent no matter what, even if I had made all the “right” decisions (haha, whatever those are). 🙂

  25. Awesome post! Made me think a lot about learning about “solution focused” thinking. We can “problem solve” (or think about all of those problems, or we can focus our energy on solutions and the future. If the solution doesn’t work out, you seek new solutions and try to avoid getting stuck on the past problem. Thanks so much for sharing!

    1. Yes, solution-focused thinking — that definitely sounds relevant to this! I like the distinction between thinking about the problem or thinking about the solution. Thanks for the comment! 🙂

  26. Here’s another quote that helps me keep things in perspective when I feel like I haven’t made the best choices and others seem so much more successful:

    “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

    -Theodore Roosevelt

  27. I love this post! You can’t always know all the things, and sometimes the decision was the right decision even if you had all the information. Life isn’t only about money, and like you said, you did the best you could with what you had, and sometimes even a lot of information isn’t enough to make the right decision. I think it was Vanilla Ice that said, Yesterday is history and tomorrow is a mystery, and since we’re talking 90s, I thought the reference was appropriate.

    1. Hahahahaha, that Vanilla Ice quotation could not be more perfect! Love it! And yes, well put: you can’t always know all the things. 🙂

  28. Just bookmarked your site. Thank you so much for sharing this. I feel validated. For me, at the age of 56, I’ve done everything I can to get retirement money together, since I was about 40, but I go over and over and over in my head, all that I have read in the last five years or so in PF blogs about how much more money you can end up by starting early.

    Well, when I went into university and when I came out, a few years later getting married and having two kids, I didn’t know anything about how adults navigated through life with their money. It wasn’t taught, my parents didn’t ever talk about it in front of me, teens didn’t get credit cards or know anything about credit lines and banks didn’t advertise on TV. I think the first time I heard the word “RRSP” I was about 20, and even then, that was something that ‘investors’ did, not someone like me with next to nothing to contribute to any sort of savings. A financial portfolio? What is that?

    I blame myself for not seeking out the information as soon as I got out of school, but I just didn’t, and that’s the only explanation I can come up with and I’ve lost track of how many hours I’ve spent trying to answer that question. There was just this big GAP there in my brain, where financial wherewithal is supposed to live. I must have been living in la-la land or something. Sheesh!

    So, I’m stuck now, putting every spare dollar away for a mediocre retirement to lesser and lesser effect as retirement age approaches, because I didn’t know what I didn’t know, while it seems that everyone else nowadays knows to start saving right away and has the potential to be multimillionaires when reaching my age. I missed the boat, obviously (sailing reference intended) and I’m mad as hell!

    Is it my fault though, for not asking questions at appropriate critical moments? AAAGH. Here we go again.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment. Although we are different ages and in different situations, I definitely can relate to the experience of wondering what on earth I was thinking when I was younger and why my finances weren’t something I was thinking about at all.

      I do think that if you’re reading a lot of personal finance blogs, this can skew your perspective quite a bit. In particular, I find that a lot of articles are geared towards people in their early 20s — and for me, reading these kinds of articles (“If you don’t start investing now, you’ll never be able to make up for lost time!”) can be extremely depressing, so I try to stay away from them.

      It sounds to me like you’re doing everything you can to move forward from where you’re at, and that’s the most important thing. We can’t change the past, but we can make smart decisions going forward.

  29. What’s that quote, “If you judge a fish by his ability to ride a bicycle…” 😄

    I love how zen you’re being! We all struggle with comparing ourselves to others- it’s our nature and so well reinforced by our culture.

    Remember that everyone struggles with something, be it debt, a low paying job, a meddling mother in law, self doubt or even just trying to figure out their next step forward.

    We’re all in this together!

    1. Haha, I like the fish and bicycle quote. And yes, it’s so true that everyone struggles with something, and that our culture encourages us to compare ourselves to others. We ARE all in this together, and I think simply realizing that fact can get us a long way. 🙂

  30. “The facts aren’t the whole story.” – I love this line. I think that we often focus on what we see on the surface that we forget what lies beneath. This is the same reason why I quit Facebook, because no matter how I tried not to, I kept on comparing myself with my friends. I measured my success (and failures) based on the content on my friends’ timelines. I wasn’t jealous in a way that I resented my friends’ ‘better’ lives, I just felt sorry and bad that mine wasn’t at the same level. I had to remind myself that most people only show happy moments online and that’s only half of their truths, while I know the whole of mine. So, like you, I forgave myself for making wrong choices and made peace with the fact that there are choices I couldn’t make, i.e. the family I’m born into. I chose myself and embraced my battles. And I still choose myself every single day.

    Your words are beautiful, thanks for sharing them with us.

    1. I also quit Facebook, for similar reasons, so I totally get what you’re saying! And YES to choosing oneself and embracing one’s own battles and continuing to choose oneself every single day. Beautifully put. 🙂

  31. That hedge fund management comment made me LOL. Reminded me of a time when someone asked me one time about some stock tips and I told him I don’t even know how to read a stock ticker! Sometimes these finance topics can be boring even to people like us!

    I’m all about Possibility C. I don’t have debt like you, but there are times I do regret the choices I made growing up. I pretty much stumbled and did whatever was in front of me throughout my whole career. I did just enough so I didn’t get fired (does a layoff count? lol), but I really could have applied myself more to be in a better position today.

    That being said, past is past. I’m doing the best I can now IN SPITE of what I did before.

    Thanks for this post. It was very inspiring. You’re doing good Ms. Sarah. Keep it up 🙂

    1. Hahaha, I barely know what a stock ticker is, so I can totally relate to that. 🙂

      And hey, it’s hard to understand when you’re younger how important it is to apply yourself at work. I can totally relate to that, and I definitely have had jobs where I was just doing the bare minimum. But that’s part of developing your career, I think: slowly realizing what it means to work hard, and why working hard is important. It takes time to fully grasp these things.

  32. It’s so important to be kind to former versions of yourself. She did what she could considering the factors in front of her. I do think you are right about focusing on what today’s choices mean for your future self. Best of luck!

  33. Hey Sarah,

    Good on you for being honest & open here, although wouldn’t have expected anything less ;)..
    Not sure if you read much although Tony Robbins (yes occasionally he’s a bit woo-woo) Awaken the Giant Within is an awesome book to consider & look @ changing your thinking / perspective etc..

    I’m sure there’s a heap of opportunity out there to hustle although I know myself it’s definitely easier said than done.. You’re doing well & you’ll get there.. Really depends on what you want to achieve 🙂

    Looking forward to possibility C!

    1. Thanks for the Tony Robbins recommendation! I’ve never really read anything by him, but I know he’s inspiring to a lot of people. I should check out one of his books at some point; maybe I’ll start with this one!

    1. Oh wow, those are scary numbers. I hope these veterinarians are making a very high salary so they have a chance of paying this off. It’s crazy how in some professions (veterinary, medical), high amounts of debt are basically unavoidable.

  34. I love this! I spent a lot of time wallowing in regret and feeling angry at myself for taking out student loans, but you’re right. We are all just doing the best we can with what we have. Wallowing in regret doesn’t help anyone.

    1. Regret and anger about student loans — too bad they don’t tell you about these feelings during student loan entrance counseling! I do believe you were doing the best you could when you took out the loans, just as I was. I really do think it’s important to try to be kind to our younger selves, as difficult as that may be sometimes!

  35. There is so much intelligent thought, perspective, and optimism in this post. I too get caught up in comparing myself to others as if the present is the only measure of our success. However, we don’t know that much about the financial situation of others, in comparison to outward appearances. You’re doing well and have a great outlook. I truly believe that everything will fall into place for you.

    1. Thanks, Harmony. The outlook is definitely something I’m still working on. As you say, it’s so easy to compare ourselves to other people…not productive though! 🙂

  36. Hey Sarah, It’s always good to find another personal finance twin out here in the blogosphere. I am this post. When tempted to beat myself up over past mistakes, I have to keep in mind that I was doing the best that I could with what I knew at the time. I’ll remember that the past me had good intentions and that I should show her more compassion. Great post!

    1. Past you definitely had good intentions! It’s so easy to beat ourselves up for our past choices, but it doesn’t help anything, and just makes us feel bad about ourselves. Self-compassion can be tough, but I think it’s worth working on!

    1. Ah yes, I have seen this post of yours before and I definitely appreciate it a LOT. Thanks for reminding me of it. 🙂

  37. Hi Noelle, firstly I love your blog and stop by often. You are a true inspiration on how you handle yourself in a given situation.
    You are so right, blogging shows weekly ups and downs, and highs and the lows. thats why so many people are so drawn to you because you show who you really are. Not just pink clouds and rainbows at all times and Instagram perfect photos. What you are talking about is a reality to millions of people. Debt, median salary, trying to save for retirement, still trying to live life to the fullest. Choices made at 20 or 25 cannot be undone but what CAN be done is moving forward in the manner that will better you and your life and those around you. I love your attitude, I love that you are volnurae and are not afraid to show it and share it here with us.

    1. I’m glad the post resonated for you, Mariana! I’m definitely not 100% there in adopting this attitude every day, but I’m trying to work towards it more and more. We definitely can’t undo past choices, but we can move forward as best we can. Thanks for your comment. 🙂

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