Times & Dimes Podcast

Episode 3: When debt leads to a positive change in perspective

What does being chased by debt collectors feel like? Host Graham Clark talks with Tammy, who recalls coping with student loans, feeling the pressure of paying it all back, and how she emerged on the other side.

GRAHAM CLARK: This is Times & Dimes, a podcast brought to you by Sun Life. We're talking to everyday Canadians about how money affects their lives, happiness, and well-being. I'm your host, Graham Clark, with today's guest, Tammy.


GC: Hi, Tammy.

TAMMY: Hi, Graham, how are you?

GC: I'm good. How are you?

T: I'm good, thank you.

GC: Can you remember your first kind of dealing, was it an allowance or opening your first bank account or anything like that?

T: Yeah, so essentially, my relationship has definitely evolved over the years. I didn't really think much about money at all. I didn't even really understand what money was until the age of 14. I grew up with nothing, so I was raised by a single mom. She tried her best, but she was on warfare. And then I was orphaned when I was nine, so for me, when you're on warfare and then you're a ward of the state, there's like a set amount of money that would be provided, but nothing else, so you never really see it come and go. So there was never really— I never really even understood the concept of money for a long time.

GC: Right, and, like, you didn't understand budgeting or what comes in, what goes out?

T: Oh, absolutely not! Yeah, no clue. So, with Children’s Aid, you'd have a set amount that was provided for clothing, school needs… and it was only really, to answer your question, it was probably when I was around 14 or so — that's when I moved in with my amazing adoptive parents — and that's, I guess, my world of money just like significantly widened. They were also very goal-oriented and so they were the first people to encourage to strive for what I wanted in my life, but also to realize that you do need money for that, and so that's when they first helped me to set up my bank account. So, that was probably around the first time that I really understood that if you want something, you have to save for it, and now I started working at that time as well.

GC: Oh wow! Where did you work?

T: I worked at a zoo, so I was like….

GC: Wow, oh my goodness! What did you do at the zoo? I'm fascinated.

T: So, there was a petting zoo area and, essentially, we made popcorn and then you would give it to the kids, and the kids would feed the popcorn to, like, the goats. It was honestly a really, really sweet gig.

GC: Yeah, no kidding. And so, I assume that was your first job was working at the zoo? Did you figure— because I remember with my first job, I was shocked at how little money you ended up with. Because it was minimum wage and then….

T: Yeah, I mean it was a really strange time because I remember that— and like even with friends who know me, they've probably heard me mention this story, but it was really surreal because, all of a sudden, I went from having nothing to like, I was in this world. My adoptive parents lived in the area where that was, like, suburbia and pretty middle class, and so I lived in this world where people were complaining about like luxury… in my eyes, luxury items. Like, not getting like the right Lululemon bag for Christmas. And so they're upset and they were like, “Oh, now I have to save up, I'm going to have to work for like six months to save up to get what I want.” So, where I guess I was in my mindset was I didn't understand, first of all, how were you upset that you didn't get the Lululemon bag? And, second of all, how did you have a long-term vision to save for something that you couldn't have immediately? So, I didn't get that yet. I was 14, so I didn't understand… like, I didn't have that insight, I guess, that in life you have to delay gratification sometimes to acquire something that brings more joy and satisfaction.

GC: Yeah, and also it makes whatever that thing is — the object or holiday or whatever — it means a lot more because of the work. Your adoptive parents, did they like sit you down and teach you kind of everything you needed to know starting out with money or…?

T: I think it was probably a bit of both. They definitely were, in terms of action— as soon as I lived with them, pretty much, we set up a bank account and they encouraged me. They're like, well, if you want to get anything like it's going to be— they pretty much said in life, no matter how well off you are, you have to, in order to appreciate things, you should try to work and you should try to at least pay part of your way. Also, it was important for them, especially, to tell me that Children’s Aid probably wouldn't be able to help forever, so that it's good to build these skills now. And so they encouraged me, but they weren't in the driver's seat, so they were in the passenger seat, I would say.

GC: So, you came from a place with no money at all and you say you kind of related to money by talking to other people who had different relationships with money. When you were young, how did that feel?

T: It was like a culture shock, even though you're in Canada still, it was definitely a culture shock for me. There is a class divide in Canada and I definitely came from the lowest, and so even though it was like a middle-class upbringing with my adoptive parents, it was still a big change for me. It was definitely like there were things people were talking about that I had never experienced and so there was that, and then with money, it was— I had also lacked self-control with that, so that was definitely a struggle. Because when you have friends that are able to go out, say, at 14, and they want to go play pinball, or they want to go to the movies, or whatever, and then I was like, “Oh, why can't I go do all of these things now?” I want to do everything, but I actually don't, even though I'm working— like, how come I don't have enough money to do all those things and now I just blew all my money on this movie and I can't go play…

GC: Yeah, so even though you were working very hard for your money that you were to spend, you didn't have a feeling that this was kind of a precious commodity, it was just kind of money in, money out?

T: Oh yeah, for sure. Just like burning a hole. I have to spend it now on something.

(Musical interlude)

GC: How's it in Toronto has the summer been?

T: Well, actually, with the onset of COVID, we actually left and we went to Northern Ontario for a few months, and then we went to live with, or stay with, my in-laws for a few months. So, we've actually just come back. We've been here for about a week, so we're just kind of— we're just readjusting to like Toronto sites, Toronto smells…

GC: How was staying with the in-laws?

T: Well, my husband and I have been together for 13 years and, actually, I’ve already lived with them once before, so this was like version 2.0. So, we already knew each other's habits, we knew how we could exist together even in a time of uncertainty. It was relatively peaceful, which was good. I think, no matter what, it's hard when it's not in your own space. You have to be willing to compromise on things, but it was good.

GC: This isn't the first time you stayed with your in-laws. When was the first time that you stayed with them?

T: So, I think it was about now ten years ago. We were trying to figure it out the other day… 10–11 years ago. I had student debt and my boyfriend, but now husband, at the time, we had just finished living in Vancouver. We had been traveling and we had been living on some meagre income, and I had about $12K in debt, so we decided to live with my in-laws — well, Will’s parents, at the time — just to pay it off, so I essentially paid it all off in like 14 months and worked two jobs. That relief of debt was the best feeling in the world, for sure, yeah.

GC: This is not forever, this is just for now, or was it just a real slog to get through it?

T: It's hard to have that foresight when you're— so, at the time, we were 21 and so we didn't really have… like, we knew it was a good plan, but I don't know how you were at 21, I definitely wasn't….

GC: Oh, I was so dumb. I was so dumb at 21, oh my goodness.

T: It's funny because I have friends that were definitely always goal-oriented, even at a really young age, but I wasn't. I was definitely more of a drifter. But yeah, for us, we did know that this would just be a good idea, but having to sacrifice at such a young age definitely was not the greatest. I'm happy that I did it, though. And, at the time, it was definitely a slog, but it was just trying to have that single-minded goal that every time— and at least with something like that, you can see tangibly what you're doing. Like, every time I was paying off debt, I was like, OK, so I can realistically calculate it will only be maybe four more months or whatever. There were a few drawbacks in between, of course, like random things come up that you have to pay for.

GC: When you decided to go to school, was it that same relationship and were you working while you were going through school?

T: No, so I guess I would say around that time, that's kind of where my impulsive spending reached this crushing crescendo. I wish I knew you when I was 18 because then you would have been like, “Just save your money.”

But I would say that definitely around college is when it just reached, like, it was not a healthy— it was a pretty crushing crescendo. But yeah, I wasn't working at the time. I had actually received a bunch of grants to go along with my school loan. It was great. And, like, I think now, I can look back and I do have empathy because it's really hard when you're a young whippersnapper and you're trying to navigate the learning curve that comes with growing up and learning how to live. And, in truth, I had only really had four years of stability in my entire life, so it wasn't like I had ever really learned like those important skills to thrive properly. So, I ended up spending a lot of my loans and grants on food and partying and things and cell phones because at college, everywhere you go, they’re offering you a free cell phone.

GC: Yeah, I definitely collected my fair share of, like, swag to sign up for a credit card and all that kind of stuff, so I remember that very clearly. What was the moment where you kind of realized we’ve gotta bring this down, we’ve gotta reel this back in? Was there an exact moment or was it just kind of an overall feeling?

T: Yeah. So, essentially what happened is, I was digging my hole of debt and I was avoiding responsibility. And it ended up resulting in my defaulting of loans, so I was getting credit collectors that were calling weekly, they were sending letters…

GC: And what did that feel like? Was it absolutely terrifying or were you like, “Well, this just comes with the territory”? How did that feel?

T: I just never want anyone to be there. It's awful. You definitely feel like you can't get out, I think, once you hit a certain point because it is so… it is a constant. Because I avoided to just take responsibility, it just kept like— once I defaulted on loans, it was weekly calls, letters. A lot of them are automated, so it's not like you can even really explain your situation to somebody. If you do get a hold of somebody, you can tell that a lot of times, they're just very strained, it's tiring. They've heard so many stories. And it was genuinely my fault.

So, if you've ever been in that situation, it could be pretty daunting because it was almost like I was starting to feel like this is going to be my life. I've already I've dug this hole now and so I'm not quite sure how to get out. Also, I realized that I had done this, and so I didn't want to have other people pay for it or try to help, and I was just accepting that I had done this and I didn't really know how to get out. Around that time, I met my husband and— I still wasn't taking responsibility. We ended up traveling and that's when we moved to Vancouver. I was working for about eight bucks an hour…

GC: Did his kind of knowledge of finance or his debt-free life, did that motivate you to become debt-free or did you find that intimidating?

T: It wasn't intimidating because, again, I still didn't really have a firm grasp on reality. We were both still working, but the cost of living in Vancouver is really high. We always look even now as a joke between the real estate between Toronto and Vancouver, and it's just constantly like they're one upping each other all the time, so it’s unreal.

GC: You said that you were kind of like a drifter, no kind of goals. Did after working through this process and paying off your debt, did you become more goal-oriented?

T: I guess with the people that I have surrounding me and like, myself individually, it takes me a little longer I think to learn things, but I have a really good group of people around me. It was definitely something that, like, when you have that relief of debt, you just never want to go back there. I know that when you get older and you have a house— so, for us, it was more that we just wanted to make sure that, moving forward, the decisions we made were things that we really wanted to have in our lives versus having school debt, due to the fact that I wasn't sure what I had wanted to take and so I just kept switching from program to program instead of just taking a year off. I did go back to school in between, but, again, we had the foresight to realize that with our lifestyle at the time, we just couldn't afford for me to go full-time, but we made that choice again before we got into debt because we knew that we didn't want to go down that road again.

GC: Did that time kind of encourage you to learn how to budget and to make every dollar stretch as far as it can, or did you kind of feel like I've already lived through this type of thing before where I have no excess money, so I know how to operate within that? Or was it a learning experience?

T: I think it was definitely a learning experience. It was definitely an emotional learning experience for me, it was really hard. It’s also just humbling because, when you had asked before about if you think you'll go back, because of how hard it was, I always know that we're never going to be perfect, but I definitely don't want to go back to that place of feeling like there's a crushing weight that you just can't see any way out of and that there's definitely so many things that we that we really don't need. So, yeah, and it'll never be perfect, but it'll be hopefully better.

GC: Thank you so much for sharing and, you know, talking about this thing that I think everybody feels is very uncomfortable, so thank you so much for that.

T: Thank you, Graham. Nice to talk to you.


GC: Money plays a huge role in all our lives and it's not always easy to talk about it, but we truly believe that having open, honest conversations about money can help improve your mental, physical, and financial health.

Before we go, we'd like to ask our listeners if they've ever found themselves in a situation similar to Tammy. If you have, you can find resources to help you at sunlife.ca.

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More Episodes

Episode 1

Learning from failure as an entrepreneur.

Episode 2

Opening up about mental health and burnout.

Episode 3

When debt leads to a positive change in perspective.

Episode 4

Finding a work-life balance as a business owner.

Episode 5

Coping with uncertainty during  COVID-19.

Episode 6

Rebuilding your finances after the death of a spouse.

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