Freedom 33.

Student loans are a dangerous thing.  They're easy to get.  And once you utter the words "professional school," banks are eager to line up and throw money at the doctors, dentists, accountants and lawyers of tomorrow.  That's how I managed to finance three degrees, a visiting year at McGill, and a post-graduate program at London School of Economics.  And it wasn't just enough to scrape by.  It was enough to travel, enjoy London theatre, to see and experience the world.  

When the time came to pay those loans back, I wasn't worried.  After all, I was a lawyer now.  I thought I'd always be making stupid money.  Who cares if it took me 25 years to pay them back?  I could afford it. I thought I could afford a lot of things that suited my newly minted stature as a yuppie.  And the banks kept calling and offering more money, and the monthly payback numbers kept growing.   

After my first several years in big-firm practice, including my years in London, where I worked harder than I ever had before and clocked in more all-nighters than most people will experience in a lifetime, I was burnt out.  And I had to keep working hard, had to stay on the big-firm treadmill, because the big-firm salary was the only way I could afford to make those monthly paybacks.  The numbers were starting to grow faster than I could run.  

By December 2009, I was too tired to keep running.  And I was at a point where the choice to be a lawyer had been taken away from me. I had to do it, there was no walking away.  The Golden Handcuffs which I had willingly thrust my wrists into in order to live the lifestyle to which I thought I was entitled, were starting to chafe.  I wanted to options - to practice law or not, to stay on the big-firm track or not - and I needed to make some changes to open those doors.  

I cut up all my credit cards.  I consolidated all my loans.  And I began paying them back at a rate that amounted to more than half my take-home pay.  I was still making stupid lawyer money, yes, but I was living on a budget smaller than I had set for myself as a freewheeling London student.  I was 29.  My loans would be paid off sometime in 2013.  That seemed a long, long way off.  I jokingly called my new lifestyle the "Freedom 33" plan.  Life, I said repeatedly, would begin at 33.

On June 28, a day before my 33rd birthday, I pressed a button on my online banking, and paid off the last of my loans.  It was very anticlimactic.  I didn't feel different.  I didn't feel free.  I didn't suddenly see my whole life open up in front of me.  But - it is a good feeling, this clean slate.  

The new challenge is to keep to the strict budget and cash-only lifestyle I've been living for almost four years.  With Canadian household debt currently at 165% of disposable income, I don't intend to become part of that statistic.  It's tough though.  When people say, "Oh, treat yourself to that car/ring/condo/pair of Manolos/Indonesian holiday, you deserve it!"  I think, Yeah, I do!  I deserve that!  It's hard not the be proud, the way you are when you finish a long run or a hard workout.  And it's hard not to want a treat as a reward for your efforts.  

So, tomorrow I'm going to celebrate my birthday and my freedom with a number of my friends, on my rooftop terrace.  And that's what I deserve.  The rest can wait.