To-Do List Neurosis: Debt phobia, goals and Sweden

On Lake Vänern

On Lake Vänern

I hope you’ll forgive me a humblebrag/reflection post today.

Yesterday was a huge day for me: I paid off my final student loan. At 25, four years after graduating from an expensive university, it seems impossible.

How did I do it? Well, the last few steps were accomplished thanks to two things: 1) an overwhelming fear of debt and 2) an obsessive need to check things off my to-do list.

Let’s be clear: This isn’t a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps tale. I grew up suburban with a supportive family; I have a dad who had a good job; and I got a decent public education. I am white. All of these things helped lead to my success throughout grade school. Those privileges also helped me network and land great jobs out of college.

Still, I graduated with a hair above the national average in student loan debt, around $30,000. It’s not too shabby, considering that during my four years at Susquehanna University, the tuition hovered around $40,000 annually. For those of you playing along at home, that’s $160,000 in costs overall.

Debt phobia

May 2011

May 2011

I asked Google whether there’s a term for a phobia of acquiring debt. I came up empty.

It’s apparently A Thing, whether it has a name or not, and I found plenty of financial advice columns on how to overcome this fear. I don’t think I’m debt-phobic – I’m not kept up at night – but I’ve been preoccupied with my debts since I entered college. I didn’t understand how loans, creditors, or interest rates worked, and that lack of knowledge quickly translated to fear and avoidance.

This fear helped me early on: It meant I applied for lots of scholarships. In the end, more than half of my tuition each year was paid by scholarships and federal grants. I also worked while going to school full-time. A retail job at first, then interning and freelancing for my regional newspaper. All out of fear for the financial system in Big Education.

To-do list neurosis

What propelled me more than a fear of the unknown was a compulsion to make to-do lists: on paper, in my head, in emails, in organizational apps on my phone. And an obsession with whittling those lists down as quickly and completely as possible.

Gothenburg.

Gothenburg.

These lists are the only way I make it through a day without forgetting, you know, the basic aspects of being a functioning adult. I rely on them for everything. Each day, I keep a task list in the calendar on my phone: Pick up Rx; gym; transfer $ from savings; call mom. But there is a broader, more imposing task list in my head at any given time: Pay off debts; build up funds; apply for residence permit in Sweden; move. It gets a little fuzzier after that, but even post-Sweden life isn’t unplanned.

I had realized something important: I could use my neuroses for good. I took my goal of moving to Sweden and turned it into something I knew I couldn’t resist: a to-do list. Day-to-day pressures, reminders and steps to take to lead my husband and me down that path. We’re making not just specific savings goals and payment plans, but lesson plans for Swedish, research goals for immigration information, tasks to connect online and meet up with other ex-pats in Gothenburg.

Paying off my debt is the first major step to our Big Move. I turned it into just another item to check off my to-do list. Starting a new life in Sweden is something we’ve been talking about since our first trip to Gothenburg in 2011. We sat in the car outside an office building, watching the sun rise before I went into work, and made a five-year plan: we’d save up, we’d learn a bit of Swedish, we’d visit again (in 2014), we’d learn everything we can about emigrating, and we’d make it happen.

For someone with an obsessive personality like mine, it’s a huge relief to continue to check those items off the list.

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