Living the Debt Free Dream

This post was written by Nick Ornella, PharmD.  Nick is a 2009 graduate of Ohio Northern University.  After paying off his student loan debt, Nick started to save to make his dream of taking one year off of work to travel the world a reality.  You can follow his journey on Instagram (@nickornella) or Facebook.  If you have any questions for Nick, you can e-mail him at nicholas.ornella@gmail.com.  


“The wind was howling, temperatures in the single digits, darkness all around us. We set out across the glacier, shivering. I was chugging along, singing songs in my head to keep my mind off the cold, one cramped boot in front of the other, using my ice axe to balance myself, carefully stepping over bottomless cracks in the ice. Eventually, the sun started to shed some light, dawn was approaching. I began to notice the low lying clouds blanketing the land all around the mountain, peaks and valleys of white clouds undulating as far as the eye could see. What was at first just a faint light, turned into an incredible sunrise. Different shades of yellow, orange, and red lighting up the sky and the clouds down below. It was stunning. I was having the time of my life.”

Sunrise on Mount Rainier, Washington

Sunrise on Mount Rainier, Washington

This is an excerpt from a journal entry I wrote about my climb of Mt. Rainier in Washington this past August; from a journal full of stories that would not have been possible had I not achieved financial freedom. I got out of debt as quickly as I could, and I saved up as much money as I could, allowing me to fulfill my dream of taking one year off of work to travel the world.

I graduated from pharmacy school with much less debt than most pharmacists, thanks to some hard earned academic scholarships and two hard working parents, Pete and Celeste, but I was still in the mindset of paying off my student loan debt as quickly as possible. I lived at home with my parents for 10 months after graduating. I took a higher paying job with a large chain pharmacy, passing up an opportunity to work in a small hospital at a lower salary. I received a sign on bonus which I used to help pay off my loans. I picked up some extra shifts at work. I wanted to be free of the burden of loans as quickly as possible. Within one year of graduation, I was able to pay off my student loans.

John Muir Trail in California

John Muir Trail in California

Once I got out of debt, I shifted my mindset to saving as much money as possible and avoiding any more debt. I decided against buying a house or condo, opting to rent an apartment instead. I started contributing 15% of my salary towards my company-matched 401(k). Instead of just keeping money in a savings account, I took the riskier but more rewarding option of opening up a brokerage account and began purchasing some stocks and mutual funds. I established an emergency fund. I got my first credit card but never carried a balance, paying it off in full every month while earning some nice rewards points.

I have always been conscious about my spending as well. I think about a purchase before I make it and make sure I will get my money’s worth out of the item. There have certainly been some ill-advised purchases along the way, but for the most part, I’ve been able to avoid catching the consumerism bug. I have the same TV today that I purchased eight years ago. I make a smart phone last two or three years, as opposed to buying the new release every year. I have only owned two different computers my entire life. Clothes are only bought when needed, not to keep up with fashion. I rented a small one-bedroom apartment, avoiding the high cost of furnishing a house or big apartment and the high costs to heat, cool, and maintain them. I was also conscious of my day-to-day spending. Instead of ordering carry out while at work, I packed a lunch every day. I watched my spending at the grocery store and made sure to use everything I spent money on, no waste. I always buy store brand products, not name brand. All of these smaller day-to-day expenses can really add up.

The Roman Forum in Rome, Italy

The Roman Forum in Rome, Italy

After several years, I started to realize I was doing a good job at getting ahead in my finances, so I started to look into making my dream of traveling for a year a reality. I read several books and blogs about long-term travel and contacted the wise Financial Pharmacist for advice (very good advice by the way!). I crunched some numbers and came up with a budget for the whole year. I eliminated some monthly bills and moved into my friend Tony’s condo, avoiding being tied to an apartment lease. The more I looked into this year off, the more I realized it was a very real possibility, so I started to set some money aside. Within a couple years, I had enough money to finance the whole year.

All of the hard work to get out of debt, to build a nice financial nest egg, and to get a good head start on my retirement savings led me to comfortably make the decision to take a year off work to travel. It was always a dream of mine to do something like this, to break free of what society would consider a normal life, to get out and experience the world while still young and healthy.

I’m very thankful I’ve been able to achieve this goal. I spent all spring and summer out west, visiting nearly every western state and every western National Park, backpacking and camping and climbing mountains, being a kid again. I climbed Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the lower 48 states, as part of a fundraiser for a charity I support. I backpacked the 223-mile John Muir Trail through the beautiful Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. I spent two amazing weeks in Wyoming with my girlfriend, Alanna, and two incredible weeks in Colorado with my friends, Tony and Sam.

Alanna and I in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Alanna and I in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

In September, I headed overseas and spent a fantastic week in Paris and London with my sister, Lauren. Since then, I’ve spent the past 9 weeks exploring 12 different countries and over 20 different cities in Europe, wandering through countless city streets and cathedrals, eating some of the best food in the world, and meeting some incredible people along the way. After spending the holidays at home in Cincinnati, I will be spending 11 weeks in Africa, volunteering and going on safari in Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya.

I’ve been able to live my life on my terms, not on the terms of Sallie Mae. Achieving financial freedom has allowed me to live my dream. It can allow you to live yours.

Your Financial Homework: Your homework is a little bit different this time, no crunching numbers or coming up with budgets. Your financial homework is to dream, and if you’ve already been dreaming, then your homework is to start doing research into making those dreams a reality. Maybe your dream is like what my dream was, to take some time away from work, maybe to travel, maybe to spend a whole summer away from the stresses of work to be with your children. Maybe your dream is to ensure your children walk away from college debt free. Maybe you wish to open up a business, a pharmacy, or become an entrepreneur. Start looking into making this a reality NOW, not tomorrow. Do some research on the Internet, email or talk to people who have done something similar to what you want to do. Once you’ve begun this process of making your dream a reality, the dream will start to become reality. Once your dream is within your grasp, it will make financial freedom your top priority so you can pursue this dream. It will make your budget that much easier to adhere to. It will take away the desire to purchase things you don’t need. It will make living a simpler and more frugal life much easier. It will lead to a much more fulfilling life, a life not controlled by the burden of debt. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my journey.

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