An Irish woman paid off nearly €30,000 in debt in just a year and a half and is now saving to buy a motorhome and retire at the age of 50.
Emer Farrell, 38, who is originally from Dublin but lives in Birr, Co. Offaly with her partner Damien, had a habit of impulsively buying clothes from ads she saw from influencers on Instagram.
Her spending on new clothes caused her to run up large debts on her credit card, along with a personal loan and a car loan, and by 2019 she owed the banks €27,759.
For years, Emer thought her spending behavior was normal and didn’t give much thought to how much debt she got or how she fell for many of the ads targeting her on Instagram.
“I probably thought I was no different than everyone else,” she told the Irish Mirror. “If I wanted to take a big vacation and didn’t have the money, I would take out a loan and put it on the credit card.
“Whenever I saw a new handbag, I really liked the look of it, I didn’t wait to save for it, I bought it. I didn’t feel like I was doing anything too differently.”
She added: “I followed people on social media but I was convinced that everything they bought, everything they promoted, I had to have.
“I wouldn’t think about what I already have, if I had five or six pairs of jeans in my closet I wouldn’t need another one.
“It hit me that I had this bad habit of online shopping and poor organization of grocery shopping which resulted in so much waste. I didn’t have room in the house for things I bought.”
Despite Emer’s average salary, she struggled to make it to her next payday each month and sometimes ended up putting the grocery purchases on her credit card.
“I was in this bad cycle of spending and increasing my debt, not by doing anything particularly extravagant, but just getting by,” she said. “I didn’t contribute anything [to] my future. I was in that pattern for quite a while.”
However, in September 2019, Emer was forced to reassess the size of her debt after the shocking realization that she might not be able to retire for the next 29 years – until 2048.
“When I saw that date, something happened to me and I thought, ‘I’ll do whatever I can to bring that day forward,'” she said.
Emer carefully analyzed her spending habits and quickly realized that aside from online shopping, a large portion of her income was spent on groceries, with €850 spent on the monthly grocery store for two alone.
“The very first thing I did was print out the bank statements for the last three months,” she said. “It was awful but it was the best thing I’ve ever done because I could see where my money was going.
“I was able to calculate how much I had spent at the supermarket, at the diner and at McDonalds and how much was made up of these.”
She added: “There’s only 2 of us in the house and I’ve seen my average spending €850 a month [on groceries’]. It was just crazy,” she said.
“I initially cut that from €850 to €300 a month, so that’s a huge savings.”
Though it was hard to swallow, Emer was determined to break her spending cycle and divided her expenses into two categories, needs and wants, and was soon able to make drastic savings.
“I couldn’t get rid of any ‘needs,’ but I made sure I was getting the best value for everything,” she said.
“I switched everything, my electricity, my broadband, my phone [provider] to get a better rate and pay less every month.”
The couple also waived their Sky TV bill, which was €57 a month, saving €684 a year, and Emer saved a further €600 by switching mobile operators.
However, Emer said she wasn’t too hard on herself when it came to doing this, and made sure a portion of each month’s budget could always be spent on entertainment, going out and other “wishes”.
In doing so, she found that when she paid close attention to where her money went, she placed more value on the things she already had.
Over the course of 18 months, Emer slowly reduced her debt and was officially debt free as of April 2021.
“I paid them off in order of highest interest rate because I wanted to make sure the banks didn’t get any extra money from me,” she said.
“So credit cards went first, personal loans next, and car loans last. It felt really good to know that the car sitting in the driveway was all mine.
“I’m pretty sure we were in lockdown at the time so I don’t remember doing anything to celebrate!”
On her journey to financial freedom, Emer discovered the online debt-free community, which helped her build a support network of people who could be open about their debt and share tips.
“With the debt free online community, there is no guilt or shame to speak out [debt],” She said.
She added: “You often feel like you’re alone. I think a lot of people think that no one else is talking about their debt or fretting about stress two weeks after payday, that “how am I going to pay the bills?” stress.
“But really, everyone’s in the same boat until you start doing better with your money management.”
With all their debts paid off, Emer and her partner Damien are now hoping to make their dream of retiring early at 50 a reality and continuing to save to buy a dream camper.
“All the money I paid for debt I can now use for my other goals,” she said.
“One of them is retiring early, but we dream of buying a camper van and of course I can now save a lot more money for it.
“Right now I’m just dreaming about it!”
Emer’s four top tips for paying off debt:
1. Find out where your money went
This is the “biggest thing” to start with, as you can then see what you’re spending your money on and what you’re willing to cut back to start paying off debt.
2. Stop following influencers on Instagram
Emer temporarily unfollowed many people on Instagram, whom she said were “doing their job” and making them buy things they didn’t need. It helped avoid unnecessary spending as she was not tempted.
3. Appreciate what you already have
Emer says when you’re grateful for what you already have, you’ll be less tempted to buy more. Plus, when you work hard to save up for something you want, like a vacation or a car, you feel like you really deserve it.
4. Create good habits around payday each month
Each month, Emer sets a budget and sticks to it. On payday she has a routine of putting money where it needs to go, payments, savings account etc which makes it easier to be in control of where her money goes. She said once you stick to these habits, it becomes second nature.
For more tips on living debt free, you can follow Emer on Instagram: @onefootinthesave