Practical Optimism

Optimism Works: “I strive to only compare myself to my past self.”

This is Optimism Works, a series that interviews people who, through optimism, have made achievements in their life and career. After becoming debt free, Kara Perez found her calling in educating Texans about how to take control of their own finances through her company, Bravely. Here, she gives us a glimpse into what it took to hustle her way out of debt on a modest salary.

Kara Perez discovered her love of finance by way of her quarter-life crisis. Broke, underemployed, and saddled with a mountain of student loan debt, she realized her lack of financial education was crippling her success. Perez stymied her anxiety by grabbing her financial situation by the horns, paying off more than $25,000 in loans on a salary of less than $30,000, and the final $18,000 in just nine months. Now, she helps Texans do the same. 

When did you first decide that you wanted to pay off your student loan debt? 

Let’s rewind to June 2014. I was broke, underemployed, and wondering what I was doing with my life. I worked two very part-time jobs, as a caterer and a MMA gym receptionist. I was making about $1,000 a month. 

I graduated college in 2011 with $25,302 in debt, and, three years later, still carried $19,000. I had to put all my Sallie Mae loans into deferment because I couldn’t make the payments, only making payments on my one privately held loan. 

I felt lost and scared all the time. My debt weighed on me. I knew that I needed drastic action to change the direction of my life. Money was by far the biggest issue I faced, and $1,000 a month just wasn’t cutting it. When my deferment ended, my loan payments hit $300 a month. There was no living on that kind of budget. I felt like this was my last chance to get my life together. 

I honed in on my student loan debt as a way to change my life. By getting rid of my debt, I reasoned, I’d have more money, and would improve my financial status overall. Getting back $300 a month felt like a huge amount of money. 

When you were getting started, what feelings do you remember having about that goal?

I’ve always been a big goal setter. I like structure, and I view goals as a layout to follow. When it came to money, I was so scared because I didn’t know anything about it. I felt like I didn’t know enough about money to set a goal related to it. How long would it take to pay off my debt? I genuinely didn’t know, because my income was low and variable. 

I ended up setting a very general, big picture goal: get out of debt ASAP. No exact timeline, no exact structure. Just move toward owing less money next month than I do this month. As I learned more and got better with money, my goal became more refined. Then my feelings began to change from fear, to confidence, and finally to excitement in the home stretch. 

What was the very first step you took? How did you stay on track?

The first thing I did was find more work. I decided to take any job I could find. I looked on Craigslist and I asked friends if they knew anyone hiring. I wound up with five different part-time jobs, and would regularly work seven days a week. I did that for the next year, through the end of 2015. 

I paid off my final $18,000 in debt in nine months, on an annual income of $32,000 (before taxes). I was totally dedicated to debt payoff. I slashed my budget to the bare essentials, and picked up any extra side gigs to make money. I spent my weekends coaching high school lacrosse, catering, and babysitting. I gave up going out to eat and buying gifts and clothes. I stopped buying meat at the grocery store, and gave up alcohol. All my extra cash went to my debt—nothing else mattered. 

I like to call this my “debt payoff sprint.” I crushed a large amount in a small amount of time, and it changed my life. I was totally single-minded, which not everyone needs to be, but it worked beautifully for me. 

I don’t define success by a certain dollar figure, or by certain accolades. For me, it’s much more centered on living a life that I enjoy and am proud of each day.

Describe the moments when you felt like giving up. Why didn’t you?

I couldn’t give up. I knew what giving up meant: back to that confusion and fear and that total lack of control over my money. That scared me so much more than figuring out my debt. I knew moving forward wasn’t going to be glamorous, but every time I picked up an extra catering shift, or made an extra $30 debt payment, I knew exactly what I was moving away from, and that motivated me.  

Where have you found support along the way?

I’ve been very open about my money ever since I first started my debt-payoff journey, and I’ve found my friends and family to be so supportive of me working to change my life. When I first started, most of my friends also had debt they hated, so they encouraged me working to get out of it. 

As I’ve started and grown my business, reaching out to other entrepreneurs has been a huge source of support, too. I’m regularly in touch with people in my field and they provide feedback, encouragement, and help me answer questions. 

I think, no matter what the goal, it’s so important to let people join you on the journey. From friends to other professionals, it’s been so refreshing to have a shoulder to lean on when I need it. 

What has been surprisingly hard? Surprisingly easy?

When I first started learning about money, I thought it would be more static—that learning about debt would be enough to handle all money-related issues. I’ve been on a continuous learning curve for years, which has been hard at times. But what’s truly surprising is that I love it! Money has so many angles to it, and it’s a continuous exercise in creativity. 

Something that’s been easier than expected is how easy it’s been to talk to my friends and family about money. Even my partner; he HATES talking about money, but understands it’s important to me and to our life together, so he is always willing to have a conversation about it. I’ve never had to convince someone to talk to me about money. 

How do you define success?

I strive to only compare myself to my past self. I know the tools and effort I used to have, and I know the work I’m doing now. Am I getting better when compared to myself? That’s my biggest question. 

For me, success can mean many things. It can mean earning more than I did last year. It can mean taking a month off work to spend traveling. It can mean being happier and less stressed. I don’t define success by a certain dollar figure, or by certain accolades. For me, it’s much more centered on living a life that I enjoy and am proud of each day. 

How does optimism play a role in this goal, and your future goals?

I’m naturally optimistic. I always ask myself, “How great could this be?” When I first began paying off debt, I told myself over and over again, “You can do this.” It was my mantra. And it became a rallying cry. I knew that people had faced much bigger obstacles without the tools I had at my disposal, so I told myself, “You can do anything. You just have to figure this out.”

I still tell myself that when I’m faced with a challenge. I don’t know the answer to everything, but I can certainly do the work to navigate a difficult situation. Now, I tell myself, “What can you do right away, and what do you need help with?” Help might come from a friend, a Google search, reading a book, or from hiring an expert. But the help is out there, and I always go look for it. 

The first time I was featured on NPR as a financial expert, I left the recording studio with thoughts of NPR asking me to host my own show someday. I find that allowing myself to be excited about POSSIBILITY is so helpful. Why not dream about having my own NPR show? It makes me feel great and helps me strive to do my best when NPR reaches out. The optimism of my dream leads to great work—it’s a win-win! 

What advice do you have for other people who are trying to do what you’ve done?

It doesn’t have to look perfect and it doesn’t have to fit anyone else’s model. You just have to start moving toward your goal, and roll with the punches. 

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