“I paid off £18,000 of debt in 22 months – here’s how I did it”

Written by Esther Bangura

How one woman went from spiralling debts to being confident with money and debt-free. 

When you’ve had a difficult relationship with money, your bank balance – however healthy – will never not feel emotionally charged. Today, I can look at my statement and feel completely calm, but I’ll never forget the power those digits once had over me, changing my pride in my ‘perfect life’ to a feeling of absolute helplessness.

I was born in Sierra Leone and moved here with my mum when I was eight. Money was never spoken about in our house, but it hovered at the edges of our existence. “If anyone knocks at the door, tell them I don’t live here,” Mum told me sternly when I was 10. So when the bailiff did appear, I lied dutifully.

But it was confusing. On one hand, money was so tight that the council tax hadn’t been paid, but on the other, two days later we were throwing a barbecue for family and friends as if we didn’t have a care in the world? The life lesson, it seemed, was this: if there’s enough money for fun, the rest doesn’t matter.

My relationship with my mum broke down at 16, and I ended up in care and got £60 pocket money each week that was spent on clothes and make-up. Then, at 18, I went to university to study psychology and social work, when a small weekly allowance transformed into a £2,000 student loan magically landing in my account.  

Insecure and desperate to fit in, the money just ran through my fingers. But while I spent on clothes, food, takeaways, bills, travel and textbooks, I started to question whether I could make it as a social worker when I had so many issues from my own time in care to work through. In my second year, I dropped out, leaving with no degree and £10,000 in debt.

I took a job at WHSmith, and three years later, aged 21, I got married to John, who I’d met in Sierra Leone 18 months earlier. In many ways, we were a fantastic match, but we were a disaster when it came to money.

By then, I was juggling jobs at a hairdresser, WHSmith and a café, but still sinking deeper into debt. Bills were left until the last minute or went unpaid entirely, but I’d always somehow find the money for nights out, thanks to credit cards. Subconsciously, I’d inherited my mum’s belief that money shouldn’t go on everyday, mundane things.

Meanwhile, John hated talking about money so happily left me to ‘take care’ of that side of things. I skimmed along, paying bills only when they reached a critical stage, in denial but having fun.

At 23, I got a job with Transport for London that paid £25,000, while John was earning the same while working in security. It honestly felt like we’d won the lottery as we splashed out on holidays and homeware. We told ourselves that we deserved it – we’d both had difficult childhoods and we were working hard at our jobs. Why shouldn’t we enjoy ourselves? 

Living in this denial meant my money habits didn’t change. As soon as our salaries landed in the account, they were spent – we never saved and our spending on credit cards, store cards and loans only grew. Plus, my increased salary also came with the weight of cultural expectations  from loved ones abroad. But I can’t lie, I enjoyed being held up as a success story by my relatives in Sierra Leone. Giving them money made me feel good.

In 2016, I was making £54,000. I kept spending and giving, creating an image of myself as a generous go-getter and letting John think everything was fine. What no one saw, however, was the ignored bills that landed me in court three times. The endless juggling of 0% credit cards and the fact that I came inches away from losing our flat entirely. 

It wasn’t long before I felt utterly burnt out, exhausted by the shifts my managerial role demanded. John also wanted a change and decided to retrain as an electrician. It says something about our level of financial denial that we both went part-time, despite a lifestyle that required all that we earned and more. In a single stroke, our income halved and we were suddenly £800 short each month. But I told myself that shopping at Aldi and having fewer nights out would solve the problem.

Then, in December 2017, I saw a YouTube video of a Black woman telling the story of how she’d saved $100,000 (£79,600). It was inspiring – I’d never seen money and debt discussed openly like that before – and I was suddenly gripped by the urge to turn our financial situation around.

Within a week, I’d sat down and added up what we owed. The guilt and shame I felt when I saw the staggering £18,000 figure staring back at me was beyond overwhelming. After all, it was debt racked up from simply living beyond our means. Seeing the horror on John’s face at the mess we were in was physically painful. But there were no recriminations from him, and we agreed to solve it together.

So many people only address the practical when they tackle debt, such as living off baked beans to solve everything. But from my research and self-reflection, I knew there were other psychological issues I had to address first. I needed to confront my relationship with money and my spending habits, to unpick them before I could create new, healthier ones.

I soon discovered why people try to avoid this part. It’s tough emotionally to face up to the bad choices you make. I began to realise just how much of my overspending had been tied up with my feelings of self-worth, because I wanted to be seen as both successful and generous by others. 

 John and I spoke about it all, being painfully honest with each other. It’s human instinct to want to blame someone, but we tried really hard not to. We’d schedule these conversations at times when we knew we could both really focus. Together, we created a realistic budget and stuck to it. I also came clean to friends and family, admitting that our ‘perfect life’ was an illusion built on debt. I was amazed by how many of them opened up to me in return about their own struggles managing money.

Frankly, the next 22 months were hard. Despite taking a full-time job as an assistant project manager and seeing my salary jump from £20,000 to £39,000, paying off our debts was a slow and painful process. We started by creating a budget and keeping track of all our outgoings, however small. Using Monzo and a budgeting app helped, but I soon learned that technology is just a tool – sticking to a budget is on you.

We closed our credit cards and cancelled subscriptions, such as Virgin Media. We shopped at Aldi with a food budget of £50 a week and only used money from a dedicated ‘fun pot’ if we wanted to go out. We declined party invitations and, if a friend’s birthday cropped up, I invited them over for homemade butter and honey caramel popcorn rather than buying a lavish gift.

The hardest part for me was cutting down the financial support I gave to family back home. The guilt never really went, however much I told myself that I really couldn’t afford to look after other people while I was so deep in debt. The compromise was to create a special pot of money in our budget just for giving. I could choose how it was spent, but once it was gone, I’d have to wait until the following month before I could give any more.

John and I would regularly speak about our progress, but there were arguments, especially if one of us wanted to talk about money when the other didn’t. Then our initial self-imposed deadline of being debt-free within 12 months was set back by a car accident. It was disappointing, but together we decided to recommit and keep going. It’s very hard to get out of debt without emotional support; in many ways, this experience has brought us closer together.

Finally, in October 2019, we made our very last debt payment. It was an incredible feeling – not least because we’d also managed to build a savings pot of £6,000. But we didn’t go mad with the celebrations. Instead, we increased our food budget and subscribed to Virgin Media again. Those things we’d taken for granted for years suddenly felt like huge treats.

But the biggest win was just around the corner. When lockdown first closed the construction sites and John’s burgeoning career as a self-employed electrician was stopped in its tracks, our savings meant we could still pay both our bills and our cleaner, who also couldn’t work. That’s when I realised what financial freedom and independence means to me: giving from a place of abundance, not guilt and panic. And last May, we were still able to buy the council flat that I’ve lived in since I left care – something I never would have imagined possible when I was struggling in my 20s.

Since 2019, I’ve run my own business as a financial coach, helping others get out of debt and manage their money without shame. The biggest thing I’ve learned is that how we spend our money is linked to our upbringing and our psychology – it’s nothing to do with figures on a price tag. For years, money was about my place in the world, my self-worth and how I was perceived by friends and family. Now, I can look at my bank statements with pride instead of panic, safe in the knowledge that I’ve earned this stability.

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