A study abroad trip to South Africa’s University of Johannesburg changed Jateria Pittman’s life. The Georgia native was in her senior year as a business marketing and entrepreneurship major at Appalachian State University when she set off on the six-month program.
It was her first international trip, and the experience was transformative. She returned to North Carolina and took up a position at a mortgage company after graduation in 2015, but admittedly her heart was still in South Africa. Pittman started seeking out ways to fund a return to the continent.
“I picked up a second job as a hostess at a country club that was only 10 minutes away from my job. And then I also started to Uber and to resell clothes,” says Pittman.
She used all the extra income and some bonus money to pay off her outstanding bills, take a year off work, and move to South Africa in 2017. While there, she traveled to Europe, visiting Paris, Amsterdam and Naples. It was liberating, but she fell into another funk when she got home to the U.S. She started using her credit cards.
“I was doing things to help fill a void of not being happy,” Pittman explains. “I had my car note that was about $10,000. I had two more credit cards; one that was for $10,000 and another for $6,000. And then along the way, I picked up additional debt. It was like I would pay off debt and pick up more debt.”
Thanks to scholarships, Pittman graduated with only $13,000 in student loans, but now she owed over $30,000 to various financial institutions. However, the process of moving abroad had triggered her desire for a life that included frequent travel.
She started Debt Free Travel Journey, a blog that explores making travel a sustainable lifestyle through smart money management. Lowering expenses was important, but eliminating debt was the key. As other young women started reaching out to Pittman for advice, she knew she had to get her finances in order. She developed her own personal strategy that she now shares with other young women facing similar challenges.
“I have helped my clients—and myself—pay off car notes, student loans, credit cards, and really transformed their money mindsets,” says Pittman. “They can become financially confident and make money decisions without the anxiety or terror that they’re doing something wrong.”
Here are some of the key lessons she learned, and that she now uses to help her clients.
Inside this article
Change your mindset
People saddled with debt are sometimes overwhelmed by feelings of guilt and shame—emotions that can lead to ignoring their financial situation altogether. Pittman adopted a positive outlook before starting her debt repayment.
“The first thing I had to do was release the shame and embarrassment and give myself grace,” she says. “Because if I continue with that attitude, it’s not a good way for me to achieve the goal. I had to forgive myself, look myself in the mirror and be like, Hey, it’s OK. This is why you got here, and this is how you’re going to get out of it.”
This process is part of the mindset shift she encourages in her clients. Pittman’s philosophy is that money is not just meant for necessities and convenience but also for enjoyment, like travel. To help guide other women of color to a healthier relationship with money, she created her signature seven-step payday checklist. The list is a blueprint to achieving financial goals “one baby step at a time.” The seven-pronged plan includes building an emergency fund, investing, bill payment, putting aside spending money, savings, opening a travel fund and debt payment.
“So you know that you are working towards all of those things,” explains Pittman, “even if it’s just you putting $10 into your travel fund or paying an extra $500 towards your debt.”
Pittman wanted to know exactly what she owed—and to which financial institutions—to start setting goals and mapping out a repayment plan. She sought out copies of all her financial documents.
“I had to know what the hell was going on,” she says. “Who did I owe? Why did I owe? How much do I owe? Just getting completely organized from bank statements to credit cards to student loans to 401(k)s.”
Getting your finances organized can seem daunting, but it helps figure out where you currently stand so you can plan out the necessary changes.
Identify what you value
Paying off heavy debt usually involves sacrificing something and stepping out of your comfort zone to reach your goal. The one thing Pittman wasn’t willing to give up was travel.
“I can’t do the Dave Ramsey thing of using literally any extra money to pay off debt, not doing anything else, have no life, and eat beans and rice. It was very depressing to me. So I had to come up with a plan that allowed me to live within my values, but also meet my goals,” says Pittman.
She started rewarding herself with a trip as she met debt payoff milestones to stay motivated. She took a trip to Dubai after paying off her $9,500 car loan in 2018 and continued the trend after settling her $1,500 Wells Fargo credit card, $6,000 Chase credit card, a $1,300 student loan and another few thousand in credit card debt.
“It wasn’t always international,” she says of her celebratory trips. “I would take a weekend trip and just go hiking, or I would go visit a friend and explore their city. I’m big on traveling in your backyard starting in your city, your state, your region and your coasts.”
To avoid overspending, Pittman would research the cost of accommodation, activities and restaurants and budget accordingly before traveling. Even while paying for debt and travel, she was also mindful of putting something toward her savings, no matter how little.
“I was just trying to save $50 to $100 a week.”
Consider staying at home
A significant portion of the average income is usually allocated to housing, whether through rent or a mortgage. A 2020 report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University found that 10.9 million renters spent over 50% of their income on housing in 2018. Pittman spent most of her 20s living at home with family or traveling with friends, which allowed her to save on rent.
“I was still paying [some] rent, and I was still paying bills, but I wasn’t in a situation where I had to pay over $1,000 in rent plus bills, plus furniture, and things like that.”
Be open to major change
To diversify its workforce and community, Tulsa, Oklahoma, launched a remote worker program that offers a relocation stipend of $10,000, free co-working space, professional development workshops and networking opportunities to those willing to move to the city from another state.
It’s one of many similar programs around the country. By this point, Pittman had secured a remote job in the banking and finance sector and coached clients on traveling without sacrificing their financial goals. With her business and career thriving, she decided it was time for a change of scenery.
“I use part of my stipend to pay my rent so technically, my rent is $500 cheaper,” she reveals.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint
Pittman is aiming to be debt-free by March 2023. But this isn’t a random benchmark. It’s her 30th birthday, and financial freedom is the ultimate gift. Right now, she has her debt whittled down to a few small loans totaling $11,000. She is also prioritizing investing and eventually acquiring a property. Pittman is already looking ahead to her debt-free future.
“How am I going to celebrate? With a trip, of course!” she laughs.