Sarah Li Cain
Returning from Australia after a whirlwind year of working and traveling, I was full of hope. I was in love and was finally ready to settle down back in Toronto, get a steady job, maybe even buy a house.
Two weeks later, my boyfriend broke up with me over instant messenger, and my dreams quickly turned into a reality of being broke, jobless, and back in my high school bedroom. While an intercontinental breakup was bad enough, the $9,000 of debt I racked up trying to save my relationship made everything that much worse.
It started the year before, with a job offer that required a move to Australia. When I told my boyfriend of a year about it, he decided to quit his job and move with me. So, we set off to the other side of the world to live together.
Embarking on this adventure, and moving in together, seemed like it would be amazing, but it wasn’t without its faults. From the beginning, I felt a huge sense of responsibility to take care of my boyfriend because he had quit his job to follow my path, so when we arrived I offered to pay for our household expenses—at least until he got on his feet. But the cost of living wasn’t cheap and with two people to support, I spent every single penny I had on groceries and rent.
Money was tight but still I felt guilty if my boyfriend had to spend his own savings. I got offered a promotion that could ease some of my financial burdens, but it required a move across Australia. Worried he’d be angry at the thought of spending more money, I paid for his flight to move there.
Wanting to spend quality time together (and to ease the tension), I started looking for things we could do as a couple, regardless of the cost. When we decided to embark on a road trip down the east coast of Australia and across New Zealand, I footed the bill.
When my job contract ended, we planned that I would go back to Toronto and look for a full-time teaching position, and he would follow. Coming home, I was full of energy to start the next phase of our lives together. Being dumped over chat should have been a wake-up call, but it wasn’t. I was embarrassed to admit it to anyone, but I wanted him back. I told him I would be willing to buy a house in my name if he was willing to come back and move in with me. In my mind, I was OK with being the breadwinner forever, just to keep the relationship going.
When he rejected the idea and decided to stay in Australia, I screamed and I cried, but I kept my shame to myself. Many days were spent laying on my bed, wondering why my ex-boyfriend didn’t love me as much as I loved him.
When I finally faced the truth about my situation, I was heartbroken. Not only for the relationship I thought was rock solid, but for the faith I had in myself. Here was a smart girl with enough moxie to move across the world on a whim, feeling totally broken and insecure.
After a few weeks of moping and introspection in my old bedroom in my parents’ house, I knew it was time to get out of bed, move on, and get that smart girl back.
So, I started to assess the situation. First my bank account. Then my credit card statements. And then the job boards. I knew my financial situation wasn’t great. The last year had been a strain. But it couldn’t be that bad, right?
Nope. Long story short, mostly thanks to my eagerness to pay my ex’s way in Australia, I was screwed. Slightly longer story, I was $9,000 deep in credit card debt, had no money in my bank account, and had clearly returned at the wrong time to find a permanent teaching position since the job boards were bare.
Completely shocked, I took a minute before I gathered up what little courage I had left to ask my mom if I could stay with her while longer as I got back on my feet.
Moving back home, however temporary, wasn’t easy. Admitting what a financial pinch I’d gotten myself into wasn’t either. I’d like to say I didn’t know how to manage money, but I’d be lying. I grew up in a family full of accountants, so I could easily tell you the difference between a profit and loss statement and a cash flow statement. But dammit, I was in love, that’s got to mean something, right?
I was struggling to come to terms with it all and wondering what happened and then one day, I spotted a red book in my room and pulled it off the shelf. Reading it completely changed the way I viewed myself and my former relationship, and showed me what I needed to do to change my life.
The book was The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama.
Reading through the book, I realized that while my ex-boyfriend was kind, funny, and caring in many ways, and I felt like I was in love, we weren’t equal partners. A romantic relationship should be one where both partners work to build each other up. And that wasn’t happening.
I was so caught up chasing the idea of a romantic relationship that I did whatever it took to get it. I spent all my money hoping to rescue what—in hindsight—was a failed relationship. I paid for the trips around Australia so we could spend quality time together. I paid for most of the groceries because I felt wanted when I was taking care of him.
I’m certainly not saying after reading this book I got over him, just like that. But it made it easier for me to understand my part in contributing to my own unhappiness. And once I realized I was responsible for my own happiness, I was re-energized to get back on my feet financially.
My parents lived a 15-minute walk away from the mall, so I walked there and into the restaurant where I’d worked in college to ask for a job. They hired me. I then walked into the Gap where I also used to work and asked for my old job back. They hired me, too. And then I saved every penny I could, and soon started paying more than the minimum credit card payments to get my debt paid off.
A month later, a friend of mine told me about a teaching job opening in South Korea. Intrigued, I applied and got an offer within two weeks. The contract I negotiated gave me free housing and flights to and from Canada. Also, the standard of living was so low there that I could save over 60 percent of my paycheck. I used the money I saved to pay down all of my $9,000 debt in less than a year.
In a way, I’m grateful for the debt and the breakup. The whole experience from beginning to end taught me that human beings are resilient creatures. Sure, having the man I thought was the love of my life break up with me was devastating, but I could have continued being broke to this day. Having that credit card debt taught me to create boundaries in my life, look out for myself, and do whatever it takes to create my own version of happiness.