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debt diary

Hand holding a roll of green bank notes against wooden table.

Désireé Butler was both a customer and an employee in the payday loan industry when she realized there had to be a less stressful way to live.

Not only was she stuck in the cycle of borrowing at double-digit interest rates, but Ms. Butler also worked at a Cash Store in Vancouver, watching others get caught in the same trap.

"It was depressing," says Ms. Butler, recalling some of the menacing phone calls she would get from lenders telling her to pay up. "It was a crappy time in my life. Money was ruling it and I didn't want that."

Owing around $6,000, roughly $1,100 of that in payday loans, she made two decisions that changed her life: She got professional help with her debt and pursued a career in massage therapy.

"I wanted to work at a job that made people feel good, that had a positive influence on their lives instead of a negative one," says Ms. Butler. "They were some of the best decisions I've made."

That was five years ago. Today, at 32, Ms. Butler is a massage therapist who has long paid off her payday loans and has a new attitude about money after seeking advice from the Credit Counselling Society in B.C.

"It was a struggle, I'm not going to lie," she says. It required a major change in lifestyle, including a dramatic reduction in spending on items like clothing, accessories and especially eating out.

Today she has $28,000 in student loans built up from her massage therapy education, which she is paying down monthly.

Ms. Butler and her fiancé are also saving up for their wedding in August and then plan to start putting money aside to buy a home. That could take a while in the pricey Vancouver market, but she says they are comfortable renting until they are ready.

Ms. Butler says credit counselling helped her better understand the importance of saving, as well as spending within her means.

It was difficult for Ms. Butler to seek help with her debt at first, recalls Scott Hannah, president and chief executive officer of the Credit Counselling Society.

"She had cold feet initially and cancelled, and then reconnected, which is common," Mr. Hannah says. "It's hard when you feel like you're the only financial misfit out there and now you're turning to someone you don't know for help."

By walking through the doors and being honest about her debt and spending habits, Ms. Butler is in a better position to save and borrow money for the future, Mr. Hannah says.

"She's made a personal commitment, scaled back on personal spending and through that process … learned how to make better decisions, to set goals and achieve them," he says.

Overspending is a problem among many millennials, Mr. Hannah says. They tend to be more focused on living for today and not planning for tomorrow.

"It's a payday cycle," Mr. Hannah says. "Millennials are pretty confident about their abilities and skills. Sometimes that can bite them in the rear when reality hits and they have no plan for it."

While it's common for people to make financial mistakes when they're young, Mr. Hannah says there appears to be a lack of financial skills among millennials.

"It's in decline," says Mr. Hannah, who has been working as a credit counsellor for more than 20 years.

He blames the bombardment in advertising from various brands across social media, in part.

"There's a lot more pressure on young adults to look successful, and that costs money," Mr. Hannah says. "It takes a lot of courage for them to say, 'I'm not buying into this … maybe my clothes aren't the latest and the greatest, but I have money in the bank.' "

Ms. Butler's advice to others is to save money, even a little bit, from every paycheque and to "cut up those credit cards."

Or, if you do have one, "pay it off right away; don't let it lapse."

As for payday loans: "Don't take out a payday loan, ever," Ms. Butler says.

Have you, or are you in the process of, repaying a sizeable debt load? To share your debt-reduction journey with the Globe, send us an email.

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