debt free: a retrospective.

i’ve been in debt in one way or another for the past ten years.

it’s not your typical story. i wasn’t an irresponsible college student racking up expensive dinners or alcohol, i never had a ton of clothes, shoes, or makeup. i knew about responsible credit use thanks to my mom, and her instructive tale of a $2,000 desktop computer that turned into a $5,000 computer after she only made minimum payments on her sears card. (thanks for that, though, mommy, cause i probably wouldn’t be on my current career path without that thing).

i was on my own through college. i paid my tuition, i paid my rent, i bought my food. i had a tiny amount of help from my boyfriend at the time, but he also stole many thousands from me at one point too, so. you know. it evened out, most likely. some months, the numbers just did not add up. i wasn’t eligible for loans or extra financial aid, and i was fortunate enough to have a large part of my tuition covered by scholarships, but what they don’t tell you is that tuition goes up every year, and your scholarships remain what they are your freshman year. so, with easy numbers, if tuition is $100, and you have a 75% scholarship, you have $75. the next year, tuition is $110, but you STILL only have $75 in scholarship and the rest is on you.

i made it through the years, with taking a semester off to work at a tireless and tough job, 50-60 hours a week. i found rooms to rent, because it worked out to be cheaper than on campus housing, and i could not take living in the bubble of privilege that was my private university campus when my world was full of anything but. i was given a car, by my ex. i made it all work, somehow, but times were absolutely tight. i distinctly remember sitting down to do my taxes with all the determination in the world, realizing a few hours later that i owed the state something like $700, and being totally shell shocked – terrified because i knew i could not pay, knowing i’d balanced so many plates so carefully, and devastated that i’d managed to screw up anyway.

my ex, the one who stole from me, one of the ways he did so was via credit card convenience checks. you know how sometimes your card will send you checks in the mail that you can write in order to pay something with your card? yeah. he made them out to cash. the interest rate on them was something like 30%, so while he did pay me back, i’d accrued a ton of interest in the time it took him to do so. mostly, though, i had to make ends meet. could i have been more frugal than i was? sure. no one needs candles at target, but when you’re in that kind of a hole, you’re desperate for just something small to make you feel more normal. after i got out of school, i would very rarely use my cards for extraneous purchases, but i would do things like put plane tickets on them. and then i wouldn’t pay off whatever the whole amount was, i’d just continue my previous payment plan (which was always way above the minimum, but still, those plane tickets would take a few months to pay off – and by then, there may be another big purchase). i definitely used one to get my car out of impound once, to the tune of $1,000. things happen in life. so the balances hovered between $3,000 and $4,000 for several years.

like i said, it’s not your typical story – that’s not a ton of debt. it’s not the kind people freak out about, or call . i’m sure it’s well below average for my demographic. but eventually i realized i had this rotating balance, $400 in payments that was choking me, preventing me from hitting savings goals, and moreover, i was PAYING for the privilege of holding this debt (in interest). i mean, what?! that was totally unacceptable. i knew if i didn’t let myself purchase anything further on the cards, i could tackle it within a year.

i opened a balance transfer card with 0% interest for 18 months in january of 2013. i told myself that this was the year. there was already some travel on the books, but i limited myself to what was already planned. i sat down with myself, put all my accounts into mint, and committed to however much it would take to get this all paid off by the end of the year. i dedicated my tax refund to paying down this debt. i took on side work this year and put some of my earnings towards paying down this debt. if i had any extra money left over at the end of the month, guess where it went? yep. paying down the debt. i did end up using my cards for some unplanned expenses, but i made damn sure to pay off whatever that expense was in full asap – my cards were no longer my savings plan for big purchases.

i got smart about credit and opened some cards that would net me awesome rewards for money i’d be spending anyway (groceries,, etc.) – but that’s a separate post. through it all, i made sure my total debt was going down – and every month in mint, my net worth crawled up and up. in late december, i realized i would probably hit my goal in february of 2013, which was cool. maybe i’d be one month late, but i’d still be thrilled to get it done. i paid my bills right before the new year, content that the end of january would be the last time i’d be making these payments and the start of a super aggressive savings plan.

last week i realized i had a spare $900ish sitting around because of income from some side work that i got paid on, some checks i haven’t cashed, and an unexpected refund. and so, with very little thought, i decided to get it done. i wiped out the very last $500 of credit card debt i have remaining, and i am totally and completely free.

why am i sharing this? why am i including numbers, which many probably think is gauche and tacky? because we don’t talk about money the way we should in this world. it’s a hidden ghost that lords over us and draws so many lines in the sand, and we’re so rarely honest with how and why we struggle. i believe in the importance of those stories. i’m proud of myself for making a decision, making a plan, and then just doing a thing. you don’t get these victories every day, and i am savoring it.

14 thoughts on “debt free: a retrospective.

  1. why am i including numbers, which many probably think is gauche and tacky? because we don’t talk about money the way we should in this world. it’s a hidden ghost that lords over us and draws so many lines in the sand, and we’re so rarely honest with how and why we struggle.

    This is part of why my partner and I have been open to friends about our income – because otherwise, people tend to assume you make more money than you do, and it skews friendships because people have different expectations about what you can afford. And even so, it’s funny to me how you can be open and people don’t register it – recently a friend was amazed when I mentioned (not for the first time) what my partner is making – it’s low for a managerial post, because it’s in a call centre. People really have no sense of how each other are doing, what expenses or accrued debts or hidden financial drains others might be dealing with.

    I admire the fuck out of you for both how you handled the debt and for making this post, because you are so right about how much power money has in our lives vs. how little we actually talk about it openly.

    1. THANK YOU for highlighting this part of it – i am always really skeeved and uncomfortable when people get all clammy about how much they make or how much debt they have or whatnot – i understand deeply that money is super important for living but we accord it this mystical, insane, secret power which does NO ONE any good.

  2. Congrats on being debt free! I struggle with debt too. I have this deadline to be halfway through my debt by the age I would expect to begin the adoption process. While your debt was smaller than mine, I did pick up a few tips and admire your tenacity to strike that b*tch where she stood.

    Way to go, girl!

    1. thank you my friend! i have a frugality post in the works on specific cost cutting strategies so keep an eye out, maybe there will be something else you can use there.

  3. Look, you already know how proud I am of you for this, and though I have known bits and pieces of this story, seeing it all at once makes the accomplishment all the more impressive. And that is just one reason that naming numbers is okay. The rest of it is this: No matter what people say, it is not always true that deciding/planning/doing always get you exactly the results you want. It takes talking yourself into that plan over and over to keep doing. You can do everything right and still have things go wrong. You can make one false move and set yourself back months of work. It’s easy to get demoralized in a long process like this one, especially when it means going without things you want. But seeing your story, and your numbers, and your determination here might convince someone with a smallish amount of debt to get it done, too. You could make a real change in someone’s life that way, because you know the kind of relief this has brought you. I think that’s fucking amazing.

  4. This is awesome, Dom, & I’m so proud of you. I’m in some college debt – not as much as I could be, but too much for comfort – plus about $2,500 of personal credit card debt. I’m taking on a bunch of side stuff this year to try to pay off the credit card debt, at least, & it’s already hard to imagine. I want to buy stuff &travel! But… yeah, time to crack down & be an adult.

    1. it’s some HARD shit, and practicing the art of denial is never super fun. you’re taking steps and making progress though, so i’m proud of YOU as well. <3

  5. The elation and relief you feel must be immense. Well done, you. This was hard-one and inspirational and hopefully, one of the first of many, many posts on your version of adulting.

    1. It is, it is. You know this because you were there for it, and the elation has settled into a quiet satisfaction with which I am very pleased. <3

  6. Congratulations, Dom! That is amazing. I wish more people would be open about money and talk about it, because we all deal with it and it shouldn’t be this “elephant in the living room”. Being transparent might help others to better deal and share their struggles, too.

    I know that I am very, very fortunate that I never had any debt and that I am able to pay off my credit cards every month, but I also don’t take it for granted. I learned how to deal with money from a very young age and I know that sometimes loans can’t be prevented, but you need to have a plan to deal with those loans. That’s the real knowledge that will help you in life.

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