This article is the first in a series intended to feature the Debt Free Adventures of other Personal Finance writers.
Today’s featured PF writer is Jeff from Sustainable Life Blog. Jeff created his website to share his journey to sustainability with his readers. His blog includes posts on personal finance, personal and mental health, and the environment. It has tips and hints to help stay green, stay in the green, and stay healthy during your life.
Debt. It’s an ugly thing to say, and it’s an uglier thing to be in the clutches of. Believe me, I know. I couldn’t take anyone else’s word for it though, I had to find out myself why it was so bad. I’ll tell you how I got in it, what I’ve sacrificed to get out of debt, how much debt I’ve freed myself from, and a projected date when my Debt Free Adventure will end. Hint: It’s not as soon as I’d like it to be!
Where I Started
Like everyone else in my day, I got a credit card to “build credit” (read: get used to servitude) when I was in high school. People said having a card would be good for building credit for things that I’d need in the future, like a car or a house. I used it responsibly for about 2 years, never really running up too large of a balance and paying it off regularly. I wasn’t big on saving money at this point, because I didn’t need to be. I had a credit card for emergencies. As they tend to, emergencies came up. Then a new type of emergency started to happen: one where I didn’t have the money to do something fun that I wanted to, like go on a trip. Before long, I was in the cycle of making a bit more than the minimum payments on the 2 cards that I had (thankfully I wasn’t stupid enough to sign up for more).
Every year for about 3 years, I would make it a New Years Resolution to pay off my credit cards. I failed every time for 3 years in a row. I told myself that I was failing because I was in school and didn’t have a “real” job or income, and that’s why it was so difficult. I believed that at first, and that belief led to a bit of contentment with my situation. All I would need to do was to wait until I got out of school and got a job, then I’d be able to pay them off in no time. Student loans were not even on my radar at this point. In 2008 (after once again failing at paying off my credit card resolution) I found the personal finance blogs and immediately I was hooked on sites like The Simple Dollar, Get Rich Slowly and Debt Free Adventure.
From these blogs, I learned that my previous thought on why I wasn’t able to pay off my credit cards was completely inaccurate. I was making plenty of money, I was just unable to tell myself “no, don’t buy that.” Ever so slowly, I started to get it. I was making money, and spending less than I earned, and it seemed like I had far fewer “emergencies” than I used to when I had less money. My mindset towards money had finally changed, and I started to want out of debt even more.
I took some advice I found on one of the PF Blogs and added up my total debt before I finished grad school. Even though I didn’t want to count it, I logged on to all my student loan websites and added those in too. After the mild heart attack I had when I realized I was over $30,000 in debt. At that point, I realized how dire my circumstances truly were: I owed people $30,000 and I had no way to pay them. To top all that off, the economy was tanking. The foolish visions I had of as an undergraduate came into mind. I figured I’d get a job making like $45-50k a year and I’d be fine. Tip for students: don’t assume things like that. At once, I realized my problem, and started saving some money for the first time in basically ever. I knew I was most likely going to move someplace once I found a job, and I’d need cash to do it. No more credit for this guy. After about 4 months, I had $3,000 in cash. I’d never had that much before. Even though I still had credit cards, it was a great feeling.
After a few initial setbacks, I started working full time. Boy was the money nice, but I was still having trouble getting as far ahead as I wanted. After some smooth balance transfers on my credit cards (one that netted me a free ticket). I had moved my 1 card to two and started to pay it off. I paid off a very small balance on 1 of my cards and closed it. Boy did that feel great. I wanted more of that success, but I wasn’t really getting it. It seemed like my car was always having issues. Finally, it gave up the ghost. I was really in no position to deal with, as I had been focusing on credit cards and had very little saved up for a new one. I went against the grain and took out a loan for a brand new car. It was a huge setback, but looking back on it, it has added a huge amount of stability to my situation (and dollars to my debt).
Once I saw my new debt number ($55,400) I decided it was time for some drastic action. I started using every small tip I could find. If it looked at least possible for me to do, I’d give it a try no matter what. People said get a second job. I did that. People said stop spending money. Unless it was something that was going to keep me or my truck on the road, it stayed on the shelf. I cut spending to the bone (and probably chipped a fragment off as well). I’ve started to do many of the routine maintainance tasks on my truck, stopped eating out, stopped going out on the weekends, and found free and fun entertainment in my area. I had to give up spending time with my girlfriend and dog at home to work my other job, and that’s a huge deal to me. It was something that needed to happen for me to get out of debt though. I don’t get to spend much time at home or do many fun things, but when I’m debt free, I’ll be able to spend lots of time at home, and do plenty of fun things!
How far I’ve come
I think I’ve gotten pretty far. The 1 most important thing that has happened is the change of mindset that changed the spending patterns. I realized how much money I was wasting and just had to stop. Once that happened, life seemed much easier, and my debt started dropping instead of staying at a constant pleatu.
Right now, I’ve got $40,541 in debt, and have a $1,000 emergency fund. I’ve paid off all my credit cards, and have moved on to my student loans. Once I pay off my 3 student loans (hopefully 1 by mid-october!!) I’ll begin my assault on the truck. According to my calculations, my Debt Free Adventure will end in around 1 year from now. It started in September 2009, and will have taken approximately 2 years. Debt freedom will be awesome, and I’m doing everything I can to move that date up.
If you’re stuck in debt and tired of making monthly payments to someone for something, get a budget, get a strategy and kick that debt out of your life. As you can see from my story, it has not been easy, fun or pretty, but I don’t think you can find many things that are worth doing that are not hard in some way. Good luck on your Debt Free Adventure!