Today our guest contributor is Brenda Miller. Get ready because this is quite amazing. She acquired $35,000 in credit card debt and it all started with the credit card tables in college. She says “I only wish I could go back in time and shake my eighteen-year-old self and tell her how much easier her life will be if she doesn’t apply for the credit cards her first week in college, but then I guess I wouldn’t have learned everything I know now.”
You’re Nothing If You’re Not Buying
It was at one of those get-a-free-t-shirt tables my freshman year of college that I picked up my first credit card. I think it was a Visa, but it might have been Discover or Mastercard. It doesn’t really matter because I had all three by October. The credit cards were so enticing, these colorful little plastic rectangles with my name on them proving I was finally an adult and I didn’t need to ask my dad for money anymore.
I grew up with a thrifty father whose mother lived through the Great Depression. When I was a kid, I was horrified by our generic sodas. We just seemed cheaper than everyone else. Once we even saved up for a family vacation by taking aluminum cans to a recycler!
Spending what I wanted and not thinking of the consequences was a delayed teenage rebellion. I had some fun, of course, but I can only name a handful of the things I bought with those cards. How did I amass $35,000 in debt and not really know how it happened? It happened quietly, over time, by charging a $20 meal that would end up costing $100 years later because of interest (sadly, my 18-year-old college self knew nothing about interest). It happened because, for a time, I believed there was such a thing as free money, that buying now and paying later lead to happiness.
By the time I was 30, I had somewhat wised up. I understood money wasn’t free, but I was still stuck with the debt. Plus, I’d gained 50 pounds. I tried half-heartedly to change. I’d throw some extra money at the biggest balance every few months, but I never stopped using the cards. I got a gym membership I rarely used. Nothing changed, of course. What I finally realized was that real solutions require patience, dedication, and un-sexy lifestyle changes.
To lose weight, I started to eat a healthy breakfast, made dessert a “sometimes” food, and got more exercise. To get out of debt, I went on a complete credit card diet. If I didn’t have cash to pay for something, I didn’t buy it. Then I started paying more on the card with the highest interest rate and “maintaining” the rest. When one card was paid off, it was on to the next. If I had extra money from taxes or overtime, I didn’t buy special treats but used it to pay down debt. It took less than a year to lose weight and three years to get out of debt. There was a real high that came with seeing those balances and the number on the scale finally going down. I did it without one single celebrity endorsed nutritional shake or fancy financial software.
There’s always more to do, more to save, more debts to pay. We have a mortgage now—something that would never have been possible without first paying off the credit card debt—and student loan debt, which is the next thing to pay down. I feel more okay with this debt because it is for important things—a house, education—and not a bunch of crap I can’t remember buying.
My family has been able to live on one income since our daughter was born two years ago because while we were paying off debt, we didn’t touch the second income. With day care so expensive, it made more sense for me to keep working and my husband to stay home. We now plan our meals and grocery shopping. We don’t frivolously eat out because we don’t feel like cooking. Instead of buying new clothes, we swap or buy 95% of our clothes second-hand. Most importantly, we really think about each purchase whether it’s a Starbucks latte, a book, or a new mattress. We save up for big purchases and don’t finance vacations on credit. I’m still wary of credit cards, but when I do use one, I pay off the balance in full each month—to avoid interest, of course.
Looking back, I see now that when I lived beyond my means, I rebelled against my true nature (which is surprisingly thrifty). When I was living beyond my means I found that I felt empty and never truly myself. Now I feel less dependent on possessions and more confident in my ability to live a happy life with what I have.
My hope is that my daughter will be a thrifty warrior. I want to teach her why we live and buy the way we do and how good it feels to save money. I want her to learn what I’ve learned—that you don’t have to buy something to be someone.
Brenda Miller ● THANK YOU ● for being a part of And Then We Saved!
P.S. Ready to get out of debt ASAP? Check out the Spending Fast Bootcamp!