Gettin’ Guesty with Hana of Sticks and Stones

For this week’s Gettin’ Guesty the lovely Hana Shipman of the blog Sticks and Stones has joined us!

Back in college Hana went to Ghana and it was that trip that launched her into credit card debt. Hana says that she “came back with a completely different view on our country’s obsession with consumption. It was a crash course in how wasteful we are as Americans – and our culture only encourages it.” She goes on to say that “Ghanaians taught me that you can be just as happy and fulfilled with very little.”

This is my kind of girl!

Scroll on down for her essay…

image courtesy of the author

I was going to Ghana, Africa.

I knew from the moment I saw the flyer on my college campus. It was a new study abroad opportunity to see the firsthand effects of colonialism and the Atlantic slave trade. How amazing would that be?

Problem was, I had no money, but I found a way to make it “work” – or so I thought. I applied for a credit card and got approved just in time to charge $2,000 for my plane ticket. It was the first leap of debt I had taken outside of my student loans. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the last.

Despite my excitement, I had a hard time adjusting to life in Ghana. Aside from swapping Seattle’s dreary climate for equatorial temperatures in the middle of December, the many privileges I took for granted became immediately obvious. Here are just some:

  • If you are hungry, you don’t get to choose between sushi, burritos, pizza, or any other food craving. Eating is for survival and you eat what’s available to you. We ate chicken, rice, and plantains for almost every meal.
  • If you are making chicken for dinner, it is still clucking and pecking when you purchase it.
  • You barter for most goods in public markets. If you’re not good at bartering, you are getting ripped off.
  • If you need water in a rural area, you fetch it from a lake or a river. If you’re lucky, you live near a well. If you are in the city, you can use the water from the faucets, but you risk getting sick. Many drink bags (not bottles) of water that cost a few cents (and even those taste funky sometimes).
  • There is no such thing as the garbage man. Trash is burned or thrown on the ground. Litter is everywhere.
  • Many homes in rural Ghana are made of mud. During rainy season, families struggle to keep their homes erect and many have to rebuild each season. In urban areas, entire families live in what look like sheds. Most are no bigger than a one-car garage, if that.
  • Electricity is not always readily available. At one hotel, there was only electricity from a generator between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m.
  • Get used to constantly sweating and smelling like an armpit – there is no air conditioning anywhere.

Ghanaians are forced to live within their means, and they work very hard for what they do have. There are extremely wealthy people in Ghana, but there is not much of a middle class. You are either a “have” or a “have not.” Most people are the latter.

image courtesy of author

Yet those I encountered were very pleasant. They appreciated their possessions in a way that many Americans don’t. They used their belongings until they were completely worn out. If something broke, they fixed it. If it was beyond repair, they made do without it. There was no other option. Items weren’t replaced because a new, shiny version was available. It was wasteful and too expensive. Ghanaians taught me that you can be just as happy and fulfilled with very little.

I’d like to say I immediately changed my ways when I returned, but the truth is, it didn’t take long to settle back into old habits – in fact they got worse. Now that I had this new credit card, I was living beyond my means and charging everything to it. By graduation, I was in $10,000 of credit card debt and my trip to Ghana still wasn’t paid for.

I struggled for four years to curb my spending habits – I would pay off a big amount only to spend it again.

Last year, I reached my breaking point. My debt was starting to affect my ability to afford necessary expenses. It was time to commit to change. I hid my credit cards, budgeted for larger monthly payments, used my tax returns to pay down debt, and most importantly, became a frugal shopper. A year later, the $10,000 is paid off.

I never regret going to Ghana, only how I paid to get there (and the tornado of bad spending decisions that followed). I am planning my second, big international trip for the end of this year and can’t wait to have more eye-opening experiences. Armed with better spending habits, I will be paying it all in cash.

Hana Shipman •THANK YOU• for being a part of And Then We Saved! 

If you have something to say on a topic related to personal finance or getting out of debt send me an email at: Hello@AndThenWeSaved.com to be considered as a Gettin’ Guesty columnist. xo Anna

P.S. Ready to get out of debt ASAP? Check out the Spending Fast Bootcamp!

6 comments

6 thoughts on “Gettin’ Guesty with Hana of Sticks and Stones

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  1. Sarah

    Awesome essay, Hana. It struck me that Americans feel so entitled to have someone come pick up their trash once, twice a week like it's beneath them to have it in their sight. It's astounding how much we throw away, from packaging to food to things we could fix or give away. Recently I've had to quit composting outside because I'm afraid it'll invite bears, and having to SEE how much food we waste going into the trashcan sort of blew my mind, especially since 90% of it is waste that could have been easily prevented. I can't imagine myself or a typical American household having to burn and live amongst their trash, we'd be drowning in it. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    Reply
  2. Hana

    Thanks Anna for featuring my post on And Then She Saved!

    And Sarah, I know what you mean about being wasteful! I have gone through our trash to pull out recyleable items before. The burning garbage incident certainly made me aware of the things I wasted.

    Reply
  3. MsT

    @Sarah. Trust me when I say: the people of Ghana would love to have trash pick-up. Why? Because not only is trash indeed totally yucky to look at. It also attracts pests such as mosquitoes and rats that spread deadly infectious diseases. Basic social infrastructure such as trash day is an ok thing to have and want and dare I say, spend money on. Lets not romanticize actual poverty and plight here people.

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