Happy Friday! When we last left off, I had utterly lost control of my financial situation. The thing is, it didn’t look like it. On the surface, that tipping point seemed so insignificant, so logical.
Imagine this: I am newly graduated, fresh-faced and eager to make my mark in the business world. I’ve garnered a job at a swanky beachside marketing company, overlooking the frenetic consumer activity of the Santa Monica Third Street Promenade shopping district. I am earning more money than I ever have, though it really only came out to about $1500 per month after taxes. But no matter, I live with my best friend in a dirt cheap apartment, I have virtually no expenses and by my calculations, I have a disposable income of about $700 a month. $700! How I wish I’d socked those dollars away and invested – I’d be a multimillionaire by now. My shiny new credit card sits in my wallet, for emergencies only, obviously. Soon enough, however, I seem to be using it an awful lot for non-emergency situations because who likes to carry around wads of cash? And at the time, debit cards were not de rigueur.
I ate out for lunch every day. Swipe, went the credit card. I would meet friends for drinks and dancing, or maybe hit up the trendiest restaurants. Swipe, swipe. I was a stone’s throw away from the mall after all, so it became a daily habit to stop off at various shops after work. Many, many swipes. I was lavish with gifts for friends and family, but was even more lavish with gifts for myself. After about six months, I automatically reached for my beloved plastic. I found more and more ways to spend money that seemed worthwhile in the moment – I discovered that facials did amazing things for my adult-onset acne, so I booked regular appointments. “Do you take Visa?” I asked the facialist. Of course she did. $700 a month can buy a lot of things.
Except. One month, I got my bill and it was just over $700. I was puzzled. How could that be? I was certain that I’d been tracking all of my expenditures and scanned the itemized list. Oh, I’d forgotten about that birthday dinner for my co-worker. Yikes, is that how much I spent on clothes? I told myself that I would buy less the following month and sheepishly paid it in full.
But the same thing happened the next month, and the month after that. I would be just a hair over my monthly budget and would vow to cut back. After a few months of this, I broke my cardinal rule: I paid only half of my bill. I feverishly reasoned that the interest wouldn’t be that much and I would pay it in full the next time. I always do, I promised myself. Besides, I’ve learned my lesson and I’ll stop my mindless shopping. Famous last words. The moment I allowed that exception to my credit card payment credo to happen — that was the precise moment I lost control. Something in me cracked, and my yo-yo money dieting took effect, the ever-expanding mass of compounding interest gleefully latching on.
Shortly after I broke my rule, I got a promotion and a sizable increase in salary, and not only did my responsibilities and workload increase, so did my debt. Gone were the days of paying off my balance in full, and I rationalized that I was still paying more than the minimum. Underneath my excuses, I had a mounting sense of terror. I knew I was losing a grip on my financial situation, but I couldn’t seem to reverse the problem. My shopping habit was firmly entrenched, and I became an expert at justifying my spending. And every month when the bill came, I would hold my head in my hands, full of guilt and remorse. I wanted to confide in someone but was petrified of the judgement, the scorn. I’d always been the responsible, competent one, the one who took care of others. I had worked over thirty hours a week all four years of university to pay my way through school while my friends partied – the notion that I wouldn’t be able to pay off “a little” debt seemed ridiculous. I didn’t tell a soul and buried myself further in denial.
And then I did what any sensible, cash-strapped person does: I went to graduate school and shouldered more debt, becoming the ultimate cliché. I did, at least, have the lucidity to choose the cheaper one-year program over the mind-numbingly costly three-year program. On top of that, after I graduated, I decided to move to one of the most expensive cities (San Francisco) and work at a non-profit organization. Oh, and I absolutely had to live by myself in a cute little apartment in the heart of the city. Makes perfect sense, right?
I quickly upgraded my non-profit job to a better paying one, but I still wasn’t earning a sufficient income. My closest friends were investment bankers and attorneys and management consultants, successful people making six to seven figure salaries — I was too ashamed to admit that I couldn’t keep up with their lifestyle and did my best to maintain appearances. I still paid more than the minimum for my credit card bills, but it was getting harder and harder to do. I was simply living beyond my means. I secretly cried when friends asked me to be a bridesmaid because I knew that it would set me back financially even more severely (bachelorette parties at a resort in Napa! Taffeta dresses! Airfare to various parts of the country!). Weddings, I found out, require serious funds even if you’re not the one getting married and a lot of people in my life were getting married. I watched in horror as the numbers ballooned, the interest multiplying like bunnies on Viagra. The year was 2000 and I was $22,600 in debt. And this was credit card debt alone — my grad school loan payments hadn’t even started yet (an additional $18,000 in the pipeline). My salary? $39,500. Technically, I owed more than my entire salary, and I finally understood what had happened to my college friend and that her nonchalance had been an out-and-out facade.
Enter M. As soon as we started dating, it was clear that this was a man who valued his Ben Franklins, and he loved to talk about money. He was going through his own financial woes as his business flailed in the dot com bust, but he was a scrimper and a saver and thought nothing of eating only toast and sleeping in a bunk bed among five Chinese renters in a fleabag apartment (we called it “Fight Club”), just to ensure he had enough money in the bank. There was no way I was going to tell him about my dirty secret; I knew I represented his worst nightmare. He seemed reluctant to be in a committed relationship, so I figured I was safe, and in the meantime, I was relieved that we went on low-budget dates.
A year passed, and much to my surprise, we were still dating. We’d exchanged “I love you”s and he’d given me a David Sedaris book. He’d ridden his bicycle across the country because he’s just that way, and I’d flown out to rendezvous with him in Montana and then to Indiana to meet his parents. I knew, deep deep down, he was the guy for me. Yet, I still hadn’t told him about my debt and it was killing me.
On the sly, like a women haunted by a banshee, I’d sprung into desperate action to loosen my financial noose. I found a second job as a night dispatcher. I made excuses when friends invited me out. I ate less. I researched online and learned how to consolidate my balances onto lower rate cards. I even called up credit card companies to waive my fees. I chipped away at my debt monster, and was able to painstakingly bring it down to about $16,000 in 12 months. My progress was slow and I would still have to contend with the grad school payments that would be kicking in shortly, but at least it was going in the right direction. But I was worried…at this rate, freedom from debt would take much longer than I expected.
It was a frigid, clear night in the winter of 2001 and I had decided it was time. I was going to tell him. I wanted to be completely honest with M, to finally unload this secret I’d been holding onto for so, so long. We were walking somewhere – heading to a movie, I’m sure. My whole body was shaking, I was sweating profusely even though I could see my breath coming out in billowy, filmy clouds.
“Honey?” I was near hyperventilation, “I have to tell you something.”
*I know!! I didn’t mean to create another cliff hanger, but I delved into my old journals and found so much I’d forgotten… Part 3 on Monday on how the whole shabang was truly paid off! Happy weekend!