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!
32 thoughts on “Happy Friday + A Debt-Free Life Part 2”
better than the novel I”m currently reading, Sanae! I’m hooked! You are talented on so many levels.
(so glad that I know you end up with M in the end . . . that alone makes it possible to wait till the next installment:).
Now that’s a generous compliment, Lucinda! I was foiled this weekend on so many levels, I am behind behind behind…but the next part is forming shape!
Yes! i love it. I hope there are more installments. Just tell it all! I love to read and your writing is very enjoyable.
Maybe this comment should be on Mondays post…but what about sewing M clothes? Or something for your mom. Or couture techniques on clothes for yourself? Its a goal of mine to sew something for my husband and him not know that I made it….before I tell him, you know. There are a lot more man patterns out there these days. Maybe someday I’ll do it.
Hope you have a good weekend.
I’ve been thinking about sewing for M and my mom as well, Anna! There are some challenges with both that are good and bad. I am feeling terribly bummed that I couldn’t finish the last part of the story over the weekend, but Wednesday for sure!
Great cliffhanger! I am with Lucinda, at least we know you are happy with M 😉 Thank you for talking so openly about your financial situation, it is good to make that money topic less of a dirty secret. I am sure many people still live like you used to and don’t even worry about it. I am glad I don’t even own a credit card and that I manage pretty well on my right budget. But I also know that with more money on my hands I could easily fall down that same hole….buying beautiful and expensive things. Or buying supplies to make beautiful things. I hope you will find joy in blogging again, to me it sounds as if too much routine is too predictable and “boring” for you. I enjoy your non-sewing posts very much, I enjoy your style of writing and your humor. It was a great idea to write about this time from your past. Looking forward to part 3! Xx
You have such amazing taste, Ute and I imagine that if you had unlimited funds you would have the most insanely beautiful things, but I also know that with your character you would find a healthy balance. I was young and made so many wrong turns — now I’m old and still making many wrong turns 😉 xo
cliffhanger! dun dun dun! 🙂 You know, I meant to comment on your last post, too. I think it’s the whole ‘comments are dead’ thing. i read and i love your blog – it is truly one of my favs and like others have said, one of the few where i read every word. i think many of us read from our phones and that makes it tough to comment. i also feel like, at least on my blog, there seems to be a reciprocal relationship with comments. I’ve noticed that when people comment on my blog but I’m not a regular reader or commenter on theirs, they don’t comment often. i don’t think that comments are a good gauge of reader engagement though. for years, i blogged and it was crickets every post. but i found it really motived me to be true to myself and to do work that i was happy with and proud of. blogging to what felt like an empty room made me less dependent on feedback in terms of valuing how good one of my projects was. i think i grew a lot from that. though, of course, the feedback is always nice! 😀
Thanks Rachel! Comments do seem to have lessend all over the blogosphere, but like you, I try to be true to myself without getting caught up in the popularity-seeking mentality and I’m more than accustomed to crickets ::-) I think it’s been more about pushing myself and feeling like I’ve been less invested…or something. Still trying to figure it out!
Such a cliffhanger!!! At least we know it has a happy ending or the stress might be too much for me. Thanks for sharing your story so openly. I also love your illustrations.
Thank you Margo! I’m leaving you hanging longer than I meant to but I’ll spare you all the excuses…
Awwww… keeping a secret like that is so painful. 🙁 It sounds like M’s attitudes towards money was helpful to you, and I’ll bet anything that your enjoyment of life has benefitted him as well. I’m probably more like M (although less entrepreneurial) and after college was spending somewhere around $200/month on food for me and my boyfriend. My staples were flour to make my own not-very-good bread (before I discovered the no-knead recipe) and beans. My ultimate goal was to save a ton of money quickly so I could afford real estate in my twenties. I’ll let you know how that turned out on Monday – my own mini-cliffhanger!
Can’t wait to hear your story Morgan!! $200/month for food for two people is over and beyond impressive. I need to pick your brains for more frugality tips!,
The secret is only eating the aforementioned staples and never enjoying your food!
I love this series. We’re struggling with credit card debt right now and trying to fight our way out. But hearing that other people have made the same mistakes…and gotten out of debt…makes me feel much much better. 🙂
Getting out of debt can definitely be done Alexa! I’ve made every mistake in the book and have lived to tell the tale…
I really love reading this! Money is such a difficult topic, such a taboo to talk about. Once you get used to a certain standard of living it’s so hard to cut back when the situation changes. Looking forward to read how you solved it!
Thank you for your comment, Lisa! It is a very difficult subject…I’ll have the follow-up post soon!
Oh, this is such a familiar story. My big downfalls came in 3 areas: (1) the summer studying for the bar after I finished law school and before I started working when I had full expenses and no salary, (2) getting married and paying for a wedding, and (3) refinishing our incredibly outdated kitchen in our old house. Before we knew it, we were deep in credit card debt. And as you obviously know, once you’re in, it’s nearly impossible to claw your way out. Still looking for my answer but hope to find it soon!
It’s incredibly common, Katie! I was just talking with a friend about how pervasive the credit card debt situation is…my heart goes out to you because I know how it feels.
Wonderful Sanae! not the debt and the fear to tell M about it though! love your writing and I’m very interested in reading how you manage to get out of the debt. Happy weekend!
Thanks, Maria! Hope you had a delightful weekend and I’m working on the next part of the story 🙂
Sanae, your writing style is so unexpectedly immersible- by the time I was at the end I was hoping to read more. Well done, and look forward to the finale 🙂
High praise from an avid reader of excellent books, thank you Aja! I’m feeling a little embarrassed that I wasn’t able to deliver on my intent to have the finale ready when I said I would, but I hope the holiday season gives me a get out of jail card!
I LOVE this story!
Aw, thanks Rebecca!
This is very, very courageous of you! Thank you for sharing. I really needed to hear this right now!
I appreciate your comment so much Marjie – it was scary to write about this because a part of me is still ashamed that I let it get so out of control. But I’m coming up on being debt-free for 10 years so in other ways, I feel like I’m writing about someone else!
Sanae I am loving this story too!! Personally have never gotten into credit card debt (we pay it off month to month), but I am so curious to hear how you paid off all the big stuff to live a debt free life – that sounds amazing. Honestly, after I read part 1 I almost immediately started researching prepayment methods for our car and mortgage (our mortgage lender actually has a really great online tool to figure out the effect of prepaying principal over time, if you can believe it!). Anyway, your writing is really engrossing and I’m enjoying this immensely. More long form articles in the future, if you like writing them! 🙂
Thanks a bunch, Kristin! With your finance background, I’m not surprised at all that you’ve got things under control. I had a roommate who was a math/finance major and she made sure she had a full-ride through both undergrad and grad school with scholarships. I wish her know-how had rubbed off on me! It took me a long time to figure out how to gain money management skills.
You are such a great storyteller, Sanae. I am completely hooked!
Do we really have to wait until monday?
By the way, I was going to buy a new coat this afternoon and now I don’t feel like buying it anymore. 🙂 Well, I still feel like buying it but I think I will not do it! 🙂
Oh, I’m so sorry that I didn’t get my act together to have the story done today, Marta! All the info turned out to be so all over the place, I had to step away for a bit. And hey, it’s nice to know that I had a hand in preventing a purchase if you were going to regret it, but I also believe in investing in quality items and not just spending mindlessly, so if the coat would have added excellent value and is something you really need, I say go for it!
Sanae, I live this. I’m going to tie my kids down and make them read it. Our son is not such a spender, but money slides through our daughter’s hands! I had a very meagre upbringing. My husband was much better off and when I met his family, their house etc. well it made me feel so poor. So I pretended I earned more than I did. Not smart. Keep up the great work.