I’m in my mid-30s now, financially stable, and I keep close tabs on my dough. But it wasn’t always that way. It wasn’t that long ago that I was reckless with my money, racking up credit card debt on a mountain of material possessions and teetering on zero in my bank account several times a month — and often overdrafting as a result. It was an awful way to live. I knew what I was doing was damaging my financial future, but I couldn’t stop. After I while, I dug myself so much into debt that the only way I could afford necessary life items (like food and gas for my car) was to dig myself deeper into debt. The cycle was as vicious as they come.
Eventually, however, I was able to emerge from the quicksand of debt (many years after I maxed out my cards, mind you). My credit was completely obliterated, but at least I was able to start picking up the pieces. When I made the last payments that freed me from the chains of negative balances, I reflected on my journey. Here’s what went through my mind.
See also: Fastest Way to Pay Off 10K Credit Card Debt
1. I Did It — I Finally Did It!
Collections duped me into picking up the phone one fateful day, and, after giving me a lecture on what a terrible person I was, the lady on the line offered me a payoff deal. The deal was about half of what I owed — which was above and beyond what my spend balance was because of years of late fees and interest — but I was promised that the entire debt would be resolved if I could make the payment in full in less than 60 days.
I didn’t have what I needed to pay off the debt then and there, but the offer was motivating, nonetheless. I had lived under that black cloud of debt long enough, and I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to reboot my finances. So I saved: I cut out everything I didn’t need for the next two months, picked up extra work, and I finally paid it off. I was proud of myself, and now I could look to the future without the guilt and stress of past debt holding me back.
2. I Royally Screwed My Credit Score
The celebration of being newly debt-free was short-lived. At the end of the day, even though the debt was gone, the effects of my irresponsibility lingered, namely in my very poor credit score. And I felt those effects for a long time afterward. Like when I wanted to purchase my first new car, for instance. My dad had to cosign for the car because I didn’t qualify for the loan on my own — which wasn’t a large one — despite having a decent-paying full-time job at the time. These ripples infiltrated many other parts of my life, too — like applying for apartments. These were hurdles I didn’t anticipate, but I knew I had to do some swift thinking on how to reverse the damage.
3. How Do I Avoid Digging This Hole Again?
My number one rule post payoff was that everything gets paid on time; not a single payment will be processed late! That means that I need to have the money I need to cover these expenses in advance of the due date, and that check needs to be in the mail far enough ahead of time that it’s deducted from my account before the due date. As such, I had to completely rearrange my budget and make cutbacks. I couldn’t buy new clothes at the frequency at which I previously bought them, I skipped drinks with my friends, I ate out less and took my lunch to work more, I started carpooling with a friend to work, and I picked up a part-time job. These tactics combined helped me build enough reserve cash that I could be proactive about payments moving forward to avoid another dangerous situation, and it was a small step in the right direction toward an improved credit outlook.
4. No More Credit Cards for a While — Cash Only
I cut up my credit cards long before I paid them off. They were maxed out and essentially useless, and I stayed that course after the debt was paid, and even when new credit card offers were coming in, too. I would have been bonkers to take those new deals. Given my poor credit score, the interest rate on those offers were sky high, which only served as an additional warning that creditors see irresponsible people coming a mile away, and they prey on them — and I didn’t want to play the willing victim anymore.
So, I committed myself to a life of cash only for about five years. I decided that if I couldn’t pay for it in cash, I didn’t need it. Was that self-imposed plan difficult to uphold? Absolutely it was. But — it also was arguably the single best decision I’ve ever made for myself.
Moving to a cash-only system helped me get a solid handle on my money, it helped me develop financial discipline, it taught me the value of being frugal, and I learned how to save for purchases that would enhance my life (and increase my income) over the long term instead of spending it on things that gave me instant gratification in the short term. Without the temptation of credit sitting idly in my wallet, I could see the bigger picture much clearer. If I couldn’t afford it with the real money I had, I couldn’t afford it — end of story.
5. How Can I Keep My Finances on the Straight and Narrow?
After my five-year credit card hiatus, I opened one new account to further improve my credit score. But this wasn’t like the last time. I was a decade older and wiser, and I used that card for emergencies only. I also paid the bill off in full (nine times out of 10, anyway) each billing cycle. In fact, it wasn’t until recently (I’d say in the last three years) that I’ve taken on additional cards, but not for frivolous reasons. Each card I’ve accepted has served a purpose, like helping to furnish an income property that I own. It comes with perks and rewards, and I have a plan in place to pay for the anticipated and purposeful purchases in advance. If I don’t already have the money in the bank to pay that debt — or at least earmarked income to settle it — I don’t put anything on the cards.
Credit can be beneficial if you use it the right way, but it’s easy to get off track. Which is why after I’ve used the cards for their intended purpose, I remove them from my wallet and put them in a safe. I typically only have one card on me at any given time: The first one I accepted after my cash-only experiment, and that’s enough to get me through an emergency should I need to use it.
If you’ve paid off significant debt, how did you feel?