Today, I'd face the total amount head on and make a plan of attack. But back then, I was young and inexperienced, and honestly, I think I was worried I'd pass out from shock if I saw the actual number. So for each card, I looked at the minimum payment due and avoided the rest of the statement. I told myself that in one year, I'd see how much debt was left.
How I Found "Extra" Money in My Budget
I started reading personal finance books and I learned how to budget and track my spending. Then I designed a strict budget for myself.
I had no car payment and that helped a lot. I lived close to my office so I went home for lunch. (I was no longer afraid to run into the mailman and that was surprisingly liberating.) I learned how to love PB & J sandwiches. I only went out at night with friends when I could get 2-for-1 drinks and a free appetizer buffet.
I also canceled my fancy health club membership and signed up with a cheap alternative. I considered giving the club up altogether, but decided the workouts helped me cope with the stress of the debt. When you're in debt, there's a constant feeling of anxiety whether you consciously acknowledge it or not.
I allowed myself only $10 a week for mad money. Looking back, it's hard to believe I stuck with that. But here's what happens. When you start getting out of debt—even just a little bit—you experience a psychological lift that feels great. There's a positive emotional momentum that takes place as you're inching toward financial freedom. Kind of like a runner's high so you want to keep going. After a while, I was able to double my minimum payments. Then I tripled them.
My Year of Living Frugally When I tallied my debt a year later, I still owed $11,000. To this day, I don't know the exact total of my debt. I kept track of the payments I made that year so I know it was around $20,000 when I started working on it. Even though I had a big chunk left, I felt empowered and proud of myself.
As I was getting out of debt, my whole life changed. During this time, I left the corporate world to become a finance writer. I ended up specializing in credit cards because I wanted to help others avoid the huge mistakes I'd made.
A Happy Ending
After Confessions of a Shopaholic was over, I told my daughter everything about my credit card past. I wanted to make sure she understood the perils of credit.
If any of you have kids, make sure you teach them how to use it responsibly. Listen, I know there's controversy about this. But think about my story. One day your kid will graduate from college. Do you want your kid to get those enticing offers in the mail when you're not there to explain how to use credit responsibly? And believe me, they'll get those letters.
Credit isn't a bad thing. It's the lack of knowledge about how it works that's dangerous. Empower yourself—and your kids—with knowledge and you'll be able to use credit cards to your advantage.
You don't have to go all the way and become a credit card diva like me. But I want you to know that you can hit the depths of credit card hell and come back from it strong and financially fit.
Beverly Blair Harzog Credit.com's Credit Card Expert, Beverly focuses on credit card issues and provides insight about current news that affects the credit card industry and consumers. She's a nationally recognized expert on credit card issues and is also the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Person-to-Person Lending.