The Idiot’s Slow Crawl Out of Debt

It was all downhill from here

It was all downhill from here

Look at that idiot.

There I am, barely accustomed to my post-pubescent body. (I thought I was chunky then. I was the worst–look at that beauty! Anyway.) Glowing with consumeristic joy over the acquisition of both my first cellular phone that wasn’t drilled into the frame of an automobile and my first credit card. The ink was barely dry on my first private student loan and the federal loans that allowed me to pay the University of Rhode Island for my first year of college.

I’d worked babysitting jobs and a horrendous retail job and hadn’t lived away from home for more than a week in my life. Money had no long-term use for me; it was all about having enough to gas up my crappy car (easy enough in the halcyon days of a gallon of gas costing less than a gallon of bottled water) and some left over to buy a CD at Newbury Comics, and maybe some late-night diner breakfast at Bickford’s.

Fast forward about 15 years and the long-term consequences of my financial choices have become abundantly clear. I pay about $500 a month in student loans. (Sadly, a song compared to what some of today’s graduates have to face for their bachelor’s degree.) Over the years, I’ve been rent-poor. I’ve had to leave unsafe apartments or was asked to leave by roommates to make room for someone else. I worked a series of rewarding but low-paying jobs and tried to keep up with friends whose salaries were considerably higher than my own. I’ve had the unexpected stints of unemployment and little savings to cover it. It was manageable when I had one relatively low-limit credit card. But then I got a second in a foolish attempt to transfer a balance for a lower interest rate. Then my freelance gigs dried up during the recession. One day, I woke up and I had more than $10,000 in credit card debt.

That idiot’s chickens came home to roost.

It was a slow start to paying it down once my paycheck was large enough to cover more than the minimum payments and allowed me to afford the lifestyle I wanted. It just seemed insurmountable. Ten thousand dollars. That was my post-scholarship share of tuition at Emerson College for a year. A used car. It seemed like I couldn’t even roll that boulder uphill far enough to have it roll down on me again.

Then I had an idea after paying off the first couple grand. I had to see the progress that boulder was making as I heaved my extra cash against it. I grabbed a sticky note, wrote down the total amount I owed on both cards, noted the date, then stuck it on the monitor of the computer in my office. There it was, my target, in my peripheral vision for eight hours a day.

Of course, I did all that stuff the experts tell you to do. I put most of my money toward the card with the highest interest rate. I tried not to use my cards, though I wasn’t always perfect. A financial planner advised me not to put so much of my money towards paying off the debt and suggested I save more. Once I felt more comfortable with the balances, I started putting $200 a month in a Roth IRA to prove to myself I can save instead of spend. But I wanted that goddamn credit card debt gone. As soon as possible. Mostly because my sticky note was almost out of room and I’d be damned if I was going to pull out a second sticky note.

VICTORY AT LAST

VICTORY AT LAST

This month, at long last, I tapped a little bit of my savings, and got to write PAID OFF on my faded, curled, beleaguered scrap of paper. I keep it on my computer monitor as a reminder of what a slog it was to get myself out of a mess of my own making.

I worry about myself a bit–I’ve paid off smaller balances before, then run them right up again. Since I’ve had my debit card information stolen so often this year, I’m using ONE credit card for purchases online and in stores and have vowed to pay it in full every month. If I can’t stick to that plan, I’m using cash money. My credit card company is also trying to lure me into the trap by awarding me a card with airline mile rewards, but I’m hoping to be in Europe sometime next year on the cheap and with a card without a balance thanks to their generous offer.

It wasn’t easy. But earning a decent wage and keeping an honest accounting of my debt helped me get it paid off. Now I’m excited to put a sticky note detailing the balance of my savings account on the monitor next to the one that shows me how long a journey it was to crawl out of the hole dug by that idiot.

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