How I'm Slaying a $30,000 Debt Dragon

I am in debt. It weighs me down and refuses to let up. With every decision I make regarding money, I immediately think of the how the decision will impact my debt. Buying milk at the grocery store, those dinner plans with friends at my favorite restaurant, even my cell phone bill all nag at me telling me I should be putting that money towards my debt. I’m sick and tired of listening to that internal monologue, and I’ve decided to do something about it.

From an early age, I began to intertwine money and my self-worth. There was always someone I knew with more, and those feelings of inadequacy were reflected in all of my interactions. I was insecure, preoccupied by what I imagined people thought of me, and generally uncomfortable in my own skin. When I went away to college and received my first credit card offer, I jumped at the chance to change my feelings through spending money.

I racked up credit card debt. I would tell myself, “I’ll pick up extra shifts for the next few weeks and pay this outfit off,” or “I won’t go out to eat this month and then I’ll have more than enough to pay off my balance.” Months would come and go, my attempts at self-control were but a distant memory, and I had accumulated more debt. Or I would miraculously pay off a card, but would celebrate by buying clothes or taking my friends out to dinner. This pattern would continue through my twenties and into my thirties.

In hindsight, I didn’t like myself enough to think other people could like me for me. My time wasn’t valuable because I wasn’t valuable. I had to spend money on people, or buy jeans from that popular clothing store, to have friends. I believed that to my core.

I have had to do some heavy lifting to change those beliefs. It was uncomfortable to start asking for separate checks when I went out with friends. The first ten or so times I did that, I had to step away and call a close friend who would tell me it was perfectly acceptable to just pay for myself. It was humiliating, at first, to tell people I couldn’t afford to go out. Just yesterday, a new friend invited me out to dinner, and I had to tell her I couldn’t afford it. I immediately felt a twinge of that same humiliation. She reacted kindly and it subsided. True friends are happy to discover you’re taking care of yourself, even if that means you have to say no sometimes.

I’ve read my share of money management books and articles. I’ve listened to friends and colleagues explain their methods of staying in the black and out of the red. Taking all that information into account, I picked out my favorite, and most likely to stick with, strategies that will help rid me of debt permanently, start controlling my money, and live a more authentic life.

Strategy #1: Seeing my money

The idea of tracking my expenses day to day is so mind-numbingly awful that I don’t approach this lightly or with ease. Yes, I need a spreadsheet to see where my money is going, but I pity anyone in my vicinity if I have to write numbers down every time I buy a cup of coffee.

I simply put my expected monthly expenses, the ones that typically don’t change, in one column. This includes minimum debt payments, groceries, rent, etc. I get a haircut every six weeks or so, so I put half the cost of the haircut in the month’s expenses. Because I get an oil change on average of every three months, a third of the cost for an oil change per month. A small percentage of my salary is set aside every month for unexpected expenses. I also gave myself the elbow room to have some fun money and put that in the expenses too. In the next column, I write my monthly salary.

Strategy #1.5: One debt instead of many

Along with looking at my budget, I learned what I really owed to my creditors. I’ve always estimated, but never knew the actual dollar figure. That was my denial hard at work. The bills all came at different times in the month and I considered each one separate. But they’re not separate. It’s all debt and I need to see the whole picture before I can make an attack plan.

On the same budget spreadsheet, I wrote out each creditor, the balance, interest rate and minimum payment. I added the balances. I owe $30,000 in all. To whom, it doesn’t matter. $30,000 of my salary for the next few years doesn’t belong to me. No more anxiety when a credit card statement arrives in the mail. I know what I owe.

 

Credit Union

Discover

S. Loan 1

S. Loan 2

S. Loan 3

S. Loan 4

Citi

Total

Interest Rate

6.25%

0%

6.55%

6.55%

6.55%

12.90%

0%

 
Balance

$10,787.16

$3,090.00

$4,742.43

$5,095.03

$1,645.13

$1,693.63

$2,550.00

29603.38

Minimum Payment

$323.61

$61.80

$16.60

$17.83

$13.16

$42.34

$51.00

526.35

Minimum Payment %

3.00%

2.00%

0.35%

0.35%

0.80%

2.50%

2%

 
Additional Payment      

 

 

$260.00

     $786.35

Strategy #2: The Avalanche method

I ordered my debts from highest to lowest interest rate. From doing my budget, I know the total minimum payments and how much above that I can put toward my debt. I call it my additional payment. I make the minimum payment for all of the debts except the debt with the highest interest rate. With the highest interest rate debt, I’ll pay the minimum payment plus my additional payment. I will continue doing this until that debt is paid off. Then I’ll apply the money I was spending on that debt to the next highest interest rate debt, and begin the process again. In addition, every time I receive extra money (e.g. I sell something, birthday cash or my tax refund), I put it toward the highest interest rate debt.

I found a great tool to use that did the math for me at WhatsTheCost.com.

Strategy #3: Micropayments

I am earning interest every day based on the balance of my credit cards and student loans. If I take the amount I was going to pay and divide that into smaller payments, or micropayments, throughout the month, the balance will continue to drop. In the long run hundreds or thousands of dollars can be saved in interest.

Right now, I’m making payments to all my creditors every time I receive a paycheck. Two or three times a year when I receive three paychecks in a month, the creditors are receiving an extra payment, helping me get out of debt sooner.

Strategy #4: The Envelope system

After doing my budget, I see what my monthly bills are and the rest I allocate to envelopes labeled with the categories groceries, restaurants, gifts, etc. I like this system because I have a difficult time spending money in some areas that, in moderation, are fine. For example, when I go out to eat, I feel guiltier with every bite. “This money could have been put in savings or toward my debt,” I think. By the end of the meal, I haven’t enjoyed the food or experience. With this system if I look over my budget and see that I can afford $40 on dining out every month, I can enjoy a meal or two without beating myself up.

Dave Ramsey, who popularized this approach to cut spending, insists a psychological pinch happens when I pay for something with cash that doesn’t happen when I pay with plastic, even if it is with my debit card. It hurts a little more to break or part with that twenty dollar bill. Spending cash will force me to consider the value and necessity of every purchase.

Perhaps the bigger idea with this strategy is that I’m no longer balancing last month’s ledger with this month’s budget. “Last month I spent $30 more on entertainment than I had allotted, so this month I’ll spend $30 less on groceries.” Now, once the money in an envelope is gone, I’m done spending in that category. The good news is the other areas of my life don’t suffer.

Strategy #5: Separate accounts for debt payments

I recently set up a second checking account, essentially an electronic envelope, just for my debt payments. A percentage of every paycheck is automatically deposited into this account. I know how much will be sent to my creditors every other week, because of my micropayment schedule. This way, I don’t have to worry about accidently spending money that is for my debt payments on other expenses. It may be my weakest strategy, but I like the idea.

Strategy #6: A balance transfer

My highest interest rate is 12.9% on a school loan. Because balance transfers aren’t always the answer, I had to write down the pros and cons. Pros: Less interest to accumulate over the lifetime of the loan. Money I would be spending on interest would be put toward other debts. I would have breathing room if there was an unexpected large expense. Cons: The interest rate will spike to 16% after 18 months if the card isn’t paid off. I’ve done this before and it didn’t help me in the long term, what’s different now? Will having another credit card lower my credit score?

I felt the pros outweighed the cons, so I decided to do it. I’m still not sure it was the best idea, but only time will tell.

Strategy #7: The savings account

I’ve never been a saver. At my best, I’d throw $50 in a savings account every few years. Though it’s tempting to pay down debt as fast as possible, I can’t spend every dime I make on my expenses and debt payments. If I do, and my car breaks down, or a good friend decides to get married out of state, I would have to rely on my credit card. Not an option anymore. I will be depositing a percentage of every paycheck automatically into a savings account so I don’t have to incur more debt in the event something unexpected happens.

The Timeline

The time it will take to clear the wreckage of my past is relative. It took years to do the damage, so it will take more than a few months to clean it up. I estimate it will be well into 2017 before my debts are paid off. It is what it is. My thought is this: 2017 is going to come. I’ll be three years older, there’s no changing that. I can make the decision to be three years older and debt free or three years older and still in debt. Three years older and living life without worrying about my credit card and school loan payments, or three years older and continuing to weigh every decision around my debt.

Which one sounds better to you?

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Aaron Sherman, credit card debt, Dave Ramsey, debt, how to get out of debt, money, Uncategorized, money management, Money Management, student loan debt