As I wrote a couple weeks ago, one of the things I wanted to do by age 30 was get out of debt.
This incredibly embarrassing to type out, but last year, a few months before my 29th birthday, I was realizing that I was nowhere near where I’d hoped to be financially. For some reason I thought, but that point in my life, I’d have 10, maybe 20 grand in the bank and well on my way to a financially secure future. In reality, there was my car loan, two credit cards, a couple dental/health bills, my student loans, etc. They were all small amounts when you looked at the bills separately, but when I actually added up my total debt, I was disgusted with the number… and myself. $12,000! I owed 12K and had just a few hundred bucks in savings… What had I been doing the past few years?! Not focusing on finances… obviously.
Initially, my debt didn’t seem to stand out to me. Most of my friends my age have a car payment, student loans, and some sort of credit card they’re paying off. Online I’d read tons of stories of folks owing tens of thousands of dollar in just credit card debt alone. I thought I was way better off than those people. But when sat down and looked at the amount of money I could save each month by not paying on debt, it rocked me. I was spending about $1000 each month on debt bills. That ish was completely unnecessary. Saving $1,000 per month sounded way better than shelling it out.
I had been under the impression (from myself) that I was doing good financially: I made more money than I had to pay each month and I could pay my bills and still have some left over. Great. But all the “leftover” got spent each month. I’d been out of college for 7 years and had nothing to show for it. (I won’t say I didn’t have anything to show for it… not in terms of “stuff.” I took plenty of trips, saw 6 countries, and made great friendships from a lot of those trips. But still…) It was time to reel it in.
At this realization, I was kicking myself for not making larger payments all this time. Especially when I was married and living in a two-income household, with a husband that saved everything. Going from that kind of household back down to a single income household was more costly. I realized that since my divorce in 2011, I just stopped focusing on my financial goals. I could still support myself, but there definitely wasn’t as much “extra money” and I wasn’t making any goals of my own. However, I couldn’t sit around moping about what I didn’t do for the last 3 years. It was time to get after it and tackle my debt.
Step 1. Take advantage of %0 interest rates.
I needed to make sure the debt I had wouldn’t accumulate any extra interest. I had an empty credit card that had $9600 of credit available and it was offering a %0 interest rate for any balance transfers for 1 year. So I put as much as I could onto that card. That only left a few thousand dollars to get rid of as quickly as possible and gave me a year to pay down what I’d just transferred. This bought me some time and saved me some dollars.
Step 2. Pay down the highest interest first.
I had a credit card and a car loan that were my most expensive payments each month. I’ve always paid all my bills on the first of the month so I continued this and anything additional leftover would go to my car payment. After a couple months, it was paid off and so I would move on to the next big bill. How good/not-so-good business was that month was the deciding factor on how much I was able to put away. Some months were better than others and so I’d put as much toward my debt as possible. Once those were done, I would just have the big sum to start chipping away at.
Step 3. Cut back on monthly spending.
I could have paid off my car in under two years if it had actually occurred to me to do so. But instead I spent any extra money I had. However, if you’re in any kind of debt (other than your mortgage), there is no such as thing as “extra money.” I used to think I had leftover money each month after I paid my bills, but that wasn’t a great way to look at my account. There’s no reason to be buying things, going on vacations, getting a new tv/car if you owe money to other companies/people. I had to re-wire my thought process on my spending.
Since it’s easy to drop anywhere from $30 – $60 on a single night out, I cut back on dinners/drinks. This wasn’t incredibly hard. I wake up at 5am most days of the week so usually want to get to sleep by 10pm. This doesn’t leave a lot of time at night. Also, since I travel for work most weekends I’m really only in town a few days per week.
I also started cutting my monthly expenses. I got rid of my storage unit ($60/month), found new car insurance (saving me $40/month) and even changed my phone plan (saving me another $40/month). The extra $140 per month went to the debt.
My next move was to stop buying “stuff.” I don’t shop a lot, but every now and then I’d go with a friend to the mall and walk out having spent $100. For NO REASON. And we all know about the $30 cover charge just for walking through the doors of Target. I had all the clothes I need. I’m stocked up on shoes/accessories. I don’t need any “things.” My new plan: if it was an “item,” I didn’t need it. (Reading about minimalism lately has really gotten me pumped on not having a lot of stuff. This will also be helpful the next time I move…) Now, I didn’t get crazy and just stay at home in the dark eating Ramen noodles. I just looked at my bank statement and added up everything that I didn’t need to spend money on. It was a lot. I knew I could do better… and so I did. All the money I stopped spending went to paying down my debt balance. And it was getting lower, faster.
Step 4. Make more money.
I took on a lot more work this year than I had the years before. This meant a lot more travel and time away from home, but it had to be done. I was thinking if I could pay off this debt by the time I hit 30, then I could cut back on some hours, but until then, it was time to crank it out. The extra work paychecks that I made went directly to my debt. ALL OF IT. This is definitely disheartening, seeing your account balance go up and then right back down in the same day, but it was necessary. If that money had been in my account, I would have found something to spend it on. The good thing about working more is having less time to spend. Since I was gone more weekends, I spent less on groceries, entertainment, gas, etc. I was making more, spending less, and knocking out my payments.
Step 5. Saving at the same time.
Since the other part of my goal was to increase my savings, I had to actually act on that.Unfortunately being self-employed doesn’t mean I get a company matched 401-k. I was gonna have to get started myself and I didn’t want to wait until my debt was paid off (who knew how long that would take). I started small: I opened an IRA and a Money Market account and just set them up to automatically withdraw $100 per month each. This was an embarrassing amount to set up, (because the guy I talked to suggested $1,000 per month…. riiiight) but it was better than nothing. I just wanted some forward movement. Any forward movement! The majority of my money needed to go to my debt. Once that was paid off, I would increase the monthly contributions.
The good news is, those contributions add up quickly. Since they were automatic, I completely forgot about them at times. When I looked at them last month, there was a total of $3300! That’s $3300 in savings that I didn’t have before! That balance doesn’t allow me to retire soon or anything, but it’s definitely more than I had. Now that my debt is actually gone. I can make those amounts bigger.
Step 6. SAVE: The $1,000 Buffer and 6 months of expenses.
$1,000 Buffer: For the past 6 years or so, I’ve kept a minimum of $1,000 in my checking account. This makes me feel taken care of should anything unexpected pop up; needing new tires, an unexpected medical bill, a car break-down, etc. I’ve dipped below it a couple time when things came up, but I always replaced it. If my checking account read $1700, my mind only saw $700. This helps. It’s a great way from having to dip into savings or use a credit card in times of need.
6 Months of Expenses: They always say that you should have 6 months of expenses in a liquid account in case you lose your job. I’m self-employed so I don’t really think I’m going to lose that much work at once, but if I were in a car accident and couldn’t work, I’d be toast. I’m in the process of that right now, but I’m nearly halfway there, so that feels good.
Now: I’m 30 and debt free!
Five days before my birthday, I made my last payment on my last bill. I’m officially out of debt, I have a few thousand in savings/retirement and I’m on my way to feeling more financially secure. I know I’ve still got a ways to go; getting my “6 months” saved up, having a chunk of money that can actually be invested, etc, but I’m in a way better place now than my last birthday and that feels wonderful.
So tonight, I’m congratulating myself.
I’m having a bit of sparkling wine (in a pint glass, with my initials on it) ’cause I’m grown. ; )
Do you have any financial goals you’ve recently made for yourself or accomplished? How did you do it? Any tips for me?