This article is part of our highlight May Money Stories series. This month we are featuring guest bloggers who will share their own true money stories and their personal journeys to overcoming debt. Please check back to our blog every Tuesday of this month to read our latest guest feature.
While my friends were out enjoying their last year in college, I was sitting in my apartment finalizing plans to launch a business. As the son of serial entrepreneurs, I knew the basics of how to start a business, but soon found out how difficult it really was.
After months of research, my very own electronics e-commerce company was launched. I sourced products from a variety of manufacturers, taught myself coding to create my website, and learned about fulfillment and customer service. It was a whirlwind of information when I first started. I thought I was going to be making millions within a few months. Low and behold, I was struggling to keep up with the competition. You see, consumer electronics is a low-margin business. You have to move a lot of products in order to make a little. I ddn’t research that aspect. I just followed my passion for electronics and my dream of owning a business. Come to find out, my dream lead into a financial nightmare.
Launching a Business with a Credit Card
I’ve learned a lot of things while building my e-commerce business, but one that has stuck with me is to never fund your business with a credit card. That is, unless you have cash saved up to pay off the balance. As a relatively poor college student, I didn’t have any cash to use for the expenses necessary to run my business. I got one credit card, followed by another, then another. After four years of running my business, I shut it down with seven active credit cards all carrying a balance. I was looking at a big problem, but I never even realized it.
In order to compete with the big sellers, I had to promote and grow. I couldn’t do it organically, so I paid for marketing, promotions, and services to expand my business. It was working for some time, as I was able to grow to over $1 million in annual sales as a one-man show. I consider that a success, but it wasn’t without its problems. Working on an e-commerce business selling consumer goods is a 24/7 job. It took a toll on my health and that’s why I ended up shutting it down. Unfortunately, the credit card debt damage was already done.
Walking Blindly into Adulthood
After closing up shop, I had a little over $50,000 in credit card debt. The big issue for me is I didn’t actually know how much trouble I was really in. I had a job making $36,000 right out of college, so I thought I was rolling in the big bucks. I didn’t budget, didn’t watch my spending, and didn’t care about my ongoing debt. I was trying to show off to my friends with cool toys, new cars, and even a JetSki. I bought all of these things on credit (dealer financing). With a good credit score, I was able to get approved for almost anything. This was right before the financial collapse in 2008, when they were handing out money to anyone with a job and a pulse.
While my parents had taught me about money management, I seemingly had forgotten all of it in practice. For the longest time, I thought I was in good financial health.
It wasn’t until my new wife asked me a question about our money that I realized how much trouble I had caused. I quickly signed up for a free financial aggregate service to see all of my income, expenses, and debt. That was eye-opening to say the least. After a full day of inputting our information, I came out with a daunting figure.
Yes, through the business, car/jet ski financing, and miscellaneous purchases, we were looking at over $75,000 in overall debt, not including our mortgage. That number scared me almost to death. How was I going to pay that off? Where did it all come from? It was time to make a detailed plan and focus on paying off the debt.
A Plan, Whiteboard, and Motivation
As a visual learner, I need to see things in order to understand in greater detail. I can read about concepts and principles all day, but until I put something into a visual, my brain doesn’t comprehend. This is why I went so long without understanding my debt problems. I hadn’t put all the pieces together to view the big picture. I was just playing with each individual piece. For this reason, I knew my debt payoff plan would need to include a whiteboard.
I researched debt payoff plans on the internet for some time, trying to get a feel for one which would work for me. Between the debt snowball and debt avalanche, I chose the avalanche. The reason is I wanted to focus on the math. I had high interest credit card debt and focusing on that would save me a lot of money. Come to find out, using this method saved me over $5,000 in interest. If you need to pick a plan, just choose what works best for you. There is no right or wrong way to pay off debt!
Now that my plan was in place, it was time to focus on why. My motivation was we wanted to start a family and didn’t want to see that debt being a burden. While you can start a family while in credit card debt, I found it much easier when that weight is lifted off your shoulders.
Armed with my plan, motivation, and whiteboard, I was ready to face the long debt battle, which lasted for four years.
How I Survived Credit Card Debt
As noted above, I battled my debt for four years. This included the $50,000 in credit card debt and $25,000 in other consumer debt. It was no picnic, I can tell you that much. There was a lot of sacrifice, lifestyle changes, and education about finances going on through the duration. I can say with confidence that getting into debt and paying it off taught me more about money than I have ever learned. It also taught me a lot about myself and how I handle challenges. In hindsight, debt changed my life for the better and I’m happy to have had it. Yes, I’m happy to have been in debt.
Now, here are a few of the steps I took to get my debt paid off in four years.
Stuck with My Plan
No matter how hard it was or how much I wanted to buy the latest and greatest gadget, I knew I had to stick to my plan. I was a huge shopper before embarking on my debt journey, but over time, I got away from that mentality. My plan was to change my lifestyle and I kept with it. This meant no more eating out regularly or buying stuff I didn’t need. I had to focus on my needs, not my wants. By sticking to my plan, I ended up successful. There were a few derailments, but I got right back on track. It’s life and it doesn’t always agree with you.
Saved While Paying Down Balances
This might strike some as counterproductive, but this worked very well for me. As I said, I had a spending problem. My needs and wants were the same in my head. I needed this, that, and the other. What I really needed was to learn how to break the spending cycle and become a saver. Because of this need, I created a new saving method. It basically allowed me to save what little money I had left over after regular expenses and debt repayments. Outlined here, my new method worked on percentages and using any extra money I had each month. Starting at a low savings rate, over time, it would get bigger as my debt payments went down.
At the end of my debt payments, I was saving more each month than I was paying toward my debt. While this added a few more months onto my overall payments, it changed my mindset completely. It also gave me a little emergency backing to get me started on a new financial path.
Applied for More Credit Cards
Now you’re definitely thinking I’m a little crazy. Why would someone with over $50,000 in credit card debt willingly apply for more credit cards? The answer my surprise you, but I strategically used credit cards to lessen my interest rate over the four years I paid off my cards.
It’s the simplest form of credit card consolidation. You apply for a low/no-interest balance transfer credit card and use that to pull over your balance from your high-interest cards. Most of the cards I got provided an intro rate of 0% for up to 21 months. This was plenty of time to work hard to pay off that debt. The key is to pay off the balance before the promotional rate is up. That’s how you save the most money over time.
I transferred balances between four cards through my debt payoff and it was well worth it. The only way that was possible was holding a high credit score and never missing a payment. This gave me credibility in the eyes of the credit card issuers.
As with any long journey, you need to celebrate your successes. Unfortunately, when you have a lot of debt, those successes could come much slower than you’d hope. Considering I chose the avalanche method, which is math-based approach, I knew my time between paying off each debt would be longer. That’s the beauty of the snowball. You can get the small wins quicker. So, in order to keep me motivated, I created my own milestones. Typically, they were either debt-based or dollar-based. If I paid off a card, I would celebrate. If I paid off $5,000, I would celebrate.
My celebrations weren’t extravagant or over the top. I didn’t use credit to fund them and I didn’t take any big trips. My celebrations were going out to a nice dinner with my wife. Maybe even doing a little staycation right outside of town. I even did a lot of camping excursions. These little celebrations kept me motivated to do more. I had to keep going and pay off the debt. I wouldn’t have done it without creating milestones and celebrating each one.
Worked Hard to Earn More Money
The biggest catalyst to paying off my debt was figuring out ways to earn more money. No, I didn’t go out seeking better paying jobs. I had a good job and slowly went up the ranks with increases in pay. I looked for ways to earn more money outside of my job. Anything extra I made could be put right toward my debt payments or help pad my emergency savings fund. Anything extra helped.
I skimmed Craigslist regularly to find odd jobs helping people move, pull out stumps, or wash cars. There were hundreds of opportunities every weekend. I only replied to those I could finish quickly and the pay was good. I also used what I taught myself when launching my e-commerce business and helped people build websites. There are a number of ways to earn extra money, especially now with services like Fiverr, TaskRabbit, and even Uber. It’s known as the “gig economy” and it’s booming right now. I wish I had as many opportunities as there are now, but I still worked hard every day and found new ways to earn more.
Over the four years I paid off my debt, I learned a lot about money. You can read more about my journey on my blog, Debt Roundup. I learned how to control myself when using credit cards. I learned how to track and budget effectively. Most importantly, I learned what’s important to me and how spending money is not on the forefront of my mind. It was a complete transformation from where I was when I got out of college. That’s the takeaway here. You have to learn about yourself, accept your mistakes, and teach yourself how to better yourself financially. That’s the only way to get out of debt and stay that way.