These days being a debt-ridden 20 or 30 year old seems not only acceptable, but a rite of passage in many circles. We bond with strangers over beers, pizza and a mutual experience with Sallie Mae. We chuckle at buying that expensive purse or the newest gadget because, well, what’s another few hundred dollars on the CC? Plus, we have a new credit card with no interest for the first six months and obviously by then we’re totally going to be on top of our finances. Right? Yay, adulthood!

It’s all fun and games. Until one day, it’s not.

To me, that day came about three and a half years ago. I had just found out I needed not one, but two root canals my dental insurance at the time didn’t cover. The estimate for the procedure made me burst into tears on the spot.

I ran home and started crunching numbers, looking at all my credit card limits and my nonexistent savings. That’s when panic hit. After the dental work, I would be $15K in credit card debt. When I combined that with my student loans, my tears turned into a full-blown anxiety attack. It’s not that I didn’t know I had debt – I was making significant monthly payments on all of it, so I definitely knew the debt was there. Maybe it was because I was older or maybe it was because I was just recently engaged and thinking about my future, but in that moment it really hit me: I was in over my head. And it wasn’t fun anymore.

That’s also when the self-hate started. How could I do this to myself? To my then fiancé, now husband? To my future children? To my dogs? Why didn’t I have it together? I had a steady job. My rent was reasonable. What was wrong with me?

I messed up. I’m human. It was time for me to move forward.

The voice inside my head – loudest in the middle of the night – badgered and berated me. The financial side of debt is one thing, but it’s the emotional side that really destroys people. Yet, after a few dark weeks, I realized (thanks in part to a loving husband) hating myself for past mistakes wasn’t doing me any good. I messed up. I’m human. It was time for me to move forward.

Below are some tips that helped me move on (i.e., helped me finally start sleeping again) and take action. Note that I’m focusing on my credit card debt here because while my student loan debt makes me anxious, it’s another beast entirely, and I’m focusing on one thing at a time. Also, I’m not a financial expert, so these are simply suggestions on how to handle the emotional toll of debt. For actual sound advice, I’ve included links to professionals and websites that can help.

1. I figured out exactly what happened.

The best lessons are the ones we learn from our own mistakes. So take a real look at all your transactions and determine the actual cause of your credit card balance. Determine your problem – be it shopping, lack of planning, etc. – and cut yourself some slack. You made a mistake. It’s time to move on.

2. I made a realistic plan of action.

Read, research, and ask for help. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and admit you have debt and that you want to fix it. Also recognize what works for others may not work for you. Some people are more dedicated than me and are able to significantly cut their discretionary spending.  That’s great! Do what makes the most sense for you to be successful.

A few of my favorite resources to get started are LearnVest, which not only tracks your spending and your income, but also provides inspiring stories and tips on paying off debt (I think I’ve read every article on that site). And they can put you in touch with a financial advisor to create a specific plan geared towards your goals. Also, Credit Karma. I have found one of the most motivating parts of credit card debt-repayment is seeing my credit score increase. It’s a tangible number that shows my progress and encourages me to keep moving forward.

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3. I stuck to my plan – but I also forgave (and keep forgiving) myself.

Don’t beat yourself up for making a mistake. Do everything in your power to stick to your budget, but if life happens, don’t let it derail you completely. Just like you shouldn’t let one bad meal ruin a diet, you shouldn’t let one bad transaction ruin your ultimate plan of debt repayment. Move on and get back on track.

Also, try and find someone you can lean on for support – a parent, a friend, etc. Someone you feel comfortable enough talking to, someone who won’t judge you for past mistakes and instead cheer you on toward future successes.

By the end of 2014, for the first time in nine years, I will be credit card debt free. I see the light at the end of the tunnel – I see a much better future. One with a house. And kids. And that optimistic feeling, that hope I didn’t think was possible back in 2011. That’s worth every penny.

What are some resources that have helped you conquer debt?

Image via Michelle Mosqueda

9 comments

  1. Mint is also a great resource for keeping a budget and setting goals. They send you alerts when you spend more than you’ve designated in an area. Very useful.

    I also wish there were financial planners for those who want to get their finances in order but don’t have thousands of dollars to invest.

  2. Forgiveness is huge – especially when something unexpected comes up. However, these unexpected moments can also help us prepare for the future in ways like: savings, emergency funds, and adjusting our meals and entertainment or celebration budgets to be more realistic.

    It’s all about being honest, accountable, and committed.

  3. The hubs and I were fortunate enough to not have any debt but we have used Dave Ramsey principles to help the college kids we work with through the process of paying off Debt and living on a budget.

  4. I was actually dumped right before engagement because I had too much student loan debt and for him, that was too risky for his future. It was a major blow and I have since had to deal with the emotional side of debt and as you said, it wasn’t like I wasn’t aware of my debt before him but this changed how it made me feel.

    Something that I’ve had to come to terms with is that debt is not a quick fix. It’s a process and a plan. Unfortunately with my income, even with cutting back, it will be a long road ahead of me. I need to keep reminding myself that the choices I made to go into debt do not define me now. I am more responsible now, making payments and being realistic. My debt does not define me nor my value..

    1. What wisdom and perspective to hang onto! That is an incredibly difficult circumstance, thank you for being vulnerable and honest in sharing that, Sabrina.

    2. Sabrina,

      I so appreciate your honesty and post. As my sister once told me, ” we are not the sum of our circumstances”. And to you finding a man that is a YES. xx

    3. Well done for getting this far. It took me 5 years to be debt free after my marriage. I just keep telling myself I knew how I’d feel and when the time came it didn’t disappoint. I felt fantastic.

      You had a lucky escape. Go find a compassionate man.
      Good luck with your future.

  5. I was actually dumped right before engagement because I had too much student loan debt and for him, that was too risky for his future. It was a major blow and I have since had to deal with the emotional side of debt and as you said, it wasn’t like I wasn’t aware of my debt before him but this changed how it made me feel.

    Something that I’ve had to come to terms with is that debt is not a quick fix. It’s a process and a plan. Unfortunately with my income, even with cutting back, it will be a long road ahead of me. I need to keep reminding myself that the choices I made to go into debt do not define me now. I am more responsible now, making payments and being realistic. My debt does not define me.

  6. Perhaps the most striking advice here for me (and maybe the most basic, as well), is point #1: figure out what happened. I rarely want to approach my mistakes head-on. I would prefer to skirt the real issue and head straight to a solution. But discovering the painful root may in fact prevent further troubles.

    http://www.onebrassfox.com

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