My most prominent memory of my financial rock bottom was kneeling on the floor, heaped over, forehead resting on the edge of the bed, hysterically crying.
I was hysterical because I was broke, and because nobody knew.
I wasn’t the kind of broke that meant I couldn’t eat out for a while, or buy myself something nice.
I was the kind of broke that was one unexpected expense away from true hunger and foreclosure.
My consumer debt totaled $77,000, spread between lines of credit and credit cards. The interest alone cost $660 per month.
My tears reflected feelings of fear, shame, frustration, and exhaustion, with negative messages constantly plaguing my brain.
The internal voice kept saying: “Irresponsible people have debt. Incapable people have debt. Unsuccessful people have debt.”
“You, Kelley, are an idiot.”
That day was my bottom. I’d finally run out of rope in regards to more credit. I had an empty bank account, nearly maxed credit cards, and a mortgage payment due the following day.
A cash advance on my credit card with the little remaining room was the only way to make my mortgage payment. To do this, I had to physically face a bank teller. Knowing that a cash advance is one of the worst financial decisions possible, this day (for whatever reason), was my first and loudest wake-up call.
A short while later, I was visiting an acquaintance. With some force on her part and willingness on mine, I shared the state of my finances. Unburdening myself and letting my secret out was the biggest game-changer in my ability to combat debt. (As my friend knew it would be.)
As I began to (reluctantly) level with those closest to me, my negative energy started to shift for the better.
Enough was enough. I was finally ready for a change.
Tiller's Debt Snowball Spreadsheet is designed to help you target and pay off any kind of debt: credit cards, student loans, car payments, mortgages, even family and personal loans.
To get started, I understood that I needed to cut back while earning more.
To reduce my monthly interest payments, I attempted to consolidate my debts. I hoped to reduce the credit card interest of 19.99% to a rate that resembled a line of credit or a loan.
However, the bank that was so helpful to provide endless credit was unwilling to help me consolidate my debts and speed repayment. Contrary to the promising, glossy video loops displayed in the lobby, depicting boats, vacations, and smiles, they weren’t interested in helping me acquire wealth. They were interested in padding their pockets with my never-ending interest payments.
While I couldn’t reduce my interest payments through consolidation, I could evaluate my personal expenses.
I combed through my expenses looking for what could be cut out entirely or reduce. For each expense, I asked myself, “Do I need this?” or, “Is there a cheaper option available?”
I switched banks to eliminate bank fees. I eliminated cable. I stopped eating out. I switched cell phone providers. I started working from home, eliminating my need for a desk (and related rental fee) at my office.
What I haven’t mentioned yet, is for the three previous years, I was tracking my spending. Every single cent of it. But, even still, my debt continued to grow.
It was clear that financial tracking was ineffective for me, I needed something different - a budget, as it turned out.
I soon became obsessed with all things personal finance.
I began learning how to budget. Different from financial tracking, budgeting gave me parameters for spending and helped me plan what to do with my money. It was a shift from behaving reactively to proactively.
Budgeting also gave me permission to spend on things I previously would’ve felt guilty about – things like clothing, meals out, etc. It helped me reign in spending when I got carried away.
In conjunction with reducing expenses and operating with a budget, I applied for a second job. At the time I was working as a Real Estate agent. Since income from Real Estate was rarely guaranteed, I wanted something that would pay well after traditional work hours. I ended up getting a job as a waitress in the pub of a new five-star hotel.
Now, this wasn’t the first time I thought of getting another job – but my ego had been holding me back. After all, waitressing was what I’d done to put myself through University. It was something I felt was in my past, and not something I enjoyed.
In my mind, I was taking a step backward. And, I was afraid and embarrassed to encounter colleagues who would know, without me saying a word, why I was working there.
Because, in my mind, I was a failure.
While applying for this new job, I gave thought to how quickly I wanted to repay my debts. I could work my new job two nights a week and likely repay my debts in 5 years, or, I could abandon my social life, work two jobs full time and likely pay the debt in as little as two years.
Similar to ripping off a band-aid, I decided on quick repayment.
During the day I sold penthouse condominiums. With just 30 minutes between jobs, I then raced across town, threw on an apron, and served burgers and fries – in some cases to the very same people I’d met earlier in my real estate office.
As I began earning more and spending less, I also became quickly aware of what mattered most. I looked through my home and saw so much excess unnecessary junk, providing no joy or purpose. I worked to sell it all to earn even more money.
(Side Note: This is something I still do frequently, earning a few thousand dollars per year.)
With new awareness for what mattered, I spent a night writing everything I wanted in life.
Not material things, but emotional things, including experiences and personal and business goals. This was important as all the prior self-talk had contributed to feelings of worthlessness.
But now, ready to conquer debt, I knew wanted to achieve more than financial freedom. I wanted to create an incredible life.
With razor focus and unshakable determination, I paid my debt in full, in one year and 10 months.
Some suggestions if you’re looking to do the same:
- Tell someone you trust. Tell them how you feel about where you’re at.
- Aggressively evaluate existing expenses. Ask yourself tough questions about what can be eliminated or reduced.
- Craft and work with a budget – which includes planning for the unexpected.
- Earn more – this doesn’t have to be a second job necessarily. Consider freelancing or short contract work. And, sell used stuff you don’t use.
- Draft a plan – choose which debts you’re going to tackle first. Some people like to repay the smallest to the biggest. Some pay those with the highest interest to the lowest. Even though there are better financial strategies (to minimize the cost of interest), it’s more important to pick the one that is most likely to keep you motivated.
- Set goals – for those with big debts, tackling $40,000 can seem too big to handle. Better to set smaller monthly goals with some kind of small reward. Remember to celebrate the small wins along the way.
- Discover what you want – not just financially but in every aspect of your life. Write it down. Review it often.
As I began my debt repayment journey, I believed that once my debts were paid the improvements in my life would be primarily financial. In other words, I would be free of stress and I could start to save money.
But what I didn’t anticipate was winning my debt war would prove I could achieve anything in life. The ability to forge through this massive challenge was pivotal in every aspect of my life. Nothing for me has been the same. It never will be.
Riddled with debt, my decisions were made for me. Feeling like I was at the beck and call of creditors and living a life of scarcity. My current life doesn’t remotely resemble where I was in 2012.
I managed to complete my MBA (debt free, I might add) and have ditched Real Estate to build my own business helping others with money management, all the while working remotely.
Repaying debt is so much bigger than more money and the elimination of stress.
It's the chance to prove to yourself that with the right mindset, focus, and determination, you can accomplish anything in this life.
Kelley Olinger is a freelance writer, blogger, and Realtor.
Having paid off $77,000 of debt in one year and ten months, Kelley is passionate about helping others craft prosperous lives while mastering their finances.
She writes about personal finance and real estate on her blog, Reconcile Your Wallet.