For most of my early adult life, I was blissfully ignorant about money matters.

I thought money management was simple, like “calories in, calories out” simple (which, as we know, isn’t really that simple). But there were some intricacies in my budget that I consistently failed to account for, and I quickly spiraled into credit card (and other) debt so fast that by the time I realized what had happened, it was too late.

Things that I had: a steady paycheck, a gym membership, a student loan bill, rent, and a car payment.

And then I got a credit card.

I’d never had one, so it seemed like a good idea to start establishing credit aside from a student loan. And it would have been a great practice, had I not been so financially irresponsible at that age (like many of us are, I suppose).

My student loan bill is due on a quarterly basis, and as a 22 year old, I didn’t grasp the basic math of setting aside money every month so I didn’t have to scramble every third month. When that did happen, the credit card became a way for me to bail myself out and pay for groceries (and, let’s face it, whatever else I wanted) for the rest of the month.

Who cares, as long as the bills are getting paid? I thought.

Well, I did, a year and a half later, when my line of credit (which wasn’t much to begin with) got hit. And I wasn’t even using the card at that point- after a change in jobs, lower rent, and getting rid of the car payment, I didn’t need to. What I hadn’t been paying attention to was my 24.99% interest rate, and the fact that I’d only been making the minimum payment due. It didn’t take long at all for that compounding interest to, well, compound.

The credit card went from a blessing to a curse really fast.

But, 2 years later, I don’t have that debt anymore. Here’s what happened:

I changed my lifestyle. Partially as a natural progression of things and partially out of necessity, a few things changed during that time period. I moved into a smaller apartment that I paid no rent on (because I was living with someone who took care of that). I got a part time job to make extra income and pay off more debt. I created a budget where every dollar was accounted for, and reminded myself that it was only temporary.

I stopped using the card. No more “free money.” If I didn’t have enough income to buy that new pair of shoes, I didn’t get that new pair of shoes.

Used Spare Change. Desperate times call for desperate measures, right? When I was a kid, my brother and I would roll our spare change for vacations, so it felt kind of lame to be doing it to pay off debt, but when you’re in the trenches, every little bit counts.

Debt Snowball. If you’re familiar with personal finance at all, you may have heard of debt repayment strategies like the debt snowball. With my student loan bill, some medical bills (my health insurance plan has a high deductible, and I had an ER trip in 2016), and credit card debt, I was overwhelmed, so I came up with a repayment plan. Focusing on the high interest first (the credit card), and making minimum payments on the rest was the best way to go for me. And, for the record, payments to the hospital do not accrue interest, so taking your time on those doesn’t result in a penalty if you’re paying the minimum amount agreed in a payment plan.

Balance Transfer. In order to get ahead, I had to do something about that almost 25% APR, so I did a balance transfer to a different card so I could have an interest free year (if you do a balance transfer, make sure to look at what the 0% APR period is, if any). And I planned (successfully) to pay off that amount within the 12 month period.

 

I have a plan. So, even after this rough learning patch with personal finance, I sort of have things figured out. I was able to build up an emergency fund, I’ve factored things into my budget like holidays, weird once a year things like contacts, car registration, and buying tires, and I don’t need to use my credit card in a pinch (I do use it intentionally and pay off the balance to accrue rewards, but I’ll talk about that in another post).

Full disclosure, my credit card debt was under 5K,  so in the grand scheme of things it wasn’t monumental to get it paid off in a short amount of time. Still, it was money I didn’t have to lose that way, and I guess that’s the part that stings in hindsight.

If you’re reading this, don’t do what I did. Pay attention to your budget, stick to it, and remember that credit cards are definitely NOT free money 🙂

Debt Snowball Method from Dave Ramsey

The Fastest Method to Eliminate Credit Card Debt from Wisebread (there’s 10 things here)

The Time I Learned Credit Cards Are Not Free Money