For the last 15 years of my life, I have been in debt. It’s not always been for such a huge amount though. At first, it was small and manageable but then it quickly started to snowball and get really out of control.
Looking back I can’t think of a time in my life when I was in the black.
With us pushing to clear our debt and trying with all our might to be debt free, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking back how I’ve handled my finances and different money situations. It’s made me grimace at how stupid, how naive and how downright stubborn I have been in the past.
With many years under my belt of being in the red, I have learnt many things about living with little money and being in debt.
Today I am going to share those lessons with you.
1. Getting into debt is easy
When I was younger, it seemed like the grown-up thing to do was apply for a credit card – so I did. I had a small limit, spent it, then paid it back. It was easy.
After a few months of following the same process, they upped the credit limit. I thought it was amazing. It started to feel like free money and so I went out and spent it. However, at the end of the month, I didn’t have enough spare cash to pay it back so I had the interest to pay.
The following month I follow the same spending habits and decided not to pay the full amount back. I thought that the interest wasn’t that bad and I’d pay it back the following month.
More time passed and I was given another hike on the limit and the card became a necessary part of my monthly spending. I maxed out the card but needed more money so I applied for another credit card, and another, and a loan and I was accepted.
I had bills, I wanted things, I spent the money and it was easy.
2. Being in debt is my fault
All the time looking back, and even now reading the above back, I can still hear myself with a tone of “it was the bank’s fault for lending me the money”.
It wasn’t though. It’s mine. It was my fault. I spent the money. I didn’t pay it back on time. I lived beyond my means and didn’t budget properly.
The reason I am in debt is that I made poor financial choices and lived a life that I wanted and not a life I had earned.
3. Hiding doesn’t make it go away
When you have debt, and you struggle to pay it back, the letters start coming through the door and the phone starts to ring.
If you don’t answer the phone, they call again and they leave messages and call the land line instead.
When you move house they find you and they start writing to you again.
If you avoid them all together they take you to court and hit you with a CCJ. Burying your head in the sand does not work. The debt will still be there and still needs to be dealt with.
The only thing hiding does is add more interest and fees, makes the whole situation take longer to sort out and makes you have to live with the situation longer.
4. Debt consumes you
It got to a point where all I thought about was debt. Which credit card could we use to buy food this month? Could we get another payday loan to pay off the last payday loan? We were genuinely in a bad way and were not helping ourselves.
I woke up thinking the knock at the door was a debt collector when it was just the postman. I worried that a person parked in the car across the road was waiting for me to go outside to ask me for money back on a loan I had defaulted on.
I was worried that we’d get paid and the money would get taken back by the bank to clear the overdraft we lived on, leaving us with no money to pay rent, get to work, eat or live.
Even now, when we are controlling our debt, I still think about it as much but I don’t have the worry. I now try to work out where we can get more money from to clear it. I think about how a trip to the cinema could be our food shopping for a good few days or could put a little extra towards clearing a debt.
It has essentially turned from being a continual worry to being an obsession that I want to see the back of.
5. I should have asked for help earlier
What annoys me through all of this is how we kept everything quiet. I was embarrassed. We got ourselves into such a [EXPLETIVE REMOVED, use your imagination !!] and we knew it was all our fault. We were ashamed of ourselves.
I thought that telling other people would make them look down upon us. Should I care though? No!
Maybe some people do look down on me but who cares? They were the only ones who cared! I only care about me, my family (and obviously you dear reader xx). I don’t have time and can’t be bothered with the hassle of worrying about what other people think of me.
I stopped caring about what others would think of me – quite obviously by telling the world about my financial problems over the internet – and instead was honest with my family.
I reached out for support from debt charities to give me guidance on what I should do and how I should handle things. They are amazing and are a total lifeline when you think you’ve hit rock bottom.
Please reach out to them too, even if you don’t want to tell them your name, or ask a question “on behalf of a friend”. They are genuinely really nice people who offer FREE debt advice (don’t EVER pay for debt advice).
Say hi to the guys at Stepchange (call free from a land line on 0800 138 1111 or go to their site and ask for a free callback) or National Debtline (call them for free from a land line on 0808 808 4000 or use their online web chat service) and see how they can help you too.
6. Everyone needs to be on the same page
A good few years back Naomi did start to look at our finances. She got a simple budget together and started to explain to me that she thought we were struggling with money unless we cut back a bit. I didn’t believe her and I had a live-for-today mentality. Who knew what would happen tomorrow or the next day – let’s live for the moment and enjoy ourselves while we can, I thought.
She carried on checking her spreadsheet, monitoring our spending, and I carried on spending and living like normal. After about two weeks, the spreadsheet was not touched again and that was it. She had tried to look into our money problem but because I wasn’t sold on the idea, we didn’t get anywhere. There was no way she could save any money if I kept spending here and there.
It wasn’t until our light bulb moment that it clicked for both of us. We both knew immediately that things had to change and we worked together to make things better.
Talking to each other, discussing money and having a joint target for how we would get debt free has ensured that we are on the path we are today. We are a family and we are a team but we never used to work that way together.
Now we are on the same page, we have the same passions and we will do this together.
7. We couldn’t carry on as normal
Sacrifices had to be made. There was no way we could continue with the luxuries we both liked and there was no way we could spend whatever we wanted willy-nilly.
We had to stop keeping up with the Jones’, we had to reign in our spending and we had to cut every little thing that wasn’t needed.
At first, we literally cut EVERYTHING from our regular household outgoings other than rent, council tax, other bills and food. Everything else was considered a luxury.
As we started to manage our money in a better way and balanced our income and expenditure, we stopped being so drastic and then added some necessary spending like a new pair of shoes (holes in shoes during wet weather isn’t nice but new shoes were a luxury!).
How we lived before was considered normal to us but it was not a normal way to live by the time our cash flow had balanced. We changed and adapted our lifestyle and started getting to grips with how we could continue to live in a “normal” way.
For the first time, we started living, without living without. We still had stuff but weren’t paying over the odds and would only spend money if it was necessary and was needed; we would not spend money for a want.
8. We still needed a backup plan
Cutting back on our spending certainly made room in our budget to pay towards our debt. We had cancelled all our cards, frozen our accounts and no longer had anything to fall back on. We lived by the cash in the bank account and what could be found in the piggy bank on the kitchen side.
But, what happens if something broke down? What would happen if (touch wood please don’t let it happen!) Naomi was made redundant?
How on earth would we live without a regular income, or where would we get a lump sum of cash to pay for an emergency bill?
We didn’t have any savings and used to rely on credit as our emergency fund so had to change things.
An emergency fund was started. At first being the odd pennies and pounds were transferred into an account at the end of each day. Soon the money started to add up. Then as we got more comfortable with our budget, we’d transfer a set amount each month and soon we had a few hundred pounds in there. The saving continued.
We are spending out more on debt than we are saving but we are conscious we need to have a cushion to fall back on if sh*t hits the fan!!
9. Make money a habit
Everything we used to do with money was ad-hoc. We’d see something so we’d buy it. We’d pay bills when we’d remember and there was no patten to anything we did – no wonder we got into such a mess!
Everything money related now has a place in our daily lives. We know the date money will come into our account. We have direct debits and standing orders set up on our household bills and debts and can track where every penny will be.
Our household budget (although it doesn’t change too often) is checked regularly and updated if necessary.
Any spending that has to be done outside of our regular expenditures is scrutinised:
- Do we really need it, or do we just want it?
- Can we get it cheaper elsewhere?
- Can we get cash back or use a voucher to get money off?
- Can we get one free from somewhere else?
We know how much our regular spending will be. We have turned spending money and paying bills into a habit, instead of doing it as and when.
10. Making minimum payments don’t work
What sounds better when you’re struggling for money? Payout £60 or pay out £4? The smaller figure sounds more appealing but, the trouble is, when you’re paying it off a credit card, it will take you forever and a day to clear the debt if you only ever make the minimum repayments!
We used to think that we were doing the right thing. We’d pay the minimum repayment and were happy with ourselves that we didn’t default, giving ourselves a mini high five! What didn’t click was that we were paying so much more interest on a monthly basis than the minimum repayment. It was like tickling a huge rock with a feather and hoping it was going to move. It didn’t move forward but continued to roll on top of us.
We eventually asked for interest to be frozen (not all companies will do this but what’s the harm in asking) and could really start to make a difference to clearing the debt off.
11. Small wins keep you motivated
When you’ve lived with debt for a long time, and probably similar if you’ve only had debt for a short time, clearing your debt off can seem like a huge and daunting task.
For so long debt is all I’ve known, how to spend money that wasn’t mine and how to scrimp by. The idea of paying off money and continuing to keep my head above water seemed like a daunting task but we stay on track by having small wins.
Looking at our debt as one big figure is horrible. When we’ve paid bills and look at what’s left there certainly isn’t enough money left to even touch the huge debt. I get deflated and wonder what’s the point of doing it all but then started to take a different approach.
We started to focus on the smaller debts (still paying as little as possible on the big ones) and within a very short space of time, we had cleared one! WE HAD CLEARED A DEBT!! And you know how good that felt? Absolutely brilliant!
I wanted to do it again. I looked at the big ones and knew we couldn’t make a dent to them so looked at the next smallest one and started chipping away.
Slowly but surely that one was gone, and the next, and the next. It began to snowball and money we had been paying on them was now being paid to the larger debts, getting them paid off quicker.
Seeing our small debt get cleared was a triumph. It made me feel good. It made me feel like I had achieved something. It kept me wanting to carry on and not throw the towel in.
12. Clearing debt will take time
Have you heard things like this before (they are real bugbears of mine):
Pay $50 and watch how I cleared $50,000 of debt in one year
Erm, no! For a start don’t pay for debt advice and secondly, if it sounds too good to be true it probably is.
No matter how much I want there to be, and no matter how many wacky sites and books I’ve come across, there is no quick fix to clearing debt. It’s just hard work and determination. It won’t happen overnight but what can happen overnight is the determination to do something about it and the ability to change your own mindset.
13. You can make a positive out of a negative
Being in debt has nearly ruined us. It caused arguments, stopped us being able to feed our children properly, stopped us eating a proper meal on a daily basis and made me question why I even get out of bed.
But, at the same time, because of debt, I have woken up to living.
I have grown up. I have connected with my wife and communicate with her in better and meaningful ways. I play with my children and give them my time, not fobbing them off with gifts instead of daddy time.
If I had to do it all again then don’t get me wrong I wouldn’t want to live a life of debt, but it has given me so many things that I would never have gained if I didn’t have it.
It has made me resilient, made me learn to talk to others in a clearer and more concise way, it has helped me hone in on my negotiation skills and has made me hungry to succeed in everything.
14. Debt is temporary
The great thing about debt and the one thing that everyone with money trouble needs to remember is that there is light a the end of the tunnel.
I play a game with the girls when we go through a tunnel on the train. As soon as we enter into it, we have to hold your breath and we can’t let it out until we’re are back in daylight.
Sometimes that’s how debt makes me feel. It suffocates me and I struggle to make it into the light but the tunnel will not go on forever. After clearing another bit of debt off I can take a breathe and my lungs feel clearer and hold my head up higher.
15. Clearing debt IS possible
The debt will not be there forever. Eventually, I will have made my last payment (I probably won’t know what to do with myself!).
After that, we start a new life where any money we earn becomes ours.
We can do with it what we want. We can spend it, save it, invest it or even swim through it like Scrooge McDuck used to do (did anyone ever want to do that as a kid?!)
Living with debt is not easy but the lessons learnt are perhaps one good thing that can come from it.
Penny for your thoughts: What lessons can you teach me to make my journey to the end that bit easier?