When my wife and I were married in 2009, I couldn’t resist spoiling my bride.
We were in our early 20s, and I wanted to make sure she had the fairytale wedding she had dreamed of … and once we were married, that fairytale life.
Onto my cards went our engagement party, our wedding and our subsequent international trips to places like Canada and Japan. Being so young, it was a point of pride that we wouldn’t take handouts from our parents, and it never occurred to us to talk about money beyond handing over the credit cards (well, my credit card). Having a balance just started to feel normal. After all, paying off the minimum $50 per month was much more attractive than looking at our ever-growing mountain of debt.
About a year after our wedding, we realized that we were starting to reach the limits on my cards. We didn’t have much left in savings, and we got the feeling that we may have been in over our heads. Our money had always been kept separate, but when we came face-to-face with the $40,000 of debt we had racked up together, things started getting tense. My wife would get anxious and wish I hadn’t treated her to trips abroad and expensive dinners, and I would get defensive about my choices.
Our tipping point came in 2011, when we decided we wanted to start a family. We realized that as parents, it would be irresponsible for us to bring our child into the world unless we could get ourselves together—so we decided to eradicate that debt once and for all.
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A little over two years later, we’re expectant parents without a cent of credit card debt and a positive net worth. Here, I’m sharing five of the strategies that made all the difference.
1. Set Your Finish Line Before You Start
Your eyes may glaze over, but setting clear goals was truly one of the key reasons we made it through in tackling our debt. Our goals included:
- 50% reduction of our credit debt within one year, 100% reduction within two
- Increase our income (which was about $80,000 at the time—twice the amount of our debt) to support the above
- Have our child born with no credit debt
When we started tackling our debt, we felt like we weren’t making any progress—we would make payments, but the interest would keep pushing our bills higher. We had to get serious if we were going to battle the interest and pay the principle. So I listed out all of our liabilities, savings and recurring spending on a simple spreadsheet. Just having this list opened my eyes and showed me where we needed to make some major changes in our spending—like cutting back on extravagant date nights when that money could be better used elsewhere.
While reducing our spending, we also focused on our careers. I started devoting my free time to reading articles, listening to audiobooks and watching videos that would teach me the skills I needed for the senior sales management role I set my eye on, and after a few years of diligence I was able to move from sales support into account management and then into a senior management position. My wife, too, was continually promoted within her company, from general administration into finance and accounting. Together, we eventually increased our income by 150%—and then resisted the temptation to spend more.
In the beginning, it was slow going. But as we started having more money to put towards our debt and changing our daily habits, we saw the balance on our bills level out … and then slowly start to decline. We used that momentum to pay off entire cards, which was a huge encouragement to keep going.
2. Get Disciplined Across the Board
Around the time we decided to start tackling our debt, I realized that my wife was very disciplined and diligent in all aspects of her life—everything from her working hard at her job to meticulously wrapping presents.
I … wasn’t. I was generally happy using high-level figures instead of breaking down costs to the dollar, doing things ‘just enough to get done’ instead of doing them thoroughly and, suffice it to say, you don’t want to receive a present wrapped by me. Inspired by my wife’s discipline, I started thinking that I too should start being “all or nothing,” letting the discipline I instituted in my life carry over to my money.
I started getting up earlier than usual in the morning (sometimes at 5:30 a.m.!) and scheduling my weeknights on the Sunday before: when I’d have dinner, when I’d watch TV, when I would have personal time and when I would go to bed. In my experience, if you can keep a simple sleep schedule, you’re probably one step closer to sticking to other schedules and budgets.
I also practiced staying up and focusing on work or study at night, simply to stretch my mind and test my discipline. I found it was most effective to choose one place to associate with focusing (mine was our study), and do it in short bursts—only an hour and a half at a time.
Due to my strict schedule and focusing time, I opened up an extra two to three hours a day that I used to work on my budgets, do extra reading, listen to audiobooks, plan my sales activity for the workweek and even pursue entrepreneurial projects like writing business plans and starting a personal site based on my passion for sales.