The Money Moment That Helped Me Get Out of Debt

The Money Moment That Helped Me Get Out of Debt

Everyone has a financial regret — whether it's a trendy jacket you wore all of three times, or defaulting on a loan that hurt your credit score.

If you're a glass-half-full kind of person, you might recognize the upside of money mistakes: They force a change in behavior and nudge you onto a better path.

These five people shared the moment of financial clarity that kickstarted their debt payoff plan.

My 'Little' Splurges Cost More Than My Car

Kathryn Jones, 34, head of product development for a startup, Boston
When I graduated seven years ago with a master’s degree in occupational therapy, I had no idea how I was going to pay off my $70,000 student loan bill. I also had over $10,000 in credit card debt, a new house, a car payment and no savings or 401(k) to speak of. By 2011, I was feeling completely overwhelmed by debt.

My new husband, Evan, was in a better financial state. The fact that we were now going to be sharing bank accounts and money decisions motivated me to finally get my debt situation in check.

I picked up a personal finance audiobook some coworkers recommended and started following the advice. The first order of business was to track my spending. After going through six months of debit and credit card statements, I realized that the amount of money I spent each month on "extras" like candles, dish towels, daily coffees and beauty products was more than my $300 car payment. The amount I spent on buying gifts for people was double that. Meanwhile, what I was putting toward savings and paying off debt was only a fraction of my spending.

I all but eliminated unnecessary shopping trips and began sending people cards instead of buying them gifts. After one year, I was able to use the money I saved by not shopping to pay off my credit card balance. The best part? It only took me three more years to knock out my college debt.

My Poor Credit Score Cost Me a Dream Home

Marc Renson, 46, restaurant owner and chef, Schenectady, New York
I was very fortunate growing up in the sense that I never had to worry about money. At 18, I started working in the restaurant industry but depended on credit cards to keep up with the affluent lifestyle I was so used to.

I eventually settled down with a wonderful partner named Greg, and because he had great credit we were able to buy a home together in 2001. However, I was quietly getting deeper and deeper into credit card debt, charging everything from concert tickets to vacations. I even put the $4,000 deposit on a new BMW on a credit card. Living this way finally caught up with me in 2011, when we had our sights set on a gorgeous house in Key Largo.

We were abruptly declined for a mortgage. My 561 credit score came back to haunt me big time. The same scenario played itself out again three years later, at which point I’d racked up close to $70,000 in debt — plus another $28,000 I owed in back taxes. I needed help managing my money.

One of my restaurant customers happened to be a financial planner. He helped me organize my bills, set up payment plans and track my spending — with just the right dose of tough love.

Today, I’m current on all my bills, have a 644 credit score and have about $8,000 left to pay off on that BMW. The best part? We were just pre-approved for our dream home.

I Got Married — and Realized We Now Had Five Figures in Debt

Erika Torres, 32, public affairs specialist, Irvine, California
When Eric and I got engaged after a few months of dating, we broke a cardinal rule: We never had the money talk. We were definitely in for a shock when after our 2010 wedding we realized that we owed over $45,000 between the two of us.

Being saddled with this much debt wasn’t exactly how we had envisioned beginning our new life together. Seeing the numbers in black and white lit a fire under us to eliminate every last cent. After moving into a much smaller space for 17 months (which cut our rent and utilities by 25%), I began picking up as much on-the-side work as I could — from freelancing and babysitting to doing online surveys and mystery shopping. I also made advertising income on a blog.

Between 2011 and 2013, my side gigs brought in over $32,000 in additional income. This accelerated our debt payoff plan and also paid for a honeymoon.

Once we became debt-free in 2014, our extra income allowed us to save enough to put a 10% down payment on our very first house. Choosing to rev up our debt payoff plan was one of the best decisions we ever made.

I Got Slammed with a High Interest Rate on a Car Loan

Brandon Schroth, 27, digital analyst, San Diego
When my 2002 Acura gave out on me just a few months ago, I headed to a local dealership to pick out a new car. I knew I’d have to finance it, but I was expecting to snag an interest rate in the 3% range.

Boy, was I in for a surprise — the best deal I qualified for was double that. Thanks to other debt I had, I couldn’t get a rate under 6%. So instead of paying $380 per month, my bill comes to $414. That’s when the lightbulb went off. Over the course of my 72-month loan, I would be paying $2,500 more in interest than I would be if I'd qualified for the lower rate.

At that time, I had about $50,000 in student loans, $2,500 on one credit card and $1,000 on another. (I had recently moved into a new apartment and ended up charging a lot of the moving expenses.) The real killer was that my higher-balance credit card was pretty close to the credit limit. It’s safe to say that my high debt-utilization ratio hurt me.

Since this all happened, I’ve reshuffled my budget and revved up my monthly credit card payments and paid off about $1,000 of that $2,500 card, helping to reduce my revolving balance to about one-third of my total credit limit. I also have plans to refinance my car once that credit card balance gets down to about $500, in hopes that I'll qualify for a better interest rate.

We Had to Skip a Family Vacation Because of Our Debt

Brian Brandow, 46, IT manager, Long Island, New York
While planning a summer vacation for our family of five in 2010, I soon realized that we didn’t have the funds to cover our plans to visit family on the West Coast. Things looked even more hopeless when I reflexively turned to our credit cards to finance the trip, only to learn that we were already maxed out to the tune of $109,000.

Fifteen years of living beyond our means had finally caught up with us, and we were unable to give our three kids the family getaway we were all so excited about. Up to that point, we’d charged everything from dinners out to pop-up expenses, racking up debt and making only the minimum payments as we went along.

My wife, Lynn, and I got serious and got educated. We read personal finance books, then built a budget, cut expenses and began tackling our debt. We eliminated monthly subscription services and our frequent dining out. We learned to say "no" to outings with friends and family members if those expenses weren't already built into our budget. And we worked with a debt-counseling service to help us negotiate one of our credit card APRs from 17.9% down to 1.5%. My wife also went back to work part-time.

It took 50 months of focus and discipline, but we officially paid it all off in September 2014. Today, the only debt we have is our mortgage, and we’re finally on track for retirement. Our focus is now on building up our kids’ college funds, which is the best thing we could imagine doing with our money.

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