Recovering From a Spender Bender

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I didn’t write any posts in September. It wasn’t because I didn’t have time; it’s because I was embarrassed. Over the summer, I had written about how we have paid off almost all of our non-house debt. Then about a month ago, I hit a wall. Even though I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I wanted to treat myself and not think about money. I felt tired of seeing other people buy new clothes. I wanted to go out to eat more than once a month and go to the non-Aldi grocery store to buy whatever I felt like buying. I wanted to go to the movies with my husband and decorate my home. I wanted to buy my daughter new books and clothes because darn it, she’s so cute. My friends, I went on a spender bender.

At first, it felt pretty good. It’s been a long time since I spent that much money on myself. As the month went on though, it stared to feel a little uncomfortable. Then the guilt started to set in. Sure, the dates with my husband were fun, but that’s really because of the time we spent together, not because of the locations. The clothes that I had bought are just clothes now- not nearly as exciting as the day that I purchased them. My daughter still looks cute in her new clothes, but I could wrap her in a garbage bag and she’d look adorable.

So, lesson learned (again). No matter how much money you spend, any happy feelings that you derive from your purchases will be temporary. It’s all just stuff.

Luckily, I managed to get my head screwed on straight around the end of the month and recommitted myself to paying off the rest of our debt. Just yesterday, we made the final payment on my student loans. For the first time in almost 15 years, I have no student loans or car loans in my name. We have one student loan left in my husband’s name and then WE ARE DONE with non-house debt.

So for all of you out there who feel like you keep screwing up- it’s ok. Fix it, then move forward. When you screw up again (as most of us do), fix it, and move forward again. You’ve got this.

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How to Pay Off Nearly $100,000 in Debt

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“Ok, I have to ask. How on earth do you pay off almost $100,000 in debt??”

As my friend asked the question, I heard the familiar sounds of frustration and disbelief in her voice. I recognized the sounds because about five years ago (and many times since), I felt the same way. Debt feels stifling and overwhelming. It’s that weight on your chest that seems to get heavier every time you want to buy something. It’s that monster whose eyes you try to avoid, knowing that eventually, it’s going to bite. I KNOW that feeling–the “that plan works for those people, but WE could never pay off all of our debt” feeling. But now, we have paid off our cars and are on track to finish paying off our student loans before the end of this year, totaling nearly $100,000 in debt payoff. How? Two words:

Debt. Snowball.

About 7 years ago, I came across a book called The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey. At the time, I was finishing my second graduate degree and working at a low-paying job. My husband, who I was dating at the time, was also working a fairly low-paying job. We assumed that car payments were normal–everyone we knew had them–that student loans were meant to be paid off over 20 years, and that as long as we were making the minimum payment on our credit cards each month, we were doing just fine. The problem was, we were barely covering our bills and were constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. Then I was introduced to the concept of the debt snowball. Here’s how it works:

Let’s say you have 5 debts (not counting your mortgage, which Ramsey does not include in the debt snowball. The mortgage gets paid off later):

  1. Student Loan A: $15,000
  2. Student Loan B: $2,000
  3. Student Loan C: $7,000
  4. Car Loan: $30,000
  5. Credit Card: $3,000

 

Step One: List all of your debts from smallest to largest, regardless of interest rate.

Student Loan B $2,000
Credit Card $3,000
Student Loan C $7,000
Student Loan A $15,000
Car Loan $30,000

 

Step Two: Pay the minimum on all debts except for the smallest. Any extra money in your budget should go towards the smallest debt. (Not sure how to create a budget? Here’s how we do it). Do that every month until the smallest debt is paid off.

Loan Balance Min. Payment Addl. Payment
Student Loan B $2,000 $50 $98
Credit Card $3,000 $60 $0
Student Loan C $7,000 $80 $0
Student Loan A $15,000 $120 $0
Car Loan $30,000 $250 $0

 

Step Three: Take the money you put towards the smallest debt ($50 in the example above), plus any extra money in your budget ($98 in the example above) and put that towards the next smallest debt. Keep doing that until the second smallest debt is paid off. Repeat the process with the remaining debts until all are paid off.

Loan Balance Min. Payment Addl. Payment
Student Loan B $0- PAID! $0 $0
Credit Card $3,000 $60 $148
Student Loan C $7,000 $80 $0
Student Loan A $15,000 $120 $0
Car Loan $30,000 $250 $0

Here’s why this works: little wins motivate you to achieve bigger wins.

Why not arrange your debts by interest rate? Imagine that Student Loan A ($15,000) has an interest rate of 6.8%, and Student Loan B ($2,000) has an interest rate of 3.5%. It would take you much longer to pay off Student Loan A, right? It’s a lot harder to keep up your momentum if it takes you 5 years to achieve a goal, instead of 1 year.

The same holds true for trying to spread out extra money across all of your payments, which is exactly what I used to do. I thought that I would chip away at all of them at the same time. IT DOESN’T WORK. Compounding interest erases your progress, leaving you to wonder, after 8 years of paying on a student loan, why you still have a principal balance of $8,500 on a loan that was originally $10,000. Why. WHY?

By focusing on the smallest debt first and getting it out of the way, you see that you can actually do it. You don’t have to live with these payments forever. That motivates you for the next one, and the next one. Then you get to the point that we are at, where you start to see a light at the end of the tunnel. And it’s beautiful. I’m talking Will Ferrell in Old School, “I saw Blue, and he looked gloooorious” kind of beautiful.

Have any of you tried the Snowball Method for paying off debt, or has a different strategy worked for you?