Tuesday, May 15, 2012

dumping debt

So, I turned 30 last year, and it just hit me that it's about time I got my life in order...specifically my finances.  Now, I'm not particularly bad with money.  I own a home, I have no car payments, I have no school loans, I contribute to my retirement, and I have some money invested.  But, like many Americans I found myself in credit card debt with very little in savings.  In fact, more in credit card debt than in savings.  In some ways, I was cash poor and house poor.   

I guess I started to panic and think, if I had to pay off all of my credit cards tomorrow, could I do it? And, besides the small amount I had in savings, could I sustain a major disaster or emergency at home?  What if I lost my job, how long could I survive? 

I felt like I didn't know what I was doing financially speaking.  I know the common sense like, "Save more, spend less."  But, how do you put it into practice?  I would sometimes have extra income, and throw it into savings, only to take it out for an unexpected expense the next month.  I have no school or car debt, but if I did have those expenses, it seemed liked I could never make ends meet.  I consistently contributed to my retirement since working, but I wondered if my money could be better used elsewhere...at least temporarily.  I felt like I was taking two steps forward and one step back, and getting nowhere.  A few emergencies did happen (roommate moved out, water heater needed replacing, etc.), and I was able to handle them by going into more credit card debt than I intended to.  Now, along the way, I refinanced my mortgage to a lower rate, yet another smart decision among other stupid ones.  I was on a hamster wheel.  I felt like I was cancelling myself out.  I knew I needed to save, to pay extra on my mortgage, to set aside money for the next car I needed, to pay off the credit card debt...but how?  How could I do that all at once?  There wasn't enough money in the bank to do all that...or so I thought.     

So, I took a financial class by Dave Ramsey.  (This isn't a commercial for him, although I really did like him and the classs...read on.)  I had read some of his books, I listened to Suzi Orman and Jean Chatzy occasionally, but signing up to take the Financial Peace University class really helped me get serious consistently.  It wasn't enough for me personally to learn about the concepts from reading a book at home on my couch.  I needed to be more proactive for a longer period of time to set up some new habits and learn about finances from an expert.  For me, it took the concepts from theory to practice in my life.  Just by attending the class and thinking about my financial situation once a week helped.  Also, I have shifted my paradigm after 13 weeks of this experience.  I think about money differently.

It was a 13 week course, designed with DVD at the beginning for about an hour, then group discussion.  The group discussion is not supposed to be over-share or spend-aholics anonymous or anything like that.  The group discussion questions are meant to get you thinking, not necessarily sharing with strangers about your particular financial situation, but more about reviewing the concepts learnged.  You also read a book on your own each week to correspond with the DVD lesson.  The class leaders would share very personal stories about their financial journey.  Very inspiring - they dumped over $75,000 in debt through these methods in less than 3 years.  They've been living Dave Ramsey's way for about 5 years now.  It gave me hope that I could do it too.  Statistically speaking, most who take Financial Peace University are not in dire straits.  I was not either, but I wanted to be doing better, and I felt like I was only 2-3 emergencies away from virtual homelessness.  There were several couples in the class, and people who just felt like they were living from paycheck to paycheck who wanted to know how to change.  There were a few parents who dragged their teenaged children there, and few recently divorced people trying to pick up the pieces.  And then there were a few like me. 

So...here is my experience.  From the time class started in January until it ended in April, my financial situation changed - all for the better.  First, I got a new job that pays a little bit more (that's another story).  Secondly, my supplemental/surprise income (third job, if you will, I already work two jobs) this year was boosted for the spring semester, which resulted in a temporary pay raise from February to May.  Third, I was gifted with a car from my parents.  (I know this makes me sound like a spoiled brat, but that's really not the case, that can be another post.)  Fourth, I went to an accountant who helped me with my taxes, rather than doing them myself.  This resulted in a better plan for paying 2012 taxes in advance (one of my jobs is contract work, meaning they do not take out tax, and I'm considered self-employed).  Also, the accountant helped me amend my taxes from last year, which resulted in a tax return (aka, more supplemental/surprise income). 

To break it down with the numbers, it looks like this (I try to remain quasi-anonymous with my blog, so I don't care if you know how much I make, etc.)

Total debt when starting FPU (JAN 2012): $6300
Total debt today (MAY 2012): $2880
Debt paid off: $3420
Estimated debt payoff: DEC 2012 (or sooner)
Yearly Household Income: fluctuated between $26,000 and $30,000 (after taxes)

I have one more paycheck from my third job, which I will be throwing all toward my debt.  On June 1, I should only have $1900 left in debt.  After that, I will be back to only two jobs, and only able to pay about $300/month toward the credit card debt.  At that rate, I should be out of debt by Christmas, if not sooner.  Even though it's $1900 (almost $2000), just seeing a 1 as the first digit, instead of a 6, makes me feel great.  There is a light at the end of the tunnel.   

One of Dave's methods is the 7 Baby Steps approach.  You set aside $1000 for an emergency, then pay off all debt, then set aside 4-6 months living expenses.  Those are the first three baby steps, then there are 4 more steps.  At first, I kind of balked at all that.  I was like, why should I take money out of savings to put toward credit card debt?  Having savings is a good thing.  Why should I stop contributing to my retirement in order to pay off credit card debt?  That's something I should be giving money to.  (By the way, I sort of disobeyed that one, and I didn't stop contributing to my retirement in this process).  Anyway, but the reason Dave's method works is that you do one thing at a time with intensity.  When you're paying off debt, ALL extra income pays off the debt.  You don't put some in savings, some toward debt, some toward retirement.  You focus everything on the debt, and it goes away faster.  You stop being on the hamster wheel I was on, you stop taking two steps forward and one step back.  It really hurt to take out money from my savings account and throw it at debt, but it helped make a dent.  My tax return made another dent.  My third job/unexpected income was really the most significant dent in all of this.  I lived off my regular income and applied all of the extra to the debt snowball.

Compared to the others in my class, I found out that I had way less debt than most.  (We shared anonymously how much debt we had aside from mortgage.  The average for my class was $30,000!!!!!)  I was definitely lower than the average American's amount of credit card debt also (that's around $10,000).  As good as this made me feel, like I was fixing the problem before it got worse, it also wasn't too reassuring because I have a relatively low salary, well below the national average ($48,000).  So, while my debt wasn't inconceivably high, proportional to my salary, I wasn't really winning with money (about 20-25% of my income, I owed in credit card debt).  At the rate things are going, I will probably complete baby step 2 by the end of this year (pay off all debt except for the mortgage).  Then, I will probably complete baby step 3 (4-6 months living expenses in the bank) in about 4 years, by age 35.  That's if my income doesn't increase or decrease, and if I pay off all debt this year and get started on the next goal right away.  That seems like a long way off, but once I get the debt off my back, I will feel better about things.  I am actually excited to see my savings grow, and I know 2015 will be here before I know it. 

How things have changed - I have always been a pretty frugal adult... or so I thought.  I don't have cable, I don't splurge, I don't eat out all the time, I buy generic or used.  But, I have to say, since intentionally setting out to destroy debt from my life,  I have realized that I'm not as frugal as I thought.  I really did many of the wrong things, maybe with more guilt than the next person, because I knew it was wrong.  I ate out more than I realized, I shopped more than I realized for clothes or things I didn't really need, and I had a mindset that it was okay to charge something today and pay it off tomorrow or next month, or that it was okay to use a credit card for an emergency.  The problem was, I didn't pay it off the next day or month.  I look at the $6300 of credit card debt I had, and I don't know how I got there.  Sure, some of the things I charged were necessities that I didn't save enough cash to cover when the time came (like new tires for the car or taxes for my self-employment income - and yes, I realize how awfully stupid that all sounds.  I just didn't have a plan).  But, out of the $6300, I would say 75-80% was just stuff.  As Dave calls it, I had "Stuff-itis."  Most of that debt was clothing, stuff for the house, and possibly some eating out.  I mean SERIOUSLY.  I can't believe I did this to myself sometimes.  That is what has changed the most.  Good, old-fashoined, delayed gratification is back in my life.  I have stopped shopping "for fun" or when I'm bored.  I had charged my way to $6300 on cute shirts that were only $20 or a trinket here and there for the house at $50 a pop.  Sure, that's not a lot of money all by itself, but I guess I did that more than I thought...for years on end. 

Just last Sunday night, I had some free time.  I had to resist the urge to go shopping.  I just wanted a cute little maxi dress for summer, or I was sick of my wardrobe.  Shopping itself isn't bad, and $20 isn't a lot of money, but for the situation I am in now, it's completely off limits.  So, I mowed the lawn and did laundry instead.  Also, I no longer have a computer to use at home.  I had to give back the one work gave me (for the third job that's over now), and I'm (lap)topless.  Instead of charging my Best Buy credit card or trying to earn a bunch of points on my Southwest credit card by buying a new computer, I'm going to save up.  I may put the purchase on credit cards for the rewards when the time comes, but I will be paying it off immediately with the cash I will have saved for it, essentially paying in cash.  (That's another thing I didn't do 100% Dave's way - I kept credit cards that give me rewards.  He says it's like playing with fire - and I agree.  But for now, I am going to try using them just for the rewards and paying them off immediately.  I closed 3 credit cards.)

So, this has been a journey, and a long process.  Once I decided to dump debt, I wanted to be out of debt right then.  But, I didn't get here overnight, and I can't fix this overnight.  Slow and steady wins the race, I keep telling myself.  I will slowly get out of debt, slowly save for my future, and begin to pay for things I want by saving money and setting aside for things I need/want.  This all sounds really simple, and like adulthood.  For as grown up and "good with money" as I thought I was, I really wasn't, and I am getting better.  For a long time, I thought that if I just made more money, I could pay off credit cards, and I wouldn't need to charge things at all...I would have the money.  But, you have to deal with what is, not with if only.  The fact of the matter is that I make around $2200-$2500/month.  I have to get out of the debt I put myself in on this salary...not on the salary I'd like to make someday or think I deserve or wish I made.  More money won't fix the problem (okay, there's a small part of me that thinks it still could fix the problem...), but regardless, the money I have right now will have to fix the problem.  It's about budgeting, planning, and delayed gratificiation, not about getting more and spending more.              

Although Dave's program is somewhat faith-based/Christian-based, he is NOT the type that tells you to do stupid things and just "have faith" that it'll all work out, or to not plan or not discipline yourself for your future and just pray and "have faith." However, I do believe in God, and I do think that sometimes when you do your part, God can help get the ball rolling in unexpected way. You do the natural, and God will put in the super. In my case, getting a new job and getting that third job were both an answer to prayer, and it just so happened to occur when I had made some very intentional steps toward getting out of debt and being a better steward of my money.  So, all that to say, that I'm in a better place thanks to Dave Ramsey.  Don't get me wrong, if I quit now, I'm still screwed, with more in credit card debt than I have in savings.  I could easily fall off the wagon again in one spending spree today if I felt like it.  But, I do feel at peace, like the title of the course - "Financial Peace University."  I feel at peace because I have a plan, a plan that will work and can work.  It's not easy, but the light is at the end of the tunnel, and I hope to set in place really good habits for the years to come.  I feel hopeful and peaceful, which is a definite change for the better.  I am making up for past mistakes, making more money, and I feel equipped to continue to work with money intentionally and do the best with what I have.  That's my personal story and experience with Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace University.  It's exciting to me how much change has happened in my life in the last 5 months, and I'm optimistic about what can happen from here.

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