I have a confession to make: I used to be a complete financial disaster. Not only did I carry mountains of credit card debt (over $14K at one point), but I had no semblance of a budget, I had no idea where my money was going or how I was spending it, and I developed habits of sticking my head in the sand and shredding statements before even opening the envelopes.
Ignorance is Bliss, Right?
For years I ignored the signs of my impending financial doom. On the outside, I was a cheerful, well put-together, intelligent young woman. Inside, I was one nervous breakdown away from being carted off to the nearest psychiatric hospital. The source of my inner conflict? My financial—or lack thereof—habits were keeping me from living the life I desperately wanted and I had no idea how to change my ways. I was consumed by the stress of my daunting debts, meager income, and inability to get a hold of myself financially.
And so I continued to stumble through life in a debt-induced, materialistic-loving haze. I shopped my heart out, took vacations I couldn’t afford, and dined in restaurants in which I had no business being. If I maxed out one credit card, I simply opened a new one. If I couldn’t pay the monthly balance on a particular card, I blindly sent away only the minimum payment. I subsisted in this semi-permanent state of flux for nearly 4 years before I began to wonder if I had missed the financial responsibility boat.
On one particularly low day, I found myself mindlessly browsing the Internet when I haphazardly clicked on a link for a series of financial message boards. For the next 6 hours, I poured over the contents, amazed at how people were struggling with managing their debt, budgets, and financial futures. Then it hit me: I was one of those people! I needed to change my situation, and I needed to do so immediately! But what’s a gal to do when she has very few options? I couldn’t ask other people for money to bail myself out. I had no interest in taking on another job, and I certainly wasn’t in the frame of mind to cut back on my spending.
Balance Transfer Heaven
The next day, the daily mail delivery held what I thought (at the time) was my ticket to financial freedom: an advertisement for a balance transfer program at Citibank. I instantly tore through the envelope, sat down at my computer, and signed up for the program. With a few clicks of the mouse, I had sent most of my high interest credit card debt to the new card, which boasted a glorious 0% for the next 12 months. I rode the subsequent high all the way to the mall, where I charged another outfit I didn’t need in celebration of my newfound financial literacy.
In a few weeks, reality hit me when I saw what I owed as a minimum payment to the new card given its (very high) balance. Fortunately, I had always found a way to keep up with at least the minimums on all of my cards, so I scheduled the online payment. Then I went to another website to research more balance transfer deals. Over the course of the next 4 months, I opened, closed, and transferred thousands of dollars of credit card debt between countless cards. Because I had always made my payments on time, my credit score was still relatively high so I continued to take advantage of all of the offers I was solicited with.
At first, it was all a game to me. I loved the feeling of being “in control” of my debt; that I could simply transfer the balance elsewhere when I didn’t like the terms of my current card or account. Somehow, I mistakenly thought that I was being financially responsible. I filled my browser favorites folder with links to my various accounts, and I diligently logged into the accounts weekly or monthly to manage my balances. I sailed along smoothly for months, eventually chipping away a few hundred dollars of my credit card debt that had now ballooned to over $14K.
Then I went on another vacation—to a place where I would not be taking my laptop with me. Distracted by the high of the vacation excitement, I completely forgot about (disregarded?) my debt and boarded the plane with gusto. I had the time of my life for the first 4 days of the trip. On the fifth day, my credit card was denied. As was the second, third, and fourth card. I withdrew some money from my ATM account and went on my way as if nothing was wrong. But deep inside, a pit was growing ever larger in my stomach; I knew I was going to return home to a mess.
Balance Transfer Hell
And a mess it was. During my absence, I had missed multiple payment deadlines and was hit with late fees that pushed me over my available credit balance which in turn yielded over limit fees. As I sat on the phone with rep after rep after rep, trying to repair the damage, I felt as if an elephant was sitting on my chest. I couldn’t breathe, I wasn’t seeing straight, and I certainly had no clue how to calm my racing heart and thoughts.
In essence, I was suffering from my very first (and luckily only) panic attack. After hanging up the phone with the last rep, I asked my roommate to drive me to the emergency room. While being examined, the doctor asked me about my current stress levels, to which my response was to burst into tears. After clearing me medically, he made me have a consultation with one of the attending psychiatrists. It was clear to her that I was just tuned up beyond belief, so she sent me home with strict instructions to relax or else I’d end up seeing her again soon.
On the drive home, I felt an odd sense of calm flood my body. It was then that I realized why I had experienced a panic attack: I needed a financial intervention the size of Texas, and I wasn’t going to get it by playing balance transfer roulette.
Over the course of the next 3 weeks, I laid out a plan to go cold turkey with my spending habits. I also made some changes professionally and personally in order to set myself up with as much success as possible. I’m pleased to report that I paid off my $14K in credit card debt in less than a year, and I haven’t carried a hint of a balance since.
Crystal’s Comments: I could almost feel the stress!!! I am so glad you took the bull by the horns and killed your debt and I am so sorry that you had to learn the very hard way. I’m trying to kill our last debt now, the mortgage, but I can only imagine the stress you felt on those phone calls. Thank you very much for the guest post!
Have you ever hit a wall like this? Learned a lesson the very hard way?