In November 2016, I asked an anonymous woman about her experience living with credit card debt. We’re re-sharing it now because, although this time of year is supposed to be defined by joy and gratitude, it can also be defined by financial stress, as we attempt to express said gratitude through gifts. Below is one woman’s experience with financial stress, and how she’s finding her way out of it. –Haley
I always remember I have credit card debt when I get gross credit card junk mail. I get so much predatory bullshit: new credit card offers, people trying to buy our debt (never settle your debt), that kind of thing.
The first time I accumulated credit card debt that I couldn’t pay off, I was 22 and working in Manhattan at an incredibly low-paying job. Once I had a little bit of it, it snowballed. It wasn’t that much, but I let it sit there and grow. I think it maxed out around $5,000. I hated it.
Then I started dating someone who was really good with money and it changed my thinking. I made a committed decision to pay off the debt. I was making around $35,000 a year and living hand-to-mouth. I’d make a payment on my card and then would have $10 to survive off of for two weeks. I lived in Chinatown and my lunch would be soup from the restaurant downstairs for $1.25. I would take change from my boyfriend’s change container. He didn’t realize it until he went to cash it in. He was really pissed at me, but I was like, “I’m so broke! Don’t be a dick!” It was really hard, but I paid it off over the course of a year.
The more recent credit card debt is a different ball game altogether. When the recession happened, my husband decided to change careers and stopped working for a while. Although I was working a full-time job and doing part-time on top of that, it was never enough. We ate through our savings quickly and that’s when we started accruing debt. Then we got married and had to pay for a wedding. Even though we did most of it on our own (the food, the decorations, all that stuff) it still ended up impacting us in a pretty serious way. Now, whenever we start digging ourselves out of the hole, something will set us back. So the debt is still sitting there. At its worst, it was around $40,000. Now it’s closer to $16,000.
Almost none of our friends are in our world in terms of finances. They all are very well off. I don’t want them to know I’m struggling because I don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable. They’d be surprised and probably wouldn’t understand. I have one friend in that circle who’s in a similar spot and I remember one night she was really drunk and started getting weird about money, talking about it, kind of calling people out. I remember [another friend] was like, “Don’t you know the last people you want to alienate are your rich friends?
Money is weird in general. I feel like I can really only talk about it honestly with people who I know are in a similar situation, and I just don’t know that many. Once I was at a Thanksgiving party and everyone was complaining about their hired help and how much it costs. Someone asked me how much I paid and I was like, “I don’t have a housekeeper.” I felt so much rage. I remember thinking, “You guys are so insanely clueless that you would assume everyone in this room could afford help.” They aren’t bad people – they’re good people! But they have no concept. No knowledge of what my financial situation would even be like.
I wouldn’t call our debt a secret, though, except when it comes to my parents. They’d be very upset if they knew. I started working when I was 12 and I pay for everything myself. They are frugal to the point of it being stifling. They don’t indulge in any luxuries ever. But that’s not necessarily my approach.
Essentially we have debt from the wedding and from the basics: rent, food, car insurance, gas, childcare. General cost-of-living stuff. We don’t spend frivolously. We almost never go out to dinner, although we do buy healthy food to cook with at home. When I shop, I try to invest. I’ve had all my clothes for years and years and years. If it won’t last the test of time, it’s not worth it for me. In some ways, though, looking nice is part of my job. There’s an element of faking it.
When I was single, I felt more flexible to pinch pennies how I saw fit. I remember one year where I just acknowledged that the whole summer was going to be really shitty. For lunch, I would eat a piece of bread and some cheese or sardines. For dinner, I’d have rice with peas and onions or just eggs. When I left the house, I wouldn’t even bring my wallet, because I didn’t want to be tempted to buy anything. That’s a good trick. When I got invited to parties, instead of bringing a bottle of wine, I would bake a loaf of bread. I used the New York Times no-knead recipe. All you need is flour, water and salt. The cost comes out to like 25 cents a loaf if you buy the ingredients in bulk. And people think it’s so lovely!
There were all kinds of things I did when I was single. I think debts builds up faster when you’re in a partnership. My husband and I have slightly different personalities when it comes to money too. I grew up with a very real fear of not having it; my husband never had that. I don’t think he’s ever really stared down the reality of getting super uncomfortable to save.
We’ve made some life decisions as if we had a safety net even when we didn’t. Like changing jobs or leaving jobs when there was money on the table or moving (an expensive move can easily wipe you of thousands of dollars). There was a big conversation around whether or not we were going to have a wedding, but we decided to do it and it was amazing. In that sense, I suppose there were things we could have done differently. But I don’t really regret the way we prioritized.
The weird thing about debt is…if you ignore it, it can almost feel like it doesn’t affect your life that much. I think of paying it off like anything else I’d start doing to better myself. Like a new diet or exercise routine or a commitment to water my plants. Adult stuff. None of these things are complicated necessary, they just require a extra time and energy and focus.
We’re not in a bad place right now, but we’re at a point where we need to set a new budget and figure out a more official plan to pay it off so it doesn’t start growing again. There’s always the question of paying it off faster versus having more liquidity or maybe buying property. It’s complicated. It inhibits our flexibility.
The thing with credit card debt is it’s really easy to start and hard to get rid of it. People underestimate how hard it is to get out from under it. You can ignore it for a while but when you tackle it head on, you start to realize it for what it is: this burden that swallows your money month after month. You feel better about yourself when you deal with it, but the actual paying off of the debt is so much more painful than you want it to be.
Photo by Krista Anna Lewis.