Lived Through This

The Art of Getting Into, and Out of, $15,000 in Credit Card Debt

After overspending the advances on my books, I needed a strategy

JJust looking at this title makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and my stomach roil. That said, merely wanting to puke when I declare my debt is progress. Six months ago, I couldn’t have typed that sentence, especially not for publication. I wouldn’t have even said it to myself, let alone to others. My debt was something I stared at in horror every time I opened my bank’s online interface, before I averted my eyes.

Out of sight, out of mind, right? Of course not. My debt was always there, like a funky mole between my shoulder blades that I ignored because it terrified me. I was afraid to get it diagnosed, to deal with it, and to face the consequences. How had I let it get to this point? What was wrong with me?

In other words, the story of my debt is a shame story. And like all shame stories, it’s not really about the concrete fact of owing money. Credit cards can be paid off. Debt can be erased. Facts inform me that I am not alone in having debt, either. And yet, in my inability to confront this issue, I demonstrated that such facts didn’t matter. In my mind, my debt was unique and personal. It proved terrible things about me (weakness, stupidity, and naïveté, to start). Conversely, if I were smarter and better, I’d never have gotten into debt. My debt was my fault, and my faults wrapped together to prove I was not only “bad with money” but maybe a bad person, too.

I based these thoughts on my assumption that I, of all people, should not be in debt. I have no student loan debt because my parents paid for my (many) degrees. I have a good job as a professor. I have no children, nor a partner, so my money is all mine. No one in my life suddenly needs braces, crashes cars, or gambles the farm after a three-day bender. In turn, this means my debt is also all my own. There is no one else to blame.

It wasn’t earning money that got me in trouble — it was everything I believed about money and myself.

How I got into debt

In 2009, I suddenly made a lot of money — from writing, of all things! Then I overspent it, believing this “magic money” would keep appearing. My story, in some ways, is not dissimilar to that of Heather Demetrios, who mowed through quite a large chunk of money after signing a book contract, leaving her worse off than when she started. Like Heather, I earned tidy advances on the first books I ever wrote (all fantasy novels). I thought magnificent piles of money would continue to manifest, in perpetuity. In other words, I assumed an advance was more like a salary, something I could depend on. I was very wrong.

Like Ms. Demetrios, I held misguided beliefs about what a writing career would look like. (If you’re wondering how not to make these mistakes as an author, read Chuck Wendig’s wonderful response to Demetrios’ post.) That said, while my unusual circumstances compounded the particular mistakes I made with money, publishing didn’t ruin me. Getting a pot of surprise money, seemingly from the ether, only exacerbated my pre-existing unhealthy relationship with my finances. I would have been in a similar boat, if not the same boat, no matter what. It wasn’t earning money that got me in trouble — it was everything I believed about money and myself.

My money story

I first started to realize something was wrong with my internalized narrative about money when I read Kate Northrup’s book about the psychology behind our relationship with wealth, Money, A Love Story. Everything changed when I answered one of the book’s many questions about my spending habits and the impulses behind those habits. In response, without thinking about it, I wrote, “I can always make more money.” I stopped, astonished at what I’d written. It was a lovely thought, but on what planet did it resemble my reality? At the time, I was working toward earning tenure, so all my energy was devoted to my salaried position. I wasn’t writing fiction, which was the only place I could pick up some side income. So where the hell did this voice come from, telling me to trade actual facts for this vague, Dream Board-esque fantasy of money falling from the sky?

Then, I visited my family for a holiday. By then, I was starting to tackle my money shame by — gasp! — being honest. I told my parents about the book I was reading, how I wanted to confront my finances, and how I wasn’t making enough money to live as I wanted to. (That was my belief at the time, which has since proven completely inaccurate). My mom, only half-listening, merely replied, “Well, I can always make more money.”

The voice she used? It was the same voice I’d heard in my head when I’d answered that question.

That was the moment I realized that what I believed about money — what it said about me, my place in society, my value — didn’t come from me. My logical, thinking brain, which had read about economics, society, and culture, knew one set of things about money. It knew that money doesn’t bring happiness. It knew wealth is not an indicator of value. It knew the stuff we buy with money is important to us mostly because we’ve been manipulated by marketing departments.

But there was another part of my brain at work, too. That part was playing out what it had absorbed, sponge-like, from its lived experience. It was reactive, made up of all the things I’d been trained to do, think, feel, and see. It was a mash-up of my parents’ and extended family’s views about money, all floating in a soup of cultural expectations and focused on a version of “success” I’d never consciously accepted as my own — and yet, it defined so many of my choices.

My mom, like a lot of parents, had very specific goals for her children. One of them was that we wouldn’t have to worry about money like she had. It was a beautiful goal, but it made me absorb a lot of unhealthy ideas about money — like the assumption that “worrying about it” was bad. Or that being unable to buy something at any moment meant I was a failure. Or that living beyond my means should be impossible, if I were genuinely successful.

This meant I hated saying “no” to things I couldn’t really afford, but could put on a credit card. I could pay the credit card later, after all. What mattered most, in the moment, was acting like I was successful and didn’t have to worry about money.

I am not blaming my mother for my debt. She didn’t perpetuate this mindset on purpose and she’s dealing with her own passel of issues, passed down from her own family. And in finally opening up about my debt, I’ve learned that inherited money issues are common. I have a friend whose parents blatantly control both of their daughters through money. Another friend has huge amounts of student loan debt, partially because she grew up so poor that her parents encouraged her to take on as many loans as possible. To them, being eligible for a loan meant success.

Our parents love us, they want to do right by us, and none of what we’re dealing with in terms of credit options would have been available to them as young people. It wasn’t until 1974 that unmarried women could even get a credit card without a male cosigner. College loans weren’t privatized until the ’90s. My parents (born in 1937 and 1942) grew up without most of the tools subsequent generations could use to get themselves into financial trouble. By contrast, I grew up with every sales clerk offering me discounts if I opened a credit card. For those I did open, I was constantly offered higher lines of credit for no obvious reason, which I gladly accepted to fund things like “research trips” (i.e. spending entire summers in London). Now that I’m healthier both with my money and how I view myself in terms of my finances, I realize it’s a miracle how little I owe, given how much credit I was offered based on a modest salary.

How I changed my story

It took me a long time to get to a healthier place, both mentally and emotionally. My road started with Kate’s book, which was my first intimation that maybe I wasn’t just “bad with money.” I sat on that for a long time before I took action. Then I started reading other books, like Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover. It’s a bit patriarchal and very rigid, but it did help me stop getting in more debt. Soon, I began paying off what I owed.

I also started playing around with the budgeting apps Mint and YNAB (You Need a Budget), but both defeated me at the time. Part of the problem was that I saw any confusion with the software as proof that I was a disaster with money.

My big shift occurred when I admitted to my friend Sophie Littlefield, genius author and wonderful human bean, that I was “terrible with money.” She simply said, “Oh, honey, that’s easy. We can fix that.” And she did!

She sat me down and we looked at all of my accounts. In that moment, sharing my finances with someone — even a good friend — was terrifying. I felt like I was opening my basement freezer full of chopped up body parts. I was afraid she’d take one look at my bank balance and realize I was a monster. Instead, she said, “Oh, that’s not bad. And look at all the things you’ve done well!”

Tools I love

I was bad for being in debt and I was even worse for being in debt “I shouldn’t be in.” None of these things were true.

Sophie had me create a YNAB account and since then, I’ve become a devotee. I really am not here to shill for YNAB… but if they started a cult I’m not not saying I’d drink their Kool-Aid. In truth, it’s changed my life, and I can’t help but proselytize YNAB wherever I go. Because of Sophie and YNAB, I’ve become someone who will voluntarily talk about her debt. I’m not quite at the telling-random-cashiers-about-it stage, but I’m close.

YNAB has a steep learning curve and a yearly fee, but it doesn’t try to sell me anything and it doesn’t export my data. There are also great videos, podcasts, and tutorials that helped me figure out how to use it best. I found that YNAB works for me unlinked (I don’t have it connected to any of my bank or credit card accounts, so it doesn’t automatically update). Instead, I manually input my earnings, and I manually update any outflow. This makes me conscious of what I’m spending and I find it the most straightforward way to use the technology itself. (I admit I’m luddite-adjacent.)

I’ve only been using YNAB for a few months and I’ve already shaved off a shocking chunk of my debt. I also feel good about money for the first time… ever. I know where my money’s going and what I can spend. I’ve also come to Jesus about some of my nuttier assumptions. For example: I thought that because I was in debt, I shouldn’t spend anything that wasn’t paying off my credit card. This meant I always felt like I was being penalized. Pretty much every month, I’d tell myself “you get nothing,” and then (usually after the midpoint of the month, when I felt flush from all my scrimping) I’d sneakily buy three dresses to prove to myself that I wasn’t entirely downtrodden.

When Sophie first asked me, “What do you want to put in your clothing budget?” I said, “Nothing!” I did this with other categories, too, all of which I considered too luxurious for someone in debt. Sophie finally asked me, “Is this reasonable?” Of course it wasn’t. So I put $50 into Clothing, $30 into Books, and $30 into Movies. None of this negatively impacted my goals in the sense that I was still putting more into debt payoff than I ever had in a month. And, as Sophie reminded me, I could choose not to spend that money. It was merely budgeted.

That next month, I didn’t spend any of that money… until I did. Good friends (like Sophie!) published books, and instead of telling myself I couldn’t buy them, I looked at my budget. There was the money! I bought them. I didn’t overspend. It felt good.

It was the same with my clothing budget. I received some great coupons from my favorite store. Instead of telling myself I didn’t deserve new clothes, I bought my ideal kind of work outfit, which looks both professorial and vaguely piratical. It’s perfect for fall. With my coupons, it cost under my $50 budget. I felt like a badass in that outfit, not least of all because it was budgeted.

The hard lessons

Right now, I’m looking at my debt map (downloaded from Map Your Progress) and a remarkable amount is colored in. Now that I know where my money is going, I’ve discovered I have more disposable income than I realized. Ironically, nowadays I can, once again, “make more money” through writing. But this time around, instead of blasting through these checks, I already have my treats budgeted from my salary. Therefore, all this “funny money” I earn on the side can go toward paying off my debt. And that’s my goal: to pay off my debt as quickly as possible while still feeling like I’m enjoying life.

I recognize how privileged I am to have a good full-time job, a side-hustle that earns me a little suntin suntin, and a house. But I’ve realized something through my now-constant oversharing about my debt shame: the facts about my bank account are really just numbers. I am not a better person for what I have, any more than I am a worse person for what I don’t.

Before, I was ashamed of my debt because I tied my self-worth into my bank accounts. I was a martyr when I didn’t spend but I was enacting #selfcare when I “treated myself” to things I couldn’t afford, like I was a sentient Instagram meme. I was bad for being in debt and I was even worse for being in debt “I shouldn’t be in.” None of these things were true.

We debtors are not monsters. Even if we’ve done dumb things, they were often dumb things that were sold to us as smart. And no matter what mistakes we made in the past, we can fix them in the present.

I hope that wherever you are in your journey, you can start to divorce yourself from your money shame. If you have no money, that doesn’t mean you’re nothing. If you have lots of money, it doesn’t mean you’re all set. If you don’t know where the fuck your money is or how you got into debt, or why you don’t own a house, or why you care that the Joneses have a Benz and you have a Toyota, the answer may start not in budgeting software, but within yourself.

Start here

Start by figuring out your own relationship to money. I found that everything changed for me when I started talking (first with myself and then with others) about my money and my debt. Suddenly, I wasn’t unique. I was just another person with debt, and I had friends (Sophie! Thank you!) who were more than willing to help me figure things out.

After that, you can work toward practicalities, like creating a budget. But I had to stop seeing myself as some kind of money monster before I could get there. We debtors are not monsters. Even if we’ve done dumb things, they were often dumb things that were sold to us as smart. And no matter what mistakes we made in the past, we can fix them in the present.

Feel free to share your money story in the responses if you’d like, and I’m happy to talk more about my own journey if you have questions. We got this!

Novelist and essayist. Director of the MFA in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University. Find out more at http://nicolepeeler.com.

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