I knew a person who came from extremely humble beginnings. Growing up, he didn’t have that much. Kids made fun of the clothes he wore, and when he got into high school he worked evenings and weekends just to have a little spending money. Neither of his parents had a college degree, so education wasn’t much of a priority. He graduated from high school and decided to join the Army.
This was the first time he saw real money. He took home about $700 every two weeks. His clothes, housing, and food were paid for by the military, but he had trouble saving money and would always find himself with nothing in the bank. After about a year in the Army, he got his first credit card. Before his signature on the back of the credit card was dry, he’d maxed it out.
Even though he lived paycheck to paycheck with a maxed out credit card and no money in savings, he was promoted to private first class. A higher rank meant a higher salary, which gave him the opportunity to get another credit card—and he soon maxed that out.
You might be thinking that he would eventually catch on, but the cycle continued to repeat. He would get promoted, make more money, get more credit, and max out his credit cards. As long as he could make the minimum payments, he thought had a handle on his debt. He would always tell himself that the next time he got promoted, he would have more money to pay off credit card debt.
I’m sorry to say that after 12 years in the Army, he left with $32,000 in credit card debt. I’m even sorrier to tell you that this person was me.
I know what it feels like to live paycheck to paycheck and have nothing in savings, a poor credit score, and a mountain of debt. I want to let you know that there is hope if you can follow these four steps:
1. Admit there is a problem. I thought that because my friends had debt, it was OK for me to have debt, too. I had to admit that I had a spending problem—I spent more than I earned. Nobody likes to admit that he or she has a problem, but you have to take responsibility in order for things to get better.
2. Start spending less. What helped me curb my spending was keeping a spending journal. In it, I wrote down exactly where, what, and how much I was spending each day. After doing that for a few weeks, I started keeping more money in my pocket.
3. Build your savings. It might not make a lot of sense, but the only way I was able to get out of debt was to build up my savings. When I first started saving, I would have to use my credit card when an emergency came up. After I built my savings and those emergencies reared their ugly head, I was able to take care of them without resorting to credit cards.
4. Make a plan and be flexible. That’s not a mistake. Don’t make a plan and then stick to it no matter what. There were times I felt I would never be able to pay off all of my debt because things would happen and throw me off track. I had to be flexible and adjust my plan.
What worked for me was making minimum payments on my debts with the lowest interest rates, and paying more towards the cards with the higher interest rates. You could also start by paying off the card with the lowest balance and working up from there. The only wrong way to approach paying off your debt is to not have a plan at all.
Steve Repak, CFP®, is the author of Dollars & Uncommon Sense: Basic Training for Your Money.
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