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Excuses Are Not Reasons – Why Getting Out of Debt is So Hard
I have struggled with debt for my entire adult life and it has been the source of great anxiety over the years. I’ve let debt hold me back from career opportunity, from relationships, and from allowing myself to simply live a better life. After firmly landing myself in over $25,000 of debt and only being able to pay off less than $2,000 each year if even that, I knew there was a problem. I needed to do something about it. You can follow my debt payoff journey at undomydebt.com. I’ll be paying off $20,000 in 2017 to become debt free.
In fact, I’ve been in debt for nearly as long as I’ve been an adult. I’ve also been trying to pay it off every year since it began but with little success. I found so many reasons why I wasn’t able to pay off my debt before. I don’t earn enough money. It’s so expensive where I live. I “need” this. Although each of these reasons is true, they are not actually reasons. More on that in a bit.
Let’s start at the beginning.
My childhood is filled with happy memories of warm summers with family vacations and chilled winters with heaps of presents under the tree. I grew up in a middle-class family and raised by loving parents who worked incredibly hard. My parents owned their own business and built it from scratch. They put in long hours which meant they often worked late.
Because my parents worked late, I can recall weeks where we ate out in restaurants four or five nights in a row because my parents were too tired to cook. While this sounds pretty great, I learned during my teenage years that eating out was “normal” when it is not. I took this skewed impression with me into my college years and landed myself in debt after a very short while. This debt followed me into my late 30’s and has been one of the most important influences on my life and how I live it.
Looking back, I realize I was incredibly lucky to have been raised in such a great environment. We had a beautiful home in a great neighborhood and always had food in the house. One of my childhood friends fondly remembers all of the snacks we had in the house. I didn’t think much about that until she mentioned it a few weeks ago. We were frequent shoppers at Costco with trips usually about twice a month. Our bill totaled around $400 each trip so there was always plenty to eat. We had everything a kid could want to consume. Soda, chips, Chef Boyardee, pizza pops… all the stuff I loved as a kid and now realize is not all that great to consume in mass quantities like I did. We also had plenty of regular healthy food. We had it pretty good.
Annual family vacations were a staple. Sometimes a plane was involved but usually, there wasn’t. Road trips were a common occurrence as was camping. We had a reserved spot for the entire camping season at a popular lake about an hour away. We would go camping nearly every weekend in the summers and there were a ton of kids to play with. Camping for us included trailers, junk food, and campfires. I had no idea how expensive camping was until I was older and started planning trips with my own money.
As nice as my childhood was, I learned some pretty terrible habits when it came to money. I wasn’t really taught much about it other than being told now and again that I should be saving 10% of my money. Although I earned a really great allowance, I was never taught to actually save it. I never had to save up for anything so I don’t think my brain made the connection that in real life (re: adulthood) I would need to accumulate money to pay for the things I wanted. Acquiring my first credit card made the “have it now” lifestyle I had become acquainted with in my teen years so incredibly simple to carry on with in my 20’s.
Fast forward twenty years and I found myself in a heap of credit card debt and surrounded by anxiety. Years of living the lifestyle I had become used to as a teenager caught up to me quickly. Dining out, traveling, buying things I wanted because I wanted them. I tried unsuccessfully to figure out how to manage my “available” funds without changing anything in my lifestyle. I began to take being broke on as my identity. It would become a self-fulfilling prophecy continuously replenishing itself.
As I hit 35 I started to look at how my life was shaping up and how my parents’ life was turning out. Both were well past 65, working and struggling. I started to look at my own retirement savings, my net worth and my debt. Although my net worth was increasing over time and I could see a small impact, I knew it wasn’t nearly enough. I knew it wouldn’t be enough to fulfill the direction I wanted my life to go; house, adoption, travel, retirement at 60.
I made a decision. I wasn’t getting anywhere with how I was trying to manage my available funds. The fact that I was referring to credit card “room” as available funds at all should have been a warning sign. I needed to change how I managed my money. Since I knew I wasn’t going to be able to quickly increase my salary, my only other option was to reduce my spending and put every single unspent dollar toward debt.
I’m now spending 80% less than I used to on miscellaneous spending which turns out to be a reduction of about $1,200 a month. 54% of my take home pay now goes toward debt. From the point of making this excess payoff plan at the beginning of 2017, I will have been able to pay off over $20,000 in debt in 12 months.
It’s not easy. There are times where I miss the freedom to grab food on the go or to do fun things with friends that cost a lot of money. Is it really freedom though when it wraps you in shackles? I am fully aware though that this is a temporary sacrifice that I need to make now in order to be free in the future.
At the end of this year, I will be debt free for the first time in my adult life. That alone makes it all worth it.
Excuses vs. Reasons
It took me a long time to realize that I was standing, with feet planted firmly, in my own way. All of the reasons I had come up with over the years, while they were factual, were actually excuses. That’s part of growing up and getting older, I suppose. Reasons and excuses to me were synonymous. Now I understand them to be two entirely different things.
Let’s start with the few that I mentioned earlier:
- “I don’t earn enough”. While I didn’t earn enough money to pay off my debt with ease, the actual problem is that I lived a lifestyle that I couldn’t afford. If I were wiser in my 20’s, I would have found ways to reduce how much money I was spending on things I didn’t actually need. I also would have ensured that all of my salary increases over the years went straight and fully toward paying off the debt that I had. This excuse is eliminated by choosing one of two solutions; Reduce your spending or make more money. Sounds pretty simple right? It is.
- “I need this”. Going through a purging project earlier this year really opened my eyes to all of the things I needed at one time and that I was literally just giving away to strangers. So much money was spent on accumulating stuff just because I thought I needed it. The real truth is that I wanted it. Again, maybe that’s the result of growing up and realizing the difference between want and need.
- “It’s so expensive where I live”. Hey, folks, I hear ya! I live in the 3rd most expensive city in the world and it’s tough. Vancouver is ridiculously expensive to live in. It is behind only Sydney and Hong Kong in terms of its financial ridiculousness. Take a second to think about it though. You have control over where you choose to live. You have the option of choosing the level/quality of a home that you are willing to pay for. You can decide if you want to have a roommate. You get to make the decision on what to eat for dinner, whether you make your own or order in. You make the choice of how to entertain yourself and trust me, there are always a ton of things to do that cost zero dollars. If you’re still having a difficult time managing living in an expensive city without going broke, it might be time to reconsider the city that you live in. There are plenty of cities and towns to live that are not expensive to survive and won’t deplete your bank account as soon as you get there.
- “I was never taught about money”. I’ve used this one a lot and I still think about it a lot. I wish I was taught about handling money responsibly as a child. The flip side of this though is that I had all of the resources available to me in my twenties to teach me how to be better with money. I read them all too. In theory, I knew how to be good with money. Reading personal finance blogs has long been a favorite of mine and I have a career that is based around Accounting. It was the actual putting into personal practice that I found difficult. I no longer accept “I don’t know how” as an excuse. The internet, books, even just asking people are all incredibly easy ways to learn more about any topic you want to.
These are just a few of them and there are countless more. Even now I still come across excuses popping into my head and work toward remapping my default thought patterns. It’s an ongoing process but I’m excited by what I continue to learn about myself.
Where to Start
The following three areas are where I began when determining how to start my plan and setting my goal. These areas should help you to identify the direction you want to go and how you can work toward your goal of becoming debt free.
What do you want in life? What is important to you? The answer to these questions should be the guiding force in how you spend your money. Little else should matter. (Hint: Being debt free should be on your list of values as debt will pollute everything else)
You know that old saying “You are what you eat”? Well the same applies to your thoughts. Instead of thinking and eventually identifying as broke, up-end your view so it doesn’t become that self-fulfilling prophecy I mentioned earlier. This isn’t to say that you should act like you’ve got money to spend or even worse spend money you don’t have. Instead, focus on getting out of debt and building wealth. Although the successful end result is action driven, your thoughts drive the action.
Think about all of your reasons as to why you’re in debt. Are they reasons or excuses? This is where complete honesty and even admitting you were wrong is 100% necessary. Separate the excuses from the reasons to identify areas of your life that can be improved. You’ll be able to better determine where you can cut back on spending and find ways to help you learn and grow.
Identifying and setting these excuses aside is powerful. Once you are no longer standing in your own way, your struggle will become much less of a struggle.
Start to think about the excuses you give yourself. Are they reasons or are you holding yourself back? What can you change to make managing your debt and paying it off easier?
Jackie - Undo My Debt
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- Excuses Are Not Reasons – Why Getting Out of Debt is So Hard - May 22, 2017