My own debt story

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I was recently asked about my own debt story and what the actual turning point for me was. It was hard to think about as it’s an area of my life that I’ve kind of pushed to the far corners of my mind. It’s a little embarrassing I guess, but also, it’s a long time ago and I’ve grown so much since then.

People are generally happy to talk about how much money they have and all their successes, but people seldom chat about their money mistakes, problems and general experiences. These are where the valuable lessons are!

It’s good to share, so here’s my story.

If you willing to share your story, message me and lets’ see what we can arrange.

How my debt story starts

I grew up in a middle to lower class family and was most certainly not used to any form of my luxuries. And as expected, when I started working and earning a salary (at age 18) I wanted to buy things.

I didn’t splurge as I’d grown up understanding the value of money, but as you get used to certain things it becomes easier and easier to spend. It’s a slow cycle of spending a little more and a little more.

My first car - a VW Citi Golf
My first car – a VW Citi Golf

I remember buying my first car; I bought a brand new VW Golf off the showroom floor! Obviously very exciting as I’d been taking the bus from Rosebank to Joburg CBD each day for over a year. That however was my first debt which I remember some people telling me was so good and others (like my parents) cautioning me. I was only 20 and that’s where it all started!

Along with that (or shortly after perhaps) came the credit cards, store cards and overdraft. It was all so easy. I matriculated in 1994 which is way before the current credit act and banks and stores literally posted you credit & store cards which you simply had to activate. You didn’t need to apply for them, they just arrived in the post. You also didn’t need much (or any) credit history as companies were literally throwing credit at you.

Crazy and scary when I look back now! How on earth can you expect any 20-year old to manage their finances when they’re been given debt! The credit act has made it much harder to get credit now, but in all honesty it’s still pretty easy and it is equally challenging for millennials to deal with debt as it was for me.

Worst thing is that even though I had all this debt I actually felt good about myself and felt that I had “made it” and that I was “cool”. Unbelievable when looking back.

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Ground zero – when it all tumbled down

I somehow managed to keep my cards and debt in check for a long time. I was in more debt than I needed but I managed to keep it at a level at which I was comfortable and wasn’t too stressed about it. It was’t healthy, but I was coping somehow.

It all came to a crashing halt though in 2004 when I moved to Cape Town (from Joburg). It was a good move for my career but I had to pay for the removal truck, deposit on the new place as well as a month or twos rent upfront, and driving down to Cape town. I owned a house in Joburg which I decided to rent but I hadn’t found anyone yet and still had to pay the instalments. In fact there were many expenses and when added to my existing debt things changed drastically and quickly!

I got to Cape Town with my two dogs and moved into my new place and literally didn’t have a cent to my name. Like literally!

My credit cards were maxed out, my bank account and overdraft was maxed out and I had nothing in my wallet. So that first night I had to call on friend and invite myself over for dinner. Embarrassing yes; but if you don’t tell anyone then it seems better.

And I obviously didn’t tell anyone about my situation but had to borrow money from a friend (with some weird excuse) and wait it out until payday.

That was my turning point; the moment I realised a few things. I was earning a good salary and yet didn’t have money for food. I owned a house (in Joburg), a car and had some investments, but I actually had no money (no cash flow) for essentials.

Things had to change and they had to change fast!

My turnaround strategy

I wasn’t reading finance blogs or books back then but it’s not that hard to come up with a plan; especially the you’re desperate. If you’re able to admit that you’ve made mistakes and you realise the situation you’re in, you can figure out what needs to be done to survive.

I started off with a spreadsheet where I listed every single debt I had and I prioritised them firstly by overdue accounts (ie ones that just had to be paid) and then by the smallest and easiest ones to pay. I also listed every debit order and deduction off any of my cards and wrote down what it was for and found out whether I could cancel things.

I then set myself a crazy goal of just getting my cashflow fixed and that required one month of spending only on the absolute absolute essentials. It was a month of skipping meals along with super budget meals. There was no going out, no buying of anything and absolutely no fun. LOL It was tough, it really was!

But once you create a bit of breathing room in your finances and have a little cashflow it’s easier to set a budget and make a plan to pay off the debts.

So month 1 was focused on the overdue debts and saving some money that would be my spending money for month 2.

In month 2 I could then spend the money I had saved (that was then my entire budget) and the rest of my salary went to paying debts and saving a little for month 3. And so you go on and it gets a little easier each month as you get into a cycle and get to know your budget and finances very well.

I can’t stress enough how tight the budget was and how little I managed to survive off! I wish I still had the spreadsheet so that I could see how much money I owed and how long I took to pay it. I remember it well but clearly deleted it all when I cancelled my debt.

I also canceled every account once it was paid off. Until after a year or so I had no more debt (besides my home loan) and no more plastic cards. I actually went a little extreme and even cancelled all my loyalty programs as I wanted no cards in my wallet, no temptations and no marketing material. I was a “cash only” guy and started a new life.

What I think about debt now

That year or so paying off debt and dealing with creditors when debit orders bounced was seriously stressful and coming to realise how terrible you’ve managed your money is not fun!

But, transforming your finances is incredible and empowering!

I refuse to get into any debt ever again.

I do have a home loan though but I thought long and hard about it. I sold my house in Joburg and bought a small place in Cape Town. But, the debt is manageable and I am focusing on paying off my home loan by the end of next year (2020) and thus pay it off in a little under 5 years from purchasing it.

But other than that I bought my last car for cash, go on overseas holidays for cash, paid for my wedding upfront and only buy things when I can afford to.

How life changes when you’re debt-free

Things are very different once you’ve decided to not take on any debt. Firstly, your whole salary is yours to do with as you please. You can plan forward by saving for special upcoming events, invest money, enjoy some treats and do it all within your budget.

Another huge factor though is that it gives you more options. Once you know exactly what your minimal living expenses are, you can make decisions regarding your job, travel, side-hustles, etc. If you can minimise the amount of money you need each month and have no debt, you’ll suddenly find you have far less stress and more time to think!

How to start paying off YOUR debt?

Do what I did and start by listing each and every debt you have and prioritise them by the overdue ones (you are being phoned or blacklisted and must pay) and then by the smallest (easiest) debt to pay.

If you see that things are really out of control then you should chat to a debt councillor and get help!

And then you need to set up a budget and just be super strict with yourself! It’s no fun, it’s not cool, it’s hard and tough but you need to sort out your situation!

2 comments

  1. Thank you for sharing. I imagine many of us on the path to “taking charge of our money” have similar stories. Initially I also cut all spending that wasn’t necessary, and it hurt. But you know what, after a time it didn’t hurt so much. I got used to spending less and realized it wasn’t so bad. Sure, I was no longer spending hundreds a month on food out, that I really didn’t enjoy, or buying so much stuff I didn’t have space to keep it. What I was doing was saving up for things that meant a whole lot more to me. When an expense comes up that is not budgeted, I don’t worry, I have been saving for it, or if necessary, have an emergency fund to take care of it. I no longer spend everything on things that don’t matter. I’m liking life so much more with money in the bank. Today I have options, and choices.

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