I was recently asked about my 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 debt story.
If you willing to share your debt story then please get in touch.
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.
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 and the start of my debt story. Most people were very supportive and told me what a good thing it was. Others (like my parents) were cautioning me about debt. I was only 20 years old though, and this was too exciting!
Along with my new car debt (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 “free” 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. I felt that I had “made it” and that I was “cool”. Unbelievable when looking back.
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 wasn’t healthy, but I was coping somehow.
Things 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. Then there was the trip to Cape Town too. Also, 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. There were so 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 with literally not a cent to my name. Like literally!
My credit cards were maxed out, my bank account and overdraft were 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. I 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.
How ironic! 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.
Then came the crazy goal of just getting my cash flow fixed which 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 cash flow, it’s easier to set a budget and make a plan to pay off the debts.
My month-to-month plan
Month 1 was focused on overdue debts and saving some money that would be my spending money for month 2.
Month 2 I could then spend the money I had saved (which was my entire budget) and the rest of my salary went to paying debts and saving a little for month 3.
And so I continued each month.
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. It took over a year though and I remember cancelling each account as it was paid off. I kept at it until 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. That’s when I became a “cash only” guy and started a new life.
I’ve actually written a step-by-step guide on how today off debt. Have a look!
What I think about debt now
That year or so paying off debt and dealing with creditors when debit orders bounced was seriously stressful! Coming to realise how terrible you’ve managed your money is not fun. My debt story taught me valuable lessons and I now know how empowering it is when you fix your finances!
I refuse to get into any debt ever again.
Not everyone can buy a house for cash so I did take out a home loan (which is now paid), 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 was manageable and I focused on paying my home loan instead of investing. Not everyone agrees with that strategy and that’s okay. I did however pay my home loan in under 5 years. I’m happy and stress-free!
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 things are really out of control then you should chat to a debt counselor 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!
Resources to pay off debt
Budgeting 101 – a free budgeting course with videos and a downloadable workbook to get you started with your budget
Help! Where’s my money? – a workbook to help you get an overview of your debt and expenses