Recently, I cut up my two credit cards, started paying for (most) things with cash only, and made a BUDGET — like, a budget that I actually use. How boring am I? Stay with me here, because I think some folks out there in a similar life stage to mine might need to hear this.
Cutting the credit cards was the weirdest, and hardest, part of my money transformation. When I was a sophomore in college, I opened an envelope from the bank that I thought was a statement for my debit card, which was probably over-drafted. Inside, I found instead a shiny credit card, accompanied by a note saying I had 700 whole dollars I was allowed to spend.
Boy, did I spend.
At first, I was like, “K, I need to be smart about this. People wrack up credit card debt faster than they can say ‘Nordstrom anniversary sale.’ I’m just gonna use this on big things and emergencies.” Riiiiight.
Before I knew it, groceries, bar tabs, and sushi rolls were all helping to build my credit score. By Christmas, I had spent more than $500 with my special new wallet addition, and for the holiday that year, I asked my dad if, rather than any presents, he’d pay off my credit card. It could be considered my birthday present, too, if he wanted. I was so embarrassed, and totally riddled with anxiety that I had spent so much on a credit card I never even applied or asked for.
There began my struggle with credit cards and what I quickly learned was not “free money.” To be totally truthful, though, it was kind of a rush. I paid off that big balance with my dad’s help, and the next week, I got a letter in the mail: Surprise! My balance allotment had doubled. I now had $1,400 I could spend!
What that does to a 20-year-old’s brain is. not. healthy.
I told myself, yet again, the card could only be used for major expenses — and, yet again, my $10-an-hour, 15-hours-a-week job didn’t quite get me to the end of the month, and I needed groceries. And maybe a new pair of shoes. Oh, and it was this or that friend’s birthday, and I couldn’t NOT get her a gift. That would be rude!
So, again (and again and again) I beefed up that number. And every time I would scrape up some cash to pay it down, I’d get the adrenaline-rush-inducing letter telling me that I could spend more (and more and more). Credit cards companies are pretty sick, y’know? I blamed not making enough money, but really, both in college and afterward, I was simply living outside of my means. No excuses about it.
Then, there was a time last year when I was checking out at Old Navy (which is also known as “Audrey’s Weakness”) and they told me I’d get 50 percent off my total if I signed up for, and used, their credit card for my purchase. “You can pay it off right away, and it’s worth the discount.” I bit. But, I also actually did pay that card off right away, unlike my trusty Visa. I wasn’t going to go down in flames, again, for my true love, Old Navy. Meanwhile, I probably had a balance of a couple grand on my other credit card.
Who has two thumbs and WAS NOT SMART WITH MONEY. NOT SMART AT ALL. (Me.)
A few months ago, my church presented an opportunity to go through Dave Ramsey’s personal finance program, Financial Peace University, in a small-group setting. From about the time I started using a credit card, my mom has been begging me to sign up for this program. (She also thinks she’s Dave Ramsey’s BFF, but that’s another story.) I kept thinking, “I GET IT. I need to pay off the card. I know, I know, I know. But I don’t have the money right now, and I just need to make more.” Blah. Blah. Blah.
So I never signed up for the program, until September this year. As a people pleaser, and because I LOVE my church, I figured I could both appease my mom and get to know some other people at Cross Point in an FPU small group. Badaboom. I was never going to cut any credit cards or use an envelope system for paying in cash or anything crazy like that, though. I mean, c’mon. That’s ridiculous.
Well, well, well. How a few months of intensive money talk can change a gal.
I can’t explain EVERY detail of what I have learned in the class, since it’s a 9-week program for crying out loud, but I will say that if you struggle with money in any way, or even if you want to learn how to invest and save smarter, this is so your answer. Some of the most important takeaways for me were:
- Create an emergency account with at least $1,000 that you DO NOT touch, except for emergencies (unexpected medical, car, pet expenses). Making this fund allowed me to quit relying on credit cards in case of emergency. Pretty much anything major that happens to me in my stage of life can be covered by $1,000, and the goal is to eventually have 3 to 6 months of living expense in this fund to cover seriously awful surprises.
- If you have zero control, or tons of debt, with credit cards, cut them. Shred them. Make a sweet, little goodbye-to-debt bonfire with them. You will soon learn to live within your means, especially with the help of…
- A budget. MAKE ONE. I use the “Every Dollar” app, so I can track my expenses, as well. It helps so much to see where your income needs to go every month — i.e., rent, bills, groceries, debts — and then where you want the rest of it to go — i.e., eating out, shopping, travel funds. It’s actually pretty empowering and, dare I say, fun?
- Pay in cash for whatever you can. I know, it sounds archaic. But getting cash out for groceries or Target (especially Target — curse you and your $1 section, Target!) makes you feel the money leaving your wallet in a more, well, palpable way. It’s a little more painful. When Dave Ramsey talked about this, I thought it was a little hokey… ’til I tried it myself. It sucks way more to give away a wad of cash than to swipe a card. Trust me. Try it.
I can imagine my mom right now with her morning pot of coffee, sitting at her desk and laughing joyously that I finally get it. I do, mom! No more asking you or dad for money to pay off my credit cards for Christmas! Whoop, whoop. Happy holidays to all, indeed.
If you have any questions about FPU or how to start making smart, simple changes in your own financial world, I’ll try my best to answer them. Shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment here or on my social media handles (IG, Twitter, & Snapchat: @audswan).