How The Budget Fashionista Got Out of Debt

The Budget Fashionista’s Annual “Being Broke Ain’t Cute” Series features tips and advice to help you improve your personal financial health. For more personal finance information, please visit our Financial Health Series.

The #1 question I get asked the most is how I was able to get my financial house in order and get out of deep debt.

First, how I DID NOT get out of debt:

No fairy godmother with a magic wand that magically erases credit bureau databases.
No Hedge-fund sugar daddy (I wish )
No publishing clearinghouse folks showing up at my door with a bouquet of grocery store bought flowers and a five foot check for $100k.
No, quick easy fixes. Just lots of hard work and honesty.

Here’s how I got out of debt:

1. Stop Spending. I know this sounds simple, but it’s probably the most effective thing you can do to. I mean, don’t spend a thing. Don’t make excuses for spending. Just stop. Cut up or freeze your credit cards and give yourself a cash allowance. Take that tax refund check and SAVE IT. Vacation in your local state park instead of the Bahamas.

2. Admit You have a problem. Admitting that I was broke was the hardest thing for me to do. Here I was, an Ivy League educated professional woman, unable to pay my bills. But the first step was not only admitting I had a problem to myself, but to my family and friends. Rather than spending thousands of dollars on plane tickets to visit our hometowns, the hubby and I made everyone come visit us. We held gatherings in our home, rather than going out to restaurants. We called our families on weekends using our cell phones (see #7 below), rather than using a home phone.

3. Realize Money, most likely, IS NOT the issue. In college and grad school I had a safety net, so frankly I spent without thinking. Very stupid. VEEERRRY STUPID.  Later, I was a newlywed living in a city I didn’t like, without any friends or a support system, and dealing with the death of my father. I was stressed, depressed, and obsessed- and all of this came out in my spending habits. You must gain clarity in your life first, before you can gain clarity in your finances.

4. Face the Facts. Gather 3 months of bank statements AND credit card statements and record everything you’ve spent for the past three months in a basic Excel spreadsheet. Don’t have a computer? Use a notebook. Don’t have MS Office? Then use the very free Google Docs Spreadsheet. When I first did this exercise, I was shocked to discover how much I spent on stuff like 411 calls on my cell phone and pomegranate juice ($45 a month!!).

5. Let go of the Princess Myth. Look, so many of us have bought into what I call the “princess myth”- that we all deserve to have every material thing we’ve ever wanted- a luxury car, designer clothes, a rich husband, etc, etc, etc. I blame the media for shoving this down our throats through shows like MTV’s Sweet Sixteen. Really think about what really makes you happy. Most likely it’s something that doesn’t cost you a penny financially.

6. Create a Needs vs. Wants list. Take your sheet with want you spent during the past three months and place them in either the Needs- things you need to survive, like your car, electricity, gas, and food or Wants- things you could eliminate immediately and still be able to survive like- cable TV, trips to the hair dresser, your BMW, and in my case, pomegranate juice. Get rid of everything, but one or two small things on the wants list. Why get rid of everything but one? You do need to have some fun in your life and I found when I tried to get rid of everything, I became very depressed, which made me spend even more.

7. Move. No seriously. The hubby  and I moved to a “questionable” neighborhood in Newark, NJ. Yes, THAT Newark. The result? Our living expenses was cut by almost 2/3rd. So, we used that 2/3rds to pay stuff down and save. When we decided to move to New York City, we spent months looking for a place that was below our means. The result was a 2 bedroom rent stabilized apartment, 2 blocks from Central Park that costs about $500 less per month than comparable apartments.

8. Live below your means. This is the reason why so many of us are in trouble. Keeping up with the Jones, means you may end up as broke as the Jones. You don’t need a luxury car and in some places you might not need a car period. You don’t need a flat screen TV or, unless you work from home and/or work in a field that requires one, you don’t need a computer- most local libraries have computer rooms with free internet. Take a peek at that needs list and see if there’s a way you can change or reduce the level of the needs. For example, we had two cars and we got rid of the one with the higher insurance and monthly payment. The result? Over $700 month saved in gas, monthly payments, insurance, even though we can afford a luxury car. We got rid of the home phone we never use and make all of our phone calls after 7pm on the weekdays and during the weekends.

9. Become financially literate. I mean read EVERYTHING you can get your hands on. Suze Orman books, Motley Fools newsletters, you name it.  Read, read, read, and then read some more. Watch CNBC, especially shows like Donny Deustch’s the “Big Idea” and, if you can stand it, Jim Cramer’s show.  Learn the difference between good debt (student loans and a mortgage you can afford) and bad debt (credit cards and crazy mortgages).

10. Remember This Too Shall Pass. Being broke isn’t the end of the world, especially if you’re actively addressing the issue. It’s often in times of great adversity, that great ideas are developed. Like The Budget Fashionista.