Living in Secret Debt

It started after I graduated from college. I made decent money, but I had to wear suits and I needed an apartment and all the things that went with it. Because everybody around me seemed to buy things they wanted, I assumed that's what you were supposed to do. After a long workday, I'd go out to dinner with friends we felt we deserved the break. Then, after dinner, we'd often go shopping or to a movie. If thoughts about money came to mind, I'd think, You're tired. Who cares, charge it!

Within a couple of years, I found myself in major debt. I had 21 maxed-out credit cards and about $25,000 in student loans. Back then, banks didn't clear checks electronically, so I was also floating checks.

I was paying on my credit cards by taking a cash advance on one to make payments on the others. Sometimes I'd get $50 from a cash advance for a $25 payment, and then spend the "extra" $25. I was juggling my finances by keeping my credit card accounts barely current with minimum payments. But my balances kept adding up.

On top of this debt, I had a car payment. When I discovered I needed repairs and didn't have $300 to get the alternator fixed, I bought a new car. It made sense to me at the time. After all, I couldn't get the money for repairs because of my maxed-out credit cards. The car place took my car as a trade-in, and I got a new car for "only" an additional $25 monthly car payment.

Looking back, I didn't think I was living above my means or beyond my income, because I was making the minimum credit card payments. Yet, my total debt was easily between $30,000 and $50,000.

I lived with a lot of secrets. When you're in over your head, you don't want people to know. Instead, you tell them the check will be in the mail and you live, literally, paycheck to paycheck. In those days, you couldn't charge groceries at the grocery store, so I'd eat popcorn and beef jerky because I could charge them at Target and Wal-Mart. I couldn't give money to church or any other charitable causes. My finances were hugely oppressive.

Now I think about what the Bible says in Proverbs 22:7: "The borrower is servant to the lender." Some translations say the borrower is even a "slave" to the lender. That's where I was living in total bondage to my debt.

When you are in serious debt, you feel embarrassment. Or sometimes you feel nothing. If you're having a bad day, you just charge it away. There's a certain amount of depression, and a certain degree of self-absorption that accompanies this kind of debt. You get things to make yourself feel better. I had turned "wants" into "needs." Although I felt guilt and shame in retrospect, at the time I was numb.

At the height of my problem, in June 1988, I met my husband. Early in our relationship, George wanted to talk about money. I didn't understand why it should even be an item for discussion. But George asked me what I did when it came to a budget. We were planning to get married, and he wanted to plan our finances. I was 28 years old and didn't think I had money to budget. I reasoned that people could only budget if they had excess.

My talk with George was humbling. I didn't realize that my habit of moving money around was such a serious issue. And I didn't realize the extent of my problem until I wrote down all of my account balances. Together, George and I cut up all of my credit cards. I sobbed. I remember him saying, "We've got to decide what you are willing to do to get out of this debt." I knew he was right, but it wasn't easy. He created a budget that I agreed with, and we prayed together for God's help. I moved out of my $525 a month apartment and rented a room from a lady at work for $75 a month. This was also a very humbling experience.

My rent savings and the additional savings gained from following my budget added up, and I began to pay off my debt. After George and I got married, we worked from the same budget together. It took about four or five years to pay off my total debt.

We still create and review a budget together every month. We look at what we spent the previous month and what we plan to spend on budgeted items. If we eat out, it's budgeted. We pay cash for wants, which include vacations, and we faithfully tithe every month.

We have one credit card. The rule in our house is, if it's not paid off every month, it's cut up. The bottom line: You cannot spend more than you make. That's the only way you can stay out of debt. You must be willing to sacrifice, and you have to be committed. It's not easy when everything out there is available for the buyer.

Now, I'm a smart shopper. I still love clothes, shoes and girl stuff; the difference is that these are now budgeted items. I shop the sales at Dillards, and the same day I go to Goodwill.

Because of my previous experience with debt, I have a built-in accountability relationship with my husband. We continue to take classes and seminars and do Bible studies on financial management and stewardship. I also read everything I can on the subject. Sometimes we ask for financial advice from friends we respect both financially and spiritually.

We make hard choices. I would really love to have my nails done every two weeks; instead, we paid off our mortgage three months ago and we're planning to retire early. I want my life to reflect a conscious decision: living to serve God and not to serve money. So I work at being satisfied with where I am and what I have and don't have. I continually pray that God will keep me content and accountable.

I've used my struggle to help others. I now work for a non-profit organization that teaches people how to get out of debt. Many people are hurting financially, and I understand what they're going through. I could not and will not pass judgment on anyone. It's a great privilege to give somebody the tools they need to get out of debt. It's an incredible experience to gain your financial freedom. I know.

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