I have never in my life been able to save money, no matter how much I made. I have always been either (1) in my 20s too broke to have anything at all, (2) in my 30s not paying attention when I was for a nearly a decade a millionaire thanks to an inheritance or (3) post 2008 catching up to pay for everything I spent the month or months or years before. And that slowly and inexorably led to being in debt to the tune of $661,000.
I’ve now got my debt down to $641,000 but more importantly I’ve got $13,000 in a college fund and about $400 in another savings account and a bit over $8,000 to pay for the rest of the coming month’s expenses, having already just now paid nearly $5,000 toward credit cards.
Yeah, those are some big numbers, but the point is that I’ve turned things around. Instead of playing catch up, I’m ahead of the curve. Even if your income is a tenth of mine, you can do the same.
The key is budgeting — planning, before every month begins, what is going to happen to every single dollar, rather than wondering where all those dollars went. (Thank you, Dave Ramsey.) The integral part of this is patience, not putting every bit of money to past debt but setting enough aside to have money for upcoming expenses.
I’m a scholar, academic, brainiac, etc. but this was such a revelation to me: keep money in the bank to pay cash for the month ahead. Hello!!!!
In a recent post I laid out three steps I need to take to get out of debt:
- Whenever I get a big splash of consulting income (about four times a year) or a tax return, push it to paying off debt.
- Every month after paying off bills and before paying any debt, leave enough money in our checking account to have on hand for the month’s spending needs, from groceries to music lessons to the yard guy to out-of-network doctors bills.
- Then put the remaining amount toward paying off the cards.
I’ve been doing one and three for years. But two? It never even occurred to me. Since way back, when we had some inheritance, we got in the habit of paying for everything with credit cards and then at the end of the month paying off every penny. Credit cards were simply a convenience. We were what’s known as transactors, though we kept dipping into that inheritance to pay off the cards every month. But then after 2008, that inheritance was gone, except for some retirement accounts.
And so we turned from being transactors into being revolvers, carrying debt that each month got bigger. Whenever I had an influx of income, whether from paychecks or consulting, I’d put as much as I could toward paying off the cards, leaving hardly anything at all in cash for groceries and other spending that month.
Cue the crashing sound of a ten-car pile-up an an icy interstate.
I was so intent on trying to pay things off that I didn’t leave enough for now—for not borrowing now.
On other things, I’m pretty smart. I’ve written lots of books and articles and given keynote speeches around the world. But on money I’m as stupid as can be.
So now, no matter how much I want to see that credit card debt drop in record time, I’ve started a little emergency fund and I’ve left more than enough money in the checking account to see us through the end of the month. Then with the next paycheck I’ll go back through steps one through three, and the next month I’ll do it again.