How The Long Road to Building Self-Confidence Got (and Kept) Me Out of Debt

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This is a guest post by Jon Dulin

Back in college, and a few years afterwards, I got myself into debt. In total, it was a little more than $10,000 worth. While I was indeed overspending, that wasn’t the real problem I had. The real problem was much deeper than that, as I’ll explain below. My guess is that for most others that have dug out of debt and stayed out of debt ever since, they probably had to do some digging like I did. If you find yourself on the opposite end, where you get out of debt just to find yourself right back in the same place a few years (or months) later, my story will show you why you need to start digging too, because I was in your shoes at one point. Here is my story and how I overcame my debt.

The Start Of My Debt

My debt started my sophomore year in college. Up until this point I was good with my credit card. I only bought a few things here and there each month and I made sure I paid the balance off in full at the end of every month.

But my sophomore year, I met a girl and she became my first girlfriend. I was a shy guy and actually had low self-esteem even though I didn’t realize it at the time. They say you have to love yourself before you can love someone else, and I can attest that this is true.

I didn’t love myself and couldn’t imagine someone loving me. As a result, I bought my girlfriend gifts all the time and took her out to a lot dinners. In essence, I was buying her love. It’s the only way I could think she would love me.

When I went home that summer, I was a few thousand dollars in credit card debt. I got a summer job at a manufacturing plant and instead of saving my summer income to pay for books and other expenses for the upcoming year, I paid off my debt. At the time, this seemed like the smart move. In reality it was a mistake. When I went back for my junior year, I barely had enough money for books for the fall semester.

I quickly ended up back in debt, both from not being able to pay for books and other living expenses, but also because I kept up my spending to buy the love of my girlfriend.

The following summer, I made sure to not pay off my debt. I instead made the payments each month and saved my summer income. When I went back to college, I had enough money to pay for books and living expenses. The other good news, money-wise at least, was that my relationship ended, so I wasn’t accumulating more debt.

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The Ups and Downs of Debt Repayment

After graduation, I moved back home and started looking for a job. Unfortunately, the country was in a recession at the time (this was back in 2001-2002) and I was unable to find one. I thought after graduation I would move home, find a six-figure salary job and be on the road to riches. When this didn’t materialize, I got depressed.

To help me feel better, I began spending money. The problem was that I didn’t have any money to really spend. This was the catch-22 that was my life at the time. Buying things made me feel better, but it also put me into more debt. Additionally, the high that I would get from buying things started to wear off faster and faster. This meant I had to buy more and more stuff.

At one point, I finally had had enough. I decided I was going to take control of my finances. I found an offer to transfer my balance to a new credit card that had a 0% offer on it. I was approved for the new card and transferred my entire balance. With relief from interest accruing, I could focus on getting a job and getting out of debt.

Sadly, not only did I not find a job, but I also kept spending. I soon found myself with credit card debt on two cards. As time passed, I got tired of my debt again and decided to take control of it.

I opened up a third card with another 0% transfer offer. I transferred the new balance on my first card to this new card. Since I never addressed the real issue of my overspending, I started to spend on my first credit card again.

My Ah-Ha Moment

A few months after opening my third credit card, I had my light bulb moment. I was out shopping for a new jacket when I asked myself why I was buying a jacket. I already had two, one of which I rarely ever wore. I put the jacket down and started doing a lot of thinking on the drive home.

I got honest with myself. I was depressed because my life wasn’t turning out as I thought it would and that I also had low self-esteem. It wasn’t easy or fun to admit these things to myself, but I had to do it if I ever wanted to be debt free.

Over the following weeks, I worked on myself. I also took all of the clothes and electronics I bought and piled them on my bed and took a picture. I then put that picture in my wallet as a reminder whenever I was about to buy something. It made me think first and helped me to not give in to a short-term high.

Digging Out Of The Debt

While working on myself, I found a part-time job. This helped improve my self-esteem a bit and allowed me to start paying down my debt. While there are various ways to pay down debt, I took the smallest balance first snowball approach so that I could keep my motivation high.

After a few more months, I landed a full-time job. Instead of quitting the part-time position, I kept it and worked nights and weekends. The entire paycheck from my part-time job went towards debt pay down. I also took a good chunk from my full-time job to pay down my debt as well.

I kept the part-time job for close to a year, which was also the amount of time it took me to completely dig out of debt. In all, I paid off a little more than $10,000 in debt.

Lessons Learned

The biggest lesson I learned, and what I hope others reading this take away is that if you want to get out of debt, you first have to get honest with yourself. Many times your “overspending” problem is really an issue that is much deeper than that. No matter how many times you vow to get out of debt, you will be stuck in the cycle of paying down debt or maybe even getting out, only to find yourself back in debt a few years later.

I thought I was smart about credit cards and personal finance. I knew that paying credit card interest wasn’t smart and I took measures to not pay it. But I still found myself in more debt because I never addressed the real problem.

You have to dig deep inside and come to peace with whatever issues you have. In some cases, you might need to get professional help. For me, I had to see a therapist for some help with my self-esteem. While I wasn’t a fan of paying for this, I knew that it was the best thing I could do.

The other lesson I learned was to not give up, even when you fail. Note that I said when you fail, not if. You are going to fail. Accept this. We are not perfect. When I look at failing, I don’t see it as me not being good enough or smart enough. Instead I see it as me stepping out of my comfort zone to try something new so that I can grow and become a better person. When you change your approach to failing, you will see it is not a bad thing, but rather something that will allow you to learn and grow and be a better person.

It’s been over 10 years now and I am proud to say that I have not gotten into credit card debt since. I firmly believe this is because I got to the root cause of my debt in the first place and solved that problem. It wasn’t easy at the time, but it was worth it. Had I not gotten real with myself, I would probably still be struggling with credit card debt today.

Jon DulinJon Dulin writes at Money Smart Guides, a personal finance blog that helps readers overcome their debt and start investing for their future. There you will learn that to be successful with getting out of debt and investing you only have to follow a few basic steps.

Image credit: Nicolas Raymond

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