How I Wound Up in Debt Without Even Realizing It

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Ah, money. The root of all evil. It can't buy you happiness. Or love. But it can buy food and a house and a car.

Wish I would have realized that when I was younger.

My unhealthy attitude with money started at a very young age. When I was 8-years-old, I discovered that my parents collected all their coins and put them in little jars around the house. They never really did anything with them, so they were just lying there collecting dust. How wasteful, right? So I decided to help them out and put that change to use: by stealing it, riding my bike three miles to the nearest grocery store, and spending every dime on candy. That might also have been the start of my issues with weight, but that's another thing. I learned an important, and very bad, lesson that day: You can "borrow" money, buy stuff you want, and never pay it back!

That lesson would come back to bite me in the ass in about 20 years.

Fast forward to 2002. I'm in college and working part-time. My parents were paying for my tuition and room and board, so I had a little extra dough to spend. In anticipation of a hot date, I decided to go buy a new outfit to impress whatever loser I was meeting from Myspace that week. I found what I was sure was a totally adorbs halter top a la Sarah Michelle Gellar in her Buffy days at Lord & Taylor.

When I go to pay, the very nice lady at the counter asks if I want to save 15% by opening a charge account. You mean to tell me I won't have to spend the cash in my pocket, and you'll give me a discount? What luck! I charged that $22 top on my very first credit card and promptly forgot all about it. Fast forward another four years and I start getting all these calls from collections agencies. What do you mean I owe you over $400 dollars? I've never had a credit card…oh, wait. Yup, that $22 top had turned into $400 thanks to late fees and interest.

And so began my credit issues. You would think I learned after that, but no. It took nearly a decade, about $30,000 in debt, and ruining my husband's credit before I really learned my lesson.

I have done literally everything wrong you can think of with money:

Racked up HUGE amounts of debt for really no good reason? Check.

Failed to save even a penny for hard times? Check.

Lived way above my means at every turn? Check.

Screwed any future retirement plans by cashing out my 401k when I was 32? Check.

It's just been in the last year or two that I've realized how bad it has actually gotten. After every pay check, we have about $20 after bills and groceries. I often sit and wonder why the hell I did this to myself. I'm not a stupid person, but I maybe have some impulse control issues. The end-caps at Target call to me. Do I need any of that stuff? No. Maybe? It's on sale! NO.

So please, for the love of Benjamin Franklin (or soon, Harriet Tubman), heed my warning and learn from my mistakes.

Unless you love having a job and still not having any spending money, don't buy shit you don't need. If you must have it, pay cash.

If you do have to use credit, pay off the bill in full each month or as soon as possible. Don't just pay the minimum balance.

Put money away with every single paycheck and don't touch it! Emergencies happen, you must be prepared.

I know this seems like really basic advice. Everyone knows this stuff. But, to know and to do are two totally different things. The 2015 Federal Reserve SHED report (thrilling reading, btw) indicated that fewer than half of American families could cover a $400 emergency if the need arose.

The first step towards success is setting goals. If you are overspending, stop it. If you have debt, pay it. If you have a scrawny savings account, beef it up. If you have a retirement plan, don't touch it.

Your future self with thank you.