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How I Slayed My Secret Money Shame and Rescued Myself from Debt

Money managing tips for free spirits who hate spreadsheets

Last week I went to my bank’s web page, braced myself, and logged in. When the website had finished identifying and verifying me, I went to my account summary, covered my eyes, peeked through my fingertips, and saw it: My credit card balance was $0.

A Debt Number That Makes You Feel Sick

Zeroing out the MasterCard really should be a monthly occurrence, but for me, it was something I feared I might never see. The dollar value of the debt I had accumulated is between me and my bank. What you need to know was that it was enough that I felt it was out of control. So insert whatever number would make you feel sick when you open your bank account, and assume that’s what was facing me. I am tempted to fill up a whole page with blustery excuses about how I got myself into a situation where credit card debt was something I had to dig out of. I will resist that shame-soaked urge and just say: It was not bottle service in Vegas, or designer handbags; though I will confess I like nice things (I’m a Libra with Scorpio rising). It was stuff like: quitting my job and starting consulting and having to buy health insurance and pay school fees for my family, grad school bills hitting every three months, stocking up on stuff when I came back to the U.S. for a visit, and having a wedding. I have a low interest rate, have always paid way more than my minimum balance due, and have never missed a payment. But the fact was, it was there for far too long, it wasn’t shrinking, and it made me feel like crap.

When Your Partner’s Financial Ducks March In Lockstep

To make matters worse, my husband is really, really good with the money. Like, obnoxiously good.

The guy has an Excel file with twenty-three tabs tracking everything from cash flow to family gifts to frequent flyer miles. There are sub-dashboards and a master dashboard that helps him visually track progress against savings and investment goals. His ducks aren’t just in a row—they are marching lockstep and doing complicated military parade maneuvers. It’s deeply intimidating—especially since it is so important to me that Brian sees me as a capable and competent adult.

When we got engaged, I screwed up my courage and told Brian about the debt. I did not want a marriage with any secrets or hidden pockets of shame. I was truly afraid he would leave me. But instead, he offered to help me create a spreadsheet dashboard of my own. We were fine working together setting up a beautiful cash flow template for me on Excel. But when it was time to go to the bank website and plug in my opening balances. I had a panic attack and proceeded to cry for at least an hour. It felt like a profound violation of privacy, and we aborted the mission. I filled it in later, alone, after Brian had held me close and reassured me that this was something I could get on top of and that this evidence that I am human—and not perfect—did not shake his profound respect for me or belief in my competency. He encouraged me to find a way to get the emotion out of the equation, see my credit card as one arrow in a quiver of useful financial instruments. He urged me to set a reasonable long-term goal that I could steadily work toward, without going into a starvation mode that would inevitably lead to binging (Wait. We’re still talking about money, right?) Years later, with my fortieth birthday just around the corner, it was time to dig deep and get it gone.

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Goal Digging

I have always taken New Year’s resolutions pretty seriously. I also have a project at work which is all about helping adolescents create life plans that address relationships, health, career, and finance, and that has led me into all sorts of cool research about goal setting and goal sticking. So, for the last year or so, I have been hyper-aware of not just the resolutions themselves, but how to manage the effort of achieving goals more deliberately. For example, figuring out what your governing values are and how your goals relate to those values gives them deeper meaning. Identifying the supportive factors you have (both internal and external) that could help you reach your goals makes you more likely to benefit from the support. Writing down five bold (but simple) steps you will take TODAY to start down the path is much more likely to kickstart action. I applied what I learned.

finally getting to $0

  • I made straightforward goals that articulated as an affirmation of an already accomplished reality. “On my fortieth birthday I will have no credit card debt and at least six months of emergency cash saved up. I will be maxing out my retirement contribution and I will have a mutual fund that I contribute to every month.” I linked it to my governing value of family, i.e., having my financial house in order is an expression of love of my family. I also spent some time articulating how I will feel when I get there, and writing that down: “I will be able to take a trip without worrying or feeling guilty; I will feel powerful and relieved and maybe even a little smug.”
  • I really worked hard to let go of the shame around the debt. Shame is a crippling emotion, not a galvanizing one. It makes me hide and drives me to compulsive behavior—which is exactly what a person trying to methodically eliminate debt does not need. The research tells us that we experience an inner critic the same way as a physical attack: it makes cortisol and adrenaline pump through the body. So every time I feel myself beginning a new onslaught of “What is wrong with you, you extravagant, stupid woman? You are an irresponsible disaster…” I practice replacing the harangue with words of self-compassion. The messages to myself are carefully crafted to 1.) acknowledge the feelings involved without hyperbolizing or minimizing them, 2.) remind me that I am not alone in struggle, and 3.) tell myself truthful words an infinitely kind and wise friend would say. Here is an example: “Manya, this is hard and I know you feel ashamed. You are not the only person in the world to deal with credit card debt—after all, debt just about took down America. You have achieved amazing things through steady hard work and commitment—this will be no different.” At first it felt silly and disingenuous. I have been shit-talking myself for decades and the grooves in this record are carved deep. I am literally trying to reprogram my brain. But the more I do it, the more it becomes habit.*
  • I made contingency plans. What I learned while working on the life-planning kit is that lots of people set goals, but we don’t think through how we will get back on track WHEN—not IF—we (inevitably) fall off the wagon. Having plans in place, in advance, for the derailings makes long-term commitment more consistent. So I mapped out all of the different ways that I would be likely to get derailed and then thought about what to do about them. For example, I live in Kenya where the retail scene is pretty paltry. I know that trips back to the States with my scarcity complex are dangerous for my goal, so I budget and pre-shop my favorite stores online (within a strict budget), save money in advance for “impulse purchases,” and avoid Anthropologie like the plague.
  • I made it automatic. One of the college students I work with shared this amazing tip with me: It is easier to spend what is left over after saving than it is to save what is left over after spending. So, I set up automatic transfers and payments (just like this couple) that hit the day my salary hits. The money is gone before I even know it is there and I am free to go crazy with whatever is left. Also, all windfalls (such as a juicy tax return) were immediately forwarded to MasterCard.
  • I identified the support factors I had in my life around this issue, both internal and external. I have sticking power: I don’t give up on tasks just because they get hard. I am courageous: I confront very difficult things head on. I have a great job with good benefits.  And I have a truly supportive life partner.

TEAM MONEY

I’m not going to lie. In spite of having an awesome relationship, for a long time it was really, really hard for Brian and me to talk about money. Both Brian and I were married before, and we both have baggage about joint finances. The fact that we each have children that we brought into our marriage makes it even more complicated. We have always kept our money pretty separate (we each have individual accounts that we are paid into, and then we contribute proportionately to our income to a joint household budget and talk through joint purchases like vacations, cars, etc., as they happen). We know that “his’n’ hers” is a false concept legally, and that it might not be entirely sensible, but we are also self-aware enough to know that it is absolutely necessary for the health of our relationship.

During our first conversation about how to finance our wedding, I wanted to die. The fact that I carried debt made me feel like I didn’t have a right to discuss money at all, and I was afraid to propose anything “extravagant” because I had such a negative inner monologue playing in the background. Planning that wedding wasn’t easy, but it helped us understand some fundamental reflexes and stylistic differences in the way we handle money. Brian is the COO and I am the Editor-in-Chief/Creative Director. He handles infrastructure and I drive content. He is deliberate, reserved, and focused on security, while I take a broader brushstrokes approach, value beauty, and invest in experiences. We absolutely need each other to build the secure, interesting, and beautiful life we both enjoy. As the years go by, and we get more and more practice managing the LLC that is our life, we are getting much more skilled at it. We joke about my discomfort and his twenty-three tabs. We hold occasional financial summits to hash out something big, or deal with specific issues or concerns. And as we grow more comfortable in our stylistic differences, we find ourselves merging more and more moneywise.

In a very literal way, what we choose do with our money is an expression of what we value. For me, finance was the final frontier of vulnerability and trust. Finally opening up to Brian about my debt allowed us to be a team rallying to overcome it. Brian did not rescue me from the debt, but he has been incredibly supportive, both emotionally and practically. He compassionately let me cry about my shame, and helped me to let go of it. He fronted certain expenses that required a cash outlay (like a recent move) while I slowly paid down my contribution in a steady way that allowed me to keep my goals on track. He never guilted me about spending. Rather he expressed constant trust in my decision making, which made me feel confident and empowered.

Today my credit card balance is $0. And even though Brian didn’t write any checks, we absolutely accomplished that goal together.

*Dr. Kristin Neff’s work on self-compassion has literally changed my life, as did Brene Brown’s work on shame. The Franklin Covey mission statement builder provides a great tool to understand your governing values.

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