I Used to Spend Recklessly—Here’s How I Paid Off My Debt and Started Saving

At 23, I was living in my dream apartment (picture an industrial-style loft with brick walls and concrete floors) and had no real responsibilities besides my rent, car payment, and dog.

At the time, my biggest concerns were where I’d order dinner from that night and what bar I’d suggest to my friends come Friday. I rarely cooked at home, impulsively purchased whatever new and shiny thing came across my feed, and didn’t hesitate to go from a Saturday night out to brunch on Sunday.

My expenses were only of concern to me in a vague sense—as long as I had enough for rent, I figured everything else would work itself out.

I wish I could say that my financial reckoning came because I took a good, hard look in the mirror (and at my bank accounts) and realized something needed to change. But the truth is, I didn’t even begin to think there was anything wrong with how I handled my money until my now husband and I had the first money talk of our relationship.

He was in between jobs at the time, and I was struck by how calm he was about not having a source of income. I was stressed for him and couldn’t understand how he just… wasn’t.

When I finally found the courage to ask why he seemed so lackadaisical about finding his next gig, he sat me down and showed me his bank account, IRA, 401k, and investment account.

At just 26, he had more money squirrelled away than I had ever seen in one place in my life. And that’s when it all clicked. He had comfortably planned for this exact scenario. And even on top of saving for periods of unemployment, he had money set aside for emergencies and even the future he envisioned.

While my husband’s situation made much more sense to me after that, seeing what he was capable of saving had the unintended consequence of providing me the swift kick in the ass I needed to get my finances finally under control. Ahead, I’m sharing how I did it.

Where my finances started

While my spending was out of control, especially considering my income at 23, it’s not like I found myself buried in six figures worth of debt. But I had racked up around $10,000 of credit card debt on top of my car loan and student debt with no savings to speak of.

My husband’s revelation made me think of my financial future for the first time, well, ever. This made me realize that my approach to and relationship with my money needed to change ASAP; I couldn’t keep up my current lifestyle if I wanted to pay off debt and start saving.

At 23, things like buying a house, college funds for future children, and retirement were, in my mind, a problem for future Garri—a more “adult” Garri. What I realized after that conversation with my husband was that the future adult Garri I was envisioning was already here, and she needed to start thinking beyond getting dinner at the new fancy restaurant that just opened in West Hollywood.

So, with about $20,000 of debt (between my car and my credit cards—we’re leaving student loans out of this, for now), I made a plan to tackle it and start building for my future, once and for all.

How I fixed my habits and ultimately, my finances

I took stock of all of my accounts

The first step in my financial recovery journey was to take stock of all of my accounts. Beyond the total amount owed, I looked at the interest rates, payoff timelines, and (when it came to credit cards) the account benefits.

With this information in hand, I formed the building blocks of my plan. If you find yourself in a similar position, this is ground zero. You don’t know what you don’t know, so laying your financial situation out in front of you will give you all the information you need to determine steps for improvement.

Laying your financial situation out in front of you will give you all the information you need to determine steps for improvement.

I transferred my credit card debt

After taking stock of my accounts, I started looking for ways I could lighten my financial load. For me, this meant doing what I could to make my credit card debt a little less scary.

After doing a bit of research and weighing my options, I decided to find a new credit card (yes, that does seem counterintuitive) that would allow me to transfer my current credit card balance and pay it off with zero interest over an introductory period.

There are a ton of credit card companies that offer balance transfer benefits like this, but after doing some research, I landed on the Discover it card.

If you’re interested in doing this for yourself, NerdWallet is a great place to start your research. Before you make your final decision, get on the phone with your bank of choice and see if you can get pre-approved for the balance you need without a hard credit check.

The last thing you’d want to do is apply for a new credit card only to not get approved for what you need. A pre-approval, as well as the promise of a good cash-back bonus once I did pay off my debt, is why I landed with Discover. And it’s still my primary credit card to this day.

I found a budget that worked for me

Some people (my husband included) can manage their finances in more vague terms. As long as their account balances stay at a pre-determined level, they know they’re doing alright. I am not that kind of person. At the time, I couldn’t grasp just how much little purchases added up.

So, I needed a method that was a little extreme. I landed on using a Google Sheet budgeting template that used my income and planned expenses to help me determine how much extra money I had to save and use on non-essentials. There are tons of budgeting apps and methods, but I found my template on Reddit (this one).

I recommend plugging your numbers into a few different methods and seeing which one you like the best. The best budget is the one you’ll use, so find what makes the most sense to your brain and lean into it.

The best budget is the one you’ll actually use, so find what makes the most sense to your brain and lean into it.

I tweaked the debt snowball method to pay off my balances

When it came to addressing my debt, I knew that pausing my student loan payments would allow me to get the rest of my finances under control, so that’s what I did. With the money I wasn’t putting toward my student loans anymore, I went hard at my credit card debt (while making regular car payments) and began saving a little bit at a time.

After transferring my biggest balance of credit card debt to my new credit card, as mentioned previously, I tackled my other card which had a much smaller balance. I paid that off quickly by paying twice, and sometimes even three times, as much as my minimum monthly payment.

This is sort of a play on the debt snowball method, with some tweaks based on my own finances and what I was comfortable paying. I then focused on paying off the credit card balance I had transferred to the new card, taking the amount I had been putting toward the smaller card and adding it to my monthly payments toward the larger debt.

Once that was done, I applied the same strategy to my car loan and ultimately paid that off two full years earlier than planned.

Writing that out in just a few sentences makes it sound a lot easier than it was. For anyone in a similar situation, this entire process took years. I started this process in 2018 and didn’t pay off my car—my last loan, not counting my student debt—until 2021.

I wrote down all of my transactions

This is where things got a little tedious. I’ve always found money hard to grasp as a tangible concept, so I had no idea just how much each transaction affected my bottom line. Surely I could afford dinner out with friends? That new top is only $40—it can’t affect my wallet that much, right?

The problem with this line of thinking is that there is no stopping it—especially when you don’t look at your account. I’m not proud to admit it, but this method of thinking often led me into overdraft territory. And because I had no savings to fall back on, I often counted the minutes until my next payday.

So, the next phase of my financial rehabilitation was all about finally grasping how the money I spent affected my overall finances.

I sat down once a week and transferred every transaction I made into my budget sheet. There, I broke down each transaction into a predetermined bucket (like “eating out” or “groceries” or “gas” or “fun money”) to see just how much I was spending in each category.

Then, I set a budget based on what was realistic and fit with my debt strategy and savings goals. No longer was every purchase an automatic “yes.” Planning and being smart about my purchases meant saying “no” to myself and my friends more than I ever had before.

I started saving

The bulk of my plan involved paying off the money I owed, but I also knew I needed to start saving, too. At the time, any minor inconvenience would majorly set me back and leave me calling home with my tail between my legs, asking my family to help bail me out. Unexpected vet bills, a nail in my tyre, or a surprise charge from my insurance. I was wholly unprepared for it all.

In this new plan, most of my money was going towards debt, but I also made sure to work saving into my new budget. It wasn’t much at first, but as I started paying off my balances, I was able to redirect the money I was paying toward my account into my savings. This meant that over time, I could see two very crucial things happen: My balances owed were decreasing, and the money in my accounts was increasing.

In the past, this would have sent a signal to my brain that I could start living again. But I had new goals in mind and soon realized that the short-lived joy of buying something new had nothing on the pride and comfort of having a little nest egg for a rainy day.

I chose hosting over going out

I loved spending time with my friends and boyfriend on the weekends. But after writing down all of my transactions and seeing just how much I was spending on nights out and takeout, I made a change I never would have expected: I became the hostess.

Sure, it helped that I had a really cute apartment that was centrally located, but it became more than that to me. I loved sharing my space with others in a way I didn’t think was possible.

I hosted watch parties, birthday parties, holidays—any excuse to get my favourite people into my home. While I still occasionally enjoyed a night out, swapping weekends packed with bars and restaurants for nights at home with my nearest and dearest made a huge difference in my finances.

But even outside of the financial impact, this switch to hosting unlocked a part of myself that had been lying dormant. I’ve always been a homebody, but I had never thought that would be something I could share with others. But now, some of my best memories are moments I shared with my friends just hanging out in the living room—without spending a dime.

Swapping weekends packed with bars and restaurants for nights at home with my nearest and dearest made a huge difference in my finances.

I stopped buying everything the moment I saw it

While I am in a much better financial place than I was at 23, impulse buying is still something I struggle with. However, because I now had a strict budget and knew exactly how much discretionary money I had to spend on things like clothes, makeup, or books, it became a lot easier to curb my spending.

Rather than hit add to cart without a second thought, I went back to my budget sheet, checked how much money I had in my fun money bucket, and—most crucially—waited. Sometimes it was a day, sometimes two, sometimes a week.

Often, during these cooldown periods between me seeing something and putting in my card details, I realized that I didn’t want or need whatever caught my eye. This meant that I stayed within my budget and stopped feeling buyer’s remorse the second after the joy of opening a new package faded.

I forgave myself

I first started this journey because my then-boyfriend showed me just how financially secure he was. That conversation spurred me into action, but it also elicited feelings of deep shame. Why hadn’t I been more forward-thinking? Why had I let things get so out of control? My boyfriend never made me feel bad about my situation, but my thoughts spiralled.

Is he going to leave me because I’m irresponsible? How can I ever meaningfully contribute to our future? Is my situation so bad that a future is now off the table? Thankfully, my boyfriend is now my husband, and those worries no longer plague me—but at the time, I couldn’t help but think of myself as a failure.

That conversation changed the way I think about money forever. I’ve since formed habits that keep my spending in check, but what happens when I slip up? We’re all human, after all. There are still times I overspend and months that, despite my best efforts, seem to cost way more than others.

But instead of feeling down about myself and letting my anxiety spiral, I forgive myself and use the tools I’ve learned throughout the years to get back on track.

Where my finances are now

I’m turning 30 in a couple of months. I own a house. I own my car outright, and I have no credit card debt. I use credit cards for all of my purchases and pay each balance in its entirety each month.

Of course, I make more money than I did at 23, but the habits I built after that one conversation with my husband allow me to live with a sense of calm over my finances that I never thought possible. I still occasionally fall back into old habits, and there are months when I spend more than allowed by my “fun money” bucket. And that’s OK.

Healing my relationship with money was not a one-and-done situation. Instead, it’s been years (and years and years) of building better habits so that I can secure a future for myself.

Because I’ve been saving, I can now invest in higher-end purchases, travel without worrying about having to scrape by when I get home and know that when the time comes for me to have kids and retire, I can support those endeavours, too.

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