Zero Debt/Zero Doubt

I remember like five or six years ago I tried to enter into a pact with my best friend with an unattainably simple goal in mind: let’s save $10,000 each in one year.

I don’t think it lasted very long, and it couldn’t have. We were both pretty irresponsible with money and had been for as long as we knew each other. He liked to spend on big ticket items like souping up his cars, and mine was death by a thousand cuts. Whether it was buying Ralph Lauren or going to the casino, there was a good chance like 90% of my disposable income was spent.

In the end I put about as much effort into the pact as he did, an experiment that lasted about two weeks before I understood how serious either of us were about it. I kind of thought there was a chance we would push each other to realize the dream; as it worked out, the opposite was more true. He didn’t seem to give a shit, so it made me not give a shit, and neither of us spoke about it.

One of the cool things about money is it gives you options. You have options to spend it or save it. You have options of starting credit card accounts. And you have the option to put a bunch of money on those credit cards with the promise that it’s interest-free for the first 12 months. It’ll get paid off eventually, right?

I’ve been in the labor force since I was 19 — so for about 10 years and some change — but I never made real money until I was in my mid-20’s. Even working on-call at the casino I was at I was clearing like $4,000 a month after taxes, which might as well have been $10,000 given the fact that I didn’t have very many bills or payments. So you drop real money on a kid for the first time in his life, and you expect him to do what’s right with it. I didn’t.

Instead, when I was 25 I opened a couple of credit cards thinking money wasn’t real. I was offered like $5,000 per card with no interest for the first 12 months and a cash credit line to boot. Smart people might see that as some sense of security in the scenario that you need to spend that kind of capital. I just saw it as an opportunity to have a free $10,000 that I could spend on anything I wanted.

So when I moved into my own apartment, I said fuck it. I’m going to put everything on my credit cards. I bought a new bed and a new bed frame. I bought unnecessary coffee tables and kitchen furniture. I bought a goddamn Egyptian down comforter that cost like $500, and Ralph Lauren pillows, pillowcases, and a bedding set that included a duvet I never even used. By the time I was done I had run up a bill of like $5,000.

But again, it was nothing. I was making money and I had 12 months that I didn’t have to pay any interest. So I chopped up that $5,000 by 12 months, and I was like, all right, all I have to do is pay like $400 a month and I can get out of this just fine.

Since you are reading this, and since I am writing this, you know that obviously wasn’t how it played out. Shortly after I moved into my own place I started only being scheduled a couple times per week. And in those couple of days a week I wasn’t making any money. So on top of my $1,300 rent payment for a one bedroom apartment, a $400 car payment, on top of utilities and a cell phone and student loans from when I went to college, how was I supposed to come up with another $400 per month average to pay off my credit card(s)?

It got even worse than that, though. Because I never really altered the way I was living my life. I was still going to the casino every so often, and after a few drinks and losing a few hundred dollars from my checking account, I wanted the fun to continue. So I did what any rational person would do, and I started borrowing from my cash credit line.

I took out between $500-$1,000 enough times at the casino that all of a sudden I found myself at age-26 something like $10,000 in credit card debt. Then, and only then, did I realize I probably wasn’t doing it right. When a year passed and the interest went into effect, I saw myself making the minimum payments on my cards and barely being able to move the needle. I’d pay $150, and at the end of the month I would lower my payment by like 40 bucks. It was ridiculous.

In theory, I think originally I had a decent plan. I mean, interest-free is interest-free. A few thousand dollars here and there shouldn’t be that big of a deal over the course of a year.

But you know how it goes when you owe money. You could have the best intentions and still fail to get ahead. There’s always that random thing in your car that fucks up that’s going to cost $800 to fix. You have those moments where you can’t pass up doing something even knowing it’s going to cost a couple hundred dollars. That’s why when you make money, you always wonder where it all goes at the end of the month.

Throw in a gambling problem and your ass is really in the jackpot. It sounds so easy to think you don’t need to entertain yourself or have fun, but then an opportunity presents itself and you become a slave for the moment. I think for a long time in my 20’s I prioritized what felt right at the time over what was necessary and, frankly, responsible.

This story has a happy ending. I’ve been under the cloud of credit card debt for the better part of the last decade, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel and I can now say that I can see it. It’s actually there for me to pass whenever I want.

The coronavirus has been a mutherfucker for most people that I know, but for me it’s worked out all right. The unemployment benefits did right by me — specifically the $600 that Bernie Sanders slipped into the stimulus bill — as I saved something like $500 a month simply by not having to drive. I saved more money by not going out as much, whether it be to bars or restaurants. And at the beginning of the month, I went out and got my taxes done from the last three years.

It’s a long story but the main bullet point is that I never received a tax refund in 2015, so I kind of just stopped doing it thinking I was never going to get another one. I was wrong. So on top of saving money from quarantine, I got refunds (both federally and from California) from 2017, 2018 and 2019.

That brings us to today, where I am $9,800 in credit card debt and I have enough money to cover it. I’ve thought about a lot of things to do with my refunds, including taking a trip to the Philippines with my girlfriend and taking a random vacation to Vegas to blow a bunch of money on the craps table (because I’m a bona fide idiot), but somewhere in my mind I convinced myself that the smartest thing to do is wipe out my debt. I think it’s probably the best decision I’ve made since I spent $1,300 in casino winnings on going to casino dealer school.

I can’t really imagine what it will be like to be debt-free, but only because I have spent the last 5 or 6 years so deep in debt (relatively speaking) that I honestly thought it would be a problem that would last forever. You see those bank statements that read if you make the minimum payment every month it’s going to take seven years to pay off, and mentally you just check out. Fuck it.

Especially considering I am the type of person who can do well for two years straight, and then once I feel comfortable with where I’m at in the bank I’ll just go and take out $1,200 to lose at the casino, anyway. It’s like a disease. I have been allergic to getting ahead.

I’m not going to make the lump-sum payment just yet, because my payments aren’t due for another week or two and there’s just something nice about looking at your checking and savings accounts and seeing a nice, big number (relatively speaking). I want to enjoy it as long as I can.

I’ve had a lot of life lessons up to this point. Some have been humbling and some have reinforced that I am the man, and what I do is right and awesome. When it comes to money the lesson has been much closer to the former, an experience that has taken me to a place where I don’t ever want to use a credit card again. It’s just not worth it.

But part of the problem with money is that you can’t really use it unless you have it. It’s so necessary and yet so fun. For every small moment you think responsibly, and want to play the long game, all it takes is a sudden lapse to throw it all away at the whim of whatever you are feeling. I’m not a stupid person, but I have made a lot of stupid decisions. And when it comes to money, I really just do what I want to, and when I want to do it.

By eliminating my credit card debt, I am taking those decisions out of my own hands. As a gambler I understand how hard it is to build up a stack, and I also understand how quickly it goes away. Ten good choices can be undone by one really bad one. And all it takes is one bad choice to compound on itself, and the effects can be felt for years and years.

I write this because I’m proud and I’m happy. I’m happy that I am going to erase what has been hanging over my head for too long, and I am proud that, for all the dumb shit I have done with my money, for once I know I am making the right decision.

It’s not the same as saving $10,000 in cash. But the impact of getting rid of $10,000 in debt is just as, if not more, worthwhile.

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