34: Facing the Music

34: Facing the Music

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People

Facing the Music

The only man who sticks closer to you in adversity than a friend is a creditor.

~Author Unknown

“Ring! Ring!” The phone screeched at me for what felt like the hundredth time that day, for what seemed like the hundredth day in a row. It was a sound that once made me excited to hear from a friend, but now brought a queasy feeling to my stomach.

It wasn’t a friend calling. It was one of the four credit card companies I owed money to... and they weren’t calling just to chat.

I disconnected the phone and threw myself on the couch in frustration. Where did I go wrong? I was a college graduate. I had a decent job. I didn’t go on thousand-dollar shopping sprees. I didn’t even have a car or go on vacation. How had I gotten myself into this mess?

It all started when I was a freshman in college. It was a pretty elite college, three thousand miles from home. To say I was intimidated was to put it mildly. I was terrified. It seemed like my classmates all had so much more money than I did. (I wasn’t poor, but we clipped our share of coupons and I certainly couldn’t have afforded to go to this school without my scholarship.) They were all so much more worldly than I was, they’d attended fancy prep schools, traveled extensively, and had casual conversations about things I’d never even heard of. I felt out of my league.

So I tried desperately to get on an equal footing. I couldn’t do anything about my background, but I could arm myself with the best tools to help me catch up academically. One of those tools was a new computer. I couldn’t afford the $2,000 price tag, but when the company offered me a payment plan that would allow me to pay just $65 a month, it seemed like it was meant to be. I had a part-time job; I could afford it.

But, that wasn’t the only expense. Books cost me around $400 per semester. Throw in the occasional coffee to help me study through the night, the rare weekend dinners with friends who didn’t realize that $50 for a meal wasn’t in every college girl’s budget. (I’d get by with water and a cup of soup, but it was still $10 I couldn’t spare.) I was desperate to fit in, to show that I was just as worthy of being there as everyone else, to pretend that I wasn’t just the poor girl who couldn’t keep up with the Joneses. The credit card offers that started arriving in the mail seemed like the only way I could make it through.

Despite all this, I never felt like I was acting completely irresponsibly with my money. The computer really did help me write my papers, and I would have had to buy the books either way. I didn’t throw away hundreds of dollars on nights out, like some of my friends did. I didn’t buy designer clothes. I took public transportation everywhere, instead of cabs. But, even with my best intentions, money I didn’t have slowly bled away in $5 fits and starts.

And so, I found myself, three years later, hiding from my telephone, afraid to open my mail and unsure of how to help myself. Being in debt was embarrassing. I felt like I couldn’t tell anyone, even my parents, because I was ashamed. I had a degree in economics and I worked at a mutual fund company—if anyone should know better, it was me.

I sat up suddenly. I was sick of the pity party. I was tired of pretending everything was okay while things got worse and I felt more and more hopeless. Something in me clicked. I knew I was a smart girl; it was time to start acting like one.

That meant facing the music. I pulled together all the credit card statements I had left unopened on the kitchen counter, and sat down at my desk to figure out what I owed once and for all. I took a deep breath and started to rip them open. I had to know what I was dealing with.

When I saw the numbers, I cried. I couldn’t believe I had let it escalate to this point. But, a few minutes later, the tears cleared and I started to think rationally. The truth was that I had been terrified that the number would be much worse. Now that I had my (not so) magic number, I could do something about it. I went online and found a web calculator to help figure out how long it would take me to pay everything down, and I created a plan.

And, somehow, I stuck to it.

I’m not going to pretend that it was easy. In fact, it was one of the hardest things I’d ever done. For four years, I lived off the bare minimum it took to survive. Every extra penny went to paying down my debt. If I got a bonus or worked overtime, all that extra money went directly to my debt.

It was hard to live like a miser, but seeing my balances fall was liberating. The closer I got to paying everything off, the happier I felt. I hadn’t realized how much my debt was weighing me down. As the amount I owed shrank, so did my stress. And, when I paid off my last credit card, three years after I decided to take control of my debt, I felt reborn. I was debt-free at last.

~Jennifer Lee Johnson

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