Why I Got Into Debt (And Why I Got Out)

By Jackie Beck   Updated 10/05/2021 at 7:51 am

There are many reasons people get into debt. They run the gamut from developers who borrow huge sums of money to try to make more, to people that just feel like they have no other choice. And everything in between.

Here are the reasons why I got into debt (and why I got out).

The Beginnings

I grew up as a fairly typical middle-class Gen X American. I did get some financial education in school, and my parents and grandparents taught me things about money. Money was never a taboo topic in our family, so in that respect I probably had an unusual start.

But along the way, I also absorbed a lot of confusing and conflicting messages about credit / debt. From the media and those around me, I learned that I needed good credit. I also somehow had the vague feeling that debt was bad.

Yet somehow, it never occurred to me that using credit equaled going into debt.

It also never occurred to me to wonder why I “needed” to build credit.

So like many people, I got into debt.

Why I Went Into Debt

You know, I wrote a big old thing about the credit-related steps I took and how I thought I was doing the right thing followed by a series of unfortunate events, but I was boring even myself.

So here are the real reasons.

I chose to go into debt because I:

  • thought I was supposed to in order to build credit
  • believed I was doing the grown up thing, and felt proud of myself for doing so well
  • didn’t consider paying cash for large purchases
  • didn’t ever imagine my life could change both gradually and overnight for the worse
  • was impatient
  • did not take risk into account
  • forgot to account for emergencies
  • kept forgetting that my car tags were due every year (thanks, ADHD!)
  • made excuses when looking at the budget (“well, but that was an unusual month” instead of making changes to the budget)
  • didn’t even think of taking maintenance, worst-case scenarios, related purchases, and unintended consequences in mind when buying something
  • had trouble saying no
  • wanted to show my love for others by buying presents even though I couldn’t afford them (yes, I regularly paid for Christmas presents with credit)
  • used hope as my payoff plan
  • married young to someone who bought what they wanted when they wanted it (and then I got frustrated and joined in, making everything worse.)
  • got sick of paying rent, and realized (at the time) that my now-ex and I could buy a condo for less than rent, so we got a mortgage to do that.
  • stayed focused on budgeting way too long. (I turned to books for help, but all they told me was about investing (“use other people’s money”) or how to make a budget. I had no money to invest, didn’t see how borrowing more would help, and already knew how to make a budget. What I didn’t know was how to get out of debt and stay out of debt. But I dutifully kept focusing on budgeting like so many of the books said to do, and then beating myself up when I failed. Over and over again.)
  • wanted to have some fun, take a trip, or go to a funeral, but had no money
  • really wanted to order a pizza, some ceiling fans, or brakes for my car, but had no money
  • need to pay an emergency room copay or a vet bill, but had no money
  • wanted to quit my job and just go to school full time for my last year of graduate school, so got a student loan and did

Lots of Reasons

Basically, I didn’t know what I was doing, made a bunch of poor choices, and did the best I could.

I was good at managing the money I did have, but not very good at other things. Especially planning for a future I never even thought of imagining.

It’s easy to sit and judge, or make excuses, or feel bad about things. But what’s more important is to make changes, get help, and help others.

So Here’s Why I Got Out of Debt

I was sick and tired of it, but that wasn’t enough. I tried for years to get out, without success. I’d make a little progress, but then go right back in. Usually even worse.

What finally did it for me was 3 things that happened at once:

  1. My first husband and I separated (and then divorced)
  2. I blew the engine on my car
  3. Reality hit: no one else was going to take care of my son or fix my life

I had a small child, no way to get to work, a whole lot of stress, and a pile of debt.

So I started asking people for help, with things both large and small.

For example, I asked my boss for a raise, explaining that I blew the engine on my care. He gave me a personal check for a new engine, and I did get a raise.

Then I lost my job at the dot com, and couldn’t find another one for YEARS.

The Hard Times

Have you ever spent years living way below the poverty line? It’s not fun. (One of my super powers is being a master of understatement.)

I had $200 a month in child support, plus — for a while — $200 a month in unemployment income.

But I was in a MUCH better position than most people who live below or at the poverty line.

I didn’t have generational poverty or racism to contend with.

I had a support system, a house with a mortgage, and a significant other who shared half the joint household expenses.

Being unemployed gave me time to help care for my dying mom, and to spend with my son.

I had a paid-off eleven year old car with no AC that ran well and looked fancy that I could take to interviews. (Even though at one point I broke down and cried when the judge changed the agreement to make me partly responsible for taking my son to his dad’s. I didn’t know how on earth I could come up with $10 a month for gas when I couldn’t even get hired for minimum wage.)

I had no way at all to pay my student loan.

But most importantly, I had determination and decent health.

And emotions matter more than math.

So I was NEVER GOING TO BE IN THAT POSITION AGAIN unless the alternative was dying.

Never.

I wanted freedom, and debt stood in my way.

So I stopped borrowing. I married my significant other, who got on board as well. I got a one-day temp job that turned into years of employment.

I learned about money. I messed up and forgave myself. I learned more, made changes, and tried again.

I kept my eyes on the prize, and only spent money that I already had. (I still only spend money I already have; that’s key.)

If I didn’t have the money, I didn’t do it. I built an emergency fund, used my emergency fund, rebuilt it, repeat.

I kept shoveling money toward debt, and also starting making retirement contributions. (And then increasing them.)

I got lucky. I did stupid things and smart things. I had setbacks and successes.

But most of all, I had determination and a strong why. I wanted freedom, and I could taste it. And I never wanted to be in that old place again.

Freedom!

After becoming completely debt free, they threw me a retirement party when I left my job a couple years later to do my own thing at age 46.

Today, I’m still so grateful for the freedom. I don’t take it for granted, because I know things can change in a blink, for anyone, at anytime.

So I enjoy everything I can. I let the little things go, most of the time. I try to help others with what I’ve learned.

And I only spend money I already have.

Because financial freedom is a whole lot nicer than the stress of debt or wondering how you’re going to feed your kid. I never want to be in that position again.

Reasons why I got into debt (and why I got out)

(This post was sparked by a comment on my Debt is Not a Moral Failing post.)

2 thoughts on “Why I Got Into Debt (And Why I Got Out)

  1. Your story is inspiring and humbling. It takes courage to dredge that up and share it with the world. Thank you for sharing.

    What happened after you turned 46 and “did your own thing”?

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