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Doing It All Wrong

February 20th, 2014 at 09:24 am

As my username/blog title suggests, this blog will be a lesson in how *not* to budget, manage credit cards, pay off debt, etc. That old adage, "Do as I say, and not as I do" applies quite well here. I know exactly how to effectively and responsibly use credit cards, I know how to budget and scrimp and save and pay off debt, I know how to snowball and consolidate and all of the things you do when you want to get out of debt. Actually doing those things, however, somehow manages to escape me. It's a lack of willpower (which pervades all areas of my life, not just finances!) and the knowledge that I have a safety net (family) if things really get bad (a blessing and a curse!).

I laugh when I read that the average US household has $6,000-8,000 in credit card/unsecured debt. I have more than 10x that amount, not including loans from family (which is itself about 15x that amount). You would think I'd be panicked, depressed, stressed, *something*, but I'm not, most days. Debt is a fact of life, something I've pretty much always had to deal with, like grocery shopping or laundry. Clearly, I need an attitude adjustment! I do have a plan, which I will get to momentarily, but even then, I'm doing it all wrong.

First, how did I get into the situation I'm in, with around $250,000 in unsecured debt? Well, it took a little time, but very little effort.

What I Couldn't Really Help

A significant portion of my debt is due to factors mostly outside of my control. I most certainly could have managed the situations differently, but the situations themselves just happened.

First, my husband and I moved into a family-owned house. For the first few years, it wasn't a bad deal -- we paid the bills and taxes, but no rent and the house was paid for. We tried selling the other house but not aggressively, so we were carrying two "homesteads", although only one mortgage. After a few years, we had to settle up on the inheritance, which meant we took out a mortgage on the house and paid off the family on their portion of its inherited value. So now we had two mortgages, plus two HELOCs.

Then, my husband lost his job, and got a new one in a different state. Since it was a short-term stay (and then we'd be relocated), and since I had a job and family and critters that would have been a major hassle to move, I stayed. So now we had three homesteads and rent.

Fortunately, the relocation fell through and hubby got a job back here. Meanwhile I'd found a renter for the other home, with a 'rent to buy' plan for five years out. The rent money went to paying some of the family loans (which were used to buy that house in the first place) so we still had two homesteads, two mortgages, two HELOCs. Then the economy crashed and the renters, while still paying the rent, are not in a position to buy, probably for several more years. They're like family and it's fine, really, because technically once we sell that house, the family loans come due, but it's still two homesteads, two mortgages, and two HELOCs. (The renters do pay all the utilities except water, so that helps a bit.)

Over the next five years, we've had four surgeries, all in different years, of course (so medical deductibles/co-pays of around $6,000 per year), two funerals that we ended up paying half and all of (around $15,000 total), and a handful of non-routine critter-related medical expenses that total about $15,000. Some of that went on cards; some of that we took IRA withdrawals to pay (and, of course, paid the 10% penalties to do so).

Since we were essentially living paycheck to paycheck for most of that time (and practically still are, really), most of that debt went on credit cards. Plus when we were first living together I was the sole earner, not earning much, so many months the only way we could eat was by putting food on the credit cards. (I read a blog recently where the overwhelming majority felt it was much easier to spend cash, or to lose track of cash spending, than it was to buy things on credit. I am exactly the opposite. I can take $40 out of the bank and still have $30 left at the end of two weeks, because I hate to part with my cash, but credit? No problem, that's not 'real money', right? Again, pretty clear I need to change the way I think about money and debt!)

What I Did Wrong

Oh, so many things! First and foremost, I went to college (not a bad thing, really) and got tons of offers for credit cards, which I of course accepted (bad, bad, bad idea) and of course used (even worse idea) and then of course couldn't pay off. I ended up settling those debts after graduation.

When I bought my first home, I was gifted money from my family for the downpayment, which because of the way the loan was set up I actually ended up using to pay off the credit card debt and car loan I'd acquired since settling the other debts. Of course, then I just built those credit card debts back up.

About five years after I bought that house, I got talked into refinancing it. Which, of course, also involved paying off credit card debt I'd racked up and the loan on the new car I'd bought in the mean time. This was at the height of the mortgage lending frenzy, so I ended up financing 100% of the home's equity, between the mortgage and the HELOC. I paid off higher-interest debt, sure, but increased what I owed on the house by about $30K. (Then, of course, the housing bubble burst and the home's value decreased by more than half.)

Two years later we had to take out the mortgage on the house we were living in. This time we only financed about 90% of the home's value, but again used a big chunk to pay off credit card debt (seeing a trend, here?) and student loan debt. Mortgage and HELOC, of course. Housing bubble burst, house is just starting to be worth the mortgage amount (the HELOC is something else entirely!)

Mistake #1
The biggest mistake, of course, is that I paid off my credit card debt three times, and kept using the credit cards. You'd think I would have learned after the first time!

Mistake #2
I used IRA funds to pay off debts. Truth be told, though, I probably did end up saving money in the long run. Most of that happened shortly before the economy (and markets) crashed, and I lost about 38% in my 401(k) at the time. So even with the 10% penalty and the 15% income tax, I eliminated some bills at 29-32% interest and avoided a 38% loss in the IRA. Still, it's not the way you're supposed to do things!

Then, I didn't fully understand the terms of the HELOCs. They had a 10-year draw period (not a concern, since we maxed them out from the start), interest-only payments (again, not a big concern, I thought we'd have the first house sold by then), and -- the part I missed -- a balloon due at the end of the 10 years. Typically those are just converted to a 30-year fixed, P&I payment loan, apparently, but since the first house is no longer my primary residence, they wouldn't do anything for me. Which led to...

Mistake #3
Taking a 401(k) loan to pay off debt. Two, actually, one from hubby's and one from mine. Again, though, I think we'll come out ahead on this. Unlike the IRA withdrawals, there's no penalty or tax on the 401(k) loans. We're paying ourselves back with interest, which is only slightly lower than the average return on S&P500 investments, and we knocked out some higher-interest debt (25-29% on some credit cards -- we took the one 401(k) loan before we knew about the HELOC coming due). Yes, the interest we're paying in is after-tax money, and will be taxed again when we withdraw it -- but it still adds up to less than the credit card interest rate.

We've made other mistakes, too, along the way, Such as:

Mistake #4
Used large bonuses to buy "stuff" rather than pay down debt. Sometimes this was necessary stuff -- a water heater, or new siding on the rental property that just (fortunately) happened to coincide with a big commission month. (Hubby works on salary, but with commission that varies wildly.) The worst was a bonus that was almost a full year's salary, half of which we spent on a 'toy' for hubby. Granted, he uses the thing almost daily and will have gotten more than its worth out of it, but in the long run we would have been much better off using that money to pay off debts. I admittedly feel guilty, however, telling he he can't buy things he wants with his own money, especially since I don't tend to curtail my own spending that much. Which ties in nicely to...

Mistake #5
We have not remotely adjusted our lifestyle in an effort to pay off our debt. As I said, I know I should. I could drop the home phone, eliminate the movie channels, stop drinking pop, bring lunch from home every day, shop more at Costco, and so on and so on. Lots of fat we could trim from our budget. And we might, at some point, especially now that we're talking about it and setting goals. On the other hand, I don't want to deprive myself. I want to enjoy my life, within reason, while also working on getting rid of this debt. If hubs or I die tomorrow, life insurance will take care of the debt -- what's the point of living a miserable life in the meantime? (I know, that's rationalization. I get it. Part of it is rebellion, too, from my childhood when my mom did have to scrimp and save and budget to put food on the table. Still, I'm not at the point where knowing what to do and knowing why I don't want to do it is enough to actually persuade me to do it!).

Whew! This has gotten far longer than I'd intended, so I'm going to end it here. I'll be back for another entry about the few things I'm doing right, and the plan for the future. (Though there's another mistake on the horizon that, if it pans out, might just end up saving us in the long run.)

6 Responses to “Doing It All Wrong”

  1. creditcardfree Says:

    Welcome to SA! I hope you can find some financial footing to change your financial picture.

  2. scottish girl Says:

    Welcome to SA! I, too, am guilty of paying off a credit card just to rack up debt again Frown Not anymore though.

  3. Buendia Says:

    Oh wow! I feel for you - but you are on the right track, and I'll bet a lot of people will learn from your experiences. Welcome!

  4. Looking Forward Says:

    There are lots of helpful ideas exchanged here, as well as people who have paid off large amounts of debt.
    Good luck!

  5. doingitallwrong Says:

    Thanks for the welcomes! I am slowly changing my attitude toward debt (I'll admit for a long time I just ignored it -- I paid my bills, but never really confronted how much I owed. Now at least I have a handle on that!), but I know I need some more adjusting. I did post a follow-up with some more 'positive' things, and I have finally stopped the cycle of charging up the credit cards after I pay them off. I haven't really taken on new interest-bearing credit in over a year now. Smile

  6. Tabs Says:

    Welcome! Hope things will look up for you.

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