When we started dating 13 years ago, we quickly became consumed by ourselves, as new couples often do. The only thing more important to us was our social life. Denver’s queer scene at the time was bumping. In addition to regular happy hours and expensive dinners, there was a different bar or club to go to every night of the week. They gave us great venues to see and be seen.
One couple’s debt payoff story
A typical Friday and Saturday night for us included going to the gym to get our “glamour pump” on and then putting in a quick “disco nap.” We’d then wake up and have the tiniest morsel of food so that we maintained the flattest of tummies. While we put on our brand new $400 jeans and $100 T-shirts, we’d sip our world-famous coffee martinis to get a slight buzz and pick-me-up before the cab arrived to start our night’s adventures.
It wasn’t until we dared to fantasize about building a vacation home in the mountains that reality hit us. The reality was that we were two 30-something professionals renting a friend’s basement apartment because we had over $51,000 in credit card debt between the two of us. We were telling people how to manage their money and not managing our own. We were the cobbler’s kids with no shoes.
Here are five steps we took to reverse course that you can apply to get your own spending on track.
1. Perceive your purpose
Our peers were getting married, buying houses and having babies, and we were digging ourselves deeper and deeper into debt by living and spending unconsciously. We weren’t living according to our values because we didn’t know what our values were.
Over the course of a few months, we had discussions about what we truly wanted and why we were headed in the direction of financial failure. We realized that while we enjoyed our social life, our fancy clothes and dinners, what we mostly wanted was to save for a financially secure retirement, travel and give back to our community. Up until then, we weren’t doing much, if any, of those. This created a conflict that manifested itself in us burying ourselves deeper and deeper in debt. (You can see where your debt levels stand by viewing two of your free credit scores, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.)
Ask yourself: What are your long-term financial goals?
2. Plan for your purpose
When we realized our three goals, we created a plan to achieve them. When we help people with their money now, we often use the rocks, pebbles and sand analogy.
How do you get rocks, pebbles and sand all into the same jar? You can’t put the sand in first, otherwise there won’t be room for the rocks and pebbles. Put the rocks in first, then the pebbles and then the sand. This was our strategy to pay off our debt and to achieve our three purposes.
The rocks represent our three long-term (or most important) goals: Save for retirement, travel and give back to our community. The pebbles represent the medium-term goals that support our three long-term goals. These include actions such as putting enough into our 401Ks to get our full employer match, opening a travel account and funding it little by little with each paycheck, and narrowing down the charities and causes important to us. The sand represents our short-term goals that support our medium-term goals, such as having and maintaining a budget, using a grocery list for grocery shopping and having a maximum daily spend to help us stay within budget.
Ask yourself: What short- and medium-term goals can you use to fund your long-term goals?
3. Project your payments
Once we knew what our short-, medium- and long-term goals were, we could easily cut out the spending that didn’t serve those goals. Each financial decision is now measured by whether or not it supports our purpose.
Gone are the endless happy hours and boredom-shopping. No longer do we do our weekly grocery shopping without a grocery list and weekly menu. We’ve adopted an all-cash lifestyle and no longer carry credit card balances from month to month. Whenever possible, we use free or not-so-expensive alternatives.
We’re more inclined to make an extra payment to our travel account than to subscribe for cable. Extra money, from birthdays to bonuses, are put toward retirement.
This money-conscious or purpose-driven spending has allowed us to move out of our dark, dank basement apartment into a condo of our own in a high-rise that overlooks downtown Denver and the Rocky Mountains. We’ve gone from a deficit of $51,000 to a net worth over $500,000.
Ask yourself: What is the purpose of every expense you make?
4. Proof your plan
The success of any plan ultimately comes down execution. Was it or was it not executed well?
It would be disingenuous to say that once we discovered our purpose and created a plan that everything fell into place for our success. The truth is that even to this day we revisit our plan from time to time and track accordingly to stay on target.
Occasionally there’s the unexpected bill. One of us has a weak moment and overspends their portion of the budget. We estimate our expenses incorrectly. We get a raise. We lose a client. There are any number of reasons why a plan needs to be proofed and tweaked. The goal is to continually seek progress and not perfection. As Voltaire suggested, “Perfect is the enemy of the good.”
Ask yourself: From day to day, week to week and month to month, is your plan progressing?
5. Purge your pain
Inevitably when you start making financial progress or even attain success, you’ll feel a sense of frustration. With our financial lives headed in the right direction, we occasionally say, “Why didn’t we start this sooner?”
Our advice, which we give to ourselves each time we feel regret, is that there’s no point in looking back, only looking forward. It’s our focus on today’s achievements and not yesterday’s failures that ensure a successful tomorrow.
Ask yourself: What value is your guilt providing you?
This is our strategy for purpose-driven spending, putting our money to work for us. We believe it was our unconscious living and spending, our spending without purpose, that buried us in credit card debt and financial shame. Once we had a purpose, we could create a plan to achieve prosperity.
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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.