I have written and re-written this article a handful of times, vacillating between admitting the problem and trying to hide it; making excuses and beating myself up.
We use our credit cards a lot, which is fine — as long as we pay off the entire balance each month. Two months ago, we kept a $2,000 balance on one card. Last month, the balance bloomed to $10,000 and we only paid down about $1,500. As you can see, that balance has exploded to $17,000.
$17,000 in three months.
No need to beat me up, I’m doing plenty of that to myself. But at some point, you just have to get past blaming yourself and move on to solving the problem.
When it comes to failure, the fact that it happened is not necessarily as important as what you do when you’re confronted with the facts. I’m approaching the situation with this three-step approach:
1. Understand what caused the debt
There were several causes contributing to this enormous credit card balance. I’m not going to bore you to tears with the minutiae of our problem, but suffice to say that I am not making as much money as I hoped for when I drafted our budget. Plus, I had to take a week of unpaid leave when I fell down the stairs.
To compound the problem of my income shortfalls, I also drafted a budget that was at a deficit for a few months — until September, when Little Stapler starts kindergarten. The deficit was a mere $400, so it shouldn’t have produced this nasty result. But it certainly compounded the problem. (for those worried about how we were going to pay for the deficit when I drafted the budget initially, see step #2).
That means that we need to adjust our spending to match our income. A simple concept that somehow slipped past my attention because my income fluctuates and I don’t earn paid time off.
2. Develop an action plan to get rid of the debt
We are expecting a $20,000 check in the mail.
No, this isn’t magical thinking. It’s the result of Mr. Stapler working weekends and nights on his side hustle. The project was slated to end in April, but dragged on, into May, and now we are waiting for the check to be mailed.
In the meantime, although it’s easy to say “stop spending money,” it’s not realistic. We have to pay for daycare, we have to pay for utilities, we have to buy gas for our car or pay bus fare so we can go to work, and we have to buy some food.
We are keeping a close eye on our spending and trying to preserve and earn as much money as we can, in immediate ways, by:
- Not buying anything else for the house that isn’t absolutely necessary. We have been trying to deal with the heat at home instead of running out to get air conditioners for the boys’ rooms or the dining room.
- We aren’t buying any more meat until we have eaten all the meat in our freezer.
- Cashing out the money I saved with the cashback programs TopCashBack, ibotta, and SavingStar; where I had $55, $25, and $20 waiting for me.
- Listing our former dryer on craigslist
- Listing clothing for sale on ebay
- Accepting my first offer for a sponsored post on this site. You know I have a high standard for what I will promote on this site, so stay tuned!
These are little drops in the bucket compared to this enormous credit card balance, but every little bit counts.
3. Put measures in place to prevent it from happening again
Failing once is forgiveable. Failing twice, for the same reason, is not.
For starters, we are paying off the entire balance and switching to cash. I don’t usually use cash, but our usual routine is what got us into this spending spiral, and using cash for fluctuating expenses provides instant feedback on whether we’re on budget or not.
Using cash to stay within your budget is simple. In his classic book, Total Money Makeover, Dave Ramsey calls it the “envelope system.” Withdraw enough cash for your expenses on a weekly or monthly basis and put them in envelopes marked with their purpose. For example, we would put $500 a month into an envelope marked “Food,” $60 a month into an envelope marked “Gas,” $50 a month into an envelope marked “Baby Supplies,” etc.
The problem is: We can’t start using cash until we get that big check, because we don’t have the cash to withdraw — it’s all spoken for. But when it arrives, I’m excited to try the envelope system and I will keep you posted on how it goes — and whether it helps us align our spending with our income.
Secondly, remember how I mentioned that the problem was with income fluctuations and unrealistic expectations? Well … I got a job. I’m not sure when exactly I’ll start and when exactly I’ll start getting a regular paycheck, but knowing my monthly take-home base pay will help us budget.
Have you ever had to fix a high credit card balance or tried the envelope method? Did it work?
By the way: The links to TopCashBack, ibotta, and SavingStar are my referral links, meaning I get a small bonus if you use my link to sign up. If you do use my links, thank you!