It started with a Bank of America Student Visa card during my senior year of college in 2006. I was making about $50 per week at my part-time job, but it wasn’t enough to cover gas for my car, my prescription co-pays, toiletries, and my one-drink-only nights out with friends. Then other expenses started to creep up. I needed pajamas. I needed underwear. I needed some retail therapy at TJMaxx. I figured I would have a real job soon, and I could pay it all back then. After graduation, I was $3,000 in the hole.
I moved back home after graduation and started working as a temp at a mortgage company. My entire wardrobe consisted of sweats and leggings, and I needed clothes for work and job interviews. I was no longer a student, so I had to shell out $400 per month for COBRA health insurance. For the first time, I was making decent money, but I was more depressed than ever. Working at my temp job was like living in the movie Office Space, and I hated it. I aggressively applied for jobs online every night after work, but I also shopped. For the first time, I could buy what I wanted.
After four weeks of temping near home, I started my first job in Manhattan. I was working the evening shift in a newsroom. The commute was grueling and expensive. My mother started charging me rent. Working in an office so close to Fifth Avenue didn’t help with my shopping habits. On my dinner breaks, I escaped from my work stress at my favorite stores and discovered new ones. The clothes, handbags, accessories and makeup were unlike anything I had ever been able to buy before. As a loyal customer, I was invited to open up store credit cards, so I did. Bloomingdale’s. Saks. Neiman Marcus. Express. Victoria’s Secret.
I wanted a glamorous Juicy Couture winter coat and Tory Burch heels. I wanted a purse full of Chanel makeup. I wanted the limited-edition Prada fairies bag and Fendi rainbow clutch that even socialites couldn’t get. I wanted all of the clothes Blair and Serena wore on Gossip Girl. I wanted perfect highlights. What I wanted most of all was a job at a fashion magazine.
I didn’t have any internship experience, so I started blogging about fashion and all of my purchases. This opened a lot of doors for me, but also encouraged me to shop more often. Still, finding success as a fashion blogger wasn’t enough to outweigh my dissatisfaction with my career. I was still working late and never got to see my friends. I sank deeper into debt.
Keeping up with my credit card payments was dizzying and turning into a full-time job of its own, like working as the CFO of a failing company. My whole life revolved around shopping and credit cards and payment due dates. After I made a payment, I charged something else on the card. I used eBay to recycle my wardrobe. I couldn’t break the cycle.
In 2009, I used a small inheritance to move to the city. I was miserable living at home and spending three hours each day commuting. (This was just before living at home became trendy.) I always paid my rent on time, but I was constantly stressed out about money. After I made all of my minimum payments and paid for my utilities, there was barely enough money left for food. I couldn’t take it anymore.
I saw a credit counselor and he said that unless I earned more money, I was headed toward bankruptcy. The thought terrified me. I felt like filing for bankruptcy would mean I was officially a failure, and I was also against it because I believe when you borrow money you should pay it back. I owed $33,000 on eight credit cards.
Two years later, I am on a payment plan. When my cards are paid off, they will be closed. I have paid down half of my debt and I’m a little more than two years away from being debt-free. I don’t have cable and I have taken up extreme couponing on a small scale. My wardrobe is nowhere near as stylish as it used to be. I rarely blog about fashion anymore, although I have written a lot about personal finance.
My biggest regret about racking up all of this debt is that paying it off involved sacrificing what is truly important to me. It put a strain on my relationships. I’m not free to move or travel or change jobs. I have to miss out on happy hours and dinners and birthdays with friends because I simply can’t afford it. I know two years isn’t forever, but it feels like it.