By Adele Stewart
I remember it like it was yesterday. The first time I touched it, I knew we would have a special bond. I recall running my fingers over its bumps and feeling its smooth front under my fingertips. It didn’t really smell like anything, though—mostly like the envelope it came out of.
My first credit card beamed back at me, my name glimmering on the front underneath a trail of digits.
“We are going to have so much fun together,” I said to my card as I slid it into its designated home in my wallet.
I had been waiting for this card since I received a letter telling me I was pre-approved for some extra college cash.
I was a junior in college at the time. I had a hostess job at school that I absolutely hated going to. I found myself calling off on weekends so I could pregame before going out to the bar with my friends, instead of barreling through a quick six-hour shift. I had a terrible habit of not paying my bills on time because I never really saved any of my paychecks.
I was every credit bureau’s worst nightmare.
Upon receiving the letter that I somehow was qualified for a credit card with a $1,000 limit, I figured this was the answers to my prayers.
It wasn’t until about 45 days into some major spending that I realized a credit card was absolutely, 100 percent, not free money.
I was trying to purchase $50 worth of groceries at the local Walmart and my card got declined. I immediately called my mother, because what else are you supposed to do when you’re 21 and publicly humiliated at the cash register at the cheapest store in the United States? At first she was shocked that I even had a credit card. It seemed I had kept that information from her.
She said, “Well, have you been paying your minimum?”
“Um… my what?”
“You’re kidding me, right? Have you not been paying on your card?”
“See, here’s the thing… no?”
My mom then lost most of her shit. I had to smile weakly and gesture to the cashier who was still impatiently waiting for me to pay for my stuff, that I would be just another minute on the phone.
After my mother finished swearing at me about being irresponsible with my money, I hung up and smiled at the cashier.
“Can you swipe it again? I just paid on it.”
My life became a series of, “I just paid it off” and “Oh, my payment probably hasn’t gone through yet.”
It was exhausting.
I let the errors of my 21-year-old financially inept self follow me around for an unnecessary amount of time. I was still terrible at money. Every time I thought I was ahead, I found myself 10 steps behind only months later.
I was starting to fall into a deep and very dark financial hole—going out for lunch when I had already packed a perfectly filling meal, buying new clothes with every new paycheck, while also paying for my student and car loans, insurance, and (of course) my credit card payments.
It wasn’t until a recent injury left me incapable of leaving my couch, that I realized maybe it was time to stop spending and start saving.
I pulled out a piece of notebook paper, my checkbook, my Mint account and a pen to begin my planning process. It took me about two hours to figure out when everything was due and how long it would take me to pay off certain bills. Since it’s taken me such a long time to get my finances together, I figured I could relay how I did this in the form of five easy free tips for the financially impaired twenty-something:
1. Sign up for a Mint account (or any budgeting software)
On Mint you are able to get your free credit score and see a graded summary of your spending habits. You can add all of your cards and loans to be notified when a bill is due and to track your spending. Mint also lets you budget on how much you spend monthly on food, entertainment, and other expenses based off of your income.
2. Pay off your lowest balance first
If you have two credit cards and one has a balance of $125 and the other a balance of $300, put a little more towards paying off that $125 than the $300.
3. Try to pay more than your monthly minimum
Figure out how much you owe total and divide it by a reasonable time frame which you can pay it off. For example, if your balance is $300 and your minimum is $25/month, you’re going to be dishing out $25 for 12 months. Imagine paying that back in half the time. Pay $50 a month instead of $25. You’ll be done in six months, and your credit score will rock.
4.) Stop with unnecessary monthly charges
I am so guilty of this—who isn’t? But when you’re not very good with money, you shouldn’t be dishing excessive amounts of money into other people’s pockets every month. I had two gym memberships. TWO—for two gyms I barely had time to attend. One cost me $89 for an unlimited amount of classes. Being a collector of Jillian Michaels DVDs and having some nice equipment at home, I realized this was totally crazy. If I absolutely need to head to the gym, I can pay $10 up front before the class.
With gimmicks like Hulu and Netflix, why are you still paying for cable? Either-or, sister.
5. Ditch the credit card
Pay it off, freeze it, burn it, bury it—just stop using it. If you don’t have the money already at your disposal, for heaven’s sake, DON’T USE IT. Obviously emergencies happen where you simply don’t have the funds, but avoid using that plastic piece of poison the best that you can.
I will finally be “debt” free by the end of March, assuming I don’t get wild in these next 10 weeks and buy a purebred puppy or something completely superfluous like a pair of Elsa Peretti Diamond earrings.
I’m not telling you to break your most valuable bones in order to budget your finances and pay off your credit card debt, but it won’t hurt you to take the night off and figure it out. You will never know true financial freedom until you do.
Adele spent most of her preteen years getting yelled at for writing inappropriate romance shorts in 7th grade math class. At 25 she has lived in one part of Pennsylvania, then another, then another to finally return back to her native land of Erie, Pennsylvania after college. A marketing strategist by day and local theater actress by night, Adele spends most of her time creating. If she’s not writing tips to get over a bad breakup, or using humor to recover from a crappy situation, she is just writing to see her thoughts on paper. She enjoys creating lists, but not list posts; drinking a bottle of wine or three; laughing at poorly executed jokes; yelling obscenities at the refs on TV during Pittsburgh Steelers games; and carbs.