A few months ago I shared my own personal story about debt, and I thought you might like an update. In addition to retiring my credit card and using cash or a debit card to pay for everything now, we’re officially $600 away from being debt-free. At the beginning of the year that number was $2964.00. With freedom in sight, I’ve been thinking about the situations, events and temptations that have taken me down the slippery slope of credit card debt in the past. I don’t profess to have all the solutions, but here are four steps I’ve taken to avoid new credit card debt:
1. Create an Emergency Savings Account
Twenty-four hours before my fiftieth birthday, our main sewer line broke in a big and dramatic fashion. One day I was in my 40s and life was fine, and the next day I was middle-aged, our front yard was torn up, and a man in coveralls was presenting me with a grubby $7500 bill for a sewer line. Let me say that again: I did not celebrate the advent of my golden years with a $7500 first-class trip on the Orient Express, I purchased a sewer line. Naturally I didn’t have $7500 set aside for such things, so I charged the sewer line on my Visa and spent the next three years paying it off.
My friends, learn from my experience and vow to live your life differently.
If you’re familiar with Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University, Baby Step #1 of his seven steps to financial freedom is to set up a $1000 emergency fund. Suze Orman recommends having three to six months of living expenses set aside. My suggestion? At the minimum, set aside the full amount of your family’s annual out-of-pocket liability on your health insurance policy. Oh, and you may wish to accumulate $7500 or so and tuck it away in an account in case you ever need a new sewer line. The “bottom” line? Having an emergency fund will help you avoid using a credit card for emergencies. By the way, have you had your sewer line scoped recently? Most physicians recommend doing this procedure annually.
2. Set Up a Freedom Account
If you’re like many of us, each year brings a few zinger bills — those large chunks of money due for items like taxes, car insurance premiums, accountants, HOA fees and the like. Those big expenses can derail a budget quickly. Wouldn’t it be nice to already have the money set aside? You can, Kemosabe.
Simply make a little spreadsheet, figure out the amounts and dates due, add the totals together and divide by 12. Create a separate savings account—which I like to call the Freedom Account because it has such a nice, hopeful ring to it—and contribute regularly. The more we can all regulate our expenses and smooth out those budgetary ups and downs, the easier it is to stick to goals and stay on track.
3. Open a Vacation Account
When my daughter studied abroad in Denmark, she invited me to come stay with her at the end of her term. The timing happened to coincide wonderfully with a friend’s offer to visit her beach apartment in Spain. The one teensy weensy minor detail to these wonderful invitations was a sorry lack of cash, so I charged the whole shebang on my already-beleaguered Visa card (even though I hadn’t yet paid off my sparkling new sewer line). It’s so easy to swipe that card, but as many of us know it can take years and years and years of scraping by to reduce the balance. Paying off credit card balances (and the accompanying interest) for things that happened years ago is not fun.
I am of the view that vacations are necessities, though, so we must plan accordingly. Now we have a dedicated savings account just for vacations, and you can, too. Like me, you may wish to set up your vacation account at a different bank from the one where you keep your primary account—perhaps one that’s clear across town—so you’re less tempted to dip into it. Credit unions are especially accommodating about setting up multiple accounts without fees for savers.
4. Keep Some Cash Around
Cash is a handy thing to have on hand, as I have discovered countless times.
It’s useful for paying a tow truck driver late at night (don’t ask), an unplanned babysitter, and the arborist who was working at the neighbor’s house and agreed to trim our leggy locust tree for $75 cash. Even small amounts can reduce stress, like keeping a few dollars worth of quarters and other change in the car’s glove compartment for unexpected parking meters or tolls. Some people tuck a $20 or $50 in a hidden place in their wallet for emergencies, an idea I admire endlessly even though I was not blessed with the gift of being able to keep cash in a wallet. At the other end of the spectrum, a friend of a friend recently discovered a hundred hundred-dollar bills (that’s right, a cool ten grand) that her dad had tucked away with his will to pay for his funeral expenses.
Of course, if you keep some cash around there is always the risk that something will happen to it. Feelin’ crafty? You could make a cool, secret book safe to stash small amounts of cash.
Fireproof safes and safety deposit boxes are probably better choices for significant amounts of cash, not that I’ve successfully accumulated a large pile myself. But it could happen, Kemosabe.
How about you? What situations, emergencies or temptations caused you unplanned debt in the past, and how do you avoid them now? Do you have multiple savings accounts? How do you handle those big, chunky annual bills? What do you think about keeping cash around? I’d love love love to hear your thoughts, stories and strategies.
My hope is that we can all enjoy the financial freedom and peace that comes from not carrying around a heavy burden of debt.