I Haven’t Paid My Credit Card Bills in Months

It’ll be okay. Maybe. I hope.

Photo credit: frankieleon (cropped), CC BY 2.0.

For the first two years of college, I managed to avoid signing up for a credit card. I had learned through watching my parents struggle with their bills that the less bills I had, the happier I would be.

It wasn’t until I was in desperate need of a new pair of glasses that I was introduced to my first credit line. I was approved for a $3,000 limit and purchased a $700 pair of glasses that lasted for almost four years. In the beginning, I paid the balance down diligently — I didn’t want to get stuck with a bill that I couldn’t pay and had heard enough about of the dangers of the boogeymen coming to collect on unpaid debts in the night.

It wasn’t long before I got in over my head.

Within a year, I maxed out my balance trying to get some dental work done. The purchase was necessary, but rather than look into other financing options (including waiting until I had money saved up), I just charged it to the card. Things only went downhill from there.

There was a period in my life where I applied for five or six cards at once, trying to supplement my dismal income while I was studying full-time. Every time I applied for another credit card, I’d tell myself that I had enough income to make on-time payments and that my purchases were justified. My inability to view my financial situation for what it was (and act accordingly) caused a lot of trouble.

The reality of my financial situation is that most months, I’m choosing between eating more than one meal a day and paying down my skyrocketing balances. (I’m tiny — I need food, or I might blow away in a strong breeze.) Even before I took the leap into the freelance jungle, I wasn’t making enough at my full-time jobs to cover all my expenses. Oftentimes I’d have to choose between paying rent and car insurance and making a credit card payment.

The “what should I choose to pay this month” cycle has continued for over a year — and it’s been a rough one as a result. Most days I’m sitting there staring at my statements wishing I could go back in time and—sounding suspiciously like Christopher Lloyd—scream loudly, “Great Scott, don’t do it Marty! You’re gonna lose this job in three months and you won’t make an on-time payment for the next year!”

If only reaching 88 MPH in the DeLorean could solve all my financial woes.

The truth of the matter is that I took out lines of credit without truly considering what would happen if, at some point in the future, I couldn’t make the monthly payment. I didn’t consider my financial health to be of any importance as I filled out each application.

I considered the funds as additions to my wealth, and spent accordingly. Rather than use the credit and then pay off the balance on a monthly basis (as I should have), I maxed my cards out in a week and let the balance accrue interest. Minimum payments don’t make much of a dent when I’m battling against 25 percent interest. (Ugh, visibly shuddering at that APR.)

I had to get honest about my finances.

Before I could even get to a place where I wasn’t screening collections calls like it was my job, I forced myself to sit down and take a brutally honest look at where I was financially.

Next to getting sober, it was the hardest thing I’ve done in recent memory. No one likes to look at how much of a hole they’ve dug for themselves. I lined up all my bills and split them into specific categories: monthly bills (utilities, rent, etc.,), credit cards, and student loans. Then I added a separate category that included the “fun stuff:” Netflix, expenses from eating out, cigarettes, etc.; and another one that included the necessities like gas for my car and groceries.

After a bit of math, here’s what I came up with: I am living far outside my means.

The amount of money I’m taking in monthly is not enough to cover even a fraction of what I’m spending. Deep down, I’ve known that all along. Chalk it up my Taurean need for material comfort or my inability to say “no” to a night out — it doesn’t matter. I can’t afford the lifestyle I’ve been living for the last three years. I don’t have the luxury of doing whatever the hell I want when I’ve got bills to pay.

I spent a lot of time complaining about how I never have money for things, but at the same time I’m pretty great at making “ignorance is bliss” work in my life. If I was ever going to get out from under my debt, then I needed a plan.

Step One: Cut out what you don’t need.

This is different for everyone. Some might stop eating out, or only hit the mall once a month. Take a look at places where you can trim the fat on your monthly budget, and actually do it. Set boundaries for yourself and keep them.

For me, it became clear that I had to sell my car, quit smoking, and say no to myself when I wanted to order takeout instead of cook at home.

I’m fortunate enough to live in a city that has a relatively reliable public transportation system, and my student status at the local university allows me to ride the bus anywhere for free. I spent over $650 a month on my car payment, insurance, and gas last month.

I spent roughly the same amount on cigarettes, takeout, and various other things last month as well. That’s more than my monthly rent. I’ll let that sink in for a second.

No wonder I can’t start a savings or pay down a credit balance.

Step Two: Start Repayment

There are various ways to pay down exorbitant balances without starving yourself in the process. I have some close friends who pay things off with equal payments (usually minimum payments) until the balance is gone. The one issue I have with that method is that generally, you’ll end up paying way more in interest over the course of the repayment period than you would if you paid it off faster.

My solution is to implement a debt snowball plan in order to pay off my balances. It worked for my parents, who paid off more than $50,000 in bills in just two years using a version of this repayment plan. If I can pinpoint a minimum amount of income that I know I’ll bring in each month, then I’ll be able to start working my way through my bills and pay them off one by one.

So what’s next?

One of the first things I did was cancel all my paid subscriptions , like Netflix, SiriusXM for my car, Hulu, and Spotify. That action alone put $100 a month back into my account.

I also put my car up for sale. I’m not driving the vehicle and will continue to make payments on the car until it’s sold. If all goes well, it should be gone by next week.

I haven’t bought a pack of cigarettes in a couple of days, which has already saved me more than 40 dollars. I’m a little cranky, but determined to get out from under, and the added health benefits are totally worth the uncomfortable experience of nicotine withdrawals.

I’ve budgeted a grocery allowance for myself that’s been helpful in forcing me to plan meals and pack lunches for myself on a regular basis. Funnily enough, I’m a decent cook. I just never gave myself the chance to explore the culinary side of the creative world.

By taking a few simple actions to cut back my spending, I’ve been able to put a payment towards the highest credit balance for the first time in months. I gotta be honest, it feels pretty damn good.

I’m optimistic that I’ll be able to get my spending under control over the next six months. I graduate from college this coming May, and pretty soon after that I’ll be looking at much larger balances than what I owe on my credit cards. If I can get into the rhythm of paying my bills regularly and reduce my spending each month, then I won’t have to choose between food and defaulting on my loans.

I suppose you could say that I’ll be able to have my cake and eat it too—but only if I bake it myself.

Melanie Buer is a freelance writer and full-time Literature student based in Omaha, Nebraska. When she isn’t in the library doing research for her thesis, you can find her in the back of her favorite coffee shop writing poetry about her cat. Follow her on Twitter via @scripturientxx

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