I’ve been asked some very good questions since I wrote about financial accountability earlier this month. Let’s talk about the one I get asked the most: How do you live without using credit cards?
I can tell you honestly that cutting up the cards and moving to a life where I only spend the money I already have was a challenging transition for me. At the time I made this change, I had never ever traveled without putting the airfares, the hotels—everything—on a credit card. And then paying minimum payments on large and ever-increasing balances for years.
(To be even more honest, the credit card wasn’t just a tool I used for vacations. I am here to tell you I used it to buy clothing, diapers and food as well. I had no realistic relationship to my actual income and my actual money. For years.)
Concurrent with this use of credit was the fact that I had no savings. No savings for contingencies. No savings for retirement. No savings for future desired or necessary expenses. See how these work together? No savings account…car needs tires…whip out a card. No savings account…need a root canal…whip out the card again. Who needs savings when you have Visa and Mastercard?
When I finally asked for help, one of the first actions I was offered as a solution was this simple and gigantically impactful change: let go of the cards. The card-cutting ceremony (one I have been privileged to lead for many others since) was traumatic—I really didn’t see how I would ever buy anything again—any furniture, any clothing, any travel. I had stepped into a completely unknown reality. Here I was paying cash for everything; training myself to keep track of my expenses; I had no savings; was barely making my monthly expenses; and I was in a fair amount of shock. I wasn’t in the place where setting up retirement accounts and savings account felt achievable (those both happened, and grew, but it took time).
In the transition period, it was gently suggested to me that I identify the things for which I wanted to save and try what I found to be a completely brilliant suggestion—the envelope method of savings. I started with three or four envelopes: one for contingencies (unplanned and necessary expenses; think car repair or root canal); one for my next vacation; one for retirement; one for a new couch. I took actual envelopes, wrote the purpose for each one in marker on the front, and put one dollar in each one. Really. Every week or two, I took some money and fed the envelopes—sometimes $1 in each, sometimes $5, sometimes more. In the first two years, I was so uncertain about this! I didn’t trust myself not to raid the envelopes. So I protected myself from my fears by renting a safe deposit box and using it to hold the envelopes.
I visited my envelopes regularly and kept records of how much I had saved in each envelope. I don’t know how it works really, but this helped turn my whole financial life around. Within a year or so, I took a vacation to the Virgin Islands and paid for it from money I had saved! The next time my car battery needed replacing, I paid for it from money I had saved. Now, over twenty years later, I have a savings account, I have a retirement account, and I pay for whatever I buy from funds I already have.
It’s a brilliant and freeing way to live. Please join the conversation by commenting: How have you freed yourself from consumer debt? Share your tools with us. And of course, if you want some help with this, please email me at Sue@MagnoliasWest.com and we will roll up our sleeves and dive into this. I would be honored!