Today I wanted to share the story of how I cleared £60,000 in credit card debt after my divorce.
I know from personal experience that paying off debt can be hard. And scary. Especially when you’re a single parent – because it really does all come down to you. There’s no buffer.
People have all sorts of emotions tied up in money. We feel guilty for spending it, ashamed if we don’t have enough, embarrassed if it looks as though we have too much.
Those emotions stop us from really taking a long, hard look at our finances and saying, “Okay, this is where I am now. This is where I want to be. And here’s how I’m going to get there.”
But I figure if I can do it, anyone can. Seriously.
Long story short: I graduated in my 20s and worked in London as a journalist. I saved regularly and I was able to buy a flat within a few years. I moved in with my boyfriend and we used my savings to pay a deposit on a shared house. For a few years, everything went pretty much exactly to plan.
Then “stuff” happened.
We got married – I used the last of my savings to pay for a big wedding. I used a credit card to pay for the honeymoon. I had a baby (hurrah!) and started working part-time, meaning a big drop in income (not so hurrah!)
At that point, it turned out that not only did my husband have no savings, he also had around £100,000 in very unmanaged debt. Within the space of a few years I’d gone from having savings and stability to being strapped for cash, with a bunch of debts, no savings, massive expenses, and a new baby.
When we divorced a year later (not because of financial stress, but it certainly didn’t help) I found myself £60,000 in debt. I had my credit card debt, an overdraft that had built up while I was working part-time and a huge set of debts from the costs of getting divorced.
I got a mortgage for a new house, but the rate wasn’t especially competitive. I had to use every penny from the sale of the marital home to secure our new home. I quickly found that big debt is terrifying. It keeps you awake at night, and stops you from answering the phone, because it’s only going to be someone asking for money you don’t have.
It took six years, but eventually I cleared my debt. Here I’m sharing some of my top tips to save money and clear debt:
1. Do a money audit
Because money is so emotionally fraught, many of us just don’t look at it properly. For me, the turning point was adding up everything I owed, marking the interest rates so I knew which debt was costing most.
I had one spreadsheet detailing everything I owed, and another detailing everything I earned, month by month. It’s good to see everything in black and white, and seeing your debt shrink month by month is pretty great. Even if it’s only a small amount each month.
2. Talk to People
If you’re in trouble with money, there’s loads of advice available. At the very least, call companies you are behind with, and ask them to freeze accounts while you catch up. Ask your bank to suspend your direct debits so you’re not racking up more charges. The good news is there are new guidelines that should ensure any company you owe money to deals with you in a more human way than used to be the case. You should expect them to be sympathetic, professional and open to reaching a realistic solution that doesn’t leave you unable to meet essential costs.
3. Live within your Means
During my 20s, life was lived on an Amex. After my divorce, during my 30s, I lived on what I had (mostly because Amex took the card back). When I wrote my car off, I took the bus for as long it took me to save for a new car.
Above all, resist the temptation to roll all your debts into a new loan or overdraft. That way madness lies. Not to mention even bigger debt. This was the trap my ex-husband fell into, and it saw his debt double within five years.
4. Monetise your Skills
Clearing debt means maximising your income as well as reducing spending. I looked at the skills I had as a freelance journalist, and monetised them in different ways. I also sold everything that wasn’t nailed down on eBay.
I could write – so I became a writing coach for PR agencies, training up new recruits. I worked direct with businesses, and wrote press releases, customer newsletters, case studies and the like. I could type, so I transcribed committee meetings for a chartered organisation. Little extras, and they all added up.
5. Complain to Save
I’m pathologically British. If something breaks, or doesn’t work, then my instinct is to apologise. Clearly, I must have done something wrong.
But that doesn’t work if you want to save cash. When I was clearing my debt, I queried every parking ticket (and won, 50% of the time). I asked for refunds when computers broke, or when parcels I sent on an urgent service arrived late. If clothes got worn through after two weeks, I sent them back and asked for replacements or refunds. I even complained about bank charges and managed to claw back over £4,000 all told.
6. Check your Bank Statements
This one is really important if you’re a money-phobe like me. Because mistakes DO happen and if you don’t look at your bank statements, you’ll never know.
One year, I discovered I was being charged for Flea’s karate classes, a year after she’d quit the class – we complained and the bank refunded us £400 on the spot. I’ve also accidentally subscribed to Amazon Prime more than once, and requested a refund after spotting the charge on my statement.
7. Set Saving Goals
When I was broke, I had a plan to pay off debt. Now I’m less broke, I have a savings plan. This is a chart that sets out the things I want to save for in the short-term (school fees, travel), medium-term (university) and long-term (don’t die in poverty and be eaten by cats).
Having concrete plans written down makes saving a bit easier because in my head, I know it’s for something I find important. And it also informs how I save – which is that a fixed amount is transferred out of my account each month and split into about four different sorts of investment or savings account, each with a shorter or longer-term focus.
I’ll be honest – I still find money anxiety-inducing.
I still prefer not to think about it. I definitely still flinch when a brown envelope drops through the door. It’s a reflex, at this point.
But hopefully, I’ve done enough to avoid the dying-in-poverty and being catfood scenario…that feels like a win.
What are your top tips for saving cash? I’d love to hear them in the comments.
This post is sponsored by Aviva UK. All words and thoughts are my own. Check out the Save Smarter tool for insight into your financial style and tips on how to save smarter.