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I’m Dealing With Debt – and I Write About Money for a Living

Anyone can find themselves in debt. Being ashamed of it only makes matters worse.

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Kelly Ernst/CNET

I’ve been a personal finance writer for over a decade, covering a wide range of topics from budgeting to 401(k)s. So, I know a good amount about how to manage your money. And yet, like many people, I’m paying down what feels like a mountain of debt. And for the longest time, I was ashamed of that.

Money stigma is real, but it shouldn’t be. The truth is that many people are struggling with debt, and treating it like a dirty little secret doesn’t help us deal with it. I hope that by sharing my story, I can make the topic a little less taboo -- and help others battling big balances feel a little less alone.

How I got into debt (twice)

It was 2004, and I was fresh out of college -- a decade away from becoming a money writer and with zero personal finance education despite my degree. (Financial literacy should be a key component of our educational curriculum, but that’s a rant for another time.) I had a vague sense that credit card debt was “bad,” but it was just so easy to swipe that plastic and forget about it, especially when I didn’t grasp the dangers of compound interest. A night out here, a new outfit there -- at about $20 a pop, each purchase seemed minor at the time. But those “little” purchases added up to almost $10,000 in debt.

After graduation, I quickly learned my entry-level paycheck wasn’t enough to knock out the debt I’d built up. I treaded water with minimum payments for a few years, thinking I was doing the right thing, but eventually realized I was trapped in an endless cycle of mounting interest and didn’t know how to get out. 

Making only minimum payments on your credit card balance is “like trying to eat a bowl of rice with chopsticks, a single grain at a time,” said Todd Christensen, education manager at Money Fit, a nonprofit debt relief program. “It takes forever, and your stomach still feels empty.” 

Christensen added that it can take between 15 to 25 years to break free from this debt if you pay only the minimum amount due -- and it can lock you into a debt loop like I was experiencing.

I needed help, fast. I enrolled in a payment plan with a nonprofit credit counseling organization and, over the next few years, diligently paid off my debt. I also paid off my car loan. When the last payment was made, I was elated and ready to use the money I’d freed up to swiftly pay down the last bit of debt my then-husband had also accumulated.

Then, life happened. 

With no warning, my husband’s health deteriorated rapidly. He was diagnosed with a chronic illness and he had to stop working. He applied for disability benefits, a process that can take years, and in the meantime, his medical bills were swiftly mounting. I quit my writing and editing work to go back to my former career in the legal field, ending up at a firm that gave me a higher income but also an unhealthy amount of pressure.

The stress of keeping our household afloat exacerbated some of my own health issues, and after months of trying to make everything work, I had to go on short-term disability leave myself. Before we knew it, our emergency savings was gone and the debt I’d worked so hard to wipe out started piling up all over again.

I felt like a fraud and a failure. I’d done many things “right,” and yet we were back to square one.

What I’ve learned from my debt struggles

In hindsight, there’s always something you could have done differently. I could have built up a bigger emergency fund instead of directing all my extra money to pay off debt as fast as possible. I could have stuck with my previous job, rather than jumping back into the legal field, which was less lucrative but better for my mental health. I also could have found more manageable ways to make ends meet, like taking on a side gig when I had time. 

But the truth is, anyone can find themselves facing debt, even if you’ve checked all the boxes to avoid it. One high-cost medical bill is all it could take to unravel your finances. And if that happens, the best way to move forward is to have the right tools to get back on track.

My new attitude toward debt

As of right now, I’ve consolidated my current credit card debt into a personal loan with a low APR and am aggressively paying it off. I’m also taking steps to prevent myself from winding back up in this situation, whatever happens in the future. But if I do find myself back in debt again, I also now have better strategies in place to manage it. 

Here’s how I’m approaching my debt differently.

Giving myself grace

We’re only human, which means sometimes, we make less-than-perfect decisions. And sometimes, life has a way of derailing even our best-laid plans.

Alaina Fingal, owner of The Organized Money and CNET Financial Review Board member, said that for many of her clients, debt is a result of “a major life event -- job loss, a medical emergency, someone passing who was providing the income to your family. And then that shame comes up because you feel like you should be able to manage. But it’s not just that you’re really, really bad with money.”

If you’re struggling with your finances -- however you got here -- beating yourself up over it doesn’t do any good. In fact, it can make things worse and leave you feeling more isolated. Instead, focus on what you can do now to get yourself back on track and know that you’re not alone.

Not neglecting my emergency fund

I was so focused on paying down my initial debt that I didn’t direct enough money to our emergency fund. Had we had the three to six months of expenses experts recommend saving for, it could have given us the breathing room we needed to re-evaluate our situation when my husband got sick and come up with a better game plan.

Now, I’m making a concerted effort to build my emergency savings and pay down my remaining debt simultaneously. To free up the funds to do this, I’m trying every trick in the frugality playbook, from savings challenges to joining my local Buy Nothing group. Things will feel a little tight for a little longer, but in the end, it will be more than worth it.

Not neglecting my health

Financial health doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Your physical and mental health can greatly impact your ability to earn money and make financial decisions -- as well as lead to pricey medical bills. While there’s nothing you can do to head off a chronic illness, you can invest in your general health by recognizing your limits and not sacrificing self-maintenance for extreme goals. If you don’t, it could hurt your finances for years to come.

Talking about money

The fact that money is a taboo topic for many people -- and women specifically are less likely to feel comfortable talking about it -- can make it hard to stick to our financial resolutions. While I haven’t disclosed my debt struggles to many people, I’ve been learning to embrace the philosophy of loud budgeting. I have yet to find someone who’s judged me for wanting to be more frugal. In fact, most people admit they should be better about doing the same.

“It seems on social media, like a lot of people have figured it out, but in reality, some people are pretending to have it all figured out,” Fingal said. “I think that we don’t have the conversation enough around that process or that journey. We see the success stories blowing up really big, and they’re very attractive and fun, but the slow process of budgeting every single month or living under your means is not as fun or as popularized, so it seems like everyone else has it together.”

I’ve also learned that sharing your money struggles -- not just your money goals and wins -- can be invaluable. I was too embarrassed to admit the full scope of my situation to friends or family, but letting a few trusted people in could have reduced my stress and helped me brainstorm better solutions. Even if I hadn’t been comfortable doing that, there are plenty of support groups and forums online I could have turned to to feel less alone.

“We have so much judgment sometimes around debt, and in the past, we’ve had a lot of financial educators who’ve shamed us and made us feel like it’s our fault this particular thing happened or we weren’t prepared for this particular life event,” Fingal said. “It’s caused more people to retreat and not talk about it, and a lot of people are experiencing the same thing.”

There’s no one right way to get out of debt

When it comes to paying off debt, the best strategy for you depends on your financial situation. Some people use personal loans, some use credit counseling agencies, and some use balance transfers. The important thing is finding the solution that fits your current budget and helps you knock out your debt fast without hurting your current and future financial goals. You shouldn’t feel bad for using one strategy over the other -- the important thing is that you’re taking steps to improve your financial situation.


In the meantime, go easy on yourself. You might be surprised how many people are in a similar situation.

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Kelly is an editor for CNET Money focusing on banking. She has over 10 years of experience in personal finance and previously wrote for CBS MoneyWatch covering banking, investing, insurance and home equity products. She is passionate about arming consumers with the tools they need to take control of their financial lives. In her free time, she enjoys binging podcasts, scouring thrift stores for unique home décor and spoiling the heck out of her dogs.
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