Debt Déjà Vu: Get out of Debt And STAY out!

DH = Dear Husband

“How To Get out of Debt And STAY out of Debt”

Every once in a while, I come across the title of a blog post that goes something like this: “How to Get out of Debt And STAY out of Debt.” My response to such titles has always been, Why would anyone need advice on how to “STAY” out of debt once they’ve dug their way out? – and I move on, in search of a post that speaks to me.

DH and I have been on a journey out of debt for three and a half years now. Our story is a common one: Bad money habits, followed by financial crisis – in our case, a prolonged period of under-employment for DH – followed by better fortune – in our case, DH’s successful launch of a home business – and the resolve to manage better. Since June of 2012, we’ve knocked an average of $3,300 per month off of our $257,000 grand total of consumer, business, and mortgage debt, leaving us with $116,000 (mortgage only) to go. Once it’s all gone, are we really going to need advice about how to “STAY” out of debt?

Déjà Vu

Over the Christmas holidays, I set aside an afternoon to de-clutter one bedroom cupboard. It was full of “keepsakes” – everything from our daughters’ childhood works of art, to years’ worth of birthday cards, to old newspaper clippings . . . I threw out about half of it and organized the rest. The most startling find of that afternoon’s effort was a hand-written chart, taped onto two pieces of large yellow construction paper glued together, with the title, “The Slow and Painful Death of our Massive Debt: March 1994-March 1997.” Déjà vu!

I remembered that DH and I had paid off some debts early in our marriage, and I remembered that I had charted our progress. But I’d forgotten what a significant and detailed undertaking it had been. I knew it was significant at the time. I must have. I had the chart laminated, and I’d stored it as a keepsake.

  • $38,614.99 of total debt
  • owing in 6 different directions
  • to 2 sets of parents, 2 different banks, Visa, “Government” (?)
  • a 3-year effort

For 36 months, I had kept track of our progress, writing an exuberant “PAID!” for each debt overcome, and a big  at the end of it all.

“Once it’s all gone, are we really going to need advice about how to ‘STAY’ out of debt?”


Clearly, our debt-slaying episode of 1994-1997 did not prevent our much more significant episode of debt-slaying from 2012 – ? The question is, why didn’t it?

1994-1997 vs. 2012 – ?

  • Treating the symptom vs. treating the disease

When we paid off our debts in the ’90s, we were focused exclusively on the numbers. At no time did I ever reflect upon the bad money-management that had led to those debts. It was “normal” to be in debt. We hadn’t done anything wrong. It was all about math, and paying off the debt was the solution.

Now, we are more focused  upon the underlying attitudes that got us into debt. It’s not simply a numbers game. Paying off the debt brings into focus the diseases in question: materialism, consumerism, a desire to keep up with the Joneses, and a buying into the false and ubiquitous messages of marketers to buy happiness. Paying off the debt will be the byproduct of changing ourselves – which is the real solution.

  • Going through debt-repayment on our own vs. with support

When we paid off our debts in the ’90s, it was a private matter. I remember that I kept the chart in our bedroom – to avoid any chance of anyone else seeing it. No doubt we knew plenty of people who were also dealing with debt, but we never talked with them about it. At that time, the internet was not as widely used as it is today. It wasn’t used at all by me. I don’t even know if anyone blogged about debt or personal finances in the mid-’90s.

Now, we are willing to talk about our journey out of debt with just about anyone. Family members, colleagues, people at church, neighbours – even the occasional stranger will hear about our debts. I’ve actually had to learn to filter my eagerness for debt-talk. And the internet offers an online personal finance community filled with people trying to become debt-free and financially free – a community that is generous in encouraging others on the same trek.

  • Debt-repayment without learning vs. eagerness to know more

In the ’90s, we didn’t think we had anything to learn. It wasn’t easy to pay off the debt, but it was a no-brainer.

This time around, we’re learning so much! We learn from people who share their experience in conversations, blog posts, and comments. We learn from books we’ve read, like Dave Ramsey’s The Total Money Makeover and Teresa Ghilarducci’s How to Retire with Enough Money. We learn from the news media, recognizing our personal debt as part of a larger societal context. Debt is not a no-brainer. There are layers of influence at work in our personal finances, and the more we learn about them, the more effectively we can deal with them.

  • Arrogance vs. humility

In the ’90s, we had it made. We were a young couple with promising careers ahead of us. Our incomes were only going to go up, and if we played it right, we’d be living the life in no time.

Now, we take nothing for granted. There are no guarantees when it comes to income, health, or unexpected expenses. We are grateful when things go well, but we aren’t assured that they always will. We do the best that we can given the ups and downs of our situation, and our goal is not to “live the life”, but to live without the burden of financial stress. Experience has humbled us.

And in keeping with that acquired humility, the next time I come across a blog post title that goes something like this: “How to Get out of Debt And STAY out of Debt” . . . I’m going to read it.

Are you paying off too-much-debt for the 2nd (or 3rd) time? What do you think is the secret to getting out of debt and STAYING out of debt? Your comments are welcome.


28 comments on “Debt Déjà Vu: Get out of Debt And STAY out!

  1. Having been debt free for only five months now, when I get the travel itch I have to remind myself of just how LONG it took to get completely out of debt and adjust my attitude from “do it now” to “wait and save”, I know I will truly enjoy the delayed gratification with no regrets.

    1. It’s still fresh in your mind, Nancy, and I hope you don’t lose that memory of how LONG it took to win your debt-freedom. It’s truly great that you are choosing to delay southern travel for now (because of the low Canadian dollar). I hope that travels will be in your near future – when and where you decide it’s wisest to go.

  2. I’ve always had the opinion that planning to stay out of debt is just as important as planning to get out of debt. Many people work so hard to get out of debt and then just slide into bad habits as soon as their done.

    1. I did not always have that opinion – even though it turns out I’m a living example of it! I remember hearing a colleague say that he wanted to finish paying off a car . . . so that he could borrow money for a new one. It really is the pattern that most of us follow. I’ll start now to get myself in the right head-space NOT to do that again.

  3. Oh, Ruth, you know I’ve been there, done that, ad nauseam. That must’ve been really something finding that chart. Sometimes, we get the chance to see how we used to think, and hopefully learn from it. Thanks for sharing this revelation. I’m sure a lot of people will get a lot of light from it in relation to their own circumstances.

    1. Thanks Kay. I hope that I get a lot of light from it too! It WAS cool to find the chart and to get some insight into my past thinking processes. I really do believe that my future thinking processes will be much, much better : )

  4. Thanks so much for your candor in sharing this story.

    We’re working to pay down a lot of debt, and I can absolutely see the importance of changing behavior to preventing a debt relapse. It’s kind of like people who blow through large lottery wins. It seems incomprehensible, yet is probably pretty easy to do without serious behavior modification.

    1. I have always said that if I won the lottery, I would NOT blow through it. I’d be the exception. And maybe that’s true now, but it probably wasn’t when I was younger. It really is about allowing ourselves to change. All the best in your transformation, Amy. Here’s hoping you don’t need to do this twice!

  5. WOW – powerful post, Ruth!! Yes, we too have been debt free before, and have had all of the arrogance that went with that. SO different now. I know that we (and you guys) will stay out of debt this time. Different attitudes and mindsets. It feels great, doesn’t it?

    1. I really do think it will be different this time around, Laurie. The last time, it was about getting rid of the debt. This time, it’s about recognizing our defeating perceptions and patterns of behaviour – and getting rid of those. Sometimes, the 2nd act it the better one : )

  6. I have some friends who went through one of my Financial Peace University classes and even created a “Debt-Free Scream” video on Facebook to announce becoming debt-free, but just went back into debt this month to buy a new car. This was a completely normal practice in my mind six years ago, but now debt freedom means a whole lot more, so I couldn’t help but cringe. Either way, we learn from the choices we make.

    1. Ugh! It must have been very discouraging for you to have heard about that car loan! You must have wanted to say to them, “Noooooo! Get a junker for now! Save up! Don’t borrow!” I guess the bright side is that it emphasizes your commitment to stay out of debt. That’s a worthy commitment, Laura : )

    1. I can understand that tendency more for weight loss than I can for “losing” debt. But clearly, there’s a strong parallel. Thanks for that insight, Angie.

  7. Hopefully there will be no 2nd or 3rd time for us. It was one long slow painful journey and now that we are here I hope never to go back. I do remember thinking along the same lines “everyone has debt”, “we’ll earn more in the future”, those can be such big traps. It wasn’t until we fixed our behaviors and relationship with money that we saw the success.

    1. I believe you won’t have to go through it all a second time, Brian. You know that the change needed was a change in yourself – and you’ve made the necessary shift. So good riddance to the debt-trap!

  8. Yes, but at the very least the mentality behind it is totally different. And it was very difficult to fall back on, but I did out of necessity more than anything else. I would like to think it would never happen again, but life can throw you curve balls…however I will be armed much better with a HUGE cushion than I was before. That’s funny what you said about the internet and the 90’s. I wonder how much better off I’d be if I was able to read PF blogs back then!

    1. Yes, life CAN throw curve balls. And going into debt as a result of uncertain income combined with an emergency is not the same thing as going into debt to buy a sexy new car when there’s a perfectly good, all-paid 5-year-old car in the driveway. You are now in a position to set yourself up so that if you ever have to deal with that uncertainty again, you’ll be able to withstand it with the strength of much more back-up. Thanks for making that point, Tonya.

  9. I think you do have to focus on the underlying attitudes that got you into debt in the first place. I especially loved your statement…Why would anyone need advice on how to “STAY” out of debt once they’ve dug their way out? I’ve been there and clawed my way out, so I know all too well what it’s like to be down. I still have to claw my out of student loan debt however. And somewhat ironically, that was the plan for earning more income to get myself out of debt in the first place.

    Excellent post as always!

    1. There’s a certain vigilance that’s required, even when the debt is gone. When we got out of debt that first time, we went looking for our big dream home. And we maxed out on it. Ugh! It was, “Yay! We’ve made it! Now we can get on with life.” “Getting on” meant going back to the over-spending that was our default. This time around, “getting on” will mean something completely different.
      All the best in unloading that student debt, Laura Beth!

    1. Kalie, isn’t it great that you and your husband will never have to learn such lessons? For someone who has demonstrated so much wisdom so young, I think you’re pretty gracious to a slow learner like me!

  10. Only a few months after we finally paid off the last of the student/medical/moving debt, we dipped back into not being able to pay the credit card in full for about 2 months. Then I straightened us out.

    The relief of being done (and my having found a job) meant we weren’t watching money as carefully as we should’ve been. Well, that and the stray we took in required a ton of vet bills. So I still sorta blame her. Luckily for her, she’s adorable.

    Anyway, I got us back on the right path, though we then had to get into debt with a car loan when ours was totaled in an accident. There have been a lot of ups and downs. But I like to think that once this dental implant ridiculousness is out of the way, I’ll be able to loosen the reins a bit without going crazy. We’ll see how the theory bears out.

    1. Like I said to Tonya, there are very different circumstances that lead people into debt. A totaled car? Medical bills? There’s not much room for maneuver when it comes to those kinds of urgent expenses. In our case, the 2nd debt was started by our choice to max out on our mortgage. There was no urgency there. But it ended up causing urgency when our income suddenly went too low for us to meet our expenses without big time stress. I hope and believe that this time around, we’ll be debt-free, well-cushioned with savings, and in no danger of going back down that road. All the best to you as you steer through the “dental implant ridiculousness” and settle in to a new normal.

  11. I’ve been through a couple of bouts of unemployment now, and I definitely have a concern that if our financial situation gets better for a while, I won’t take advantage of it as well as I should to pay down our mortgage faster, save more for retirement/future periods of poor income and our daughter’s college instead of allowing our convenience spending to creep back up. I think I’ve changed, but have I really? I’m hoping writing about things and being part of a supportive community will keep me on the right track.

    1. Thanks for you comment, Emily! I believe that writing your blog (looks cool!) and reading & commenting on other pf blogs really will make a difference for you. There’s a mindfulness that develops – as well as a sense of accountability. I’m glad that things are going well for you now. And I hope that you succeed in making hay while the sun shines.

  12. This is very interesting. I’ve mentioned before that I paid down credit card debt several times. The highest it ever was was in the $9000 range (which took me about a year to pay off) but there were some other episodes with $3000-4000-ish balances.

    I think you’re totally right — the difference between those episodes and the latest one was that I never reflected on what underlying patterns had gotten me into those situations and what I could do differently in the future to avoid getting into the same situations. I just saw it as a math problem and once I’d solved the problem by paying the balance down, I just kept going the same way I had been. Now THAT is good food for thought.

    1. Very cool that you had a very similar experience. I’m glad you’re avoiding those patterns of behaviour now – as seen by the steady increase in your net worth. All the best in reinforcing these new habits, C : )

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