The Longest Night

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Over at I Will Teach You To Be Rich, Ramit is collecting stories about debt, and as the first anniversary of my financial armageddon approaches, it feels like the right time to write about it. I wrote about the meltdown before in passing:

So, what finally happened? One night, I came home from work and found five bills in the mail that added up to more than I had or would have for the next two weeks. I literally didn’t have the money to put food on the table at that point. I walked into the house and down the hallway to my son’s bedroom, where I saw my infant son bundled up in his bed taking a nap. I looked at him and realized that everything that I was doing was setting things up to make a very difficult childhood for him, not the wonderful one I wanted. I was worried all the time about money and I had learned that all he really needed from me was my love and attention.

When I wrote that paragraph, the pain of that time was still very fresh in my mind, and it was not easy to think about it at all, let alone write about it. Yet, even now, I can still close my eyes and imagine that day very, very clearly, and now it’s time to talk about it. I hope you’ll learn something from this story.

I remember standing there next to the mailbox, flipping through the mail, and seeing bill after bill after bill. I tore open a couple of them immediately, wanting to see the terrible news in its full glory.

And it was indeed terrible. When I went inside and began to calculate what I could afford to pay and what I could not, I began to quickly realize that the pile of bills I just received not only wouldn’t be covered by the current balance of my checking account, but that my next paycheck would not cover them either. In fact, my first glimmer of hope of actually having the money to cover these bills was over two weeks away – and that was if I spent absolutely nothing at all on food, gasoline, or anything else.

I sat there completely stunned for a moment, then I went for a walk. My wife and son weren’t home yet and so I had some time to walk around the neighborhood and think things through. But my mind wasn’t working very rationally at that point – thoughts of killing myself for the insurance money passed through my mind. My mind kept floating in circles, trying to find a way out of this, a way out that I had always been able to find before.

Here was the truth. I had credit card debt that extended into the five figures. I had a vehicle that was more expensive than I could handle that was barely half paid off. I had a huge amount of student loan debt, a large electrical bill, a stupendous cell phone bill, and a cable bill that was completely out of control. We were two weeks behind in paying for daycare, my truck was more than a thousand miles past needing an oil change, and a rent check was due in three days. My checking account balance was less than $100.

In short, even though my mind kept searching for a way out, another saving grace, part of me began to realize that there was no way out this time. I began to feel completely sick to my stomach and disgusted with myself, so I walked back home. My wife was there on the couch, flipping through a magazine, and my son was in his room taking a nap.

I went into my son’s room, closed the door behind me, and sat down in the rocking chair across from his crib. He was so tiny laying there, less than six months old, and he was sleeping so peacefully there without a worry in the world.

At first, I envied him. I wanted so badly to be in a situation without responsibility, to have my life in a place where I could just lie there in innocent sleep, without a worry troubling me.

But as I watched him lay there, gently breathing, another set of emotions began to take over. Guilt. Shame. Embarrassment. Pain. I was failing this wonderful little boy, this child who had already brought incalculable joy into my life. He looked to me and relied on me for everything, and because of my poor decision making and my selfishness, I was throwing it all away.

I closed my eyes and imagined the future I wanted for him, and then watched it dissolve into the future that he would have if I didn’t change things immediately. And I cried, almost uncontrollably. My wife, not entirely knowing what was wrong, came in and put her arm around me, and eventually my sobbing woke up my son, who also began crying. She held us both.

That very night, I stayed up the entire night searching the internet for information about personal finance, and I spent several hours in the darkness, holding my son and rocking back and forth in the chair with him. The next day, I went to the library and checked out an armload of books. I started trying everything I could get my hands on to see what would work, and every time I was tempted to spend money, I thought about my son.

It was not easy. It still isn’t. But all I have to do is remember the pain of that day – and then think about the promises I made to my son during that long night – and I realize what decisions are really the right ones.

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39 thoughts on “The Longest Night

  1. Thank you!

    I know these things can be painful to write about. But, the greatest good came from it. Not only have you turned your life around, but you’ve found a way to help others–a service that outweighs any wrong done in the past.

    Thank you again!

  2. That’s an amazing story. Thank you for sharing it with us. Chances are someone out there will read this and it’ll motivate them to make changes.

    Keep fighting the good fight.

  3. Although I feel terrible about how you got into this situation, I am so thankful for this website! I’ve been reading on and off through festivals and carnivals and recently added you to my daily reads folder. Thanks for the encouragement, for not being a guru, and for being so helpful! It’s great to hear from a guy just like the rest of us…

  4. Long time reader, but this is the first post that motivated me to comment.

    Thank you for your brutal honestly. I think a lot of Americans are in the similar situations but don’t have the guts to face the truth like you did.

    Hopefully, you’re story will be an example to us all.

    Your son is lucky to have a father willing to sacrifice for him (even if he doesn’t know it yet.)

  5. Thank you for writing that story! My wife and I have two young daughters also, so I understand your motivation for cleaning up. It’s the same reason I get up every morning, and go home every night!

  6. Chiming in with everyone else: Thank you.

    Reading about your successes and honest evaluation of your life helps inspire me to do the same.

    From your meltdown has come much good, and you have definitely helped others via this Blog.

    Please continue to offer up well-thought and well-written articles. We will continue to appreciate your efforts and admire your sacrifices.

  7. Long time reader here as well. Great story! Was wondering Trent, why don’t you put how much you’re in debt like other blogs out there? Won’t this help the accountability? For me, it would be a motivator, but I can understand why you wouldn’t either. Or maybe you could show your budget?

  8. Wow, thank you for sharing your story. I’m so glad that things are working out for you now, and I enjoy reading your posts.
    I’ve added you to my blog links.

  9. I had similiar low points where the gravity of the situation force me face reality. It was during this time, much like you, that I began to read to find answers to my problems. Among all the inspirational books out there one thing stood out.

    The past does not equal the future.

    Being in debt now or in the past doesnt mean you have to be in debt in the future. You can change at anytime. You can turn around anything no matter how bad the situation. You have to have the right attitude the right motivation and the right mind set.

    Thanks for telling your story. I am sure that many out there are reading and chills are running down their spine because it is much like their own story.

  10. Such a powerful story, Trent. Thanks for sharing. I’m so glad you’ve made the decisions you have to improve your finances. It really does affect life as a whole. (And glad you write this blog – as it inspires the rest of us to remember to get our financial “rears” in gear and why we do.)

    This has to go on your best of list! (Don’t worry about it being a vain thing – it’s a reader request!) I want to show this to my children when they are a bit older and can understand $ a bit better.

  11. As a fellow parent, this post almost brought me to tears. Sometimes it’s only the enormity of having someonelses wellbeing and safety on your shoulders that can make you change so much.

    Thanks

  12. Thanks for sharing. My children are the main reason I am cleaning up my finances also. I am sure your post will help a lot of people.

  13. I like your story and ALL your articles.Thanks for your time! I read this blog everyday and have copied alot off this site. I wish we could donate $10 to this because I get alot out of this Site. Thanks for helping me in MY issues!!! Keep up the good work. Mr Batman

  14. They say the best stories are that of humilation, those that we can learn from. Thanks for sharing yours. Reading it reminded me of my early finanical dispare, and just the memories it triggered brought back that heavy burden if only just for a moment.

  15. Thanks for sharing Trent. I had a similar experience several years back, even before our son was born (he’s 17 months now.)
    After doing some number crunching and coming to a very simliar realization as you, I just went back to our room by myself and sat at the end of the bed in silence for almost an hour. I couldn’t believe where I was and how I was failing my wife and our future family. When my wife came in to comfort me, I remember telling her, “Babe, I’m worth less than nothing…I owe the world more than I have.”

    That was a life changing day. Obviously, my wife was extremely loving and supportive…what more motivation does any man need.

    Now we’re debt free, aside from our mortgage, invest regularly for retirement and our son’s education, and can even afford for my wife to be a stay at home Mom. We live on a fairly tight budget to be able to do those things, but there is no gadget, gizmo, car, etc…that I want more than what I have right now. Nothing is worth more to me than knowing I’m good for my family.

    Cheers to you Trent!

    Pete

  16. This article comes so close to home, actually with a situation I am going through right now. I managed to rack up thousands of dollars worth of credit card debt, student loans, car loan, etc. Not only that but I have to pay for rent, food, etc. I am in a debt repayment with a creditor where I am paying them more than what some people would pay for a mortgage payment. I am really stretching myself thin for the next 4 months, but I know at least I will get to that light at the end and be able to breathe alot more comfortably. Kudos to you and helping us realize there are are more of “me” out there!

  17. Sounds like your son has been your greatest teacher. At only a few months he both was the “straw that broke the camels back” and the driving force behind a leap in maturity to change decades of bad habits. Keep your eye on that boy!

  18. Thank you for posting your story. I think a lot of people have hit a financial breaking point–but as you’ve shown–good can come out of those moments. Your moment became a financial awakening. As one of those who has felt desperate and alone and such a screw-up–sites and stories like yours offer hope and a sense of community–that we’re in this together and are finding solutions together.

  19. Thank you for bringing back this old post. I only been a reader for a short while but this was what i needed to hear. I dont have any children and I am both young and single, but it doesnt exclude me from doing the right thing with my finances right now, so I wont have to worry later.

  20. This is why I love your website. Thank you.

    P.S. You are an excellent writer. I don’t say that often — I was an English Major.

  21. Now, you are in a position to be envied.

    We don’t get strong lifting ping pong balls !

    We have to lift weights, physically, mentally,

    spiritually, and “financially”.

    john

  22. Great story. In my case I had an exwife who spent every dollar I earned, and maxed out every credit card and credit source; often without telling me about it. She thought she could borrow her way to a higher standard of living. To escape this hell I had to divorce her, foreclose on the house(to get the profit to pay debts), quit my job, and physically move away. I did all that, and more. Now I control my own finances. They will always be separate, and I will never use debt. It is impossible to explain to someone who has not been there; but I am reborn again, with another chance. I encourage anyone still stuck in that rut to make dramatic lifestyle changes, whatever is necessary, to restart.

  23. Trent,

    The only thing I can say is that you truly are an inspiration to the countless number of people who are suffering financially and feel hopeless about their situation. Piggy-backing on the opinions already expressed by others, THANK YOU for sharing your story and success. I know that I too can achieve the financial freedom I have desired for so long. I can lose the “keeping up with the Jonses” mentality and ensure that my daughter live a happy life even though I am a single parent (I would overcompensate with material things in order to not feel guilty that she was from a “broken home”). I realize that the only person feeling broken was me and I am happy to say that I am ready to change my spend thrifty ways (I

  24. Trent,

    The only thing I can say is that you truly are an inspiration to the countless number of people who are suffering financially and feel hopeless about their situation. Piggy-backing on the opinions already expressed by others, THANK YOU for sharing your story and success. I know that I too can achieve the financial freedom I have desired for so long. I can lose the “keeping up with the Jonses” mentality and ensure that my daughter live a happy life even though I am a single parent (I would overcompensate with material things in order to not feel guilty that she was from a “broken home”). I realize that the only person feeling broken was me and I am happy to say that I am ready to change my spend thrifty ways (I

  25. (sorry, I got cut off :))
    Anyway, I have started “31 days to Fix Your Finances” and am confident that I will succeed. Thanks again!

    -Erica

  26. I read your blog a lot and, knowing that you enjoy creative writing, I feel that a lot of the stuff you write on this site is bull. I think you are a fiction writer who is attempting to write real life but cannot resist the urge to include a bunch of flowery crap.
    I will no longer be following your blog as I am sure repetitive rolling is doing damage to my eyes

  27. Wow, Dan’s kind of a dick.

    Anyway, this article hit home for me too. I don’t have kids, but I’ve been in a similar situation, and it’s impossible to describe the feeling of worthlessness you feel after seeing exactly how bad your finances really are. The feeling of failing my wife, and not being able to get out of it just made me want to crawl in a hole somewhere. I got much more financially responsible since then, but after losing my job in August 2008 and being unable to get another one yet, my savings is dwindling fast. I need to do something fast.

    One thing this post didn’t mention is after your turning point here, what did you do to better your situation, and what choices helped you turn it around? How did you get out of the hole?

  28. It’s great to see these moments when people start taking more responsibility…. I hear you when you say at that point you felt disgusted with yourself… I’ve been in those moments too, although not so much on the financial side. Perhaps I’ve always been too conservative financially. Yet even now I’m realizing how much more financially responsible I can be.

    Love the story, thanks for sharing.

  29. Thank you for sharing that heart-warming account of your ‘light bulb moment’ to becoming financially sound and debt free. We’re all on the road, and I thank you for your latter posts on the subject. They’ve been most helpful :)

  30. I am tearing up reading this, Trent. How very well-written and touching.

    Your blog is such a help and inspiration for me. Sometimes I feel like the goals I have- for a house of our own, careers for my husband and I that we both love, and a wonderful childhood for my daughter (and hopefully other children, someday!)- are out of reach…

    But then I remember that we’re better off now than a year ago, and that as long as we keep doing what we’re doing, following the principles that you lay out so well- we’ll be better off still in a year. Sometimes it’s hard to breathe when you feel like you have a mountain of debt weighing you down. I can imagine how awful you felt that day, and I’m so happy you’ve been able to turn it around and find something positive in it, provide for your family, and do what you love. And all in a few short years. You give me hope :) Thanks for that.

  31. Hi,i’m glad to meet your blog.I already downloaded
    free e-book on your web,i think that its useful to
    create my blog.Thanks for your info,i will come back next time.

  32. Hi Trent! Thank you so much for this website and for sharing your wisdom. You open yourself up and share from the heart and that is truly a gift for all of us who read your e-mails and blogs. I think we all benefit from the information, reminders and encouragement that you give. Thanks again!

  33. I don’t usually leave comments. But this article touched me. I’ve been there.

    Thank you for sharing, Trent.

    M

  34. I just stumbled upon your blog Trent, I rarely comment on blogs that I read frequently but I had to just thank you for sharing that touching account of your epiphany to becoming financially stable and debt free. Your story is an inspiration and is a serious lesson to us all.

    Keep up the good work! You now have yourself a regular reader. Thanks again.

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