Updated on 09.16.14

Watching Someone Else Find Their Way Through Debt

Trent Hamm

One of the best parts of writing a site like The Simple Dollar is that you get the opportunity to find out what problems others are having with their personal finances. I’ve heard some incredible stories, a few of which I’ve had the opportunity to share on here, and I’ve learned a lot – not only about my own issues with money, but about the common financial issues we all share.

Last night, I came across a blog called Confessions of a Stressed-Out Mom. I came across it because I was searching through parental blogs for some advice on a minor issue I’ve been having with my son (he really likes to throw everything he can grab), so I didn’t really expect to find anything profound on the topic of personal finance. What I found was a person drowning in debt and trying very hard to simply keep her head above water. I spent a lot of time just digging backwards through the archives to piece together the story, and what I found was a compelling picture of a real person facing real debt – and trying to find a way out. Let’s walk through the story a bit.

The first entry that really deals with debt is from June 25, 2006, entitled Get Rich Quick Schemes, which contains the following tidbit:

Sorry if this post is sort of a financial downer but lately I have been feeling like we are drowning in a sea of debt.

This is just a final, throwaway sentence at the end of a lengthy discussion of the dubious nature of most get-rich-quick schemes, but it indicates that somewhere in the back of her mind, there is an awareness of a deepening financial problem. The big clue as to why this is happening comes just a few days later, on June 28:

In the beginning I was the bread winner and I bought him presents left and right so he grew accustomed to getting whatever he wanted whenever he wanted. I’m sure you can see how we ended up in a great deal of debt because of that philosphy and still digging out to this day.

Sound familiar? Perhaps not the “presents” concept specifically, but almost everyone who ends up in debt trouble go through a lengthy period where we become accustomed to simply having whatever we want – or nearly so. The concept of budgeting, saving, and financial practicality are far less important than a need for more stuff.

Unfortunately, the path to a better financial future goes dry for several months, with almost no hint at all of any mounting debt issues. Again, this is fairly typical; I like to look at it as small tremors before an earthquake. And, yes, an earthquake was coming, as debt issues begin to pop up like crazy, starting with this frightening tidbit from December 1:

I have let our finances get grossly out of control to the point that there are more bills than there is money. And this time there have been no lost jobs and the like to blame it on…only me and my inability to manage money better.

This sounds like a financial armageddon to me. The blunt realization that your poor spending decisions has put you in a situation where you literally can no longer afford to pay your bills is often overwhelming, but even this realization didn’t quite do the full trick. By January 8, our heroine and her husband had obtained a copy of Dave Ramsey‘s Financial Peace University program (a multi-CD and workbook set that I hope she borrowed from her local library rather than buying) and they did Dave’s “quickie budget” exercise. The results weren’t pretty:

For this Quickie Budget you are only to budget your life’s necessities — Shelter, Transportion, Food. Credit Card debt isn’t added to this Quickie Budget at all. So here we are going through all of this and after we are finished low and behold we have $25.27 left to our names at the end of that budget. Mind you I said this didn’t include any credit card payments.

Unfortunately, it looks like the problems still aren’t solved. Take a look at the entry from the very next day:

Just tonight I called about local Jazzercise classes and I am pretty sure that I will be joining them if I can make them fit into the budget. It’s unlimited classes for $35/month.

Hmm… something’s not adding up here. $25.27 left after shelter, transportation, and food, without even touching credit card debt, and yet there’s somehow room for $35 for Jazzercise? At least they’re getting an emergency fund together:

We have been able to come up with a way to get our $1000 emergency fund in place and we will be beginning the debt snowball very soon. It’s going to be a long road ahead and we both know that but I feel we are committed to working on it together.

This makes me think that there may be more breathable room in their budget than they originally thought, but they need another wake-up call and one comes courtesy of Dave Ramsey once again, just a few days later:

As sobering as doing the quickie budget was a few days back doing the actual Cash Flow Plan was even more so — if that’s even humanly possible. So when Dave says people don’t do a budget out of fear of what they will find….he’s absolutely right. Don’t get me wrong I knew we were in bad shape but seeing it in black and white and realizing just how bad of shape it really is — well it’s more than a little scary. Let’s just say that after paying our necessities there is almost nothing left to pay off the credit cards and unsecured debt we have. And neither of us knows how to change that.

Thankfully, the couple have started throwing themselves into the Ramsey plan, which is definitely a step in the right direction. The real sign of a positive direction, though, came in this most recent entry:

I can’t tell you what a great experience it was to know what I was going to pay and had the money to pay them. It gave me such great peace.

This story sounds so familiar to me because I went through this very process, though the things I discovered when coming through the other side were somewhat different. I have just these five pieces of advice to give to this stressed-out mother as she and her family come through the other side of a financial armageddon:

Be diligent. Spend as much of your spare time as you can stand absorbing financial information. The archives of this site are a fine place to start (particularly the 31 Days To Fix Your Finances series), but you can’t go wrong with reading financial books by a wide diversity of authors. Try reading titles like Your Money or Your Life, Smart Couples Finish Rich, The Millionaire Next Door, or The Wealthy Barber. Even if you’re not doing this at the same time as your spouse, you can read the material, absorb what’s important, and give the important pieces to your spouse.

Keep refining and eliminating. Look for both big things and small things you can eliminate from your budget. There are almost infinite ways to save money if you really want to get ahead.

Don’t be afraid to live frugally. Many people are convinced that there is shame in living frugally, that they will be seen as “cheap” or “poor.” The fact is that those same people are the ones in debt up to their eyeballs, unable to sleep at night because of all of the unnecessary stuff they’ve bought.

Involve your spouse in everything. If you’re making major changes to your spending, keep your spouse on the same page, no matter what. Let your spouse know everything that you learn and every idea you’re having. Show them every thing you figure out. If they are still doing things financially you don’t agree with, ask your spouse why and listen to the answer. Do everything you can to make sure that all of your goals are in sync, even if it’s not easy to talk about.

Never forget the fear of being in over your head. Any time you’re tempted to take your eye off the ball – you’re tempted to spend a little extra money because you’ve got plenty in the bank – remember the fear you felt when you were drowning in debt. Even as I walk further and further away from those days, not a day, not even an hour goes by where I don’t remember the feeling in my gut when I really realized that I didn’t have enough money to get through the end of the month, and I sat there next to my son’s crib and cried my eyes out.

In a few months, I might peek in again at this stressed-out mother to see whether or not they’ve stayed on the path to financial freedom.

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  1. Mama of 2 says:


    I was surprised that you took such an interest in my little blog but it was a nice surprise. Thank you for what you have said here and giving me another place to come while my husband and I dig our way out of debt and also a place to continue to come when we have made our way to the other side.

    Oh yeah….no Jazzercise membership here. Just some cable exercise shows (already paying the cable bill) and an exercise bike that we have had for years. LOL!

    Thanks again…I’ll be back.
    Mama of 2

  2. gmv says:

    Dear Mama of 2:

    After reading Trent’s post and seeing you respond, I just had to chip in my support for what you are going through! PLEASEPLEASEPLEASE keep diligently working Dave Ramsey’s plan until things start to get better. Don’t give up. Not every month will be pretty, but eventually you’ll see improvement. (NOTE: you don’t nec. have to do Dave’s plan, but choose SOMEBODY’s plan and do it. Dave’s plan is one of the best to choose from.)

    Getting yourself unstuck will work especially well if you get mad at your debt and attack it with a vengence. It seriously helps when you evaluate all your expenses mercilessly and find ways to reduce them.

    For example, I cut off my digital cable and retained only the bare basic analog cable package for $16/mo. when I went through my first pass at expense reduction. It freed up almost $60 for me. If the analog cable package hadn’t been available, I would have cut the cable off completely. I also tinkered with insurance deductibles, downgraded my phone package, etc. It might hurt but it frees up more cashflow to get yourself under control.

    Mama, I’ve been chipping away at this for nearly 2 years since I started doing things the Dave Ramsey way. My situation was horrible then — similar to yours. I’m not out of the woods yet, but I’ve already paid off over $18K in debt and I always have money left over at the end of the month now to pay down a little extra.

    You are not alone! Keep working it! (P.S. – sorry Trent for hijacking your thread.)


  3. Amy says:

    That is great that you commented and were pleased with the advice you were given. I applaud you for being honest about the financial mistakes you have made and for sharing ways that you have improved your life. Usually you see one side of the coin or the other. Your story could serve as inspiration to moms everywhere that they can pull themselves out of debt, just as you have. Kudos to you for making the effort.

    Great post!

  4. sjpeer says:

    It’s so important to just keep going. Once you get your finances under control you can take full advantage of any raises, bonuses, or other windfalls. Then, when you’re back on your feet and eventually out of debt, you’ll be able to start building wealth very quickly. I sometimes seems it will never get better, but there comes a point at which you see the sunlight.

    I’m a big proponent of Dave Ramsey’s FPU. In fact I recently posted the first part of a Financial Peace University Summary that might be a useful review for those familiar with the program or an overview for those that have never heard of it.

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