Fear brings out the worst in people, and marriage certainly brought out the worst in me. Unlike most young women I knew, I was less than thrilled to be going from a “me” to a “we.”
Don’t get me wrong. I loved Michael, the man I was marrying, but I wasn’t used to taking others into consideration.
I was rubbish at compromise. And, most of all, I was afraid that — by marrying — I would lose myself: my identity, my independence.
This is what made me a pathological liar. My partner unknowingly married someone with debt.
As I couldn’t very well show my enduring independence by dating around, I grasped onto power wherever else I could. I maintained a healthy social life apart from Michael.
I worked hard to build a successful and fulfilling career. I built our home upon my tastes and childhood dreams. I kept my checking account and credit card accounts separate from his.
Unfortunately, I had atrocious spending habits and, soon enough, I was lying about purchases, balances, bills, and more.
It started with books, stuffed into my shoulder bag so that I could pretend I’d owned them for eons. Soon after, I began ordering things from Amazon, having the packages sent to my office.
Following clandestine trips to the mall, I would keep the shopping bags hidden in the trunk of my car, sneaking them into the bedroom closet when I was home alone.
I was hiding my purchases from my husband, keeping him in the dark about what turned out to be a $10,000 secret.
And this wasn’t the first time.
No. The first time was back in college. I was away at school, with my very first credit card.
My weaknesses? Urban Outfitters, Arden B., and the handmade crafts store I was working at part-time, where I developed a taste for fine woodwork, art jewelry, and kaleidoscopes.
It was my mom who eventually bailed me out.
My shopping problem followed me home from school and, the second time, my grandfather gave me the money to pay off my debts. The third time, my mother once again stepped in.
The fourth time was when I first moved in with Michael, and I remember him telling me that I couldn’t let this happen again. He didn’t know my history with money.
The fifth time took me by surprise, the balance on my card shooting up rapidly due to a high-interest rate and an overwhelming need to make our condo perfect.
This took hand-painted furniture, artwork for the walls, and additional alleged accouterments of housewifely success.
When it became obvious to me how deep I had buried myself — again — I felt nauseous. I didn’t want to tell Michael, but I knew that he had to know.
I cried when I told him. My struggle with money was no longer about my ability to purchase a car, pay off my student loan debt, or replenish my winter wardrobe. There was so much more at stake.
For the first time in our lives, we were both putting huge chunks of our income toward mortgage payments on our one-bedroom condo.
We were saving to buy a house in two or three years and, when that happened, we planned on starting a family.
Big goals, made even bigger by the fact that almost a year before, Michael had put his trust in me, giving me the go-ahead to leave my full-time job and pursue the freelance lifestyle I had always wanted.
I was disgusted with myself, remembering all the confidence he had placed in me.
Every frilly skirt, every piece of hand-painted furniture, every pair of Alfani peep-toe shoes had taken us further away from our most important goals.
As someone who purported to be self-sufficient, I knew I had to fix this problem myself. And in order to do that, I had to surrender my financial autonomy. I handed all my credit cards over to Michael.
In the end, getting closer to debt-free took several steps.
The first thing I did was transfer all of my credit card debt away from my high-interest card and onto a card that offered a 0 percent interest rate for one year. I had been trapped by my high-interest rates, my bill becoming more and more insurmountable with every month that I did not pay my balance in full.
If you’re similarly money-challenged, you can get credit card suggestions from BillShrink. The site allows you to plug in your personal info — such as how much you spend each month, which areas you spend the most in, and what your credit rating is — and then suggests several credit cards to compare and contrast.
The next thing I did was determine a manageable amount to throw at these two cards each month.
If your bank account can handle it, I would suggest setting up automatic monthly bill pay, so that you don’t even have to worry about forgetting your bills and incurring late fees.
Extra bonus: Knowing how much I was paying each month also did me the favor of allowing me to see the end of the debt tunnel. The knowledge that, if I stuck to my plan, I could be debt-free within a year was a very powerful thing.
After that, I signed up for a free online money management system. The one I use is Mint but there are others to choose from, such as Yodlee, Wesabe, and Quicken Online.
With my Mint account, I can categorize all of my financial transactions into categories, such as transportation, health, shopping, and entertainment. Then I have the pleasure of gazing upon pie charts that show me where my money is going each month.
Let me tell you, nothing drives home your shopping issues quicker than the realization that most of your hard-earned moolah is going toward a-line skirts, newsboy caps, and candles.
Of course, the biggest challenge for me was giving up my credit cards. I locked all of them away in an incredibly attractive business card case and left them in my husband’s care.
And then I just stopped shopping.
Knowing that I had been unable to learn my lesson in the past, I knew that there was no other way. Drastic measures were required, and drastic measures were taken.
Without the plastic, I’ve been forced to pay for the necessities with cash, or with my debit card. This makes it necessary for me to balance my checkbook regularly, in order to ensure that I have enough to pay my bills every month without bouncing any checks.
The upside to this bit of tedium? I’m always incredibly aware of what is in my bank account at any given time.
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And while the money I’ve been spending lately has been mostly on groceries, gas for the car, and a number of other humdrum life requirements, I do indulge every once in a while.
The first time I paid cash for a new article of clothing — an adorable gray skirt with pockets from J. Crew — I felt a huge thrill: I was proud of myself.
I felt on top of my finances, and I knew that, with each carefully considered purchase I made, I had plenty of money to spare. For someone who had felt guilt and fear due to her finances for the past eight years, feeling this good about money was huge.
These days, before I make any purchase, I make sure to ask myself the following four questions (and you should, too):
1. Is this item necessary?
2. If it’s not necessary, is it awesome, and/or does it make me feel fabulous?
3. Does it yield a positive response when the following equation is considered?: Cost of item ÷ how many times I’ll use it = so-worth-it. If the result is small …
4. Is buying this item worth putting off our goals as a couple? (Lord, I want that house.)
When it comes to the big stuff, Michael and I want the same things. Remembering this makes it so much easier to stay debt-free.
And it doesn’t hurt that relinquishing my spending power helped me gain more power over my finances in the end.
Steph Auteri is a freelance writer and editor. She’s overshared about her life in Playgirl, Time Out New York, American Curves, New York Press, Nerve, and other publications. Follow her on Twitter.