How I Paid Down $50K In Debt

Credit cards nearly landed me in bankruptcy. But bailouts aren’t for me. I took a pass on iPhones, flat-screen TVs and fancy laptops and pulled my finances back from the brink.

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Diversification was key to my strategy. I had been a full-time music journalist for 20 years, but demand for music writing had been declining for years, so I began to write about film and sports. Both of which I liked and knew something about.

I also lucked into a gig at a cheese counter that was near several stellar wine shops. I had worked in the food business as a side line in the ‘80s and early ‘90s and knew enough about cheese and wine to offer advice people valued. A friend of mine suggested I set up a consultancy where I hold private and public cheese tastings.

To attack the mountain of debt, I figured that I needed to go from making somewhat less than I needed to get by to making about a third more than what I needed for living expenses. I realize now that a sensible person would have stopped right there and called a good bankruptcy lawyer, but common sense and I aren’t always on the same wavelength. I put all of the other card accounts with a credit counseling agency, then I doubled down and forgot all about the Joneses. During my four and a half year payback period, cell phones turned into BlackBerries and then into iPhones. TVs became lean, high-definition devices with a gazillion channels. Computers became sleek devices with slim monitors offering incredible resolution. I kept my nose to the grindstone and kept things very simple. I use the phone that came for free with my contract; I bought my current TV off of Craigslist for $50, and the computer I wrote this article on was purchased at a used laptop shop three years ago for $300. I used work trips for vacations. I adopted Sheryl Crow’s lyric, “It’s not about having what you want but wanting what you have” as a mantra.

I also learned a thing or two from my workouts. In yoga, rather than focusing on a far-away goal, you adapt to enjoying the time spent getting there. So I savored each reduction in the debt total and used my pleasure as motivation to increase the reduction the next month. From biking in New York City traffic, I learned not to look at obstacles, but for clear paths ahead.

Within two years, the debt was down to $30K. After three, it was under $15,000. That’s when fatigue really began to set in. But I’d gone too far to quit or even slow down at that point. I’d always envisioned the final months being like a New York City marathoner running the final miles in Central Park amid cheering throngs. Instead, it was a quiet, solitary triumph on Nov. 26, 2008. I celebrated seeing the final payment turn my last formerly delinquent credit card debt to zero by pouring a second cup of coffee and getting busy on an assignment for The Root.

I delayed dealing with my debt for nearly 10 years because it seemed insurmountable. It wasn’t. I just had to put my mind to a solution and work really, really hard to obtain it. In the process, I gained some distance from our culture of instant gratification and began to feel like a craftsman carefully creating the life that I’m living. I’m calling this year the transition period as I ready for the next set of challenges.

I now have only one active card, and it has a reasonable 9 percent APR, a pleasant contrast from the 28 percent those cards charged back in the day. And now it’s funny because I’m finding it hard to break the habit of saying to myself, “no, you can’t buy that.”

I was tempted to order a couple of great CD box sets recently, but I just couldn’t pull the trigger. I did allow myself to buy a three-month unlimited class card for Om Yoga for $375. Though the bulk payment was hefty, it actually amounted to a savings over the entire summer because I go to class three or four times a week. It felt like a reasonable splurge. Yoga, after all, helped me to focus on the joy of paying off my debt. Hopefully it will help me find a new life balance, now that my other balances are gone.






Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.