As I listened to the mortgage broker explain over the phone that my credit score was too low to qualify for a home loan, I felt the shame rising up inside me. My credit score was barely over 500, and the mortgage broker explained that he just couldn’t find a lender who would take a chance on someone with a credit score that low. He told me it would take at least a year of serious credit rebuilding before I could qualify for any kind of home loan.
It had been three years since a divorce that left me financially devastated. I was 35 years old, remarried and had just had a baby. I wanted more than anything to have a new home and a fresh start, but my credit score and money problems were standing in the way of my dreams.
How did this happen to me? Even though it was my credit score, I had this powerful feeling of being overwhelmed by life and anything related to money matters.
During my divorce three years before, I inherited a money pit of a house that I ended up having to sell for a significant loss. The cost of the divorce coupled with the loss on the house had financially devastated me. In addition to extensive home repairs I had charged on my credit cards, I lost about $10,000 on the sale of the house. I put that 10 grand on my credit cards, too. At the time, it seemed I had no choice.
After the divorce and the sale of the house, I tried to find my footing financially, but my credit was a mess. I felt so ashamed, but I just couldn’t see my way out of the situation. I was an English professor with low pay, long hours, and student loan debt. I couldn’t see how I was going to get enough money to make up the deficit I was in. It felt like I was in a deep hole financially, and it was impacting my new marriage. The money problems were like a ghost haunting me in my new life, and I could see I was caught in a vicious cycle.
I knew I had to make a change. I knew it wouldn’t be easy. But I set out to change my credit score and my relationship with money. In the end, I also would change my life for the better.
Changing my relationship with money
One of the first things I had to do was come to terms with what caused my problems with money in the first place. I had grown up poor, and I think a fear of “being without” was driving me emotionally. I never researched my shopping decisions, and I had the idea that I needed to dress a certain way in order to be seen as a respectable professor. I made a lot of poor purchasing decisions, including the money pit house from my first marriage. I didn’t understand that my efforts to surround myself with more were actually leading me down a path to less.
In the next year after that phone call with the mortgage broker, I started small with an eye toward living my life more frugally and raising my credit score.
How I learned to live more frugally
While I think it’s important to understand that everyone will have their own path to frugality and greater financial freedom, my steps toward it could work for others.
— Cut off credit cards. I made the decision that credit cards were simply off limits. Before my divorce, I wouldn’t think twice about using my credit cards to buy a new dress or grab takeout for dinner. The temptation to use credit cards to “buy now and pay later” was just too much for me. So as I set out for change, I immediately set a hard and fast rule of no credit cards. I took them out of my wallet. They were simply off limits unless there was a true emergency.
— Take baby steps toward spending less. A funny thing happens when you take a lot of baby steps: They add up to big strides. We began eating leftovers one night a week for dinner. Instead of eating out regularly, we made it a special and rare treat. But it was more than that. I sold things I didn’t need to help pay off the debt. We canceled our cable and our house phone, keeping only the cheapest cellphone plan. Essentially, any excess that could be cut was cut. I needed every extra cent to pay off my massive credit card debt.
— Get help from credit counseling services. While I was reluctant at first, contacting the credit counseling service was one of the best decisions I made. I was making bigger payments on my credit cards, but the interest rates were so high that my progress on the balances was very slow. The credit counseling service helped me consolidate my credit card payments and get a lower interest rate on most of my cards. In addition to making my credit card payments to the counseling service each month, I had to speak with a counselor each month. Every time I spoke with a counselor, he or she was encouraging and supportive. It took me five years to pay off the $25,000 in credit card debt I accumulated during and after my divorce. When I called to make my last payment, my counselor told me repeatedly to be proud of myself and to move forward a different person. “Not everyone sees this through until the end,” my counselor said. And, for the first time, instead of feeling shame about myself and money, I felt proud.
— Stop believing that being a good parent means buying things for your children. One struggle that was most significant for me was overcoming the notion that I had to buy my children things for them to be happy and for me to be a good mom. My childhood background played a big role in this. I grew up with so little, and I didn’t want my children to have to do without things. I talked to both of my sons about how things they wanted added up financially. My oldest did well with this, but my youngest struggled. He liked “stuff.” When he was just 7 years old, I tried a different but important angle with him. I explained to him that the toys that end up broken and in the trash end up in landfills. I found pictures online of landfills, and I showed them to him. This was a good step for him. And, since we weren’t buying stuff for him, we were able to afford things like cello lessons and theater classes, experiences that will shape children in positive ways.
— Develop guidelines for your shopping, and make sure you don’t shop emotionally. It was difficult for me to train myself to shop logically instead of emotionally. To address this struggle, I developed a six-month rule. If I saw something online or in a store I really liked or needed for myself or someone else, I would put it in a file and then wait six months. In six months, if I still wanted or needed that item, I would consider purchasing it — but not before the six-month wait. What I learned was that almost everything I thought I wanted or needed wasn’t necessary.
— Start monitoring your credit score. It had never occurred to me to monitor my credit score. I think I had not wanted to think about, but checking my credit score regularly forced me to think about it. My new husband mentioned it as a way to help me become more aware of part of my financial health, and it worked well. Monitoring my score made me more aware and also gave me the opportunity to celebrate my progress, my little victories. When I hit 700, I thought that was about as high I would ever see. When I hit 800, I did a little happy dance in the kitchen.
Today, it feels like that phone call with the mortgage broker happened to another person. I have a great credit score, savings, and am even making a little dent in my student loan debt. The process took work, but over time I realized that as I was improving my credit score, I also was improving my relationship with money.
And, in all of this journey, I have learned that if I spend less, I can actually work less. This means more time with my family, and that makes me happier than anything I could possibly buy.
This story was originally published in Bangor Metro’s March 2019 issue. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.