5 Ways Getting Into Debt Made Me Better With Money


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Sounds counterintuitive, no?

Key points

  • A lot of people don’t make enough money, and it’s easy to end up in debt when you live paycheck to paycheck.
  • The virtues of saving money for planned expenses and checking your credit score often can’t be overstated.
  • It can also be beneficial to talk about money with your friends, family, and even finance professionals.

I don’t really know if I could say I’m good with money. I aspire to be, but I’m a work in progress. While I still have a lot to learn, I’m definitely improving. I put this down to having a money coach in my corner, as well as all the reading and writing about personal finance I do for The Ascent. And ironically, being in debt (and now getting out of it) has also made me better with money.

I got into debt for a number of reasons, but ultimately, I have really never made enough money to be able to save enough not to live paycheck to paycheck. A lot of Americans are in a similar position, and are just one emergency away from being in debt (or adding to their existing debt). I’ve had many instances of an unplanned expense driving me further into debt.

Thankfully, I’ve been in a position to work on paying off my debt this year, by virtue of changing careers and working more. If I can stay on track, I’m looking forward to making some big money moves in the next few years, including starting at least one retirement account and possibly buying a house. Here’s what being in debt (and getting out of it) has taught me.

1. Save money for big expenses (planned and otherwise)

This year, I budgeted and scrimped to put aside the money to cover some dental work for my elderly cat and registration and a brake job for my elderly car (maintaining an old, paid-off car is very wallet-friendly). My plan going forward is to keep money put aside as a slush fund, for both emergency expenses as well as planned costs that might be more than I could spare from an average paycheck. It’s impossible to predict every expense, but I firmly believe in the power of an emergency fund.

2. Check your credit score regularly

Ignorance may be bliss, but knowledge is power. To this end, as I pay off my debt, I’ve gotten really into checking my credit score and watching it improve. I use a consumer credit-monitoring service, and I also take advantage of the services offered by some of my credit card issuers. If something goes awry with my credit, I will find out quickly and be in a position to fix it.

The last few years of the COVID-19 pandemic have made me lose most of my taste for in-person shopping (with a few exceptions). And keeping better track of my money has meant that I now budget for shopping trips, and go in with a number figure of what I want to spend. I do the same for online shopping, and I have been known to leave a browser tab open for a while to give myself time to truly consider if I actually want to buy something. I also get far fewer marketing emails than I used to.

4. Talk about personal finance

If you’re a friend of mine, chances are we’ve chatted about money lately. When you offer up some wise advice about saving up a nice chunk of money before adopting a new pet in a group chat with some nerd friends (as I did recently), you know you’re pretty far gone. I’ve had lively discussions about credit scores and overdraft fees with friends and family, and I’m always offering up advice, or sending links to useful money resources from The Ascent.

5. Ask for help when you need it

While I may sometimes offer money advice I’ve found helpful, I ask for it from others a whole lot more often. I lean hard on friends who work in finance, and my fellow writers and editors here at The Ascent have been so wonderful about giving me tips about investing for retirement, freelance taxes, and even just sharing the money lessons they’ve learned along the way. I started working with my financial planner near the beginning of this year, and it’s changed my life. I look forward to our meetings every month because I get to learn and he applauds all my progress. If you’ve never talked to a financial advisor before, I highly recommend it if you’re unsure of how to manage your money and can use some coaching.

If you’ve got some money regrets too, you’re not alone. Take this opportunity to learn from your mistakes and come out wiser in the end.


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