Extreme Financial Makeover: How I Paid Off $17,000 in Nine Months
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By Joveth Gonzalez

I’m naturally an in-the-moment kind of guy—a characteristic that contributed to a lot of spontaneity and fun throughout my 20s, but didn’t exactly inspire smart financial choices.

If I met someone I wanted to impress, I always treated them to a fancy first date in San Francisco, easily spending $100 or more. When the holidays rolled around each year, I thought I was showing my friends and family how much I cared about them by purchasing pricey gifts—on my credit card. And that time I needed to upgrade my computer, I didn’t think twice before purchasing a new, expensive PC—again, on credit.

I had a solid income from my marketing job, but, thanks to my overspending and outstanding student loans, I assumed it was normal to scrape by, living paycheck to paycheck.

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But that changed right after my 31st birthday. I’d recently begun dating someone in the finance industry who’d inspired me to start talking more about money—so much so that I made it my 2015 New Year’s resolution to work with a Certified Financial Planner and finally take control of my finances.

I gasped when my advisor first showed me my financial breakdown, and explained I was spending a whopping 80 percent of my income on basic expenses like rent, utilities and my cell phone, plus minimum payments on $30,000 of credit card debt and $28,000 in student loans. I wondered how I’d ever dig myself out of this hole.

But I was determined to do it. With my advisor’s help, I committed to a total financial makeover, starting with my daily expenditures.

Each week, I withdrew $130 in cash for groceries, gas and other discretionary expenses, like haircuts and entertainment. Since I was working with a limited amount—and once it was out, I had to wait until the next week to replenish my stash—I started looking for grocery bargains and began thinking of saving like a game I could win. If I had cash left over, I carried it over to the following week and rewarded myself with a fancy coffee.

It wasn’t easy in an expensive city like San Francisco, especially because I was used to spending at least $200 a week on similar expenses. But I managed to get good at it by constantly adding new savings strategies, like saving change and depositing it in Coinstar machines, packing my lunch and cooking dinners at home. (Pro tip: Ground-turkey tacos are cheap, nutritious and delicious!)

Next, I significantly lowered my housing costs, which had eaten up about 40 percent of my income. Thankfully, I had a great relationship with my landlord, who let me break my lease without penalty—and even returned my security deposit! She was sympathetic because she’d recently eliminated her own debt, and didn’t want to get in the way of my progress. I found a roommate through a friend of a friend, and we moved in together in February, cutting my rent by $800!

Just two months later, when a new job presented itself, I took the leap—but didn’t change my weekly budget or new frugal habits, despite the fact that my monthly income had risen significantly.

At this point, I was putting nearly $2,000 toward my newly created emergency fund and credit card debt—give or take (I wasn’t perfect)—in addition to my $360 student loan payment each month. But I didn’t stop there. Because I was working in downtown San Francisco, I was taking the bus every day while my car sat idle. So that May, I got rid of my car, freeing up another $400 a month, between my lease payment and insurance.

In the end, the new job wasn’t exactly what I had expected, and I only stayed about six months. But I took advantage of the much higher salary, as well as the other changes I’d made, to make massive financial progress—eliminating a total of $11,000 of debt ($8,000 from my credit cards, $3,000 in student loans) and saving another $6,000—in just nine months’ time.

TJovethhen last August, I decided it was time to leave San Francisco. I’d lived in Austin several years prior and loved it, so after landing a great new startup job, I made the big move back to Texas in September. Fortunately, the cost of living is much lower in Texas than California—however, my salary is less, too. So to make up for some of the difference and continue making progress, I took out a personal loan to cover the remaining $20,000 of credit card debt I had left last November, which substantially lowered my interest rates.

Because I still have a ways to go, I look for little motivations to keep me on track—like the financial goal map from Map My Progress, which I hung up as a decoration in my new apartment. The design is made up of 100 rings, each representing $200. Every time I pay off another $200, I color in a ring. It’s so simple, yet empowering to visualize getting closer to my ultimate goal of being (consumer) debt-free. Today, I’m $17,000 away. After that’s paid off, I’ll shift my focus to paying more than the minimums on my student loans.

Another motivation? Watching my credit score soar from the mid-600s to the low 800s. It’s never been this high, and I’m already looking forward to what great credit will get me—like favorable terms when I buy a home one day in Austin.

In the meantime, I’ll keep striking down my debt and slowly growing my emergency fund so that in a few years, I’ll finally have a positive net worth—a first for me as an adult. Wouldn’t that be something?

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