A 5-step guide from someone who’s been there.

On October 26, I rolled a car five times and walked away with only a black eye and some scrapes and bruises. But the anxiety that followed during the next week made me cancel my month-long trip to Brazil…with almost immediate regret.

Rather than dwelling on this, I decided to shift my focus elsewhere. I picked up a job in retail and a handful of freelance jobs, and within a few weeks, I pulled my savings and paid off all my credit card debt. Over $6,500 of it.

As soon as I set all my accounts back to 0, I realized how rigid my life had become due to my debt. It had never been so obvious until I was liberated from it. Never, ever will I fall victim to that lifestyle again.

Here’s how you can work around/prevent credit card debt during the holiday season. Or any season, really.

Step 1: Recognize the existence of debt cycles and debt culture.

I’ve always wondered why our high school education never included anything about how to handle finances in adult life. Like many 18-year-olds, I was handed freedom from the constraints of my hometown when I left for university…and at that same time, I was handed a hefty student loan.

Had I known that I would be paying off my education well into my 30s, I would have done things very differently. I had regarded my loans as “free money,” something to worry about later. And man, I had fun with it. But no one ever sits you down to tell you, “Listen girl, you can do your English degree and pursue whatever you’re passionate in. But you should probably know you’re only going to make minimum wage for many years after.”

I then took out a $10k student line of credit to study in England.

My other mistakes were much weightier. When I was working full-time as a tech writer, I wanted Lasik eye surgery. I applied for their loan, which actually turned out to be a high-interest Visa card. I went for it anyway, knowing that as a full-time worker I could easily pay it off.

Guess what? I got laid off. Thank heavens for my MasterCard.

Then I applied for an American Express card to collect a few thousand Air Miles. And then I applied for a Future Shop credit card so I could upgrade my camera gear.

The cycle I got stuck in was overwhelming. By the time my credit card was nearly maxed out, I was paying upwards of $100/m in INTEREST. I’d take my freelance payments and dump most of it on my credit cards, thus leaving a very small amount in my bank account. And then I’d get overdrawn due to an automated payment I wasn’t expecting, and I’d get charged extra for the overdraft.

Debt is so commonplace it’s become cultural. Encouraged. You need to understand that credit isn’t money, and companies like MasterCard and Visa will have you by the balls for most of your life if you let them.

Step 2: Stop shopping.

Working in retail has been a grim wakeup call to the excessive consumerism prevalent in our culture, and there’s no better example than the holiday madness. I don’t mind giving my friends and family little gifts to brighten their day, but there’s something disturbing about the frantic obsession I’ve seen displayed over that stupid Elf on the Shelf. An elderly lady once stormed out of the shop after calling my sweet coworker an “idiot” for not giving her the toy that was being held for someone else. Another parent wanted the elf so that her daughter could “fit in at school.”

Honey, if your daughter isn’t fitting in at school, I doubt a shitty elf has much to do with it.

Cheaper, meaningful gift ideas: baked goods (if you don’t suck at baking), a coupon book full of favours (sexual ones, if you wanna go there), a dinner party for your dearest friends, or knitted socks. Everyone loves socks, unless you’re a kid.

Step 3: If you must shop, don’t do all your shopping at once.

As much as I’m preaching anti-consumerism, I’m not one of those people who’ll encourage you to sell off everything and go live in a cave. I like fashion, and sometimes I indulge in Dior perfume when I’m drunk and can remember my Paypal password.

But the holiday season is retail hell. I can’t wrap my head around the idea of dropping $500 in one afternoon, or competing with hundreds of people for a discounted PlayStation. Start early, spread out your shopping expeditions, and don’t blow your whole pay cheque in one day.

Step 4: Stock up far in advance.

I work in a holiday store. Two days after Christmas, we put our entire leftover product at 50% off…that includes wrap, gift bags, dishes, etc.

I know, I know. Nobody wants to hit up the Boxing Day madness. But if you prepare in advance — especially with things you “need,” like wrapping paper — you’ll save a ton of cash.

Step 5: Track your purchases religiously.

I comb through my bank statements at least every other day, and I record ALL purchases in a little notebook reserved specifically for finances, including income.

This can be tricky (and tedious) as a freelancer, because my income varies from month to month. But seeing EXACTLY where my money goes is an eye-opening experience. Did I really need to buy a $100 New Years dress from Modcloth? Certainly not. Dammit.

Paying for purchases with actual money rather than credit helps me connect with the reality of my finances. I appreciate it so much more because my own sweat and blood went into that cash, rather than credit I “earned” from a good credit rating.

And failing that, try the decade-old trick of freezing your cards in a chunk of ice. I hear it works real well.

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