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Debt Finances & Money Frugality

Reader Response: Getting over the sting of past mistakes

I love to get reader emails (especially when they say they love my blog!), and every so often they strike a cord in me that I want to write an article about it. This time, Lori sent just such an email:

Hi There,
I love your blog, I have learned a lot of excellent information that I may not have known otherwise if it wasn’t for you and other PF bloggers. Thank You..I just have a quick question for you. We have been living frugally ever since we got smart in Aug 2009 but I can’t help but feel like such a stupid person for the spending and living habits we had prior to that..Sometimes I think how far we would be now if we had always known how to live within our means. My question is how do you get over that feeling and tell yourself you have been doing a great job since, we have paid off over $60,000 in less than 3 years and it feels great, but I still have that reminder of how much we wasted before..Any tips? Thank You Lori

Mistakes are meant for education!

My wife and I (mostly me as she’s the more frugal one) got into over $100,000 in consumer debt by the time we were in our mid-20’s. It was a combination of student loans, credit cards (over $20k!), and auto loans. Plus, just a year after we got married, we bought a $400,000 house, 100% financed! We had almost no savings and major bills. Our debt-to-income ratio was absurd, and we never should have been approved for our home. If illness or job loss struck, we were up crap creek without even a boat!

But through good fortune, luck, hard work, divine intervention or a mix of all of the above, we were able to not only pay down debt, but also continue (in my case) to get new jobs with even higher pay. From age 22, when I graduated from college and started my first job in the D.C. area, it took me just about 6 years and 3 job changes to double my salary. Thanks to that income, living frugally, additional income from this site (started in 2006) and discipline, we paid off all of our consumer debt AND our 2nd mortgage and even 10% of our first mortgage.We’ve paid off over $200,000 in debt.

But do I beat myself up for the mistakes I made in the past and all the money we’ve had to spent to get out of them? Not much anymore. Why? I recognize that you must ALWAYS learn from mistakes. Otherwise, you’re bound to repeat them. I didn’t learn from the mistake of buying a $30k+ VW Passat because I went and traded it in with a huge loss and a crappy Chevy Malibu. But I eventually learned that when major car problems arise, it’s not an opportunity to go buy another car; it’s a time to reflect and assess the value of repairing and keeping the car you own. If I recall correctly, that lesson would have saved us probably $15-20k in debt over the years!

Another question:Do we still live frugally when we’re debt-free (except for that remaining mortgage)? Yes, but differently than before. We have always enjoyed dining out, but we forced ourselves to a smaller budget and only on weekends. Now, our budget is doubled and we like to dine out more often. We’ve also increased our grocery budget because we dine IN more often too, but the days of Ramen for dinner every night are over.

But I still, and always will, do things like pouring some water into an almost empty bottle of handsoap to get the last bit out. Or squeezing the life out of a toothpaste tube. Or turning off lights, turning off running water, wearing dress clothes more than once or wearing more/less clothes to reduce the need for heat/cooling, respectively (don’t read into that “less clothing” thing too much). In the end, they’re all little things, but they might at least counteract the “luxuries” we allow in our lives.

But in the end, I don’t beat myself up about how we spent our money years ago. Our student loans were assets that got us both into decent or well-paying jobs. I’ve mostly learned my lesson about buying cars (it will always be tough for someone who loves cars). And the tens of thousands I wasted on credit cards, even before getting married, is just something I have learned to live with. We still use credit cards for everything we can, but I haven’t carried a balance into another month (aka I haven’t paid any interest to a credit card company) in YEARS. We also have a very healthy savings account so we don’t resort to credit cards as a savings account like we did before. We have both maintained perfect credit histories all our lives and I will make sure to continue that trend.

So Lori, continue to live a frugal lifestyle where you can enjoy the little things that make your life happy, but learn from those mistakes and try to educate others with that knowledge. Use your background and experiences, like I did, to help others either not make those mistakes (although we all tend to need to make some mistakes ourselves to truly learn) or get out of the mistakes they got into. Feeling stupid or guilty does nothing to move you forward in life. Feeling proud of what you accomplished and helping others to do the same will.

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Clever Dude

4 Comments

  • Isn’t it strange how our financial mistakes from the past are so easily recollected? As I was reading this, it was like a ‘top ten’ list of my personal finance mistakes just popped up in my mind. But, live and learn, as the saying goes.

  • Dwelling about the past especially the should’ve, would’ve, could’ve is a time and spiritual suck. I know we can’t help it and I have those days where I think about all the financial mistakes I made in the past.

    I feel bummed and even angry at myself.

    But I snap out of it and remind myself of where I am now (will be debt free September 2012, paying off $27k in 17 months) and how I will never, ever get back into those bad financial habits.

    Granted I know I’ll make mistakes, but that consistent over-spending and bad decision making is behind me.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is it’s okay. Reflect on it a little, get a bit a emotional about it, but snap out of it and continue making good financial decisions.

  • I agree, it’s great to correct your mistakes but not worth dwelling on them forever. We all have something we want to kick ourselves for, but that wouldn’t help us achieve the next goal. Congrats on what you’ve accomplished Lori! Good luck on your future!

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