How I got out of debt (Part 1)

From negative to positive…

2013 had been an extremely fruitful year for me for many reasons. My financial life is finally in order for the first time ever. Friends are wondering how I got out of debt and I’m finally comfortable enough to share it now. I went from being 18K in debt, to having a savings of 25k within 10 months.

Let me share what happened and the steps I took to get out of debt and start saving:

1) A good bonus

I joined my current company in Jun 2012 and received my pro-rated bonus in Dec 2012. The day before, I already knew how much I’ll be getting and I was elated to know I’ll be getting a whooping 20k bonus. To many people, it may not be a lot of money, but I have never receive so much money before in my life. I head straight to the Chanel boutique that evening after work to get myself a bag as I’ve always wanted one. I short listed 2 bags to “reward” myself, a Jumbo bag and a GST bag. I couldn’t decide on one and decided to sleep on it until after the bonus money is safely in my bank account the next day. To my surprise, the money wasn’t credited into our bank account, but my Managing Director was giving out cheques to us individually. When it was my turn, he handed a $20k cheque to me and asked me what I want to do with the money. After looking at him blankly for probably about 10 seconds, my exact words to him was “I’m gonna save everything”. At that moment, I forgot about my Chanel bag, I forgot about Xmas shopping, and all the fanciful things I wanted to get for myself. I decided once and for all that I’m sick and tired of being in debt. Not everyone has the opportunity to turn their financial life around, so I am gonna grab this chance and improve my life.

I didn’t exactly know how much debt I had, I thought it was probably about 8 – 10k. Within the year of 2012, I bought 2 designer bags, bought a iPad, signed up for a facial package that’s worth about 3k, and also borrow about 8k from my ready credit line from my Citibank credit card. All these debt was incurred and paid for using monthly instalment plans. After a few painful hours of consolidating my credit card bills, phone calls to banks to check for balances, and creating tables on excel spreadsheets, I found out to my horror that I’m over 18K in credit card debt.

The next few days were spent thinking if I should repay my credit cards debt in full, or to clear the outstanding balances first and continue serving the monthly instalment. And suddenly I remembered 2 years back in 2010, I did receive a bonus amount of about 10k, cleared my 5k credit card debt, spent the remaining 5k within a few months, and accumulated even more debts again (yes, I DO have a spending problem). The choice was clear. If I clear all my debt now, I’ll lose the motivation to save, since I will have no money in my bank account to show for anyway. So I choose to save, and repay my debt at the same time.

2) Budgeting

I began my search for answers on how to repay debts, how to save money, and most importantly, how to cut down on expenses. I realised it’s not just how much we earn that matters, but more on how much we save. I read practically everything I can find on budgeting, debt repayment, personal finance, wealth accumulation etc. I’ve been doing budgeting for companies for years and yet I’ve never budget for myself. It’s time I put my skills into good use. I spent days going through old bills and bank statements to get a grip of how my spending habits were like, and to my horror, I spent more than I earn, EVERY SINGLE MONTH. I realised it’s the small items that are really scary. Spending on small amounts of $20 to $50 per day can lead to over $1,000 wasted in a single month. I was so surprised when I realised I spent over $1,000 on dining out every month! My lifestyle was so highly inflated that I mainly only eat in restaurants, take cabs wherever I go, and buy whatever I set my eyes on.

Setting up a budget is easy, sticking to it is hard. However I was extremely determined to follow it through and a year later, I do see light at the end of the tunnel. In the beginning of 2013, my target was to have 20k in my bank account. Now at the end of 2013, I have exceeded my targeted amount.. The most painful part was the monthly instalments that I’ve got to service. I could have saved even more if not for the debt repayment of $700 a month. I’m still over 4k in debt, but I know it’s under control and the monthly instalment is manageable.


Are you able to retire comfortably?


More often than not, people are not able to retire due to the many commitments in life. In our consumerist society, we need things to prove that we are successful. We need so much money to maintain our current lifestyles that retirement is not an alternative at all. Secondly, most of us are not able to retire due to a lack of savings and losing our jobs means a complete loss of income. This is why it is so important to spend below our means, save and to accumulate assets that can generate us passive income upon retirement. It is so important, yet so many of us fail to do so.

When this happen, we blame the economy, our government, the banks, and everyone around us, but we fail to see how we are sabotaging ourselves financially. We are the reason why we fail to accumulate wealth and attain financial freedom. We fail to plan for our future, fail to save, and over-indulge in life.

Avoid lifestyle inflation
It is so true that the more we earn, the more we spend. I remember years ago during my first office job as an intern in an accounting firm. A salary of $600 was more than enough for my daily needs, for me to pay for food, transportation, to help out at home, for weekends entertainment, and still had room for shopping as well. There was still a tiny bits of money left at the end of the month, right before pay day. It just was barely enough to save, but it was enough to get by. However throughout the years as I earn more, not only was I not able to save, I find myself running out of money the week before payday and needed to use credit cards to tide me over. There was also always an endless list of things to buy. I needed a new pair of heels, more dresses, the latest gadgets, a new wallet, a new watch, or a new bag. There’s a constant nagging feeling in my stomach that I need to save, but I always tell myself I’ll save the very next month, or when I get my bonus, or when I get the next increment, or after I bought what I wanted. I started work at 20. At 28, not only was I not saving any money, I was in debt. I was better off earning an Intern’s salary than a salary of an Finance Analyst in a private bank. My lifestyle had inflated so much over the years that I didn’t realized it. I hardly stepped foot in hawker centres or coffee shops and always had my meals in restaurants. I bought at least 10 dresses and a pair of heels in a month. I needed to do my nails, do treatment/cut/colour my hair, or do eyelash extensions every single month. In short, I had no control over my money.

Budget and keep track of expenses
It is funny how I have been tracking expenses and doing budgeting for all the companies I worked for, and yet I had never done it for myself until this year. I was so shocked when I looked through old bank statements and credit card bills and realized that I spent over $1,000 a month on food and drinks, and a few hundred dollars on cabs. A budget is useful in so many ways. It sounds like a chore at first, but once it became a habit, all I need is just half an hour a week to update my expenses and see how much I have left for the month, on what I can spend.

Cut expenses and SAVE MONEY
I used to find it so difficult to save. Now with a budget in place, I usually do a forecast on how much I need for the next month and determine how much I am able to save upon pay day. The first thing I do when I get my salary is to immediate transfer a certain amount (usually 20% of my salary) to my saving account. Trust me, it’s a great feeling watching my savings grow.

Avoid debt
I initially avoided using my credit cards again for fear of repeating my old foot steps, but I realized I’m missing out on discounts and the chance to accumulate points. Now whenever I use my card, I’ll make payment the very next day or within the week of making a purchase.

Where I’m standing right now
10 months has gone by and not only are there no new debts, but my saving has grown substantially as well. Just by taking these small steps, I have improve my financial life quite drastically. It is drastic because of the good money habits I have picked up, and that I have learnt to invest as well. Looking back, it wasn’t that difficult at all. I only wish I had started earlier.

Now, a comfortable retirement is possible for me because I’m planning for it and am willing to sacrifice material things for financial security and freedom. Don’t wait till you are in your 50s to start saving, planning and investing for retirement. It’ll be too late then.

Frugality is not a bad word

People usually see being frugal as sacrificing the good things in life, and living life like a hermit. To me, it is simply a trade off for the not so important things, for the things that matter. Being frugal means being mindful of one’s spending. Just like it is important to be mindful of one’s health.

What I am trading off are stuff like buying 5 new dresses and a pair of heels a month, eating at expensive places (hawker food can be as good, at a fraction of the price and I don’t have to pay tax and service charge!), drinking and partying, doing mani and pedicure once every 2 weeks, and simply doing mindless shopping just because I’m bored. What am I “sacrificing? Things that doesn’t support my core value, for the things that meant the world to me. Things like being able to afford our first home, financial security, and a comfortable lifestyle are whats important right now.

Not everyone can embrace or accept frugality. If like me, you suddenly find yourself being frugal or saving money for things that matter, do not start going around lecturing your friends or close ones. It is exactly comments like “do you really need another dress?” or “you can save $300 a month by stop drinking coffee!” that annoys people and put frugality in a bad light. Your friends might enjoy shopping and buying stuff, but he or she might also be cutting down on areas like eating out at expensive places. We all have areas where we splurge on and areas that we cut down on. Remember, frugality is just a conscious effort to be mindful of one’s spending. It doesn’t have to rule your life.