Lifestyle inflation let to credit card debt for the Debt Free Guys. Here’s how they started talking about money, determined what they valued, and started budgeting to get out of debt.
You know how they say you’re never going to meet the right guy or girl at a bar? David and I met at a bar—specifically, in a club, on a dance floor.
We were in our late 20s and just entered the pinnacle of our social lives. We were liberated, as were many gay men not long out of high school in the early days of the new millennium.
In our formative years, we didn’t have the same dating and social experiences as most people. While we pretended, even convinced ourselves, that we wanted straight relationships, those would never end well.
We didn’t have the same speed of social maturation. We were five to 10 years behind our straight peers. While our straight friends had their first high school flings, we watched. When they got married, we watched. When our friends have kids today, we often watch again.
We struggled with debt while we were younger, and a lot of it had to do with the desire to make up for lost time and to find validation.
How We Thought About Money
David was born in Germany and raised in Denver. In between, he spent a year in Ireland. In his 20s, rather than go to New York City to find himself, he spent two years in Custer, South Dakota. Yee haw!
David’s financial trouble started at age 21. His mother co-signed for a credit card with a $500 limit that was for emergencies only during his trip to the U.K. David returned home with a maxed-out credit card, never having seen the inside of a British hospital or jail.
Raised a Philadelphian, I moved to Denver in 1999 to snowboard the Rocky Mountains. This was when my relationship with debt started.
I was spoiled and didn’t understand the value of a dollar. Living on someone else’s dollar is great until they no longer let you live on their dollar. Though I started my Grownup years with no debt (that includes student loan debt), I quickly acquired more than $30,000 in credit card debt.
How We Got Into Debt
Because life is nothing if not ironic, we both got into financial services. As traders and investment advisors, we helped other people with their money, while we ourselves were financial messes.
Breaking the rule that opposites attract, we collaborated in love, life, and money. We were two 30-something financial services professionals with $51,000 worth of combined credit card debt. Like most couples, we got together because of hormones and pheromones—not debt-to-income ratios and cash flows.
Together, we continued to live on someone else’s dollar—the bank’s dollar. We chose to deny the reality of our financial situation: Every outing, all of our clothes, every meal, and every drink was put on our credit cards. This only exacerbated our financial problems. We were caught up in the gay lifestyle and superficial perfection: perfect clothes, the newest phone, and perfect abs. We spent more time at the gym than on a budget. It didn’t matter that our finances couldn’t be more imperfect.
How We Got Out of Debt
Because we chose to deny our financial problems for so long, we wound up having to move into a basement apartment. It wasn’t long until reality slapped us in the face. As our friends bought homes, started families, and upgraded cars, we had to move below ground. We realized then that our debt had anchored our future to our past and we needed to do something about it.
It was about this time that we realized we were staying together and it was time to become Grownups and discuss life goals and finances (past, present, and future). The longer we went without discussing our financial goals, the more precarious they became.
The first thing we did to change how we lived our lives and managed our money was figure out our goals in life. They are:
- We want to spend more time together.
- We want to travel now and not wait until we’re retired.
- We want to be financially prepared for retirement.
Next, we analyzed our spending. David collected a year’s worth of our bank and credit card statements, itemized every transaction in a spreadsheet, and assigned each transaction a category. This helped us calculate the categories on which we could cut back spending. We put the residual money towards our credit card debt.
For example, do two people really need to spend $400 a week on groceries plus $200 a week dining out? No! We cut our grocery bill to $150 a week and eliminated dining out. This gave us $450 a week to put towards our credit card debt. We still brown bag our lunches to this day.
We also became more conscious of our choices. When we have a desire to spend money we don’t need to spend, we give ourselves an ultimatum. For example, would we rather have margaritas at a bar in Denver today or have margaritas on the beach in Puerto Vallarta in four months?
Another key ingredient to us becoming debt-free was that we learned how to have fun doing free and cheap things:
- We stopped spending money every weekend at restaurants, bars, and dance clubs.
- We started to get our books free at the library.
- We took advantage of free days at local museums.
- We started going to movie matinees instead of the more expensive later shows.
We cut our weekly social spending to $75 and often challenged each other to date nights that cost less than $20. You’d be surprised at the free and cheap things available when you look for them.
We’re well past the seven-year itch now. In “gay years,” we’re more Cocoon than Romeo & Juliet—that is, if Juliet were a dude. Heck, we’ve been together longer than it took some of our straight friends to date, marry, and divorce.
Our newfound financial clarity of knowing where and why we spend every dollar has taken us from a basement apartment to a 12th floor condo bested only by The Jeffersons. We’ve been debt-free for nearly 10 years now. We’ve traveled extensively and are confident we’ll be prepared for retirement.
We strongly believe both our relationship and financial successes are due to living the life we really want and not being caught up in the gay cliché. To us, a trip to Europe beats nightclubs and designer clothes.
How We’re Planning for the Future
Our relationship success, in part, is due to our financial success. Our financial success is based on three things we’ve learned over our years together: Both of us are responsible for our money, our financial disagreements go deeper than money, and we must be smarter than advertisers.
Relationships use the divide and conquer method. David cooks—I clean. I sing—David turns on Spotify. While dividing and conquering is efficient, we’ve found it’s important that we manage and understand our finances together.
We now work on our budget together each week because we each get paid every other Friday. We create our weekly grocery list and menu together, maintaining our $150 grocery budget. Together, we create our short- and long-term financial goals. For example, we saved to buy David a used Audi with all cash and we planned a trip to Malta without going into debt.
When one of us solely managed the money, the other was in the dark and spent accordingly. This added a degree of difficulty the U.S. Men’s Gymnastics Team couldn’t overcome. Quite often we’d work on separate goals or one of us worked on no goal at all.
We also learned that fights about money are the symptom, not the disease. Everyone has a unique logical and emotional connection to money. When we’re having a passionate money discussion, we’ve found it’s important to understand the sources of our passions. This lets us address the root of the problem more quickly and accurately so we can return to more important discussions.
We live in a consumption society. Whether it’s food, drinks, clothes, or media, it’s impossible to go a day without being marketed to buy something. It’s easy to confuse tangible things with happiness. We were wrong to think that nicer houses, nicer cars, and the newest gadgets were happiness. When we think of our past, it’s rarely the tangible things that make us smile.
In hindsight, we realize spending money we didn’t have to make up for lost time and to gain validation slowed our progress. Just like we didn’t want to date girls in high school, we don’t want large houses and expensive cars today. This was the path we were on until we had the Grownup discussion about what we really want in life. In both cases, when we stopped living other people’s dreams, we achieved the progress and validation we desired.
Read more stories from John Schneider and David Auten at DebtFreeGuys.com.
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