Clearly that's not typical and I am no saving superhuman so let me explain the circumstances that led to the quick debt paydown and payoff.
I won't blather on about the two preceding "lean" years that led up to 2004 but let's just say that we were used to carrying credit card debt. We always had some lurking around. For example, the year I was unemployed and LaLa was a shuttle van driver (here is her illustration of what she had to wear that winter) we methodically paid off an $8000 credit card bill (the roof was leaking...what could we do?) only to realize we'd gone about $8000 in debt on other cards in the meantime. Sigh. I landed a well paying job at the tail end of 2003 and 2004 was mostly spent reducing our credit card debt and apparently buying all the stuff we couldn't afford for a while. We were about a month or two away from paying off our final $1500 credit card balance in the summer when we reversed directions.
We did purchase some things we truly needed and several things that while pricey I do not regret buying...but clearly spending was out of hand for a few months (mattress, iMac, Christmas presents...and on). To this day I'm not sure what caused the perfect storm, but maybe someday I'll go Quicken-diving and figure it out. So, December 2004 and credit card balances totaling over $11k ... and no savings other than retirement.
While I didn't get the large cash bonus I had somehow convinced myself was coming at the end of the year...I did still net about $4,000 (after taxes etc) as a bonus and within a week or so I put it towards the credit cards. All of it. We really curtailed credit card spending so we wouldn't be spending what we were paying down elsewhere.
I did my taxes in late February expecting a modest refund. When done, I realized I was due a refund of over $6000. While I was thrilled to have that sort of windfall coming our way at a time we were so committed to paying down debt...I was beyond irritated with myself for loaning Uncle Sam $500 a month. I had neglected to adjust my W-4 in January 2004 after aggressively paying taxes in Q4 of 2003 to help pay off unemployment income tax I had not had deducted. As soon as I received my refund in March I put it all toward the remaining credit card debt. And I promptly fixed my paycheck so I had $500 extra each month to assist my savings goals.
The Last $3000
With our credit card debt all but payed off in March I was loathe to take on more debt, but I saw an opportunity to fund a 2004 Roth with $3000 borrowed at 1.9% using a promotional offer before the April 15th deadline. We paid our daily use card off every month at this point and I would pay down the $3000 with a large portion of my 2nd paycheck each month. Even so this amount took longer to pay off than I had originally intended because we had some work done on the house (and I still had no savings!)
Debt into Savings
Those large unexpected windfalls allowed me to pay down my existing credit card debt very quickly. You might think that was lucky, but if we hadn't truly committed to paying it off we probably would have spent that $10k on pimping LaLa's '78 pickup or some other dumb thing. We had slowed the more radical spending in the beginning of the year but had not changed our monthly spending drastically.
But when my net takehome was cut by $800 a month starting in July we had even less to spend each month because we were now...wait for it....SAVING! I was putting at least $500 a month into my 2005 Roth IRA to try to meet the maximum by the 4/2006 deadline. And we were trying to start an emergency fund of 3 months expenses in a liquid account. So we really did have to try to cut spending so we could continue to pay off our credit card balance each month AND continue to make our savings goals.
Even though my story probably looks like I had it easy because I was able to pay it all off in a very short time, I think the principles are the same:
- Stop Digging a Cash Hole -- do whatever you need to do to stop taking on more debt. Don't use your cards, stop buying stuff you can't afford...whatever! You can't hit a moving target and you'll need to know the total of what you need to pay down.
- Make a Plan -- use the debt snowball, RDRP, baby steps...whatever works for you, just make a plan and start doing it.
- Use Windfalls to Pay Faster -- tax refunds, found money, sign-up bonuses, part-time income...use any unexpected inflows to pay off the debt even faster. You don't even miss it.
- When the Debt is Gone -- save, save, save and have a fine time doing it too.
At least that's what I think. And of course I'm no expert :)