Andrew McNaughton, LCSW, CADC

Late one restless night in March 2018, I made the decision to finally get out of credit card debt, which I eventually accomplished in one year. This two-part blog is meant to inspire, not to gloat. I recognize I am lucky to have had the opportunity to do this for myself, and I accomplished it with some rational and practical approaches to overcome urges to engage in catastrophic thinking as well as not give into impulses to spend. As I tell my clients, I do not consider myself a pillar of will power or self control. If anything I am quite the opposite, but through using evidence based thought and behavior change skills combined with basic budgeting and goal setting tools, I accomplished a daunting task that I had once considered impossible, and if I can do it, I truly believe anyone can.

I had multiple open accounts, all with relatively low credit lines that were perpetually maxed out. My credit score hovered around 600, if only because I had always made on-time minimum payments, though I would also always spend what little credit I had left on my cards on groceries, gas, or comic books. I was making zero progress towards putting a dent in my debts, and regarded the prospects of doing so to be fairly hopeless since I was living paycheck to paycheck. Making matters worse for myself, I continued to impulsively spend. I now recognize this was an addictive experience, a maladaptive coping pattern where I soothed my financial anxieties through more spending, further reinforcing my sense of shame about my poor spending choices.

So I decided it was time to get out of credit card debt. At 1:45AM on a weeknight, I gathered information on the amounts of my current balances, and each of their APR interest rates using mobile apps, websites, and 24/7 Customer Service telephone numbers for each of my 9 credit card accounts. The dollar amounts owed and the outrageous rates I was being charged on those debts were difficult to reckon with at first, but I told myself that however bad the numbers were (they were pretty bad), they paled in comparison to the bottomless pit of hopeless debt I had previously imagined. All told, I had roughly $16,000 in credit card debt spread across 9 different accounts, with interest rates ranging from 20-30% APR.

I had read several personal finance articles and blogs talking about the costs and benefits of the Snowball and Avalanche approaches to debt repayment, themselves retreads of proven techniques to overcome procrastination and avoidant behaviors. The Snowball approach provides a strong sense of emotional satisfaction by paying off the smallest debt before moving onto the larger ones, while Avalanche courageously tackles the largest debt first to make all remaining debts feel less daunting. Depending on the source of information, some emphasized the practical approach of factoring in interest rates with regard to Snowball versus Avalanche, while others focused strictly on the emotional weight of gaining momentum towards getting out of debt with whichever approach was most appealing.

I am not entirely sure where I got this idea, but it occurred to me that while these approaches were emotionally driven, they lacked practicality to just pay off the debt with the highest interest rate first, whether the balance is $500 or $50,000, and then go from there to the next highest. I many have drawn this conclusion on my own after reading this article from Forbes, which was amongst several dozens making the newsfeed rounds in 2017. It is with this mindset that I embarked on my long overdue credit card debt repayment. Of course, there is a bit more to this story in terms of successes, setbacks, personal discoveries and newfound opportunities, so my tale of financial recovery will continue in Part Two of this blog. Meanwhile, you can click here to learn more about Financial Therapy services offered by Symmetry Counseling.