Surviving the claws of debt

2016-04-05 06:00
 Photo: VALENE GOVENDERThe only cards in my wallet at the moment.

Photo: VALENE GOVENDERThe only cards in my wallet at the moment.

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THE interest rate, hidden costs and VAT are things I never really took seriously until I was forced to grow up and learn to handle my finances wisely.

And by wisely, I mean avoiding drowning in a pool of debt - which was heading in my direction like a tidal wave.

Five years ago, at the age of 30, I was financially comfortably. As a married “dink” (double income, no kids) life was pretty comfortable. My husband took care of all things serious - rent, utility bills and fuel - while I took care of the luxuries - food, clothing, holidays, etc.

We really had no serious responsibilities so we had no need for extra credit, basically we lived within our means.

Fast-forward two years. We were ready to buy a home as we were fed up with dealing with landlords, and finally decided to apply for our first major loan - a home loan.

At this point we had a few retail accounts, but only used them when we needed to, which was about five times a year.

At some time during this stage, I discovered internet shopping (I dislike shopping malls - trying on clothing and following queues is not my thing) and my husband fell in love with big name branded clothing. His taste has always been “expensive”, but he took that taste to a whole new level.

We reached a point where spending R1 000 on a shirt meant nothing and I used to buy arbitrary items on the internet, well just because I could.

I didn’t budget for the extra costs that came with owning a home and this was an added expense which I impetuously charged to a credit card - for the record I had four credit cards with huge credit limits.

I have never not paid my debts so my credit limit continued to increase annually and I continued to pile on the credit.

In 2015, my husband and I decided to sit down and talk finances - in our 10 years of marriage we never did this.

There is some statistic somewhere that stuck in my mind - apparently more than 60% of marriages in South Africa break up due to financial problems.

We made an informed decision not to become a statistic, and to grow up, fast.

At this point we decided to conduct a “fiscal cleanse”. Basically we said we will not buy anything new (food included) until we’ve used or eaten everything we had in our cupboard and freezer.

I was patting myself on the back for being this wise and I went around sharing with friends and family how smart I had become.

At the end of the week, the pat on the back became a kick.

I discovered bags of unused, brand-new clothing at the bottom of my wardrobe, I discovered expired food at the back of my grocery cupboard and after putting pen to paper, I realised I was so heavy in debt that our combined salaries were not covering the basics.

Swiping credit cards became the norm so I was recklessly using it, even when I didn’t need to - like buying a R10 item at a service station.

I put myself in a position where I was now swiping my credit card to pay my bills - and this is when I decided that enough was enough.

My husband and I were speechless when we wrote our debt down on paper - it made it official - we were financially drowning.

We made a united decision to close every account and enter into the debt consolidation process.

And I swear I suffered withdrawal symptoms during the first month. I could not walk into a store without panicking because I was not able to randomly choose products without worrying about the price. So I avoided all shops. I felt unstable without the credit cards in my wallet.

A year later, I am comfortable once again. I still get really angry at myself for being foolish, but I can see how easy it is to get caught in a debt hurricane.

I am grateful for my life partner who has held my hand through the difficult times and always provided encouragement.

If you are going through something similar, talk about it to someone - anyone - because there is help and it is not hard to find. Sometimes the voice of reason can come from a loved one.

So now, when base points and interest rate comes up on the news, I throw my hands in the air and curse the government because I know what it means to my budget.

We made an informed decision not to become a statistic, and to grow up, fast.

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