Money

How I’m Paying Off Credit Card Debt, Living On Less Than $80 A Week

Welcome to Scrimp City—an anonymous, week-in-the-life chronicle that provides a real-world look at women who are trying to save money—across a range of pay scales and industries. Each installment dives into one woman’s progress toward one overarching savings goal, and breaks down where she saves and splurges while navigating a career, planning for the future, and still making sure there’s something left over for snacks.

This week, we get to know a 28-year-old Los Angeles transplant from D.C. who’s readjusting to a new income, new city and new budget.

Meet Our Saver:

Job:Systems analyst

Age:28

Location:Glendale, CA

Monthly salary: $6500

Monthly rent:$2382

My big move:

I got a new job offer in February and had about three weeks to pack up my things and move from Washington D.C. to the City of Angels. It was a big move, and whatever I didn’t have in cash I paid with my credit card. Once I got to California, I needed to buy additional furniture for my new apartment (which was significantly larger than my last). So, my debt increased as I continued to use credit for some purchases and cash for others.

The end result: I’m $5,000 in credit card debt. Since moving to LA, I’ve been spending a lot of money without thinking very much about it. I’ve had a lot of adjustments and I’m trying to reign in my spending now.

General saving goals:

Aside from paying down debt, I’m also looking at saving enough to buy an investment property in Joshua Tree. I went to Joshua Tree for the first time two months ago and fell in love with the area. After doing a quick search on Zillow for some properties, I decided I can reasonably try and achieve this goal by 2020. I’m hoping I can visit at least once a month and rent the home on Airbnb. It seems like a profitable investment around festival season.

Budgeting method:

I log into the app for USAA roughly two to three times a month to track where my expenses are. Since I get paid on the 15th and last day of the month, I pay all recurring expenses (car note, utilities, student loans, insurance, phone bill, credit cards) with my first check. Then I pay rent with my second check.

I keep track of the cost of my expenses in the Notes app on my iPhone. It helps me keep track of how much spending money is left over after paying all of my bills. This way, I have a general understanding how much I can and cannot spend throughout the month.

Strategy for saving big this week:

My strategy is very simple for this week: After my regular expenses are taken care of, I hypothesize that I make it through the week without spending more than $100. My biggest cut-back will be on dining out during the workweek. It’s so easy to buy a coffee and croissant as well as a $15 lunch at while at work. I’ll look for ways to avoid those easy buys.

I will take my breakfast and lunch to work and buy food from Trader Joe’s that will enable me to stretch dinner meals to two to three days. I have a knack for purchasing food while at work which can quickly add up. However, I’ll place a limit on how much I can spend on groceries as well, so that I don’t go overboard.

I’m also really big on splurging when I see a good retail sale. It’s summer, so I’ve been trying to cut back on the online shopping for events like Zara’s summer sale. I used to work in luxury fashion and old habits die hard.

To document everything, I’ll be taking photos of my receipts and using my notes app.

My goal for saving this week:

I plan on spending not a dime over $100 over the course of the week.

Monday:

It was only Monday and I felt like I’d already blown my budget unnecessarily. The day started out okay. I saved $4 because I opted to munch on the office snacks. I  usually go to the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf to get a blended drink or a pastry but I settled for some of thefree fruit provided at work for breakfast.

Things went awry at lunchtime. I went for lunch with a coworker and ordered what I thought was a $7 crepe. When it arrived, I realized it was a pretty sad-looking crepe that didn’t look appetizing. To make matters worse, it was actually $12! I couldn’t believe it. The shock of the price made it taste all the worse.

Tuesday:

After Monday’s crepe fiasco, I became more determined to avoid spending any more money than necessary.

I brought milk and cereal to work and left it in the office for the week. This would be my breakfast for the week.

I was proud of myself because even when I buy food, I unintentionally leave it at home and end up buying breakfast each morning at a cafe. Leaving the milk and cereal at the office rid me of the excuse to spend elsewhere. This helped me save at least $16 over the course of the week for breakfast.

For lunch, I volunteered to take a new employee to lunch on behalf of the company (i.e. I’m reimbursed for the cost of lunch). This worked out perfectly because I hadn’t gone to the grocery store yet to buy food for lunch for the week. I got to enjoy lunch on behalf of the company and bond with a new co-worker.

I finally went later to Trader Joe’s for some grocery shopping and decided to only buy protein for meals. I’d gone shopping the week before and bought some vegetables, but they’d been sitting in the refrigerator. I decided to whip up some dishes using what I already had at home and I focused on buying only the necessary items to complete some dinner and lunch combos.

Wednesday:

My strategy for the day was to avoid random food purchases throughout the day and eat whatever snacks are available in the office. I walked the 3rd St. Promenade in Santa Monica with my co-worker and craved something sweet. I resisted the urge to just grab something and headed back to the office. When I arrived, I found one of my co-workers had unexpectedly brought back donuts. Talk about perfect timing! I saved the $3 I would have spent on a sweet treat and unexpectedly satisfied my craving.

Thursday:

My strategy for the day was to not fill up my gas tank all the way. It usually costs me $35 to fill up my tank, but I opted for putting in only $20. This definitely felt uncomfortable to me as I had always filled to full, but I pocketed $15 in savings for the week.

I brought my lunch to work and my meal planning is going well so far. I’ve been able to avoid spending any more on work lunches. I’ve also been really lucky in that people have been giving me food all week. It seems like there’s usually something going on at the office and there are snacks and pastries available. Making it a point to eat those has helped me cut back.

Friday:

The average lunch in Santa Monica is $13. Today was the last day of work for a co-worker and everyone wanted to go out for lunch. Instead of spending the usual amount I spend on lunch, I opted for something light on the menu. I ordered some onion rings and was surprisingly happy and satisfied with a smaller meal.

It made me realize that I don’t have to deprive myself of social outings just because I’m on a budget.
Saturday:

When I first moved to California earlier this year, I bought some furniture on a whim to have a fully functioning apartment. But, to be honest, I don’t really care much for the furnishings. I’ve been planning on redecorating my living room for some time now. I told myself, however, that I would only get new furniture if I sell what I currently own.

I have a really bad habit of buying items (furnishings, clothes, etc.) on credit and then I end up not using or caring much for them down the line. I’ve donated or simply thrown out items I’ve bought on credit while I still have a balance on my card.

I wanted to stop the cycle of getting rid of items while retaining the associated debt. It’s like paying for someone else to enjoy what I’ve bought.

To counteract this, on Saturday, I posted my furniture on the LetGo app.In less than 24 hours, I sold my couch, two desk chairs, and floor lamp. All in all, I earned $380 overnight just by selling my old living room furniture! It was such a relief to get back on the app and have a good experience. A few years ago, I was in a predicament where I thought someone was going to buy a couch. The person bailed at the last minute, leaving me to figure out a last-minute solution.

I’ve since found that it helps to list your stuff for a slightly higher price in case people want to negotiate. Also, I kept a minimum sale number in my mind so I wouldn’t negotiate under. This helped me avoid feeling like I’d undersold items.

Sunday:

Two weeks ago, I paid for a whiskey tour for my boyfriend and myself. I knew his birthday was coming up and I wanted to do something special for us. So I looked for a sweat deal ahead of time. Having an event like that set in the calendar meant I avoided any opportunity to spend a large sum of money for a birthday celebrating during a time where I’m trying to cut back on spending. Plus, this gave me something fun to do for a future event.

All in all, I technically saved $74 because I purchased the tickets earlier in the month. Your wallet takes less of a hit when you space out your purchases for special events.

The lessons learned:

I regret only filling up my gas tank with $20. This backfired on me just a few days later on Monday afternoon, when I was driving home from work. I was on the freeway when my gas light came on. I was shocked! I’m so used to not paying attention to the gas meter that I panicked. The slow crawl of traffic I was stuck in made me all the more flustered.

I’ll admit I’m also a stickler about where I pump gas. Since moving from D.C., I only buy what I call “name-brand gas.” Once, after using my card at a local gas station, I ended up with a random $100 charge. I’ve been weary ever since of going to new gas stations.

Oh, and did I mention I was rushing home to meet up with someone by 5:30 and the clock read 5:10 p.m.? I bit the bullet and pulled into a little gas station right off the freeway. Did I fill up my tank all the way?I absolutely did!

Final thoughts:

Having to carefully keep track of money felt a lot like being in college again when I would impatiently wait until every payday. This was definitely an uncomfortable feeling because it kept me on edge about spending money.I’ve been telling my coworker about my spending habits and how my financial situation is a lot better than it was a year ago. When I got this new job, I negotiated my compensation package and got a $20K salary hike!

While I’m making good money today,  I’ll always remember the time when money was scarce and I had to stretch $40 until the next paycheck.

Doing this challenge has made me think about how I can save a lot by living the more frugal lifestyle I maintained before starting this new job. The good thing is: I’m realizing there’s still room to actually go out with friends and have a social life while being on a budget. I just have to think strategically and not succumb to $12 tasteless crepes.

This challenge has also provided a chance for me to step back and be honest with myself. I have to be realistic about what I’m willing to shell out money for, what is absolutely necessary and where I can compromise. I don’t think $100 a week is feasible for me in the long-term, but I do think I can be much smarter about my breakfast and lunch choices.

I also resisted the urge to impulse-shop online. I spent some time over the weekend scanning multiple sites for their holiday sales to see the best deals on furniture. I noticed a lot of companies sell the same products—just a different prices.

I still got the experience of doing a sort of all-day shopping spree but I made a commitment to myself to not purchase anything new until a later date. This week was an exercise in restraint, but the most important takeaway was this: You can still live a normal life, even while on a budget.


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