The final amount came in at just under R120k.
It had taken me about four days to do all the necessary tallies: the bank loans, deathly interest and all; the credit card totals; the independent amounts of money I had loaned from friends and family; and the money my husband gave me two days before, which stopped my phone ringing ten to fifteen times a day like it had been for months.
It was the beginning of February 2016. I had just broken a 12 month trend of lying, faking and detachment by confessing to my nearest and dearest that I was badly, devastatingly, potentially almost criminally in debt. Then I turned in the direction of some kind of redemption, drew up a budget and started making plans to pay it all back, as quickly and as painlessly as I could manage.
Now, it’s the beginning of February 2017 and I have paid off my debt. I worked fucking hard, clung desperately to my resolutions about the kind of spending I wanted to be doing, budgeted the hell out of my life, cut out all my favourite things and focused – more than half my salary every month went to paying off my debt. But it’s important to be perfectly real about what the deal was: I am privileged; I have a good job; I do not really have dependents; and the sheer luck of a thirteenth cheque helped enormously because I could then afford to pay off major lump sums.
Which means that this is not the presentation of a formula for how to pay off debt. I personally don’t think there is one because every situation is unique, every person’s reasons different and the needs stacked within contexts that, in many cases, are the direct opposite of my own. I don’t know to pay off debt. I just knew how to pay off my debt. And these are the lessons I learned on the way.
THE MONEY TABOO
The first time I sat down with my husband (heretofore known as Stu) to talk about finances, nerves had made my palms sweaty. Yes my spreadsheet and budget were ready, and yes this was in everyone’s best interests and yes I did need the help, thank you very much… but I couldn’t help but feel like a raw, exposed nerve. Not once, not ever in my life had I been in a position like that one: on the receiving end of questions, open and honest about the state of finances, ready and willing to be practical and precise and deliberate about how I considered my money.
My palms were nowhere near as sweaty as my back.
Just thinking about that moment gives me residual anxiety. Not because of the feeling of it, but because of why that feeling existed.
For a world that is run and built on money, we can be awfully cagey about it. And not about whether we have it or not, but about what we do with it. Even now, a year down the line, whenever Stu asks me about my spending, my instinctive reaction is to be very, very defensive, to close up and think that he has no right to know such intimate information, despite us being together for almost seven years. And while that certainly doesn’t give him the right to anything, the point is that this feeling has never been his problem. It’s mine. I demanded that inherent secrecy around money, and within it, I cracked and allowed something desperate and difficult to fester.
The secrecy and general reticence about money, particularly when it comes to how much you make at work, is a well-documented and oft contested thing. And I’m certainly not the person to tell anyone how to behave about salary disclosure. This is not a rallying call to suddenly start tweeting about how much money you make (this whole piece is a rallying call for something different) – you do you, boo.
But a little openness and honesty about one’s money cannot be a bad thing – being open about my finances with Stu forced me to be open about them with myself, something I hadn’t done while I was spiralling into a debt-soaked depression. It was also just fucking nice to talk about money – where it was coming from, where it was going and how it was being moved through our household.
I held the previous view that money, at least, has its place within a certain framework and never ventures out of it (as you can see, perhaps the reason I got myself into debt is because my ideas about money were so ill-conceived). But in 2016, money ruled my life. Being in debt was its own kind of hell for me, even if it was controlled, with a strategy and an endpoint. But there was nothing I did that didn’t have my debt hanging over it like a sword of Damocles. Writing a piece? It will help pay off debt. Creating this awesome story with very cool characters? Maybe it will help pay off debt. Money fucking infiltrated my life in ways I couldn’t even imagine.
As I start to enjoy hours where I don’t have to think about money, I’m a bit hesitant about the extent to which I want to remove the concept and ideology and reality of money from my life. This is, of course, one of the most painfully privileged things I’ve said in a long time. The truth of the matter, however, is that it is privilege that allowed me to passively engage with finances, and now allows me to wonder if I want to go back to that.
Being active and involved with money is not something I enjoy – I don’t imagine it’s a pleasant experience for many individuals. But it pulled me out of debt, a mindset that says money just takes care of itself (throughout my childhood, I remember my mother doing filing, but not a memory comes to mind of either my parents doing bills right in front of the kids) and a number of other unhealthy habits I had gathered (like pay-day loans, Jesus be the fence).
The lesson? Engage with your finances. Whatever they are. Know where your cash is going and why it’s going there. Being a passive participant of this ugly cycle means you really do get screwed ever harder.
THE (REAL) SECRET TO BUDGETING
It’s actually two secrets, but the first is not very long at all: budget at all times. Budgets are the best, they are helpful and they are important. And not because of sticking to them, but because they force you to do the thing where you think about your life and your money and their relation to one another. Budgets are not just for tough financial times. They are highly recommended for the daily.
The true secret to budgeting, though, is to measure your needs versus wants. Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs is generally the perfect place to begin because it contextualises need in an emotional sense. Is your face cream a wonder of hydration and exfoliation? Then it’s a need honey. If you, like me, are the kind of person who is surrounded by vanilla-scented smoke on the regular, then slide them cigarettes up inside your budget. If Tumblr is the place you go to feel like you’re part of a community and can truly be safe and yourself, don’t skip out on that extra data beloved.
The point of a budget is to see if you can live within your means and make adjustments as necessary to the items you consider to be luxuries (my store-bought latte is definitely one of those, along with my refusal to eat any mustard but seed mustard). Half the problem with the way budgets are made is that they’re not realistic, and thus incredibly easy to break. If anything, when I was creating my budget at the beginning of this entire process, I cut out things like alcohol and Uber so I could maintain my pen collection habit and occasionally buy myself a nice thing.
The reality of budgeting is not to come out of it with the strictest, most penny-pinching version of your finances. It’s to come out with something that accounts for how you live, ensures that it remains within your means, a basic spending guide. It’s for control, not saving. For balance, not goddamned sacrifice. Budgets are for you, so plan them according to you – what you like, what you spend your money on, what you need, and what resources you have. And if, like I was, you’re deeply in debt, then your budget needs to account for that too.
The lesson? Budgets are not about limiting your spend. You limit your spending and if you are not about it then you can kiss your good intentions goodbye. Budgets are about control, about knowing the ins and outs of your monies, about knowing the financial scope of your life and its context. Budgets are a lifestyle shift, not something you just do when the things are dire.
IT’S YOUR FAULT. AND IT ISN’T.
There is nothing quite like money to give you a real sense of failure. Despite the many, many pieces of advice out in the world and on the web, which tell you not to feel like a useless, pathetic heap of cells, it’s hard not to consider yourself the ultimate wash-out when you’re standing on the cusp of enormous amounts of monies owed.
And if one is real with oneself in that moment (and if you cannot do it then, when can you?), you’ve got nothing but yourself to blame. I signed on the dotted line, didn’t bother to calculate what the interest rate meant and relentlessly used loans to pay off credit card debt and then hit my credit limit again a month later. I did all those things. There’s no getting away from it. Nobody put a gun to my head and forced me to actively worsen my financial woes.
Or maybe they did.
It’s hard to rage at debt. Some people go into debt because they want to provide the best life possible for their children, because they want to open up their dream business, because they want to buy a home, because they want to take care of their family, because they want to pay off the cost of life-saving medical treatment… the list goes on. Some people go into debt because they don’t have a choice, because they see no way around the demands of a capitalist and empathy-free society. Debt isn’t just one experience, it isn’t one explanation and it certainly isn’t just one person.
I got myself into debt as part of a grander programme of self-destruction that was initiated when my father left my mother, and his entire family, in the dust. I won’t go into the gory details — that’s another story for another time — but spending money was the thing I did to feel better, to feel less like everything was falling apart. I remember my therapist asking me, during one session, what exactly I spent more than a hundred thousand rand on. I truthfully couldn’t really remember — clothes, magazine subscriptions, random things. At the end of all the spending, I had next to nothing to show for it. Just broke and broken-ness. But for those moments, mid-purchase, it felt like everything wasn’t falling apart for once because new things are how I got my kicks.
In a world where money equals status, and status is given and taken away with a certain arbitrary cruelty, borrowing money can seem like the answer. Sometimes the only answer. In an increasingly expensive society hemmed in by abstract trends and deeply entrenched inequality, debt is not the deepest part of hell. To some, it is a stairway to heaven, a little bit of peace, a respite from the constant demands of a place and space where money is truly the root of all evil, and governs the lives of many with an iron and unrelenting fist. Money is complex.
Lesson? The pressure to perform financially is the same as the pressure to perform aesthetically, to perform sexually and to perform as an entire human being, for some unknown audience whose criteria have little to do with your personhood and more to do with some dreamed up idea of personhood that exists in literally none of us. So take your responsibility. But also acknowledge that you live in a world that is almost impossible to survive in.
There are no hard and fast rules. Not even one like ‘don’t get in debt’. Money is not as simple as telling people what they can and cannot do. In this economy? Never. You have to have debt to do anything – communicate, travel, secure a roof over your head. Debt is currency. Unequivocally telling people not to do it is fundamentally lacking in empathy. And this is not what this piece is about.
This is just what I learned about money while paying off ten thousand rands of it every month. It’s about what I learned about myself when I studied and critiqued my relationship with money (I’m still smarting from it, to be honest because while debt is layered and complex in many ways for many people, for me: I was just a privileged bbz spiralling out of control). It’s what I learned about society, about people and about how all of the aforementioned interact together.
It’s about financial life, and how mine went up in flames, was doused and the most important things I learned shifting through the ash and wreckage it left behind.