How to Escape From Debt

Personal finance writer shares her recovery from credit card over-spending.

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As a personal finance reporter for The Washington Post, Nancy Trejos spent her days interviewing people about their credit card debt and writing about how to be a smart spender. Meanwhile, her own bills were piling up. At one point, she even had to call her parents – immigrants who had earned a living through manual labor – and ask them to send her money. In Hot (Broke) Messes, she explains how she learned to get a grip on her debt and change some long-held spending habits. U.S. News recently spoke with Trejos about her struggle with finances. Excerpts:

What do you wish you knew before you got your first credit card?

I really do believe, especially when I was growing up, that people didn’t think about teaching financial literacy. It’s not something you learned in school and not something my parents told me about – even though they were really good with money, they never thought to sit me down and say, ‘Don’t go out and spend more than you have.’ They were more concerned about teaching me other things. I really believe young kids just need to be taught that, just like they take health classes. It should be part of the curriculum. I wish I had that background.

[See 5 Reasons Credit Card Companies Won’t Survive]

Did you learn about money in college?

No, there was nothing in college. I went to Georgetown – we were too busy learning about politics. We were too busy reading Plato. And then, credit cards were so easily available. Walking through campus, you’d have MBNA [now owned by Bank of America] offering T-shirts to us. We didn’t really stop to think, ‘Maybe this isn’t a good idea,’ we just thought, ‘This is the way the world works. You get credit and pay it off later.’ No one ever said, ‘It actually isn’t that easy.’

Why do you think some people tend to build up so much debt? Is it just the expense of everyday living?

Especially living in a place like Washington, in certain circles, it really is about keeping up with the Jones. You see what people around you are wearing, drinking, and where they’re vacationing, and you think, ‘I’m friends with them, we’re in the same circles, why can’t I have that?’ You almost become embarrassed if you don’t have it, too. I remember people saying, ‘Why don’t we go here and rent a house?’ You think, ‘Sure, why not’ – you get caught up in a certain lifestyle and don’t stop to think, ‘Are these meaningful experiences?’ If my friends were really my friends, they wouldn’t care if I can’t go to the Caribbean. I don’t blame the credit card industry for everything. I was an adult and I made poor choices.

[See How Clueless Are College Graduates?]

But living on credit also enabled you to have a lot of fun. Would you do anything differently?

I had a fun life, but I also had a lot of stress. Yes, I got to go to fun places and wear fun outfits, but I also had many nights of crying myself to sleep while I tried to figure out how I would pay rent or practicing the speech I was going to give my mother. I was so embarrassed by that. My parents were immigrants, they worked really hard, they did manual labor, and for me to go and say, ‘I’m a newspaper writer, I’ve taken nice vacations, and I need help.’ You have to figure out how to balance it. Yes, you can enjoy your life, but don’t go overboard.

Why did you decide to write this book from a personal perspective?

What I went through is what compelled me to write the book in the first place. I thought, if I’m going through this, and I’m an educated woman with a good job, then there are other people out there, too. I felt like I had a story to tell and I could help people. When I would write stories for The Washington Post, I would talk to people in debt. There were times when they would be really embarrassed. I would say, ‘I know where you’re coming from.’ I felt it was important for people to know they’re not alone.

If you hadn’t become a personal finance writer, do you think you would have changed your spending habits anyway?

It was clear something needed to change, but being a personal finance writer sped it up. Every day I had to go to work and talk to people in the same situation as me. I couldn’t escape it. If I had still been covering schools, I could have forgotten about it. That could have gone on for awhile. But because this was my job, it made it impossible for me to continue in denial.

[See Benefits of Budgeting by the Year, Not the Month]

Are you out of debt now?

I still have my student loans, but I’m out of bad debt, so I’m in a much better state right now. I have to be careful, it’s not like I can go out and spend freely. I still find myself saying, ‘No, I’m not doing that weekend out in Shenandoah with you guys because I’m looking at the numbers and it’s just not happening.’ So I have to be conscious about it. It sounds like it’s partly about being honest with friends about what you can and can’t do. Yes. In the past, I would be embarrassed to say I couldn’t do it, but now I have really close friends who know what my situation is and was. Because of this book, everyone knows. So when I say, ‘I can’t go out to dinner, can we cook at home?’ they’re very cool about it. And frankly we have so much more fun cooking something at home.