This guest post from the redoubtable Tyler K is part of the new “reader stories” feature here at Get Rich Slowly. Some reader stories contain general “how I did X” advice, and others will be examples of how a GRS reader achieved financial success — or failure. Tyler is an active commenter at GRS, and never afraid to share his opinion!

Like J.D., I once had a big problem with debt. Unlike J.D., I didn’t dig myself out from under that problem gracefully.

About eight years ago, I was a college student, living in an apartment near campus, and working full time while going to school. I felt like I was on top of the world. Here I was, seeing all my friends making $6 or $8 an hour, while I was making about $17. That seemed like a lot of money. It was about $35,000 a year — not just a college student’s salary, but a real salary. I felt like I deserved to be living it up a bit, especially considering all the work I was doing with a full-time job and a full time class load.

I went overboard. I spent well beyond the $35,000/year I was making (it wasn’t as much money as it felt like). I bought a Mustang, and modified it into an amateur race car. I had the latest laptop and a desktop computer with a flat screen display (in 2001). My $35k/year salary was enough to live on, but it wasn’t enough to support spending $1500 on a laptop computer and on a desktop computer and on high-performance cylinder heads, but that’s what I did.

I bought all of them, and more.

This kept up for a year or two. I kept justifying these purchases to myself, and my credit card balances slowly rose along with my required minimum payments. A bout of bad luck exacerbated the problem. I was mugged outside my apartment, and having no medical insurance, ran up an emergency room bill. My race car was stolen, and being 21 and owning a race car, I couldn’t afford comprehensive car insurance, I had liability only. I bought another car to replace it, again with borrowed money.

Things fall apart
Eventually, I realized I was in over my head. I was gasping for air. I couldn’t make my credit card payments and also pay my rent and buy groceries. I was driven to the edge, and I gave up. I stopped paying all my credit card bills, and they went into collections. I voluntarily surrendered my car to be repossessed. I figured if I was going to ruin my credit score, I might as well go all out — I even hired a bankruptcy attorney. She managed to stop the incessant flood of phone calls from creditors, but I found I couldn’t afford even to pay for the bankruptcy proceedings, and so that process stopped shortly thereafter.

At this point, I owed approximately $30,000 on about four different credit cards, the medical bill, and the car loan, all of these in collections. My credit had been destroyed, but my creditors had been silenced by the bankruptcy attorney. I decided to get my life in order and worry about paying back the debts I owed later. It was easy to justify — I could barely put food on the table and the credit card company was still bringing in billions every year. They didn’t need an extra few thousand dollars as desperately as I did. So I let my debts ride, and worked on running my life in a sustainable way.

Turning things around
The first thing I did was give up credit cards entirely.

I decided to only spend money I actually had, and so my purchases of toys slowed dramatically. My extravagances in life dropped to going out to eat with my roommate a couple times a week, and not at particularly fancy places. I got into bicycling as a hobby, on a used, mid-range road bike — not a brand new, high-end model like I would have bought before. And there I sat, content with the computer I already had, my modest bicycle, and the occasional trip out for dinner. I was living quite comfortably on my salary with my new outlook on life. For the first time in years, I felt comfortable with myself. I actually managed to save a few dollars from paycheck to paycheck instead of spending them!

I did decide that I needed a car, though. I hadn’t enough money to pay cash for one, and I doubted anyone would give me a loan, so still being young and in school, I asked my parents to help. This time though, I was much more conservative.

I borrowed about $5,000 from my parents and created a definite plan for paying them back. I bought a nine-year-old but well-maintained Honda Accord, and I stuck to the payments religiously. This time if I were to fall behind, not only would I give up my newfound peace I’d made with myself financially, but I’d be letting my parents down instead of faceless mega-corporations.

No credit needed
Shortly thereafter, I finished school, and took a software engineering job in San Francisco. Rents were higher in the city, but my salary doubled. My brother needed a car, and I worked out a deal with my parents to give him mine, along with the rest of the payments on the loan. I wanted to get a brand new one.

I went down to the car dealership with my pay stubs from my new job, and my ruined credit score, and a pre-approval I’d gotten online for a loan of up to $26,000. I was determined to make something work. As it turned out, this was easier than I’d anticipated. Car dealerships will do anything to sell cars, and that includes selling cars to people with horrible credit and a repossessed car on their credit report. I bought this car with no money down, which in retrospect, is the stupidest financial decision I’ve made since I began my financial recovery.

Still, it wasn’t a horrible decision — I now made a salary that could justify a car like this. Sure, I got a crappy 12% interest rate on the loan, but I eventually refinanced the loan to 10%, and a shorter term, and then I paid the loan off early, about two-and-a-half years after I first bought the car. When I called the bank to pay off the first loan (when I refinanced), they were practically begging me to take a credit card from them, seeing as I’d overpaid my car loan every single month, on time, for the life of the loan. But still, I wouldn’t break my ‘no credit cards’ rule, and I refused.

Renting an apartment was another thing I was scared to do with bad credit, but it turned out easier than I thought, as well. I got my first new apartment with my ruined credit when I moved to San Francisco. I decided to share a place with a friend of a friend. We found a two-bedroom place listed on Craigslist, and went to see it. It was a four unit building, quite common in San Francisco, owned by a little old Chinese lady. She didn’t care to even run a credit check. Two well-dressed young men showed up, with pay stubs indicating an above-average combined annual salary, and job titles of ‘Software Engineer’ and ‘Accountant’. She was more than happy to rent the place to us for $1800/month.

I continued my life living the way I had since I’d given up on my debt a few years ago, but now on a much larger post-college salary. I bought few toys, aside from the car and some furniture. I’d go out to eat with friends sometimes, or I’d go out for drinks occasionally with my new coworkers. I actually found money piling up in my checking account because I was making it faster than I even wanted to spend it. I had nothing I needed to buy.

After a year, my roommate took a promotion that had him moving from San Francisco to Denver. I decided that I wanted to get my own place, but $1800/month was too much for me to spend by myself. The little old lady who’d been our landlord actually asked if we’d reconsider staying, and if I could find another roommate, as we’d been such good tenants, but I told her I had to leave.

I was questioning my ability to get lucky with finding an apartment a second time, but figured I’d done it before, and I could do it again. I looked at one place I like, and decided to take it, but was turned down by the rental agency due to my bad credit. I found another place a few blocks away that actually ended up being nicer — It was an old Victorian house divided into two units, one upstairs and one downstairs. The family that owned the place lived upstairs and rented out the downstairs.

Wary because of my bad credit and previous rejection, I wrote down my story, and gave the owners my bank statement showing the money I’d accumulated in the last year I’d spent living below my means, and the phone number of the landlord that’d asked me to stay in San Francisco. In light of this information, they rented to me regardless of my credit score, and they too ended up extremely happy with me as a renter.

The road to recovery
Several years after I’d given up on my credit card bills, I was finally contacted again by one of my creditors (or really, the collection agency to which they’d sold my debt). They demanded, in a rude and threatening manner, payment in full of an outstanding debt over $10,000.

My girlfriend (now my wife), who worked at a law firm, asked a co-worker of hers to help me out. He was an attorney who had previously worked in this specific area, representing clients being sued by creditors, and had no sympathy for a threatening collection agency. With a single phone call on my behalf, he had the collection agency offering a settlement of about half their initial demand. I paid it in full from the surplus I’d been accumulating.

Slowly, over the course of several years, my other creditors would contact me, and we’d agree on a settlement like this. Eventually, the statute of limitations for them to collect on the debt through legal channels expired. After that, all I needed to mention to creditors was that I knew it was too late for anyone to sue me, and I’d have a reduced settlement offer.

Now, at the beginning of 2010, it’s been nearly seven years since this whole mess started, and these old marks are due to start dropping from my credit report soon. Surprisingly, I’ve found in the intervening time that I haven’t been impacted much at all by my poor credit — certainly not as much as you would have thought, given the emphasis the financial media puts on credit score.

  • I paid maybe 5% more than market value for the car I financed, not a huge deal.
  • I was turned down for one apartment rental.

I’ve since rented one other place, where I live now, in a manner similar to the second — it’s a privately-owned little house with landlords that live next door.

I told them my story, showed them my bank statements and pay stubs, and they were happy to rent to me, and I love it here. Aside from the lousy car interest rate and a single apartment rejection, I haven’t even noticed my poor credit score. Employers haven’t cared. Cell phone companies haven’t cared. The electric company hasn’t cared. For the most part, nobody but myself has even looked at my credit score for the past six years.

While all this has been happening, my life otherwise has been going fantastically. My career has progressed well, I make roughly four times what I did when the story started. I got married. I moved back to my hometown, which I love. I’ve been traveling a bit, to five other countries and various places in the US. My life is going as well as I could hope.

Strangely enough, I’m not sure that any of this would have happened if I hadn’t given up on those debts years ago. That began a change in lifestyle — a focus on experiences instead of things, on making do with what you have instead of needing the latest and greatest. Those lessons have shaped my life since then, and I don’t know if I would have learned them as well without going through that experience.

Final words
I was originally hesitant about sharing this story. I was afraid of being judged for the method I used to pay off my debts. I’m not proud about having done this, but at the same time, I don’t feel bad about it.

These credit card companies were willing to do everything in their power to make a profit off me. They had teams of actuaries calculating the exact interest rates and credit limits that would maximize profits from their customers, and they had the legal system at their disposal if they thought it would have been beneficial. I used the same tactics. I was never sued and in the end, I came to mutual agreements with my creditors that satisfied both parties.

Was it an ideal solution for either party? No, but once I was in in over my head, there wasn’t a realistic ‘ideal solution’. The situation was eventually salvaged, and now, years down the line, it’s water under the bridge.

Reminder: This is a story from one of your fellow readers. Please be nice. After nearly a decade of blogging, I have a thick skin, but it can be scary to put your story out in public for the first time. Remember that this guest author isn’t a professional writer, and is just learning about money like you are.

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