Give Me Back My Five Bucks

My former life as a personal finance train wreck

2013-11-03 13.34.35-2My finances used to be bad. Like, really bad.

I’ve been hounded by collection agencies. I’ve had my credit cards declined in public. I’ve borrowed money from friends. And I’ve been so maxed out I couldn’t even afford to take the bus.

That was me in 2006. I was 24 and just about to graduate from college. I had a mountain of student loan and credit card debt, and basically no job prospects. My three part-time jobs weren’t enough to pay “real” rent, so I was stuck living in my parents basement, and in a relationship I needed to get out of. With my college diploma in hand, I was desperate to start my new adult life. I needed change, and it needed to happen immediately.

I haven’t really thought of that time in my life for a while. But doing my taxes this year and shredding a bunch of old paperwork showed me just how bad it was. I saw max out credit card statements, a line of credit that I used as a revolving debit account, and collections notices for bills I couldn’t pay and chose to ignore. Shredding those pieces of paper was liberating, but it made me realize that the financial disaster of a person I used to be is still hiding inside of me.

Last month I spent nearly $2,000 in car repairs, travel, and clothing. And it could have been a lot worse. My life has changed in that I can now pay for all of that spending in cash – but when I look back at 24-year-old me, I can still see how easy it would be to slide back into old habits. Buying two items of clothing to replace two that have worn out was fun. I could have bought way more and still not have been satisfied. I still fight the urge to be lazy and not cook a single meal (and not having RD around lately has made me even lazier). I’ve been fantasizing about what I could be spending my money on instead of saving for retirement (imagine having an extra $1,500 per month to spend!), and can you imagine the traveling that could be done if I emptied my savings account?!

So what’s stopping me from sliding back? A lot of it has to do with the anxiety and hopelessness I felt when I was living perpetually in the red. If you’ve ever been in debt before, you know the feeling … like it’s too big of a mountain to climb … like you’ll always be struggling just to get by. I remember spending countless hours worrying, crying, and stressing out over how I was going to ever turn my life around. I had never been good with money, and was never taught how. I came from an immigrant family, but my parents were always responsible with their cash. I should have learned from their example, but I didn’t.

It took a lot of will power and motivation to take the step to change my life, but looking through those financial statements showed me it was worth it. Seeing my debt shrink each month (even if it was just by a little bit) was so motivating as it was happening back then, and it was motivating to me to read 10 years later.

I thought that once I got out of debt and taught myself how to be responsible with my money, that the urge to spend would disappear. But it hasn’t. Sometimes I slip up and buy things I regret, or I eat at restaurants too often, and I’m still sometimes shocked at my credit card statements. I have all of my savings automatically withdrawn from my account as soon as I get paid – not because it’s easier for me, but because if I don’t, I’m afraid I’ll spend it. I keep a detailed spreadsheet of all of my spending and savings and transactions because it helps me stay focused and on track. My monthly budgets and spending recaps on this blog? They’re for me, not you. :)

I may not be the personal finance train wreck I used to be, and I think my money management will always be a work in progress. I’m not a natural saver, but I know that it’s important for my future self, and for my current sanity. Seeing my savings grow and knowing I’ll be okay financially in the future gives me a lot less anxiety than seeing my debt grow. So I’ll continue saving and investing and spending within my means. But it’s not easy.

Are you a natural saver or spender?

Author: Krystal Yee

I’m a personal finance blogger and marketing professional based in Vancouver. I’m a former Toronto Star (Moneyville) columnist, author of The Beginner’s Guide to Saving and Investing, and co-founder of the Canadian Personal Finance Conference. When I’m not working, you can usually find me running, climbing, playing field hockey, or plotting my next adventure.


  1. Thanks for sharing this. Sometimes I think we pretend that we are perfect and we have everything all figured out. You have come a long way and should be proud of that. I think you have a lot of safety nets in place to address what you believe to be your triggers and that is really great. I have to admit that every time the income tax return comes in I openly talk about how fun it would be to spend it all. We basically just reinvest it back into our RRSPs to continue to grow our savings however for a brief couple of days I think about how much fun it would be to spend that kind of money. But I don’t and feel better for it after when I take the emotion out of it. Thanks for sharing your struggle.

  2. Peter says:

    Great story. Now I was not that bad in my early life but I can feel the vib from your story so much that I can almost relate. To be honest, i am more of a natural saver.

    Thanks for sharing

  3. Kayla says:

    I appreciate this honest article Krystal! I always like to think I am financially smart, yet similarly struggle with phases of spending too much eating out, activities, etc. Lately my “splurge” has been on supporting an aging family member, and have wrestled with the necessity of that but also with how bizarre it feels to drain my savings. I too get anxious when I don’t have lots saved, because it feels so good to watch your money grow!

    I have also been enjoying all the posts lately! Thanks Krystal!

  4. Allan Miller says:

    I think I’ve said it before Krystal, but I find your “life” story so inspiring and amazing. I just wish I’d had your insight and information about 50 years ago.

  5. KC says:

    I can totally understand where you’re coming from. After pretty much maxing out, I was able to get rid of them fairly quickly and stick to budget 95% of the time. There are times when I get sticker shock when I open up my CC statement even though I’m expecting it and can only imagine how I managed to ignore such a high balance not too long ago.

    I feel guilty splurging every now and then but then I remind myself that life is all about balance and you need to enjoy it within reason. I just ensure that the cost is reasonable. For example, the Tragically Hip tickets that I’ve tried to buy last Friday. Even though I like the band, I could not justify a $250 ticket in the nosebleed section when it’s normally $53 (thanks a lot, scalpers!). There’s gotta be a balance somewhere.

  6. Liz says:

    Krystal, I can identify with many aspects of your story, though my situation was not quite as bad. Ten years ago was when I myself finally got out of debt and turned everything around to the positive side and it is still hard to resist spending money on some things, but I have goals that are more important and keep me on track. So we shall keep on keeping on!

  7. T. says:

    Hi Krystal,

    I just want to thank you for creating this blog that discusses “real” issues of life. Right now I am pretty much at where you used to be 10 years ago. I have finally decided to take charge of this situation now because I am learning how to adult. Stumbling across your blog makes me feel better knowing there are other people out there that struggle with the same things as me. Thanks for your inspiration!

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