Financial Confessional: “I Was a Check-Bouncing, Collector-Dodging Accountant!”

[Welcome to a new post in our Financial Confession Series :) Up today, Christine Luken who went from financial mess to financial coach! Whip out your coffee and donuts this morning, and enjoy the story…]


Four years after I graduated from college, I hit financial rock bottom – hard.

I owed three different payday lenders money. I received regular collection calls on my credit cards and car loan. And I was on the black-list at all the local grocery stores because I’d bounced at least one check at each.

What’s worse – I was an accountant! First for an interior decorator, then for my father’s business – a multi-million-dollar machine repair company. Talk about feeling like a hypocrite!

How does a smart girl who made the National Honor Society make such stupid mistakes with money? Because I made emotional decisions with my personal finances, not logical ones. I let my heart hijack my wallet. From the time I was nineteen, I dated and then eventually became engaged to a guy; we’ll call him “Jeff,” who handled his money irresponsibly. Unfortunately, many of his bad money habits rubbed off on me.

Here are three of my most horrifying money mistakes and the lessons you can learn from them.

Horrifying Money Mistake #1 – “Theft by Deception”

Because Jeff rarely had his fair share of the bill money, we were constantly in the red. On more than one occasion our refrigerator was bare and payday still several days off. My brilliant solution: write a check for groceries despite the lack of funds to cover the amount! (This was back in the late 90’s when there wasn’t the instant communication between banks like there is today.)

At one point, a check was actually returned twice by my bank for insufficient funds. Rather than try to collect the money directly from me, this particular grocery chain turned it over to an attorney which led to me going before a judge and admitting that yes, I owed them money. I then had to arrange a payment system with the court, which included fees on top of all that I owed.

If that wasn’t horrifying enough, several months later when I applied for the accounting job at my father’s company, I received a call from HR. Something came up when running my pre-hire background check: “theft by deception.” That’s the scary legal term for writing bad checks. Imagine how mortified I felt trying to explain this to the HR manager and my father!

Horrifying Money Mistake #2 – “We’re Coming For Your Car”

There’s nothing quite like a collection call to stir up a cocktail of terror, shame, and embarrassment. I distinctly remember the call from my local bank informing me that my car payment was two months past due. The man on the phone pressed me to commit to a payment.

“If I had the money, I would have already sent it!” I wailed.

“Well, just imagine how embarrassing it will be when your neighbors see the tow truck coming to get your car if we don’t have a payment by Friday,” he threatened back.

For the whole next month I hid my car while I scrambled to come up with the past due amount. I would park my car in another part of the apartment complex, backing it in just right so the license plate couldn’t be seen from the street. I then walked half a mile back to my apartment in high heels, praying the whole time that my car would still be there when it was time to go to work in the morning.

Horrifying Money Mistake #3 – “Payday Lender Roulette”

It’s never fun when the alternator goes out on your car or truck. It’s even less fun when you have zero dollars in the bank to fix it. Not only do you have a transportation issue, but you also have a money crisis on top of that.

Thankfully (not), when my alternator went out, I remembered the commercial I’d recently seen from the nice folks at “Check N Go” who gladly lent me the money I needed until payday. What the payday lenders don’t tell you is that borrowing from them starts a vicious cycle. Once you receive your pay check and have to hand it over to them, you still have bills to pay and need to borrow even more.

At one point I tapped out the max amount Check N Go would lend me, so I came up with a bright idea: borrow from one of the other payday lenders in my town! When my financial house of cards finally fell, I owed three different payday lenders money. I ended up closing my checking account, letting their checks bounce, and arranged to send each of them a certain amount every month.

To say that this destroyed my credit would be a vast understatement.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: See our post on facts about Payday Lenders – they’re horrible!]

Lessons Learned Through All This:

#1. Even smart people do dumb things with money when they are financially desperate. The lesson here is to insulate yourself from financial desperation by having two things: an emergency fund, and a spending plan (budget).

#2. Guard your financial reputation! Those bounced checks that resulted in my “theft by deception” charge could have cost me an important job opportunity. Many employers check credit as part of the pre-hire process, even if the job doesn’t involve money. Why? Credit reports are an accurate indicator of general responsibility! Employers also know that financially stressed employees are less productive and have higher absenteeism than their financially healthy colleagues.

#3. Money is emotional. Personal finance isn’t just about the numbers. Our mindset, emotions, and relationships affect our money behaviors. I made countless financial mistakes despite majoring in accounting. I allowed my heart to hijack my wallet. Shame and embarrassment kept me from seeking the help I so desperately needed.

When our finances are a disaster, there are usually non-financial factors contributing to the situation. We must address and correct those issues if we are to get and stay financially healthy. My money only improved when I broke off the engagement with Jeff and removed myself from that toxic relationship.

#4. Bonus Lesson: The people in your inner circle impact your financial well-being, either positively or negatively.

The Recovery To Financial Health

It wasn’t a fast or easy journey back to financial health. When I decided to end the relationship with Jeff, I had no money, almost $10,000 in debt, and ruined credit. I moved in with my dad and step mom for several months so I could regroup and save up for first month’s rent and a deposit for a place of my own.

The first thing my dad said to me was, “You need a plan to straighten out this mess!” He helped me create a budget and a plan to pay off my debt. I was so stressed out and emotional about my financial situation that I needed an objective person to help me sort out the details.

I remember looking at the department store credit card bill and seeing a charge on there for a gift Jeff had “bought” me for Valentine’s Day. (Seriously people, I cannot even make this stuff up!) When I realized I was now going to have to pay for it, I was livid. However, to my dad, it was just one bill in the stack that needed to paid.

I followed the plan, and slowly but surely my debt began to shrink and my savings balance grew. Seeing the incremental progress month after month motivated me to stick with it.

About a year later, I was driving to work and an amazing thought struck me: “I can’t remember the last time I worried about money?” It was such a shock to me because I used to have almost constant money anxiety. That’s when I realized there had to be other people out there who were just like I was, living under a heavy burden of money stress and worry. I decided then and there I would find a way to help them get on the road to financial health, too.

I’m happy to report that now, 17 years later, I have an awesome relationship with my money. When I started dating my husband, Nick, we talked openly and freely about personal finances. He’s always been very responsible with his money and he positively influenced me with his good habits. I went from $10,000 in the hole and nothing in savings to having a years’ worth of income saved up and a net worth in the high six figures.

We’re on pace to hit the million-dollar mark in five years or less!

All my horrifying money mistakes have a silver lining, because now my full-time profession is to help others avoid the same shame, pain, and embarrassment of financial desperation. As the Financial Lifeguard, I now teach people how to swim in the choppy waters of personal finance. I’ve even published a book about it – check it out! Money is Emotional: Prevent Your Heart from Hijacking Your Wallet

Christine Luken is a Certified Financial Coach, speaker, and author.  She helps individuals, families, and entrepreneurs design a financial road map to help them arrive at their Preferred Financial Destination.  You can find Christine’s blogs, podcasts, webinars, and videos on her Financial Lifeguard website.

Like this series? Here are some other Financial Confessionals to peruse next:

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  1. The Dad Wallet September 1, 2017 at 5:57 AM

    It’s incredible that you came back from all that! Kudos to you! Sometimes asking for help when your in a money situation is the hardest part! Especially if your someone who everyone thinks has their money together!

  2. Ember @ An Intentional Lifestyle September 1, 2017 at 6:39 AM

    “The people in your inner circle impact your financial well-being, either positively or negatively.”

    I love that tip. It’s so true. And not many people realize and believe that. Who your friends are and how they look at and spend money is something that can hugely impact your own views. When we were paying off debt, we were blessed to have a couple friend that had went through the whole process 10 years before and were such an encouragement when we got down.

    On the opposite side, we have few friends now that think like we do financially, and it causes us to spend a bit more at times because of their own spending habits. This is so important to realize and be aware.

    Thanks for sharing your story!!

    1. Lance @ My Strategic Dollar September 1, 2017 at 8:39 AM

      So true! One of the hardest parts of doing what’s financially right for you is the reactions from the people behind you. If they aren’t supportive, it can make it really difficult to continue being their friend. Surround yourself with people who want to support you!

  3. Mrs. Adventure Rich September 1, 2017 at 6:59 AM

    I could not agree with your Lesson #4… “The people in your inner circle impact your financial well-being, either positively or negatively.” I have seen this play out both to someone’s benefit or their great detriment. Friends and family members who hang out with people who “YOLO” and “Treat yo self” on a regular basis are often not saving as much. They chalk it up to “having fun while we’re young”, but I wonder how fun those constant eating out, spa treatment and expensive cocktail bills really are. On the flip side, find friends who enjoy a beer in the backyard while BBQing and life just got a lot less expensive (and in my opinion, more enjoyable!). Thanks for sharing your incredible story!

    1. Christine Luken, Financial Lifeguard September 1, 2017 at 11:30 AM

      You’re welcome! And it’s really interesting because the friends I have now who are financially healthy don’t flaunt it. Rather, they make mindful decisions of what they want to spend on to ensure that they’ll thoroughly enjoy it.

  4. Ms. Frugal Asian Finance September 1, 2017 at 8:01 AM

    That is an incredible story. Thank you for sharing your experience and lessons learned with us. I made many mistakes when I was young too. Sometimes I wish I could undo those, but I can’t, do I decided to move forward and try not to make the same mistakes again.

    I’m glad you got back on your feet and now have your finances in check :)

    1. Christine Luken, Financial Lifeguard September 1, 2017 at 11:32 AM

      Thanks! For many years, I kept those shameful stories a secret, but now that I am sharing them in the open, it’s helping so many people. :)

  5. Leo T. Ly September 1, 2017 at 8:10 AM

    When growing up, I didn’t have any money and I had to work for minimum wage during my high school years. By knowing that money was hard to come by and no free lunches in this world, I realized that I should manage my money responsibly.

    My thought was, if I hade to work my butt off just to earn a couple of bucks, I need to spend every penny wisely. Hence, credit card or high interest loans won’t get a penny of interest from me as I will always pay my bills on time or will never borrow any loans with more than 5% interest for personal consumption.

    My philosophy is, it’s your money and you should be the one responsible for managing it responsibly.

  6. Angie September 1, 2017 at 8:17 AM

    It’s true about the bounced checks coming back to haunt you on your “record”. I’m currently 41. Even though I’m responsible with money now, I wasn’t in my early 20’s. I wrote two small checks that I knew would bounce at a local grocery store. I got caught and now it’s on my background check permanently. Because this happened in Iowa, the record will NEVER be erased. On your record, bounced checks are described as theft in the 5th degree. Not fun…

    1. J. Money September 6, 2017 at 3:24 PM

      Ack really? NEVER??? Man, that’s harsh… I always thought *all* mistakes go away at some point, damn.

  7. Mr. Freaky Frugal September 1, 2017 at 8:25 AM

    Wow, that’s a crazy story. And I’m really glad it turned out so well. Just out of curiosity – I’m not being critical – why do you think you didn’t go to your Dad for help and advice sooner?

    Mrs. Freaky Frugal and I are already FIREd, but I’ve watched closely to see how our two adult sons handle money. So far, neither have any debt and at least one already has six figures saved even though he’s in his early twenties. I’m proud of them and I’m keeping my fingers crossed!

    1. Christine Luken, Financial Lifeguard September 1, 2017 at 11:38 AM

      There were many non-financial factors at play in my story. In truth, my real problem was that I was in a dysfunctional relationship and money was a symptom. My dad never liked “Jeff” and so we were always arguing about things. I think part of it was just being a rebellious young adult. “It’s my life! I’ll do what I want to!” So, of course there was shame and embarrassment of admitting Dad was right. ;)

  8. Dave September 1, 2017 at 8:38 AM

    Thanks for sharing you story. I am glad you made a nice turnaround. Personal finance is both emotional and intellectual. I tend to to better when I am following my intellect more than my emotions.

    1. Christine Luken, Financial Lifeguard September 1, 2017 at 11:41 AM

      Good for you! If more people followed their intellect rather than their emotions, they’d definitely have more savings and less debt!

  9. Lisa O September 1, 2017 at 8:57 AM

    Wow…you did a nice 360! There is nothing better than to not have to worry about money. It can be hard to live within your means at different parts of your life. Once you have obtain the no worry….you never want to go back :)

    Thanks for sharing…

  10. Mrs. Picky Pincher September 1, 2017 at 9:14 AM

    Yikes! Glad to hear you learned from your mistakes. Even when you know money best practices, it’s another thing entirely to actually commit to them and follow them.

  11. Joe September 1, 2017 at 9:22 AM

    At least you made your financial mistakes early and learned from it. You had a lot of time to recover and it looks like you’re doing really well. Great job!
    Finance is much easier when you have a good partner.

      1. J. Money September 6, 2017 at 4:51 PM

        I get emails all the time from people in their 60s and 70s who are just now realizing they need to start saving – so heart breaking :(

  12. The Wealthy Accountant September 1, 2017 at 9:56 AM

    I see this in our industry all the time, Christine. It is refreshing to see someone turn from the dark side. Your story is important. You need to keep telling it. Accountants aren’t always the best at money. But they could be.

    And payday loans . . . If there was one thing I wished they’d outlaw it would be payday loans. They are so caustic to financial success.

  13. ZJ Thorne September 1, 2017 at 10:15 AM

    Oof, bad relationships can allow for bad financial decisions. My previous girlfriend was not great with money and having a crisis. I offered to pay half her rent for her last month in the place, but got suckered into paying all of it. She lived in the nicest part of town, but I lived in my brother’s basement to save money. Even now, with a much brighter financial outlook, I pay less than half of what she did in rent. Doing that for her definitely started a cycle of problems for me, but, thankfully, my problems were limited to having a balance on my credit card. Nothing permanent or job-altering.

    1. Christine Luken, Financial Lifeguard September 1, 2017 at 1:25 PM

      Yes, quite a few of us have made bad money decisions for the sake of love! One of the reasons I wrote my book, “Money is Emotional” to prevent others from going down that path. I see it more now in my coaching practice with parents enabling their adult children.

  14. Dads Dollars Debts September 1, 2017 at 10:37 AM

    Oh man. I am glad you were able to get your financial and personal life back in control. It is huge that your parents were there to help guide you and support you. I agree completely that the people we surround ourselves with play such a large part in determining how we spend.

    I am in LA this week and all my friends have $100,000 cars. I kind of want to buy one now, and that is exactly why I am driving out of here today in my $8,000 Altima. If I stick around my perception of life will begin to change by those surrounding me.

    1. J. Money September 6, 2017 at 4:57 PM

      Yes, but you’ll still snap pics of you in them for Facebook, right? ;)

  15. Amy @ Life Zemplified September 1, 2017 at 12:10 PM

    Congrats on making a successful turnaround and finding a partner on the same page as you. It’s amazing what we can do when we put our minds to it. Create a plan and act on it. Thanks for sharing your story.

  16. Jeff @ Maximum Cents September 1, 2017 at 12:44 PM

    I don’t really understand how you got in these situations. Sounds like you had a decent wage so why did you not pay your bills on time? What were you spending your money on instead of your debts?

    1. Christine Luken, Financial Lifeguard September 1, 2017 at 1:08 PM

      My now ex-finance was always in and out of work and rarely contributed to our finances. In fact he found plenty of ways to spend my money! After I left the relationship, I sought counselling and learned that I was co-dependent. Thankfully, I am much better at setting healthy boundaries in my life now!

  17. Lily @ The Frugal Gene September 1, 2017 at 12:53 PM

    Financial mistakes early are the best! Because the journeys long and you have a lot of time to fix it. This story’s the perfect example!

  18. Chris @ Duke of Dollars September 1, 2017 at 2:54 PM

    Sounds like your parents are great people – not only did he help you with your finances, he still gave you the job. Kudos to them and for you to take on the challenge!

    Thanks for sharing the story!!

  19. Tricia Prues September 1, 2017 at 3:43 PM

    Girrrrrl sorry if I missed the memo, but have you been on Ramsey’s show yet???

    So excited for you and thanks for sharing your story so authentically and transparently. You rock!

  20. Cubert September 1, 2017 at 4:41 PM

    Nice work digging out of that hole. Did any of this drama impact your physical health? I wouldn’t be surprised. Seems financial duress has a direct correlation on the body.

  21. Joanne September 1, 2017 at 6:13 PM

    Thank you for the great tips and inspiration Christine. The advice about staying away from payday lenders is spot on! When I hear someone say they’re considering using one I always talk them them out of it.

  22. Nicole September 1, 2017 at 8:09 PM

    I love how honest you are! This will be a great read for someone in a similar situation. It’s so easy to get in over your head and digging yourself out can be even harder.

  23. Milena September 1, 2017 at 9:06 PM

    I have made many mistakes in my youth when it came to money. Things finally worked out as I matured.

  24. Jasmine September 1, 2017 at 11:09 PM

    Wow that’s definitely an accomplishment! I’m not sure if I could personally pull out of a situation like that but reading about your triumph makes it seem doable.

  25. Primal Prosperity September 3, 2017 at 10:38 AM

    Hi Christine, If you happened to see my financial confessional, you will know that I had a very spendy ex as well. However, we were pulling in $200k or more at the end of the relationship, so we at least didn’t get into debt, but at that level of earning, we should have had much more in the bank, instead of wrapped up in ‘toys’. I actually had to go to a counselor (by myself) to finally make the decision to leave the relationship. It is not as easy as some might think.

    I have to say though, that collectors and lending agencies would have stressed me out to the max. So glad you overcame it!

    1. J. Money September 6, 2017 at 4:59 PM

      Your story is still one of my favorites we’ve run in the series so far :) Out of all of them it seemed like at least you had the most fun despite all the spending, haha…

  26. Leah September 5, 2017 at 9:34 AM

    Awesome job pulling yourself out of a bad financial situation. Very inspiring.

    I totally agree that guarding your financial reputation is important but I always have a real problem with employers who pull a credit check before offering a job as it is typically not often a good indication of general responsibility. I almost didn’t get my current job due to a bad credit report. Luckily the HR lady asked me for details and I was able to explain that complications during my pregnancy and son’s delivery left me with unexpected medical debt which snowballed from there into not being able to pay my car payments or utilities on time. It just snowballed from there. Just one event can create a financial downfall that impacts one’s credit for the better part of a decade. Sometimes those with pristine credit scores but tons of open lines of credit and debt can actually be less financially responsible than those with medical bills in collections.

    It has taken me a long time to rebuild my credit so that I look “desirable” to an outside party when in reality if one were to look at the 6 months of savings in my savings account, the worth of my investments and the fact that I have no debt, they would see more financial responsibility than looking at my credit report.

    1. J. Money September 6, 2017 at 5:03 PM

      “look at the 6 months of savings in my savings account, the worth of my investments and the fact that I have no debt,” YES! I wish that stuff was reflected more! In theory you could be a multi-millionaire who used cash for everything, and then the one time you want to borrow money you look undesirable because of your lacking credit score haha… Not that I know any millionaires that don’t have credit, but still – it’s possible! :)

    2. Christine Luken, Financial Lifeguard September 9, 2017 at 9:41 AM

      I totally understand! Medical bills can be a huge weight for families. I usually recommend putting medical bills at the low end of your debt payment priorities, paying mortgage and car payments first. Also, don’t pay medical bills with credit cards! Most medical providers don’t charge you interest and they’re usually very willing to work out payment plans with you.

      1. J. Money September 11, 2017 at 10:33 AM

        Good point on medical debt!

  27. Christine Luken August 26, 2020 at 2:38 PM

    UPDATE: Hubby and I hit the million dollar net worth mark in 2020, despite the economic downturn and Coronavirus! Woot, woot! :)

    1. Joel August 26, 2020 at 2:49 PM

      SWEEET!! Congrats Christine!!