“I should have started tracking sooner…”


Remember our post on those 3 fails of mine because I didn’t listen to my dad years ago??

Well our friend Amy here has me beat, haha…

And the only way I’m allowed to laugh at that is because the story came out somewhat well in the end ;)

Yet another reminder though to always listen to your parents!!




I should have listened to my parents too. My story is below.

My parents have always tracked every penny they spend. In the 1980s to the mid 90s they did this on paper in ledger books (I was known to look in these ledger books to try to figure out what I was getting for birthday/Christmas ahead of time). In the mid 90s they switched to Quicken.

When I started college in 1998 and had my first checking account, I was religious about tracking my spending, on paper … for the first year.

Then I said it was hard to do on paper, so my parents bought me Quicken, which I used for about a month. I graduated from college, took a year off, and then started grad school (still no tracking of my spending).

In grad school I got my first credit card, my checking account was linked to my credit card, and instead of having my debit card declined when there was no money in my account, my credit card was charged and I was assessed a fee. Of course the overdraft charges were not at the regular APR, but the higher cash advance APR.

After 3 years of grad school I received my Masters of Architecture, and a few months later I had my first adult job (still not tracking expenses and still having my credit card charged for any overdraft). I worked in that job until 2009 when I was laid off due to the recession. I moved back in with my parents, collected unemployment, and tried to find a job.

Well, in 2009 – 2011 nobody was hiring architects, during that time I studied a lot and took the 7 licensing exams, so when I did get a job I would be much closer to being licensed. Once in this time period my parents paid off the balance on my credit card, as well as paying off the remainder of the car loan from the new car I bought in 2007.

In 2011 (I’m still not tracking my spending), I moved to Chicago to be with my boyfriend. I had finished all the licensing exams and there was hope that there would be more job opportunities in a larger market. The bright lights and shiny city were enticing, I wanted nice things, credit was easy, I got a Nordstrom card and the credit card that I got back at the beginning of grad school had a $8,000 and then $11,000 limit. Well, even in 2011 people were not hiring architects, so I got a minimum wage job at a large retailer.

At the end of 2011, my boyfriend and I got engaged. When we registered for the wedding, Macy’s got me to sign up for their credit card.

In 2012 (still not tracking spending), we got married, and weddings are expensive so I hit the limit on my credit card. Then we left for our honeymoon in Australia. When we got back home I got a bank account at the bank my husband uses, and I got another credit card which had no interest for a year. I just kept spending. At some point I realized the almost 25% APR on the Macy’s card was ridiculous so I made a point of always paying it off (you take small victories where you can find them, it also helps that the Macy’s card only had a $500 limit).

2013 rolls in and my husband has an employment scare. I become the Assistant to the District Manager at the retailer I worked at which came with a bit of a pay raise, more regular hours, and health insurance (which was much cheaper than what we had through my husband’s employer).

I attempt to track my spending. I download numerous apps to my phone, but something always gets in the way.

In 2014 we buy a house, I still do not track my spending. In 2015 I FINALLY get a job in architecture again. Now that I’m making better money, I want even better things and the spending continues to happen while still no tracking.

In early 2016 I become a licensed architect, then in late 2016 we have a baby. Baby was premature, and spent 28 days in the NICU. Children are expensive! There are all sorts of new expenses, insurance, daycare, diapers, formula…

In the summer of 2017 I was starting to figure out I was in trouble as I ran up against my credit limits. In October of 2017 I had, what I like to call, my “come to Jesus moment.” Across all of my credit accounts I had $21,652.61 in debt! And while I was making more than minimum wage, architecture (contrary to popular belief) is generally not a high paying career (and because I had debilitating postpartum depression I was averaging only 34 hours of work a week).

At the time of my “come to Jesus moment” my debt was 55% of my annual gross income and 70% of my annual net income!!!!

I needed to do something.

I started tracking!

I wanted to buy Quicken, but since I needed to pay off debt, I didn’t want to spend the money. I turned to Google Sheets (I found your blog in one of many internet searches for spreadsheet templates).

I did something drastic, I went back through ALL of my past credit card and bank statements and input ALL of the transactions, payments, and fees, going back to my first card in 2003.

I started tracking every penny I spent, I made spending categories, I learned fancy spreadsheet equations, I figured out pivot tables, and I started throwing money at my debt.

First I paid off my credit line (which had the highest interest (and the smallest balance)), then I paid off the Nordstrom card (the next smallest balance). I also started to work my way out of my postpartum depression and was able to work more hours at work, which meant more money coming in.

In early 2018, having tracked my expenses religiously for 3 or 4 months, I felt confident that I could make a balance transfer work for me. I opened a new credit card, and started playing the balance transfer game. When I did the balance transfer I had $19,765.50 spread over two credit cards. I transferred everything off of the card with the highest interest, and a bit off the card with the lower interest. Now I was on the clock. I had to pay off the balance transfer by October 2019 or the interest would be even higher than it was before.

I started making progress and continued to track everything with the google sheets. I found monthly and annual subscriptions that I had no idea that I had signed up for, and canceled them. Knowing that I had to record all transactions caused me to pause and think before purchasing, often leading me to buy less.

I made a spreadsheet that counted backwards so I would see when each of the purchases I made in the past was actually completely paid for. Like the $8.99 McDonald’s lunch from 8/2016 which I paid off in 10/2018.

While I was making progress, and while my interest charges were less than they had been because of the balance transfer, I still felt like I was just treading water. I called my mom.

I think that my parents had some idea that I had credit card debt, but since they are the type of people who pay their credit card in full every month (I remember when mom transposed a couple of numbers on the check to the credit card company once and they were assessed $2.00 in interest – it was rather scandalous), I was ashamed of how much debt I had accrued.

I set the stage with how much debt I started with, how much debt I had now, what I was doing to pay down debt, and what I was doing to make myself accountable. I told them about my tracking process.

Mom and dad discussed, and called back – they would loan me money and offered to pay off both the credit card that was accruing interest AND the balance transfer card! I said just start with the card that was accruing interest. They sent a check, I paid off the credit card, and my credit rating jumped from the low 700s to the high 700s (because now I track more than just spending).

We made an agreement that I would pay the balance transfer card down first, and when that debt was done, I would pay them back. I continued to throw money at my debt, I put one recurring automatic expense on the credit card that had the higher interest rate (and no rewards), I started having my other credit card work for me, it was now paying me 1% to use it, I continued to TRACK EVERYTHING!

To prevent myself from falling victim to letting a balance accrue on my cards, I made multiple payments a month. I would get home from shopping and make a payment to the credit card right then for the purchases I had just made. I was NOT going to fall back into my old habits.

I paid off the balance transfer card in April of 2019, a full six months before the interest would even begin. I only had $8,830 left! I sat down with my parents about the repayment plan. Since we live in different states, and I wanted to make payments as soon as I had money available (and didn’t want to keep sending checks in the mail [extra embedded cost, of course], and they didn’t use electronic payment apps like Zelle) we agreed that I would open an additional savings account and park the money there for repayment, and when I see them I would write them a check (also this account is earning several cents of interest every month).

I continue to keep tracking and throw money at the debt. As of today I have $6,400 to go, and should get that knocked out in the next 12 months (if not sooner)!

I haven’t paid credit card interest in more than 12 months. Actually, since the first of January my credit cards have paid me $175 to use them vs. the $2,980.88 I paid to use them in 2017!

Almost two years removed from my “come to Jesus moment”, tracking is now a part of my everyday life. Last month we took a trip to Colombia, and I made a Google sheet that I could use offline to calculate the cost of items in USD and record the cash I spent. I had all the data ready to fill in the US customs form on the value of the items we were bringing back into the country, only to find out that we didn’t need that.

While I had wanted my parents to swoop in and pay off all of my debt (and some days I still want this to happen, because life is expensive!), I know that paying back every cent of the debt I accrued is the harsh lesson needed to not end up in this situation again.

I’m still driving the 2007 car that my parents paid off for me in 2009, and I hope that it holds on for a few more years so I can save up some money to buy something newer after I pay my parents back. While the luxury of a brand new car is appealing, after this exercise in debt repayment, I’m reluctant to accrue new debt.

I often wonder, if I had not stopped tracking my spending in college and had developed all of the tools I acquired in the past two years earlier, how much money would I have saved in interest and fees over the past 20 years vs. the $17,179.75 I ended up paying?

Below you will see my debt progress from 2003 to today. I’m looking forward to the day the red line reaches zero and I’m done paying off my debt!

– Amy

PS: Because I didn’t want to shell out the money to buy Quicken (or other apps) at the beginning of this process, I have really learned how to make spreadsheets. I have made fancy spreadsheets for my office that have resulted in an increased efficiency on our projects at work, and resulted in both a raise and a larger than usual year end bonus last year. All of which has helped me pay down my debt even faster!

debt progress chart[click to blow up bigger]

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  1. Josh October 29, 2019 at 5:56 AM

    I never went into debt (except for that $27k car loan), although I wish I hadn’t spent $5,000+ on restaurant meals per year for about 5 years of my bachelordom. It didn’t pinch my wallet and I was lazy. But now that I have a family of my own, that cash could have helped us with mom-and-dad expenses.

    Congrats Amy on making the change and congrats on your baby. My children were a big catalyst for my life outlook.

    1. J. Money October 29, 2019 at 6:50 AM


      If it weren’t for my kids I’d still be grinding 20 hours a day and not living LIFE :)

      (they’re also good for *saving you money* too, contrary to popular belief)

      1. Debt Free in RVA October 29, 2019 at 3:08 PM

        Gosh, LOVED the article and best wishes for Amy to pay off the rest of her debt. I think most of us J. Money followers are cringing reading this article, but if you don’t track your $$ then who knows where they go! I sympathize with Amy, and am happy she is getting back on the right track.

        Amy and anyone else, one book that made a HUGE difference in my life was Debt Free Living by Larry Burkett. https://www.amazon.com/Debt-Free-Living/dp/B003F235AM/ref=sr_1_3?keywords=Debt+Free+Living&qid=1572375994&sr=8-3

        I highly recommend this book and it truly offers timeless wisdom.

        J. I wanted to just comment on your comment here. THANK YOU for stating that kids save $$ because they do. I loved the linked article. I get so many people telling me I am nuts for having multiple kids. I have a ton of friends who swear they will NEVER have kids. OK, I respect the choice that you make to not have kids, but don’t go calling me crazy for having multiple kids. All 7 points you make apply to my wife and me too.

        1. J. Money October 30, 2019 at 6:13 AM

          Haha, glad to hear it ;)

  2. Stephanie October 29, 2019 at 6:55 AM

    Amy- thanks for sharing. You are a wonderful storyteller. Do you blog? I would love to chat sometime with someone who is my age and have/had similar experiences! Unfortunately, I’m still paying off that McD’s or shoes. Your parents sound so supportive. You are lucky! J – great post!

  3. Eileen October 29, 2019 at 10:11 AM

    I appreciate the writer’s honestly but here:

    “I often wonder, if I had not stopped tracking my spending in college and had developed all of the tools I acquired in the past two years earlier, how much money would I have saved in interest and fees over the past 20 years vs. the $17,179.75 I ended up paying?”

    What you SHOULD wonder is if your parents hadn’t been there multiple times to save your butt (and a lot of money) how terrible a spot you would be in. Truly — I would be curious to know what your debt would be today had you not had your CC and car loan paid, free housing, and the current interest free loan. That’s a significant part of the story because for others who make the same mistake, might not have that safety net.

    1. Eileen October 29, 2019 at 10:14 AM

      Ugh, the writer’s “honesty”

      1. Debt Free in RVA October 29, 2019 at 3:18 PM

        Well said Eileen!

        And unfortunately a lot of people do not have a helping hand to bail them out…

        I try to avoid politics but I wonder if our government will ever stop banks from charging such insane interest rates.

        I like the quote “Like the $8.99 McDonald’s lunch from 8/2016 which I paid off in 10/2018.” Question: how much did that $ 8.99 lunch in 8/2016 end up costing in 10/2018? What is sick is that at a 25 % APR that $ 8.99 lunch actually ends up costing…… drumroll….. $ 107.

        That is at a 25 % APR compounded monthly….. after 12 months that $ 8.99 is $26.7, and at 2 years it is $ 87.8. That is sick!

  4. Joe October 29, 2019 at 10:15 AM

    Great job turning it around. Just keep at it and that debt will be gone soon. The finish line is in sight.
    I think it’s great that you learn how to use the spreadsheet. Quicken is nice, but you can use the spreadsheet in many other areas of life. It’s a lot more flexible.

  5. crunchylittlemama October 29, 2019 at 11:30 AM

    True, really brings home the power of family. I am, personally, so grateful for the financial help my family has given me throughout life. With a freshman in college, I am now really paying attention to what financial lessons I may have missed. This article is great timing for me. I am realizing that I made sure to include the lessons I should have learned later…investing and the power of compounding (he opened a Roth with his 1st high school job and I matched him for full contribution…50% saving rate on his part), but things I take for granted, like tracking spending, might need to be revisited (as a struggling college student who was thrilled to get the $10 I handed him last time he was home, he doesn’t have much to track at the moment…but that will change soon enough.)

    1. J. Money October 30, 2019 at 6:21 AM

      Awesome!!! Just the fact you convinced him to open up a Roth that early is a win! Haha… Most of us adults don’t even do that! :) I bet it’ll open up his eyes to the possibilities as he watches that balance rise… That’s what did it for me anyways (in my late 20s). Finally seeing money go up instead of down when you keep adding to something but *never withdraw* – what a concept! ;)

  6. Becky October 30, 2019 at 12:51 PM

    Wow! That is awesome how you were able to go all the way back and track your debts from day one. Did you still have old credit card statements or were you able to pull the statements from online? Either way, that is really cool. I’ve never really thought about going back to the beginning like that!

    I also think it is really cool how you broke it down so much that you knew exactly what date you paid off such small amounts like a Mickey D’s meal. That would be a lot of number crunching!

    Way to go getting on track though, your future will be much brighter!

  7. Kopi Buddy November 8, 2019 at 11:13 AM

    Wow, it is really inspiring to hear such stories! Great job!