Aaron Hahn vividly remembers the moment he decided to crush his debt.
It happened in March, while visiting his retired aunt and uncle in Arizona.
Their home, with a lush, sprawling golf course as its backdrop, symbolized to him the power of hard work and consistent savings. Not to mention, this was their vacation home, a place where his “snowbird” aunt and uncle enjoyed visiting during the winter months.
“It was my ‘aha’ moment,” says Hahn, who, at the time, had about $42,000 in debt spread across student loans, a car loan and credit cards. “I was like, ‘O.M.G. I want this life.’ I want to do what they’re doing. I want to be financially independent.”
Hahn had also just celebrated his 34th birthday, which served as another wake-up call. “It was a confluence of events…I realized that I just wasn’t taking care of money like I should be, like a grown-ass man,” says Hahn. “I feel like there’s an awakening when you’re in your 30’s.”
His first plan of attack: Obliterate his $11,000 in credit card debt. For Hahn, credit was just a tool to for buying stuff when you didn’t have the cash. “The credit card debt was just something I was misusing,” he admits. “It became another part of my spending arsenal. I used credit for more spending power.”
Since March Hahn, who works in the Navy, has embarked on a diligent plan to reach debt zero across his four credit cards. Using a free personal loan calculator, he’s given himself 12 months to eliminate all balances and has, for the first time ever, begun budgeting. He’s using Mint to stay on track.
Will Hahn cross the finish line in time? I thought it would be interesting (and fun?) to check in from time to time to report on his progress and setbacks. He says he likes having me as an accountability partner.
Here’s how Hahn’s staying focused and handling some setbacks in the first few months.
“Budgeting is Like Yoga”
Hahn’s Mint budget is his first true budget. “It is a behavioral modification. It’s like doing yoga for the first time. There’s pain and discomfort,” he laughs.
To make room for the roughly $900 a month debt payments, he’s had to make some big trade-offs. The greatest challenge has been cutting back on restaurant meals and outings with his girlfriend. “I though you needed to go out and have dates in order for there to be a connection,” Hahn says. “Instead, we’re spending more time at home and realizing that it’s ok. I have her support in that.”
His girlfriend is also helpful in planning and cooking their meals at home. “She makes enough so I have lunch the next day.” This alone, saves him $70 per week, Hahn estimates.
The “Wall of Shame”
While Hahn has a total of $42,000 in debt, he’s zeroing in on the credit card balances first using the snowball method and attacking the card with the greatest interest rate first. All the while, he’s stopped using plastic and sticking to a cash-only diet.
For motivation, he uses visual reminders. “I’ve printed a list of all the individual balances on my fridge. It’s my ‘wall of shame’ and I’m looking forward to crossing them off,” says Hahn.
It’s been a slow process, but Hahn is also working towards a three to six-month emergency reserve. “That was what my credit cards had been.” So far he’s managed to tuck away $1,000. “I just love the idea that, for the first time in my adult life, I saved $1,000 and didn’t spend it. It’s such a good feeling.” Once the debt’s paid off, he plans to make savings a higher priority and add more to the account.
An “Actual” Emergency
It’s a good thing that he started saving because in May, Hahn emailed me to say that his debt payoff plan had suffered a minor setback. But it was for an important cause: healing his cat.
He wrote: “One of our emergency funds just came in handy. The day after I (quite literally) cut up my credit cards, our cat, Yasmin, became very sick over the weekend, requiring a visit to an emergency veterinary clinic. Between buying a new pet carrier and the vet expenses, this was $550 that neither of us had planned.
Fortunately, Andrea (my partner) has an emergency stash of her own, and between the two of us, we were able to handle this curveball with relative ease. Yasmin is okay (we have a follow-up appointment in two weeks), and we’ve used this event to reinforce just how crucial it is for both of us to set aside significant, liquid savings.
As for my debt repayment plan, this will weaken my attack for the month of May, as I want to stash an additional $500 into an emergency fund for when we run into another inevitable hurdle.”
Following that email, Hahn wrote about another surprise: A bigger car maintenance bill than anticipated.
All said, between the vet and car maintenance costs, he had to fork over $800 in unplanned expenses.
“This is definitely going to slow my debt repayment down by a month. Not very thrilled about this. Feel a bit defeated, honestly,” Hahn wrote.
Still, none of that $800 got charged to a credit card. So, in my book that’s #progress.
How will Hahn fare over the summer months? Will he find a way to get back on track?
Stay tuned to the Mint Blog for more updates on his debt payoff plan.
Farnoosh Torabi is America’s leading personal finance authority hooked on helping Americans live their richest, happiest lives. From her early days reporting for Money Magazine to now hosting a primetime series on CNBC and writing monthly for O, The Oprah Magazine, she’s become our favorite go-to money expert and friend.