According to Bankrate, 29% of Americans have more credit card debt than they have in an emergency fund. That is some scary, scary stuff.
Today, I have a guest that accumulated quite a bit of credit card debt right around the time he got married. We're going to talk about how he got out of that mess.
Chris Browning is the creator and the host of the award-winning short-form podcast, Popcorn Finance. His topics range from understanding the basics of investing all the way to his love of tiny homes. Chris's advice has been featured in major publications like NerdWallet, Yahoo Finance, and CNBC.
Andy Hill: How did you and your wife get together in the first place?
Chris Browning: Yeah, we've been together for what feels like forever at this point. We actually met each other in high school. So I was a senior and she was a junior. And the funny thing is we're both African American, but we both had a lot of friends with different backgrounds. And we had a lot of friends who were Asian, and so we were actually in the Asian American club. For some reason, some friends invited us, and we're like, “Yeah. Why not? It's high school. You just do random stuff.”
So we're the only two black people in the Asian American club, so obviously, everyone's like, “Hey, have you two met each other?” And we're like, “No.” That was kind of our first real introduction. Because we had mutual friends but we just didn't know each other. That's kind of where our relationship started, just, 17/18-year-old kids and Asian American club.
How did you buy the engagement ring?
This was probably one of the most financially responsible moves I made as a young person. I actually had saved up money, not specifically for the ring, but I actually had some money saved up. Not much, I think it was a few thousand dollars. So I actually was able to take cash and go buy the ring, but that was probably the last financially smart move I made for a while.
How did you decide to finance your wedding?
I spent all the cash I actually had on a ring. So then we got engaged, and immediately, the wedding planning starts. She didn't have anything saved, and I didn't have anything saved, but we knew we wanted to start the process.
We started to reach out to these vendors to find the venue and started putting down deposits. That's when the credit card came out because that was literally the only way we had to pay for these items. And our parents weren't in a position to really help us in a significant way. They were able to give us some money, as much as they could, but it was really just a small percentage of what ended up being the total cost.
In the end, I think we hit somewhere around $14,000 in total for the wedding, which seemed reasonable when you read stories about people spending $50,000. But $14,000 is a lot when you have $0 to cover any of that.
Where did you live after you got married?
When we got married, I was living with my cousin, and my wife was still living with her family. And so neither one of us had real furniture. So once we got married, we were like, “Okay, we're going to need some furniture.” We took a trip to Ikea as most young couples do, and we went through and picked out a bunch of stuff. And again, we put it on a credit card because we had no cash to cover any of these expenses.
At the time, her parents had offered for us to stay in a studio they had behind their home, which I did not want to do, but it was an amazingly generous offer. We were making somewhere around $48,000, which wasn't a whole lot, especially for Southern California.
So we took them up on their offer, and I think we were paying somewhere around $800, which is a bargain for out here. In other places, you could buy a house for $800 a month, but out here, that's fine for a nice studio apartment.
When did you decide to make a change with your credit card debt situation?
We got married in 2012, and it was around 2014 when I think I hit the breaking point with all of this because, at that point, our debt had climbed to about $27,000 total credit card debt. We had an emergency room visit that popped up out of nowhere and some school expenses that we weren't expecting. Just in general, we weren't really talking to each other about money, but we were still using credit cards. We didn't really talk, so we didn't know who was making the payment.
The balances were kind of just growing slowly, and they would just add up over time. And so in 2014, I knew in the back of my mind that this debt was building up. I was aware, but I just wasn't doing anything about it. And I just decided to look, and I just added everything up.
When I saw that it had hit $27,000, I was like, “That's more than half of what we make an entire year before taxes.” That's when the stress and anxiety hit me. And I think I just got so stressed out that I was like, “I got to do something about this.” That's when it all started to make some progress or some plan to get rid of all this debt.
What's the first action you took to combat the debt?
The first thing was to really look at where all of our money was going. Before it was just like, “The bills roll in, you pay them, and you just move on from there”. So I sat down, and I looked at everything that we were spending our money on. I just opened up Excel, and I was like “Alright. I'm just going to make a little line for every item and put down what we're paying for rent, for food, for cell phone, all these items.” Then I looked at what was just not necessary and where could we make some cutbacks.
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That was really the first step, we needed some more cash flow. We needed some more money available to put towards this debt. At the time, I couldn't think of any other source to get that money but to start cutting things out of our budget.
I went hardcore in cutting that budget up. We were down to basically where the only thing that we were keeping for ourselves was maybe $20 or $30 each per month to enjoy ourselves, which is not much enjoyment, and everything else was just going towards the debt.
Did you do a budget together or did you take a leadership position?
I took the leadership position, and my wife was fine with that. We talked about it, and I said, “Do you mind if I'll build a budget, and we'll talk about it.” But this was kind of my thing. I studied finance in school, which I think made this situation even worse because I felt like I should know better. I had all these things in my head about how to avoid debt, and we could've done all these things differently, so I felt a little bit of guilt and shame about that situation. So I was like, “Let me take the lead. I'll put this together.” I think she trusted me to do that.
For me, it was just really using Excel because that's just what I was comfortable with. I use it at work all the time. So I just kind of built a very basic budget, just made a line item for all of our expenses, kind of divided it up by the two paychecks. We both got paid every two weeks.
So I just made a two-column spreadsheet: “This is what we're going to pay on the first paycheck and here's what we're paying on the second paycheck”. I'd look at all those totals, and then anything that was leftover literally just went to debt. That was how we got the whole ball rolling with starting to knock this debt down.
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What expenses did you cut first?
We didn't have a lot of items that could be cut. I had already gotten rid of cable before we even got married. I was on the Netflix train for years already at that point, so I didn't have to worry about that. We didn't have a lot of other things to cut except for our food budget. That was really the biggest item for us.
It scares me when I think about the numbers that we're spending on food sometimes. I added up the food that we had spent on food for that month, and we crossed $1,000 for the two of us. I was like, “Are you kidding me? I don't remember this great steak dinner I had at some fancy place. I don't remember anything memorable about that month in eating at all. But somehow, we managed to spend over $1,000 on food.”
That's when I realized that was one of our biggest areas that we could attack as far as to cutting our food budget down. It's still something to this day that we struggle with. It's one of those items that is so hard to control because we get a lot of joy around going out to eat. That's our way of hanging out. That's the way I spend time with friends. It's a hard one to keep under control.
So it's still a struggle, but it's something that at least I'm mindful of, and we're mindful of. We can think about it and say, “Hey, I think we went a little overboard last week. Let's maybe rein it in for the following week.”
How many credit cards did you have to pay off?
We had a total of three credit cards over that time. It was about 2.5 years roughly that it took us to pay off the debt.
We used was Mint because it's just something that I had been familiar with for a while. They had a cool feature on their site that allowed you to log into your credit card accounts. It brings in all the data, but they also had a repayment tool on their site. It takes in all the information, so it knows what your interest rates are and your monthly minimum payments. It then gives you a repayment strategy, and your highest interest rate it goes after first.
You can say, “Alright. I can afford to pay $500 a month.” Then it'll show you how to allocate that $500, and then it allows you to up the amount. So you can say, “Well, if I was to pay $600, how much faster could I pay this off?” It has a little slider, and it'll show you how that changes. That was my guiding tool that I used, and it gave me the motivation to say, “Hey, maybe I can find a little bit of extra money, and if I can, how will that change our outlook for the future in paying off this debt?”
What did you do after you paid off your credit card debt?
The big thing for me was I wanted to save some money. I wanted to really focus on saving. One of my regrets during that 2.5 years that we were paying off the debt, was that we didn't really save any money. It was all focused on debt.
And I think that was one of the reasons why when an emergency popped up, it was such a big deal because we had no cash really or no significant amount of cash to handle any real expense. So for me, the biggest thing was I wanted to start saving. I wanted an emergency fund. I wanted to feel secure, so that way, I could handle things when they pop up.
I really didn't change our budget that much at first, and instead said, “Let's just keep everything the same,”. All that money that was going to debt, it went towards our savings account. The moment we started building up an emergency fund, there were no emergencies. Nothing happened, no random bills, no flat tire, all the things that happened during that 2.5 years just stopped magically because we were prepared now.
What financial goals do you have now that you're credit card debt-free?
One of our goals that we hit a little while ago was paying off our car loan. I think it was around October of 2018. We actually had gotten that car for her just before we started our whole debt repayment journey. It was early to mid-2014 when we got the car, and then it was late 2014 when we're like, “Oh, we got too much debt.” When we factor that in, we hit somewhere around $50,000 of debt that we paid off if you count the car and the credit cards that we finished in late 2018.
That was a big, big move for us because we were hoping to be able to move to a slightly larger place. We lived in a very small apartment – an older apartment, no AC, no washer and dryer. It was very small. It was nice. I mean, we enjoyed the space and it kept our expenses low, but we wanted to possibly move to at least somewhere with a washer and dryer. We needed some amenities that are going to help life be a little bit easier.
By paying off the car, I was like, “We can still keep saving, and we can take that money that was going towards your car, and use that to change to a different place without having to impact our hope for the future.” Because the next big thing was really saving for retirement and getting an IRA set up for my wife.
How did you increase your income during your credit card debt-free journey?
I wanted to accelerate our debt payment faster, and I tried a bunch of things. I was like, “I'll try some side hustles.” So I sold stuff on eBay and did food delivery through Postmates and DoorDash. It helped. They brought in a few hundred dollars here and there.
sold stuff on eBay. I did food delivery through Postmates and DoorDash. I was doing all these little things to bring in some money. And they helped. They brought in a few hundred dollars here and there.
I think during the food delivery, during the peak when I was on it, it was around $1,000 per month I was able to bring in doing that. It was only that high for about 2-3 months because it was a lot of extra work on top of going to work.
But the biggest thing by far was focusing on my career. I still worked full time, as a payroll manager. My pay was pretty low. I mean, it was good for the time. It was I think somewhere around $40,000. But I was like, “I know I could do better than this.” So I put a lot of effort and intentionality in towards my career.
I joined these different associations, and I was part of these conferences, and I would network. I would just try to do what I could to gain experience. That way, when I applied for new positions, I would be able to actually get it. I would look interesting to a prospective employer.
From 2014 when we started our debt repayment journey to roughly about, 1-2 years ago, I was able to double my income by making several changes. I've changed jobs about three times since then. Each time, I was able to increase my income and gain more responsibility and more experience – which has kind of helped lead up to the point where I'm at now.
Where is your relationship with credit cards today?
I have a healthy relationship with them now. At least, I feel that it's a healthy relationship. We still do use credit cards, and it's primarily for the rewards. It allows us to travel for free or cheap at this point.
But I am very, very diligent in paying it off. If I go outside, and I go buy some gas with my credit card, I'm going to sit in my car, and I'm going to make the payment directly right there, so I don't forget. I think it's just being more mindful of what's going on and just kind of keeping track of what I'm doing, which is easier said than done.
It's just something that I try to keep in the front of my mind whenever I'm using it, like, “Hey, go sit down somewhere. It's going to take you 30 seconds, just make this payment, get it out of here.” And then that way, you can go about your business.
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