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It’s no secret that debt and mental health are often interconnected. It’s depressing to find yourself deep in debt with seemingly no way out, and that hopelessness often leads people into more and more debt.
It’s been said that money can’t buy happiness, but study after study has proven that spending money creates a powerful endorphin rush. The problem? The warm feelings only last so long, and spending more and more while racking up debt is like plugging one stubborn leak in a bucket while simultaneously creating three new ones.
This kind of relationship with debt is typical, but anyone can enact positive, lasting change with the right financial and mental health strategies.
Recently, we interviewed Ben Barrett, a mental health expert, clinical social worker, and addictions counselor. Ben shared about his own journey with debt and depression, along with the strategies that have helped his family eliminate approximately $15,000 in debt.
It’s an inspiring and motivating story, especially if you’re facing a tall mountain of credit card debt.
Without further delay, here is the interview.
1.) Thanks for taking the time to share your story, Ben. Tell us a little bit about yourself!
My name is Ben Barrett. By day, I am a clinical social worker and addictions counselor; by night, I am the founder of The How to Social Worker, a mental health blog promoting personal and professional development through my own experiences. I’m not just a therapist who has read about mental health and am trying to vicariously coach others. In my life, I’ve had several episodes of major depression; this experience helps me work with others who have had similar struggles.
As a mental health expert, my goal is to help support the emotional well-being of those around me. It is my hope that through my personal experiences, my blog will help advance your personal and professional goals.
When I’m not helping others, I am spending time with my family. Due to the extent of my work, which I’ll get into later, we don’t always have quality time together.
The center of our lives is our kids. As much as financial freedom keeps me motivated, my family is much more of a motivator. It is for them that I have worked over 24 hours straight with no sleep (multiple times) and even get up at 4:30am to work on my blog.
2.) How did you end up in debt and how much debt was it? How long did it take to pay it off?
My wife and I ended up in debt because of moving in together. After we bought our house, we discovered credit cards. It was so easy to open a credit card and get nice things. Our monthly budget (at this point, that’s just money left after bills) really wasn’t affected much to start. But it became harder and harder to make end’s meet.
You see, once we discovered that we could buy nice things with a credit card for the home, it became that much easier to justify a date night on the credit card. We even put large amounts of money on the card for our wedding. When it was all said and done, we accrued over $15,000 in debt. Add in some unexpected medical bills, emergency expenses, a baby, and stupid financial decisions, we had paid ourselves out of likely a much deeper hole.
At the time of this writing, we have been working at our debt for just under a year and have about a month left to pay off our final credit card debt. In reality, we probably could have had this taken care of sooner, but budgeting can be tough. The math is quite simple; but the act of budgeting means you must break habits.
Spending money can give you a short-term mood boost. Though my depression has been fairly stable in the last few years, this spending money still really felt good at the time. Since I work so hard, don’t I deserve to have nice things?
This justification is all too appealing. But let me tell you, as your debts mount up, spending money turns your mood sour.
3.) When did you get serious about paying off debt? What changed mentally and emotionally?
Fifteen-thousand dollars in debt may not seem like much to some. At the time of this writing, we were living literally paycheck to paycheck. After paying the minimum balances on all of our accounts, we had nearly nothing left over. We had no savings. We had no way to accommodate even an oil change.
My wife and I had discussed budgeting months before we actually made the leap. We knew that our finances were strained and even tried some quick fixes to get us out of debt. My wife and I had cashed in our old 403bs from previous employers. We just knew that if we did that to get ahead, we’d be fine.
Since we did not actually change our mentality, our spending behavior didn’t slow a bit. When a card was paid down, we would inevitably max it back out in a short time. You’d think that the birth of our child would make us get in gear. Yet, it took us about a year after she was born to get serious.
4.) What was your motivation to pay off all that debt?
The birth of our daughter, Luna was the catalyst to get us thinking about change. However, it took over a year to realize that we cannot provide for ourselves, our children, and simply cross our fingers nothing unexpected occurs.
The real culminating moment was realizing I will have to pay back my student debt. As is, we could barely afford to keep what we have. How were we going to pay hundreds more per month? On top of that, I was tired of the cycle of being broke. Mentally, I was exhausted with it. It was depressing. And frankly, my family deserves better; they deserve to have what others have without the risk we’ve assumed.
Maybe it was envy; or maybe it was simply a parent’s desire to want their kid to be safe and secure. Regardless, it has since been my mission to assure that our family can withstand an oil change, car or home repair, and even a vacation.
The journey of paying off debt takes a toll on your mental health and even your marriage. This change to turn away from spending rattled our perception of what quality of life meant. Suddenly, we had to find new ways to have fun and, in essence, feel better about ourselves.
5.) Did you run into any “bumps in the road” when you were trying to pay off your debt? If so, how did you overcome them?
Though our journey, there were many bumps in the road. Writing out all your bills and income is easy. Total in minus total out is equal to what you can afford for extras. Well, cutting out all the little joys and pleasures is why budgeting is difficult. It is that behavior that is so innately ingrained, because of the positive feelings we get when we spend. Shout out to BF Skinner.
It took us probably two or three pay cycles to really catch hold of just communicating about our budget in the same terms. We went through complex spreadsheets to simplified ones. We had unexpected bills thrown at us. After a week of sticking to our budget, it was also really easy in the beginning to justify a night out on money saved.
The thing about budgets is this: it gives you permission to spend- to a point. Once your allotted money is gone for any one category, you’re done. We would think, “well, our electric bill was a bit less this month, so we can use that money on us.” This mentality missed the big picture. We justified spending $20 extra here or there but failed to realize that can add up to an extra card payment.
To get us on track, we made a point to sit down each Thursday night before we were paid and work out where every penny would go. We tracked the minimum balances for each account and expected payoff periods based upon our payoff method.
My wife was the one who would actually log in on Friday and pay all of the bills. So, knowing the account balances and what’s due from the night before, we knew how much we were putting into each account. To this day, we share a similar method. It is less complex as we don’t have as many bills, but we discuss how much we have left after paying minimum balances and ourselves; the remainder goes to a chosen principle balance.
6.) Did budgeting play a factor in you being able to pay off your debt? If so, how do you budget?
A budget was the single biggest factor that allowed us to pay off our debt. We could sit down and work out where each penny would go prior to being paid. I came across Dave Ramsey’s snowball trick. This essentially is paying off the smallest balance first and rolling that minimum payment into the account with the second smallest balance and so on.
In the beginning, this was very difficult. Since we were nearly breaking even each month, there was nothing additional to put in. We really did not want to spend months waiting to see results; I think we were being honest with ourselves that we’d lose interest without seeing immediate results.
So, to help our budgeting effort, I took on extra work. My degree is very adaptable; it allowed me to begin working part-time at the local hospital as a social worker; I picked up on-call hours through my full-time job, and even offered my time in other departments to get extra work.
Once we began paying off accounts, the overwhelm dissipated and we became even more motivated. We worked out a small allowance for ourselves and began making it a priority to pay ourselves in savings. This prevented us from falling into needing a credit card for an emergency.
7.) What’s the strangest thing you did, if anything, to make extra money while you were trying to pay off your debt?
There are a few things that we had tried, but we didn’t find much success in them. My wife had found that breast milk can be valuable. She had created a post on social media indicating she was going to sell it. This led to her getting a very creepy message. So, that was the end of that venture.
We also sold clutter around the house. Social media and yard sale groups are great for certain niche items like maternity and baby clothes, toys, and electronics. This money was often used to go towards bills or finance something extra that we wanted like a date night, so our payoff dates would not be affected.
In budgeting, it is just as important to find ways to save. I’ll preface this coming idea in that we have gotten a bit more lax in this area.
We used to shop around for groceries. Our local grocer was great for fresh produce, meat, and household products. But, if we went to discount stores like Aldi, we could get canned goods for super cheap (apparently, meat and milk products too, but we didn’t like them from there).
We also would go to Wal-Mart when we could as their prices were sometimes just a few cents cheaper. That can make a big difference if you’re spending a few hundred dollars for groceries.
I tend to be very neurotic about wasting money as well. If our family was leaving lights on, eating too many snacks, throwing out stale food, they’d hear from me. This strategy helped keep our expenses down.
8.) If you could give one piece of advice to someone trying to pay off debt fast, what would it be?
Every little bit helps! You may think putting an extra $20 towards bills this month won’t make a difference, but think what happens next month when you have extra money. All that little bit adds up. We learned the hard way about interest. Minimum payments barely dip into the principal amount.
If you are going to pay off debt, you must pay as much as you reasonably can beyond the minimum payment. Using the debt snowball, we looked forward to paying our bills. We really got a buzz off of seeing the account balances drop.
Though our immediate mental health may have suffered having to change up our spending habits, we learned new ways to have fun. As strange as it sounds, we looked forward to sitting down to find out what can be paid off next.
When credit card companies would see that we’re paying off huge amounts, our credit scores shot way up, and we got tons of credit card offers in the mail. Previously, that would have been so enticing. Now, I laugh to myself and throw them away.
There is no credit card that is a good deal. If interest is involved, you will always be paying back more than you borrowed and that sets the stage for a dire situation.
9.) Now that you’ve paid off your credit card debt, what financial goals do you have next?
Now that we have our credit card debt paid off, we will be starting on my student loans. There are some different ideas that I have to get those paid off quick, but we will see how that pans out.
It would be my ultimate goal to work hard on my website so it becomes successful enough to take over payments of my student loans and even offer some flexibility to my work schedule.
You cannot build wealth overnight. Wealth also is not just how many digits there are in your bank account. Ultimately, being able to have a flexible job and schedule while taking care of my family is the ultimate financial goal I have.
Related: How We Paid Off $18,000 in Student Loan Debt