Where It All Began…

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Where it all Began

I remember the day just like it was yesterday, sadly it was a little over 15 years ago. I was sitting there staring at another credit card bill that was at least 90 days past due. I had no clue what I was going to do as the last time I calculated all four of my credit card balances the cumulative balance was sitting just shy of $25,000. I had only graduated from college about a year prior and was struggling to make ends meet. Bankruptcy was a legitimate option, though I didn’t even have the cash to do that.

Stepping back I know I’ve shared my story numerous times, but today is from a bit of a different angle. I’ve never covered how it all began, the debt payoff journey that is, and what struck the cord in me to view money differently and change my relationship with it. I share these thoughts today as I was asked by my good friend Shannon to share my biggest money A-ha moment (or, where it all began if you will) since it’s Financial Literacy month. As an aside, numerous other personal finance bloggers are also taking part in this theme today as a means to highlight financial literacy.

Where Did it Begin


As I shared in a post last year, I felt like I literally had an elephant sitting on my chest. The debt was that palpable. Not a day went by when I didn’t feel completely overwhelmed or ready to throw my hands up. That latter feeling was one that was immensely tempting. ‘Why shouldn’t I do it?’ I thought. ‘It’ll get me out of trouble and allow me to move on.’

There was a slight problem though, I had not learned my lesson. I thought wiping the slate “clean” would take care of my issues and let me move on with my life. The problem is that wouldn’t have dealt with the issue at hand. My trouble was that I was not content and thus I filled the empty cavity inside me with stuff…more like crap. That had to be dealt with before true change could take place.

As I’ve shared before, that resulted in me eventually meeting with a debt counselor who helped me set up a budget and begin to change course in my spending ways. Establishing and living by a budget may seem like a simple thing to do in the mind of many of us personal finance bloggers, but it was likely one of the most difficult things I’ve done financially.

It was like moving a giant ship. It took time and several attempts, but once the progress began it all begin to sink in…I had to own my money and not the other way around. I could not be enslaved to it, but rather, I had to make it work for me.

The biggest lesson I took out of starting a budget was that I could not just sit idly by and be passive with my money. I had to be active with it. I learned that passivity would do nothing to help me get out of debt and begin to grow wealth. I had to attack it. I had to make more of it and use it in ways to better myself.

I started looking for ways that I could easily start making more money and it, oddly enough, started with selling plasma. I know, I was stupid, but I needed the cash to start attacking my debt and it was the first legal thing I found. That lasted about two months, but it was what I needed to give me the kick in the pants to get serious about paying off my debt and begin to watch my net worth go in the right direction.

This started something I’ve done for years, looking for ways to make extra money and ways to use it to my benefit and not just spend it. I did things like pick up odd jobs, voluntarily work overtime and started side hustles all with the intention of getting my debt knocked out and growing my assets. Ultimately, it’s what has gotten me where I am today and all of that came down to changing my view of money.

In my opinion, that is such a key to financial literacy – teaching others that money is a tool to be used to benefit yourself and not something to be enslaved to. This can be a difficult lesson to learn, but once starting down that path, is one that can open up many opportunities and possibilities you never thought were possible. The key is to begin!


What was you’re A-ha moment with money? What did you do to implement that to improve your financial livelihood?


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John is the founder of Frugal Rules, a dad, husband and veteran of the financial services industry whose writing has been featured in Forbes, CNBC, Yahoo Finance and more.

Passionate about helping people learn from his mistakes, John shares financial tools and tips to help you enjoy the freedom that comes from living frugally. One of his favorite tools is Personal Capital , which he used to plan for retirement and keep track of his finances in less than 15 minutes each month.

Another one of John's passions is helping people save $80 per month by axing their expensive cable subscriptions and replacing them with more affordable ones, like Hulu with Live TV.

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  • Brian @ Luke1428 says:

    “…selling plasma…” Haha…that’s what a lot of my buddies did in college so they could have pizza money. Our problem with budgeting wasn’t that we weren’t trying to budget, we simply weren’t living by it. We’d put one in place and then not follow through. Spend, spend, spend. Seems silly to go through all that effort and then not stick to the plan, but that’s just where we were emotionally at the time.

  • Catherine says:

    My A-ha moment was when I calculated oit bills vs income while I was on mat leave and realized we has $400 per month to live on. Gas, food, diapers etc…needless to say it wasnt working…we spend almost $400/month in gas alone (yeah don’t complain to any Canadian about your gas prices…) we jad to do something or we’d sink, fast!

    • John says:

      Ouch, sorry to hear about those gas prices. I can certainly understand why you had to do something. Why is it when you have a little one the finances seem to be stretched even further? 🙂

  • Anthony @ Thrifty Dad says:

    Wow, that must’ve been tough. You think by wiping the slate ‘clean’ all would be resolved. But changing your money mindset is the tough. Without changing the way we all think about money, we’re just spinning our wheels. Thanks for sharing!

    • John says:

      It was, but it was all of my own doing. Great point on spinning your wheels. That’s exactly how I felt prior to being committed to making changes.

  • Michael Solari says:

    That’s a great story! My aha moment was thinking I could live in Boston fresh out of college. It took me a bit but I learned that if it’s where I want to be I’d have to work to it and not from it.

    • John says:

      Thanks Michael! I’d imagine that would be difficult to do right out of college unless you had a really good paying job.

  • DC @ Young Adult Money says:

    Great words, John. I definitely agree that pursuing side income and being ACTIVE in attacking your personal finance goals can be a game-changer. I have a lot of student loan debt which I can sit around and mope about or I can get motivated and start taking action. I choose to start taking action and even though it can be tiresome pursuing side income each day, it definitely has had a big impact on our finances.

    • John says:

      Thanks DC! I agree, moping around will get you no where but further behind. Being active can take you a long way when you’re focused.

  • Dee @ Color Me Frugal says:

    When you are making a change I think the hardest step to take is always the first one. It’s hard to go after a big dream like debt freedom, especially when you have to do things you’ve never done before, like taking steps to bring in more money. Thank goodness you took those first steps!

    • John says:

      I agree Dee, that first step can be really difficult especially when it’s so counter to what you’ve always done in the past. That said, it’s so worth it when you put in the effort.

  • Travis @debtchronicles says:

    I’m seeing a common theme, John – many of us who have gotten deep in debt eventually reach a crisis and seek help. We think we’re on the right path, we think we’ve figured it out. But it still takes time for us to really “get it” when it comes to being financially responsible and on the right path to success. Vonnie and I were in our DMP for over 3 years before we finally “got it.” It wasn’t that we weren’t trying – but it took a long time!

    • John says:

      I agree Travis. Although I had sought help and was well on my way to getting out of debt it took me a good bit of time before I truly got it. It wasn’t that I wasn’t trying either, just that I was changing everything I knew to be true and turning it on its head and it just took time to do it.

  • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer says:

    Awesome story, John, and I can SO relate to that elephant on the chest feeling. Luckily, thanks to financial literacy, our elephant is starting to slim down. 🙂

  • canadianbudgetbinder says:

    You are right John money is to be used as a tool is just as important as learning why we earn money in the first place. You are not alone as you know and the best thing we can all do is invest in ourselves. It’s easy to tell people to budget, save money etc but you are right it’s not easy if it’s not something one is used to doing but for many needs to be done. I’m pretty sure you are happy knowing you made some excellent financial decisions moving forward. Thanks for sharing. CBB

    • John says:

      You’re right on Mr. CBB, it is a tool and for many it’s a tool for destruction because they don’t know how to use it right. Thankfully I’m no longer in that camp.

  • Shannon @ Financially Blonde says:

    It is absolutely an awful feeling to be enslaved by your money rather than empowered by it. I was definitely in the same position as you and it’s true, you can sit by idly while your money habits continue to transpire around you. Financial literacy is an active and time consuming process, but it does reap amazing results down the road.

    • John says:

      It is Shannon. The sad thing is that it’s generally all thanks to actions we’ve taken. It does take time to get out of those shackles but the freedom is well worth it.

  • Andrew@LivingRichCheaply says:

    So true that wiping the slate clean is not a permanent solution. If you still have the same mindset on money and spending, most likely, you will end up back in debt. Definitely true that it is better to use money to benefit yourself rather than be enslaved by it.

    • John says:

      Great point Andrew. I think that’s a big part of the reason why many who win the lottery end up back in debt a few years after winning as nothing is done about the attitude.

  • Kim@Eyesonthedollar says:

    I sold plasma once an that was more than enough but it does show you the power of extra income from sometimes unconditional ways. Getting started is the hardest part. After you see the value in earning extra, it’s like the possibilities start happening everywhere.

    • John says:

      That’s how I felt, though I was desperate. I agree, once you get started things seem to come out of the woodwork.

  • Raquel@Practical Cents says:

    “Use money to benefit yourself and not be enslaved by it” That is a great statement. I have a friend who declared bankruptcy a couple years ago but I still see her struggling. I’m sure she has not learned the lesson.

    • John says:

      That’s too bad, I’m sorry to hear that Raquel. Declaring bankruptcy is one thing, but without the lessons you’ll likely end up in the same or similar problem again.

  • Tonya@Budget and the Beach says:

    “It was like moving a giant ship.” Sometimes it feels like that doesn’t it. I like what you said about the budget thing in that sometimes it takes a couple tries to make it stick. I was in the same “boat.” I really can’t imagine life without a budget anymore. It’s like my north star. 🙂 Congrats on all you’ve accomplished in your journey!

    • John says:

      It does and it can be so frustrating at times. But, very little in life comes without effort so it was well worth it in the long run.

  • Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life says:

    “It started with plasma…”- possibly a new title for Frugal Rules? 😉

  • Maggie@SquarePennies says:

    John I think giving plasma would be my “Ah-Ha” moment. Using money as a tool to serve you is a huge realization. Unfortunately, it’s easy to use credit cards to self-medicate when we are depressed about our money situation! Kudos to you for getting going to remedy your money problems. That’s so much better than bankruptcy (even if you could afford it!) because you changed your habits. That’s a much better situation!

    I agree with Stefanie, you new blog name could be “It All Started With Plasma”!

    • John says:

      I agree, it can be so easy to self-medicate with credit cards and our society basically promotes that. I do feel much better for not throwing the towel in because it forced me to own up to my mistakes and learn invaluable lessons.

  • Bryce @ Save and Conquer says:

    Like you said, breaking any bad habit, and overspending is one, is like trying to turn a big ship. It isn’t easy, and it takes a lot of willpower. Congrats on having the a-ha moment about transitioning to living below your means and working on raising your income.

    • John says:

      I agree Bryce, it does take a lot of willpower and concerted effort. It’s not easy, but well worth the effort.

  • Shannon @ The Heavy Purse says:

    “I had not learned my lesson. I thought wiping the slate “clean” would take care of my issues and let me move on with my life.” Bankruptcy may be the right choice in some circumstances but too many people think it’s an easy way to get under their debt. They don’t completely understand the ramifications and most importantly – haven’t changed their behaviors. That shift is so important. Otherwise you just keep repeating the same mistakes over and over. I love that you no longer want to be enslaved by your money and instead make it work for you. So many people believe they are making it work for them because they buy whatever they want but don’t realize they enslaved to the credit card companies or banks they owe money to. By the time they figure it out, it does feel like an elephant is standing on their chest. I am glad you finally “got it” and pushed that elephant off. Thank you so much for sharing your money a-ha with us today. As always, I appreciate your support and participation!

    • John says:

      Great point Shannon, it might be right for some, but without that changed behavior it’s all for naught. It can be easy to fool yourself into thinking that you’re not enslaved to money, but when you’re making monthly payment after monthly payment it’s hard to argue that you’re not.

      Thank YOU Shannon for spearheading this and taking on the battle cry of financial literacy! It’s certainly a fight worth fighting and looking forward to seeing changes come about because of it. 🙂

  • Stacy says:

    I’m so glad to see you promote “frugality” because that was the AHA moment for me. I’ve been budgeting for 10+ years but still struggled with the idea of frugality. Despite a budget breaking-even or even better including savings, there may easily be room to save more by being frugal. Acquiring “stuff” is more costly than just the sticker-price if you consider that the money could pay down debt or be invested for retirement. Thanks for sharing!

    • John says:

      Great point Stacy – there can be much more than the simple cost of the item in question. That purchase can bring on a many number of things, chiefly among those being debt. Thanks for stopping by!

  • anna says:

    Selling plasma isn’t stupid, it’s resourceful (though I may or may not have done it, too. ;)). I love your point about money should be a tool to benefit you and not something to be enslaved to – it took awhile for me to realize that, but once I did it truly helped in making better decisions. Great post, John!

    • John says:

      Lol, it wasn’t one of my proudest moments, but hey it was resourceful. 🙂 It took me awhile as well, though the time was worth it in the long run.

  • Broke Millennial says:

    It’s admirable you didn’t take the easy way out (not that filing bankruptcy is easy per say — but no short cuts). I can’t even imagine how gratifying it must have felt to pay it down and address any baseline issues about why you’d gotten in debt to begin with. I’d never really thought about debt counselors existing, but sounds like something a lot of millennials could use!

    • John says:

      Thanks Erin! It was important to me to take responsibility for what I had done and declaring bankruptcy wouldn’t have accomplished that. I bet they could, at least those that are in debt and have the need – it was incredibly gratifying to pay it down, especially as it started making significant progress.

  • Tanya @ Eat Laugh Purr says:

    I never thought about being enslaved to money but it’s true. Back in my mindless spending days, I was fortunate enough to have not debt but I was still enslaved to spending. It was like I had to shop because that’s what I thought I was supposed to do. And I will admit that I shopped to make others jealous. I am embarrassed by that now but back then it felt good when people admired the things I had. Now I also understand why I was so unhappy. All those things I was buying to make me happy, were doing the exact opposite. Live and learn and not repeat – that’s my motto!

    • John says:

      That’s a great motto to have Tanya! That’s what I aim to do as well so I don’t make the same stupid mistakes that I did years ago.

  • Daisy @ Prairie Eco Thrifter says:

    I remember my “aha” moment. I felt panicked because I had just made a really stupid loan to a “friend” who wasn’t paying me back. It was thousands of dollars, and the friend was actually my boss, so I thought for sure Id’ get it back. I was 19 or so. I was driving home from work and there was I think a commercial for a debt counselling service on the radio and they mentioned how much of your payment toward debt at a certain interest rate went toward the principle and it was something I didn’t even realize. It was a complete aha moment for me. Ever since then, I’ve been way smarter with my money.

    • John says:

      Wow, I can understand how that would be a tricky situation! At any rate, glad you heard that and were able to turn things around. 🙂

  • Tre says:

    Wow, plasma. Can’t say I ever considered doing that. Wouldn’t it be nice if we learned how to manage our money without hitting a low point? I’m hoping we will teach our children about money so they avoid our mistakes. Or that they listen to us.

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