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4 Lessons From My Zero Percent Nightmare

I woke up on January 1, 2018, and took a deep breath. I’d been preparing as much as one can—this was going to be a big year. You see, two months earlier I’d filed for divorce. And although I’d been living on my own with two kids for more than a year, it seemed like maybe our limbo was finally coming to an end. 2018 was going to be one for the books. 

And I was right. 

About that one thing. 

Shortly after the New Year, my best friends down the street shared they were moving. We all cried—and then I joked I should buy their house. We laughed, but then looked at each other, like, wait, why not? It would save us both some money and a lot of effort (I was in very short supply of both precious commodities). Before the calendar flipped to February, we were living in a new house. 

Emotionally, this fresh start felt like manna from heaven—but financially? I was pretty much panicking. 

Enter a 0% interest credit card offer. 

0% Interest Felt Safe

I’ve honestly never used credit cards much. My dad instilled a healthy amount of fear that stuck with me all these years later. But I was looking down the barrel at every kind of unknown. I’d only just started paying the lawyers. My ex had kept the appliances and much of the furniture, so my fresh start was fresh full of expenses. 

Sure, I had healthy savings but the unknown had me scared. The 0% interest card felt like insurance—like I could hold onto my cash a little bit longer, which somehow seemed more secure.

And so began the erosion of my good sense.

The Balance Kept Getting Higher 

“I’ll just get the card. I don’t even have to use it, but knowing it’s there as a back-up will be comforting. It’s just insurance.” 

This line of thinking isn’t entirely flawed, except once I had said card in my hot little hands, I fell further into the pit. 

“Since I don’t know exactly what’s coming, it’s just peace of mind. A little extra margin…Yeah, that will be good. That’s safer. I mean, I’ll still pay it off every month…”

At this point, the wheels are already coming off my logic, I’m aware. 

So, I started using the card for everything—the day-to-day expenses. But at this moment in time the day-to-day expenses also included things like purchasing a new washer and dryer and buying beds for the kids. The balance started inching its way up.

The thing is, I know how to budget. I could have easily made a bunch of new categories for all the things we needed to buy and begun prioritizing. Except everything about our lives was unsettled—I told myself I needed to make it feel like home, right away, for the kids. Looking back I know it was as much for me as anyone. And so, the Amazon Prime boxes just kept a’comin’...

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Dealing in Fake Money is a Mind Game

At the end of February—my first month using the card—I was, shall we say, humbled. Death by a thousand cuts, I suppose. I went to pay the balance in full, but I couldn’t do it. 

But I had the money—well beyond the balance on the card. But that wasn’t the issue. See, once I paid the card, I wouldn’t have the money anymore. And that felt so incredibly vulnerable. I was dealing in fake money now, and it was messing with me. 

“I guess I don’t technically have to pay it off right now. I still have practically a whole year until there is any interest. And at any point, I could totally pay it in full. But this way the money will just be sitting in my checking account, in case of an emergency. Yeah, it feels so much better to hang on to that money. I should do that.”

Except, I had already spent that money. This was false security in every way. I thought I was entirely in control of the whole charade, but it is a serious head game and no one is immune. 

Carrying a Balance Wears You Down

I don’t think there was a single night that I wasn’t running numbers in my head as I tried to go to sleep. And I’d think, “That’s it. This is stupid. I’ll just pay it off tomorrow. I hate this hanging over my head.” But then, in the light of day my fear ruled: loud, pushy, convincing: I needed the security of my cash on hand.

I was so, so tired, and I’d been in survival mode for several years at this point. I was sick with worry for my kids and agonizing over how I could minimize the disruption they were experiencing. And so I did what I felt like I could do—I went about setting up our home and building us a new life. 

Although, buying us a new life on Amazon is probably more accurate. 

I told myself that these were exceptional circumstances, outside the bounds of the budget. I just needed to get us situated and then I could regroup and get back to normal. But a year is a long time, and Amazon Prime a seductive temptress. 

Finally Paying Off the Balance

To recover from this spending frenzy, I had to relearn habits and disciplines—all without a lot of the margin I once had saved up. We had to change our lifestyle to some degree. I had to take some more extreme measures to catch up. I had to dial back some conveniences that frankly made my life as a single, working mom a lot easier. 

I will not tell you that this was easy. It was not. But we did it. I paid off the balance, 352 days after I opened the card, and not a day sooner. I slowly built back the margin in my budget (oh, and I started actually using my budget again!). I can’t buy everything I want when I want it, but I can also sleep at night, so there’s that. Turns out I like living well within my means, with a growing balance in the bank as my back-up. Dad, you were right all along. 

At the risk of feeling worse than I already do about my finances in this season, let me spell out the lessons that are now etched on my heart forevermore. My hope is that you might glean a gem or two (or four) in the process: 

4 Lessons I Learned from a 0% Interest Card

0% Interest Will Mess With Your Head—Period. 

The credit card companies are the worst. They prey on the weak and make money at every turn. Think about it, If 0% interest did not end up making them more money across the board, would they keep promoting these offers? No, they would not! 

Are there ways to game the system? Of course. Can savvy budgeters use a 0% interest card to their advantage? Sure. But do not underestimate the subtle impact it can have. You could get something just a little bit sooner. If the 0% card takes away even a fraction of your scarcity, it will impact how you prioritize and the decisions you make. This is how it starts… 

We Only Budget With Money We Have Right Now For A Reason. 

One of the reasons budgeting with YNAB is so different from other budgets, is because we teach people to only budget with the money they have right now. Not the money you know you’ll get paid by the end of the month, just the actual money you have right this second. This forces you to get to the bottom of your true priorities and take the time to make good choices. 

I know this deep in my bones. I have written these sentences about 2,000 times. The 0% card still got to me. It made it too easy to get things sooner than I really should have. It made it too easy to take a hand-wavy, I’ll-deal-with-this-later attitude. It made it too easy to “budget” with money you don’t have yet. It’s the beginning of the end, people! 

The Budget Is The Budget Is The Budget. 

Once you really start budgeting, it becomes your North Star in this fundamental, life-altering way. You cannot imagine living without the budget. This is 100% how I felt, and yet, when everything got turned upside down, I didn’t turn to the tool that gave me control. I threw the map out the window and went rogue. 

My budget would’ve had to change. It would’ve been messy and without nearly as much breathing room as we’d once had, but it still would have seen us through. We found our way back, but with considerably less money than we likely would have had otherwise. 

When life goes sideways, this is the budget’s time to really shine. And it was only because of the budget that we were in such a good position to weather this season. Budget, I promise to never cheat on you again with a 0% credit card. It didn’t mean anything to me. 

Think About What Really Makes You Feel Secure. 

When I was younger, I would have told you that the ability to buy really nice jeans made me feel secure. (And if there was any doubt, yes, I was an idiot.) This time around, I told myself I was getting the 0% card so I could hold onto my cash as long as possible, because it made me feel like I’d have options if something unexpected happened.

Now I see it so clearly. The longer I had the 0% interest card, the fewer options I actually had. I told myself if I could get us set up and make our new, empty house feel like a home, then we’d feel settled. What I didn’t realize at the time was how directly my sense of security is tied to the amount of money I have stashed away. (Apparently, this is a lesson I have to keep learning over and over again, because I articulated it quite well in 2016, and, well, here we are again…) 

The Moral of the Story

I carried a shockingly large balance on that card for an entire year. I never paid a single dime of interest, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t come at a cost. 

  • I spent way more money than I would have ever spent otherwise. 
  • I made different decisions than I would have made otherwise. 
  • I lost countless hours of sleep and shouldered a considerable amount of additional stress. 
  • My choices today are still limited to some degree by the poor choices I made in that year.

No one is immune. Even if you have one-on-ones with Jesse Mecham every week, you can still fall victim to the trap that is a 0% interest credit card. 


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4 Lessons From My Zero Percent Nightmare