The Soggy Hotdog: A Personal Finance Wakeup Call

I remember the point of my financial meltdown very vividly. It wasn’t as much a meltdown as a wakeup call that things could no longer continue the way they were going if I wanted to live a successful life. I was working for what seemed like peanuts and my wife and newborn daughter were at home. Money was tight, but we weren’t starving by any means. We covered basic expenses, but charged luxury items to a credit card and paid for them over time. My decision to return to school added significant expenses to our budget, and again we financed a large portion of my tuition and books compliments of Visa. The minimum payments began to rise, and my income stagnated.

Things Began to Tighten Up

Do you remember those classic action movies like Indiana Jones or Star Wars where the heroes are trapped in a room, and suddenly the walls began to close in from all four sides? That sort of sums up our situation about ten years ago. At first we had plenty of space, despite low earnings and no savings. Over time the walls began to creep in. Student loan repayment, current educational expenses, credit card minimum payments, a car payment, insurance, medical bills from the birth of our first child, etc, etc. all began to eat away at our monthly income.

The Soggy Hotdog

I don’t remember the exact date, but I remember the events of the day like it was just yesterday. It was a normal day on the corporate treadmill. I arrived at work and logged on to my credit card account online to discover I was over the limit – doh! I knew that would come with a $29 fee and could potentially reset my interest rate again. I was kicking myself for using the card to pay for new cell phones earlier in the weekOh well, I’d make a big payment to bring it down under the limit as soon as I got the rebate from the cell phones. Lunch time rolled around and I headed out to the nearest fast food restaurant. I never carried cash, so I drove around to the first window and handed over my check card. Declined. What? That couldn’t be right. I had over $100 in my checking account (or so I thought)! So there I was at the McDonald’s drive-thru with a dead check card, an over-the-limit credit card, an empty wallet and exactly fifteen cents in the change holder in my truck. Embarrassed, I made up some excuse about it being a new card and drove away apologizing for the mix-up.

Now that I had wasted the first twenty minutes of my lunch break there was no time to head home for a bite to eat. I had no money, and no snacks back at work. I opened my wallet and found my Chevron gas card. It was the one card that would still work. I drove to the closest Chevron station which had a convenient store attached. I went inside and got two of the worst hotdogs I had ever eaten in my entire life. The buns were under the hotdog rotisserie and the condensation had turned them into a soggy mess. I’m still not sure the hotdogs were even real meat, and the mustard was watery. I charged the $2.12 to my gas card and returned to my truck.

As I sat there in the heat eating those crappy hotdogs a wave came over me. No, not just a wave of nausea. I was too smart to live this way. Here I was forced to charge my lunch on a Chevron gas card because I was too irresponsible to properly plan for meals, food budgets, etc. It was time to grow up. I choked down the remaining lunch and returned to work, thoroughly disgusted with my financial life, and with a bad case of indigestion.

A Lifetime of Learning Begins

That night while surfing around for information on money management, I discovered a website by some guy named Dave Ramsey. I began to listen to his archived shows online. I subscribed to financial magazines such as Kiplingers Personal Finance and Money Magazine. Reading personal finance books became a side hobby, though it wasn’t until much later that I really developed a taste for this genre. My television was often on CNBC or Bloomberg’s. My favorite section in the newspaper became the “Business” section. I started reading old Wall Street Journals at work when my boss was finished with his copy. I wanted to learn everything I could about money, even though I had none. One day I would have money and I wanted to know how to handle it better. I had learned nothing in high school about personal finances, and chose to make bad decisions early on because I bought into the mentality, “I can always pay it off later.” Later never came. What did come was a small mountain of liabilities that trapped me in a dead end job for years because I had no options.

Our story is a cautionary tale for newlyweds. In our excitement to live the lifestyle of our dreams, we sacrificed much of our future. We are still not completely debt free, but have made that our number one mission. And when we do reach debt freedom, we will never go back – and I mean NEVER!