The Past Doesn’t Have to Define You

There are two posts that are fairly common in the personal finance community: The posts reminding us of how important it is to make good decisions early on in life, and the posts about overcoming past financial mistakes. I think both are very important, even necessary, for helping people better their financial lives. The problem? They always leave me feeling like a failure. An aberration in the personal finance community.

You see, I didn’t start early. And I didn’t make some mistakes. I made all of them.

Despite feeling like I was on the right track early on in life, I made a lot of mistakes. Big to small, I covered them all. The “little” mistakes are easy to live with. Spending too much on food? Yep. Been there. Done that. Spending too much on clothes? Do shoes count? Don’t answer that. And stop counting my shoes!

Across the board, I made a lot of bad choices. I started off picking an expensive, private, out-of-state school. Took out some big student loans. And then majored in something with meager job prospects in my area (Hello, Graphic Design in the Midwest!), without any real plan of actually pursuing it as a career.

Speaking of career: I kind of just floundered through working over the years. I didn’t chase a passion, and I didn’t chase an income either. I worked to live. And lived off everything I made. And then some.

I used credit irresponsibly throughout my twenties.

I’ve owned 3 vehicles in my life, all of which were bought new, with financing. Well, I bought the Honda twice, once with financing, and once with cash. But I didn’t keep it very long the second time around. In the 2 years since I started this blog, I’ve owned 3 different vehicles. Yikes!

I bought a house with $0 down, and $0 emergency fund. A “starter house”, that I knew I wouldn’t own long-term. And then sank close to $30,000 into fixing it up. Even though I knew I wouldn’t get much more (if anything more) than what I originally bought the house for when I sold.

I co-signed on a $25,000 private student loan, for a single mom with no income (my sister). Even though I had zero emergency fund. And credit card debt. And student loans of my own. And definitely couldn’t afford to make the payments on the loan I was co-signing on.

I quit my job, several times, with no job prospect, no emergency fund, and no plan.

I rarely contributed to retirement accounts in my 20’s, even though I knew I should, and had the opportunities to do so. I cashed out a 401k plan when I left one job, and have nothing to show for it. I also withdrew all the money I had put into my Roth-IRA. The money I have in my Roth right now is what remains of the interest I earned from my original investments.

And, when everything fell apart, I took the “easy” way out, and filed for bankruptcy. And then I learned the hard way that it wasn’t really the fresh start I was expecting it to be. The co-signed student loan, the “straw that broke the camel’s back”, so to speak, was still there, looming over my head. Suddenly, there were no credit cards to fall back on, no easy loan applications. I was ashamed, and broke, and still in debt. The black mark on my credit will follow me for years. The sense of failure will probably last a lifetime. More than failure; The idea that I can’t be trusted to uphold my word. That I would agree to something, and then not follow-through.

I’m working hard to get my financial life back on track. This past year I’ve made a ton of progress. I feel like I’m finally starting to turn things around. But my past mistakes will always keep me from feeling like a success story. I won’t have the “How I paid off $X in credit card debt” story, because I didn’t do that. My life has been more cautionary tale than success story. Sure, I’ve paid off all of my student loans, and hopefully in the not-so-distant future, I’ll be paying off the car loan. But it will always be tainted by my failures, the things I wasn’t able to get through.

But all the mistakes and failures have gotten me to where I am today. And, honestly, I’m happy with where and who I am today. I’m definitely far from perfect. But every day, I get a little better. I’ll never feel like I overcame my obstacles, and I’ll always feel guilty over some of the choices I made. I have to own the mistakes I’ve made. Regardless of the economy, or what anyone else said or did, I made choices. But I can change. And those changes will someday lead me to a place of stability.

I’ll never be rich. But, with hard work and patience, I can create a stable life for Bryan and myself. No matter what mistakes we’ve made in the past. No matter how late we’re starting. I’m thankful everyday for the opportunity to redefine my life, and create a better future.

– Cindy W.


  1. I don’t know, you might not have the “I paid off $100K in credit card debt” but you definitely have the “I pulled myself together and turned my life around” post! The past you have doesn’t define you, but it does all go into making up the really great person that you are. Even your big mistakes, like the loan for your sister, show your generosity.

    1. I appreciate that. Although, that part gives me mixed emotions as well: A big part of straightening out my own financial life has involved drawing boundaries with other people, especially my siblings. I know that I have to be responsible for taking care of myself, now and far into the future. But it sometimes feels very selfish to put your own needs first.

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