Choose Your Own Financial Adventure

Choose Your Own Financial Adventure

When I was a kid, I avoided reading any of those “choose your own adventure” books. You know, the ones that ask you to make a decision at the end of each chapter, which determines the next part of the plot, the next phase of your character’s life and, ultimately, the ending of the story. I chose not to read any of them, because I hated knowing I’d have to skip past many of the other stories and never know the other possible outcomes of the book.

What was I going to miss out on!? What if one of the chapters I skipped was the best one in the entire book? What if that chapter took me down a better path, with a better outcome than the one I’d chosen? And what if I felt like I’d made a mistake and couldn’t go back in time to fix it? I didn’t want to make the wrong choices and deal with any regrets, so I opted not to read the books at all—and deciding to do nothing is a mistake I made many times in my life after that, especially when it came to my finances.

Whenever we reach a milestone or crossroads in our lives, we are often faced with a decision that has at least two options, which could lead us down two very different paths. The first option is often the smarter choice; it’s the one your parents and loved ones would encourage you to do. The second option is to keep doing what you’re doing, which is to essentially do nothing to change your situation, so you stay on the same path.

If you apply this to your financial life, every time you choose the second option, you’re taking another step down a steep path towards financial ruin. The further down you go, the steeper the incline gets and the harder it is to climb back up. And if you get all the way to the bottom, sometimes the only way out is to wave your white flag and ask someone to bring you a ladder (e.g. file for bankruptcy). I didn’t quite make it to the bottom, but I picked the second option many times.

Here is the adventure I chose.

Chapter 1: Paycheques (and Budgets)

I got my first job when I was 15 years old. Leading up to that, and in the days before I got my first paycheque, my dad constantly told me to save at least 10% of my income (if not more). He didn’t tell me that because he wanted to control me (although that’s what most teenagers believe their parents are trying to do). He wanted me to get into the habit of saving money, because he knew it would help set me up for life. When my first payday finally arrived, there were two things I could do with the money:

  1. Save 10%+ and spend the rest, or
  2. Spend it all (as quickly as humanly possible) and save nothing.

If I’d picked Option 1, I would’ve moved on to read Chapter 2: Savings Goals. Instead, I chose Option 2, didn’t learn anything about budgeting or saving money, and continued on to Chapter 3.

Chapter 3: Credit Cards

I barely saved a penny, between the ages of 15 and 19, other than when I needed to save up to get my 1991 white Hyundai Excel (“Roxy”) fixed. Not getting into the habit of saving money before I got a credit card put me at a huge disadvantage, because I didn’t understand the concept of limiting myself to only spend a certain amount of money. I just spent everything I had. When I got my first credit card at age 19, then, it’s not really surprising that I didn’t understand I could use it one of two ways:

  1. Charge things to it occasionally and pay it off frequently, in order to build credit, or
  2. Use it like a second bank account, rack it up to the limit and only make the minimum payment.

Of course, my dad told me (repeatedly, again) to choose Option 1—and if I’d done that, I would’ve moved on to read Chapter 4: What’s Good About Good Credit and then Chapter 5: How to Borrow Responsibly. Instead, I picked Option 2, which was a fast-track to Chapter 6.

Chapter 6: Maxed Out

The people who read Chapters 2, 4 and 5 never get to read Chapter 6, because they save their money, and use credit cards and other borrowed money responsibly. If they were reading this Choose Your Own Financial Adventure book of mine, I would put a footnote at the bottom of Chapter 5 telling them they should be happy and proud they can skip Chapter 6, because it’s something I wish everyone could avoid (and hopefully not even get near, in their financial lives).

Unfortunately, because I made the wrong decisions at the end of Chapter 1 and 3, I found myself at Chapter 6, and it was awful. In the timespan between Chapter 3 and 6, I got a second credit card and a line of credit, and everything was maxed out. The total damage: $12,000. Oh, and one month before all of those accounts were maxed out, I also financed a $15,000 car over 5 years. In April 2009, I was 23 years old and had $27,000 of consumer debt. In this situation, there were only two things I could do:

  1. Consolidate my debt and make a plan to pay it off, or
  2. Consolidate my debt, make the minimum payments and go back to using my credit cards like they were free money.

Which option do you think I picked? I took out a $12,000 loan and consolidated my debts, so I only had two loans to worry about (that + the car loan). If I’d picked Option 1, I would’ve then skipped ahead to Chapter 9: Life After Debt. Instead, I did nothing in terms of changing my bad habits, picked Option 2 and headed further down the wrong path. I didn’t make it to Chapter 7: Bankruptcy, but I did find myself at Chapter 8.

Chapter 8: Debt Relapse

I still feel sick to my stomach, when I think about the mistakes I made between Chapter 6 and 8. I was so close to figuring it out! I knew I was maxed out, I consolidated my debt and I made a plan. I really wanted to pay it off, and knew I was earning enough money to get things down to $0 in 5 years or less. But when the bank suggested I lower the limits on my credit cards, I nodded and smiled and did nothing—nothing but keep my bad spending habits and continue down my dark financial path.

You know how the rest of the story goes. In June 2011, I realized I was maxed out—again—with over $28,000 of debt. While I’d been making all the payments on my car loan and consolidation loan, I was still using my credit cards like they were free money and also borrowed some money from my parents for university tuition. This time, I had 5 debts and only $100 in my chequing account, which had to last me 6 weeks. Similar to what was at the end of Chapter 6, my options were to:

  1. Finally get serious and pay off my debt for good, or
  2. Call the credit card companies, increase my limits and keep spending recklessly.

For the first time, it felt like I only had one option: to get serious and pay off my debt for good. I’m sure the credit card companies would’ve increased my limits if I’d begged, but being maxed out this second time felt so much worse than the first; it scarred me, and I wanted to get far away from the situation, as fast as possible. So, I finally picked Option 1 in this financial adventure of mine. It took me exactly 24 months to pay off every last penny I owed, then I flipped the page over to Chapter 9.

Chapter 9: Life After Debt

Those of us who get to read Chapter 9 know it’s a short one. It’s a quick celebration followed by a push out the door to tackle your next financial goal. When you get to the end of Chapter 9, there aren’t just two options before you: your options are endless. You can flip over the page and decide to enter worlds where people focus on saving, investing, travelling, buying homes, having kids and retiring—or any combination of them all. I’m still in Chapter 10: Saving, with no specific goal other than to travel when possible. But whenever two or more options are presented to me, I always go with Option 1 and do something that will not only strengthen my good financial habits but help me live the life I truly want.

Choose Your Own Financial Adventure

I had to get through Chapter 6 and 8, because I didn’t learn how to live within my means and save in Chapter 1, and because of all the bad decisions I made after I got my credit cards in Chapter 3. I chose to continually pick Option 2 at every crossroads, thinking all the spending I was doing was helping me create a fulfilling life, when really it was helping me do nothing but miss any opportunity I had to achieve all the other financial milestones I wanted to reach at earlier ages. I got so far down the wrong path, I ended up going on an adventure no one would want to take pictures of or write home about, and I was miserable—until I did something about my situation and got onto the better path.

Wherever you are in your financial adventure right now, ask yourself if you’ve been choosing Option 1 or Option 2 at every crossroads. Have you been making decisions that will help you live the life you want, or doing nothing but going down a dark path you can’t seem to find your way off of? If you’re on the dark path, don’t worry. You may not be able to take back any of your mistakes or see what you missed out on, but you can still control the next part of the plot, the next phase of your life and the end of your story. Flip through the pages and decide which chapter you want to read next, so you can turn your one life into a book you never want to put down.

Whatever you do, don’t do nothing. Be an active participant in your life—financial or otherwise—and choose the adventure you’d want to write home about.

  • Love this! I agree — it’s scary to make a choice because it closes off other possible options. Personally, I used to love those books, and I developed a great strategy for not missing out on anything: I folded down the pages of both options every time there was a choice, so I could easily keep track of what “would have” happened and go back and change my mind if I ended up getting eaten by a dragon or something (aka, CHEATING).

    Regarding real life choices, I can definitely relate to this — there are a lot of times when I could have made a different and smarter decision but didn’t, either because I didn’t fully understand the consequences or because I was just too lazy or distracted to try to make a change. However, now that I am choosing to make proactive changes in my financial situation, it feels really empowering. And to be honest, I’m not sure I would fully appreciate that if I hadn’t gone made some less-than-ideal choices and then regretted it later. Do you think that’s true for you as well — did you have to go through Chapters 6 and 8 in order to get to (and/or fully appreciate) Chapters 9 and 10?

    • Very good that you pointed that out Sarah. I agree with you, with finances, as well as life in general, sometimes you need to make mistakes or poor choices in order to make better ones in the future. I think we would all be hard pressed to find somebody who makes perfect choices 100% of the time. Mistakes lead to victories and I can speak from experience. Way to go on making better choices!! It does feel good doesn’t it!?

      • Thanks, Isaac. It does feel good to make better choices and to realize that I have a lot of control over what happens in my life. And yes, some of those less-impressive choices have eventually resulted in victories (as well as just plain old experience). :)

    • I definitely think I had to go through every chapter. I just wish I’d peeked at how good the other ones were, so I could’ve gotten to them sooner. :)

  • Oh so very true, Cait!

    And these days many out there are still choosing the wrong option. Household debt in Canada is at all time highs, mostly in overly inflated real estate purchases. And it’s affecting not only the young folks doing the spending but also “the bank of mom and dad” (and other family members) who are doing the lending to them. As you know being 1000’s of $$$ in debt was no fun. How about being 100’s of 1000’s of $$$ in debt and the economy and your house value is declining (but your mortgage isn’t)?

    It all goes back to basics: wants vs needs, having that sense of “entitlement”, seeking that which one’s parents have (and provided to us) – but which took those parents years of sacrifice and saving to obtain.

    Back in the day you mention that you had your father’s words (which sadly you ignored). History repeats itself over the generations. The young ignore advice and have to learn the hard way – through experience and the “school of hard knocks”. I dare say that you (back then) and many of today’s younger generations never at least made the effort to educate oneself financially (and look at the experiences of others) before ever choosing options 1 or 2. That should always be everyone’s “option 0” – even for us old guys (who think we know it all)! :-)

    • Option 0 – if only we all did that, Rob! But that’s a very creative addition to this “story”. I do remember reading about RRSPs when I was 18 or so, but I think when you’ve barely made any money or have any idea what a career looks like, it’s a concept that doesn’t really latch on, you know? Anyway, thanks for always adding more food for thought. :)

  • That’s the beautiful part about life, right? It’s not scripted, and we really do have the power to largely write most of our own ending. Of course, there are circumstances and obstacles that have to be navigated, but we can still choose how we react (or we can choose to be proactive). What a fantastic story you’ve written so far, Cait!

  • Very creative analogy Cait. I love the way that you described this. I think the one take-away that I’d want people struggling to choose the right chapter to know is that you can still live a very fulfilling life while at the same time making wise financial choices.

    • Thanks, Isaac. And yes, that’s a great reminder. I know I’m happier than I’ve ever been, despite living on less and not spending money on “stuff”. The simple fact is, being wiser with our money leads to greater freedom which brings more joy. (Freedom is definitely the last chapter in this book!)

  • I love this analogy, Cait. And you’re totally right! Doing nothing is the only “incorrect” choice in your own financial adventure. Plus, getting through the missteps has shaped who we are today. We’re that much better because of them!

    • That’s certainly true. I wonder who I’d be right now, if I hadn’t made so many financial mistakes… hmm.

  • Loved this and needed this reminder. I’m currently on a shopping ban this month and I am slowly learning about my own buying habits, choosing wants versus needs, etc. It is very, very tough and it’s only been 5 days – thanks for helping me see the big picture and the rational perspective!

    • I’m glad it was timely for you, Allison! What’s been the toughest part, so far? What habits are you finding that you have and need to break? Email me anytime, if you want to chat about it!

  • Cait, this is an incredible analogy! I think one of the biggest takeaways from this is that there are always, always options – not just one choice to choose from. It’s feasible that when you are going down those dark paths to only see the “option 2” in any & all situations. For people to recognize there are other options (like option 1 from each chapter) will allow more of a sense of empowerment to rewrite their story & not have to find themselves in chapters they would’ve liked to avoid. I am so glad you have chosen the do something mentality and at that encouraging others to do the same for their own adventures! :)

    • I’ve actually been thinking a lot lately about the connection between how much power/credit people give themselves and why we do/don’t empower ourselves to make smart financial decisions. Why do we make excuses for our mistakes and keep making them? (I don’t have the answers, just throwing it out there…)

  • I love the way you framed this – those books were awesome! I think my husband would’ve chosen the exact same chapters that you did – but what is important is that you all get on the right path again – there are so many people who never recover, or even realize the bad decisions until later in life!

    • I’m so glad people knew what I was talking about, haha. My family didn’t know what they were…

  • I really love this post! Such a great way to look at it. I also never read those books as a kid for the same reason! Perhaps you should actually write this book, it could be a good lesson for people :-) My own financial adventure followed a very similar path as yours, so I can really relate to this. Although I haven’t quite gotten to Chapter 9 yet. I’m maybe 8-9 months away yet, but getting so close! “Don’t do nothing” That’s the greatest advice. I can’t imagine what my situation would be like right now if I hadn’t stopped doing nothing years ago..

    • 8-9 months will fly, Heather! How exciting. Keep pushing through and then set a goal for what you want to do when you reach that milestone. Even if it’s a small goal to start, it’ll feel so good to accomplish a positive savings-related goal. Every goal after that will motivate you to stay on the right path. :)

  • This is brilliant! You should take a stab at writing a book with this same format – except, include the chapters you excluded here because you didn’t choose them. It would be a nice break from the boring how-to finance books out there.

    I wish I could say I chose option 1 all those years back, but I did not. Presently, my husband and I have a total of $56,000 in consumer debt, $55,000 in student loan debt, and $170,000 in mortgage debt, plus $2,500 in debt incurred when the city redid the street out front of our house (citywide improvements – homeowners were required to pay half the fees – we voted on it, so we’re all stuck, but it needed to be done). We’re very SLOOOOOWLY making out way out of it. For starters, our credit cards are all paid off (save for one – which we only use like once a year and never get even close to maxing out). That was a huge deal. We consolidated our credit card debts b/c one was 30% interest and our minimum payment was not even covering the interest charged – literally. It was hard choosing not to use credit cards ever again. Luckily, one of the terms and conditions of our consolidation loan was that the cards that were being paid off had to be closed – our lender mailed the letters so we couldn’t just *tell* them they were closed and not really close them. That was such a good thing for us or we would have ended up using them again and messing things up once more.

    We make (as a household) $114,000 a year and we’re so upside down on our debts that we’re living paycheck to paycheck. That’s absolutely ridiculous. My husband works a job he despises, that literally makes him depressed, b/c we can’t afford for him to find something else. I am interested in choosing Option 1 from here on out, but Option 2 is so enticing it’s hard not to choose it. We’re trying though. Really really trying.

    Thank you for this post. I love it. It tells my story.

    • Jenn, it actually sounds like you’ve chosen Option 1 before (in consolidating debts and closing accounts), so I believe you’ll continue to choose it going forward – so be proud of that first step. I’m curious: why can’t you guys afford for him to find other work? Would he not be able to find another job with the same salary?

  • One of the best blog posts (not featuring cute animals) that I’ve ever read. You should turn this into: (a) a book; and (b) a course for teenagers and young adults.

  • Even though you’ve made financial mistakes in the past, you are making huge strides to change that. I try not to beat myself up over past money mistakes because there is nothing I can do to change it. I’ve done a complete 180 and I’m also making strides in the positive direction.

    • Yea, I’m with you. I don’t beat myself up over any of my mistakes, I just hate remembering how awful it felt to be maxed out! Never again, friend. :)

  • Hi Cait,
    Great story! Very cleverly written! Brought back memories of some of my bad financial decisions. Thank God I also made it to Chapter 9 & 10, finally! LOL
    Keep up the great writing.

  • Cait, Excellent post! Not just in the content but how you constructed the flow. (By the way, I also never read those types of books, for the same reasons you stated lol!)

    • Ha! I’m glad I’m not alone with my thoughts about those books. I’m sure they were filled with cool stories, but I couldn’t get on board with the idea…

  • I used to hate those books too.. I always felt like I was missing a bunch of the other stories. I like the way you laid this out, makes so much sense. Luckily I never got into the trap of using my cards as free money, but I’m still stuck with student loans. Can’t wait to get to my life after debt chapter, should be soon!

  • I use to always read all the choices before making one lol! I wish life could be like that. But unfortunately we all make a few missteps. I really enjoyed this post. It is a great way to look at it.

  • I agree with Nicola – this should turn into a full book. It’s AWESOME! I also think there needs to be a “stagnation” chapter that you can bump in and out of. I think that’s our problem most of the time… we just stagnate. Also, I loved those books when I was younger. I would just bounce around. Oh no, I died.. just kidding – let’s go make a better choice!

  • I love how you incorporated those books into a post! Genius :)

    BTW, I wasn’t a fan of those books either for the same reasons you mentioned :)

  • I see so many people selecting Option 2, precisely because it’s so tempting. It’s so easy to look at our salary and think of it as our budget– when in reality that’s quite unwise and troublesome. Thanks for spelling out each “chapter” of this adventure!

    • Option 2 isn’t always “tempting” per se, but it’s certainly easier, at times. Changing a bad habit is hard, but it’s worth it. :)

  • Great Post. I feel for the reader above ” Jenn”. Your are on the right track keep going you will conquer this mountain.. I have a saying this week “Income is irrelevant. It’s your Expenses and your Mindset that will make you or break you”. I wish you well..

    I think all teens / young adults need to find their own way. I too never really listened to my parents and always had some form of credit card debt or car loan till I was 35.. But I made a choice to live a Minimalist , simple stress free clutter free (home and mind) life from the age 36 (I’m now 42). I have no bad debt own my car and only a very small Mortgage remaining. We a blessed to live on one wage now (due to cuts in expenses and being mindful consumers) and my part time business Income goes onto extra payments on mortgage to hopefully pay off in a few years.. We live a very peaceful life , don’t over commit to anything and have learnt to say NO (nicely) often. I think you have a different more confident life mindset in your 40’s to your 20’s and 30’s. Saying No is much easier now, whether it’s maturity or just more comfortable in your own skin or both I’m not sure, but it feels wonderful..

    • I’m still working on the word “no”, Karena – mostly when it comes to taking on more work than I really want to, simply because I like to be helpful to others. But I want to work on MY stuff, too! Sigh. We wouldn’t be living if we weren’t constantly learning, right? :) Thanks for sharing your story!

  • So damn creative, Cait!! Love this post! And funny/awesome how now all your past mistakes can be used for good :) If you were little miss perfect the whole time this blog would be pretty boring haha… and you probably wouldn’t have even created it!

    So yay mistakes!

    • Haha, if I was Little Miss Perfect, this blog wouldn’t even exist! And then we wouldn’t be friends! CAN’T HAVE THAT

  • Love the creativity here! Such a good message and a great way to portray how much each of our choices can affect who we become financially. Whipping out the credit card seems harmless at the time until you actually map out the consequences of your actions – an exercise too few people partake in.

    Great post!


    • Oh, if we only had a map that showed us how long it would take to get to where we want to go, eh? Thanks, DP!

  • Love this post so much, and my adventure is about the same as yours give or take a few chapters. I never read those books either for the very same reasons.

  • We chose option two the first few years of our married life. Then Dave changed jobs that required a nearly 50% pay cut while we had a 3 month old baby and we had to borrow money to sell our mobile home when the park gave away the spot we thought we were moving into. Talk about having to learn TODAY how to live on less! But we did it. Then Dave got raises at his new job. Now we are retired with enough savings to last us the rest of our lives. We did it. You can too.

    • Wow, that’s incredible, Linda! Thank you for sharing part of your journey here, and showing us what’s possible. :)

  • This post is amazing. I have wrestled with my share of “do nothing,” and I am always lamenting lives I did not live or paths I did not take. Oof. Excellent post.

  • This is such a well-written and creative post! I love it– and you’re right, we can’t just sit around and do nothing in our financial lives. We need to be proactive!

    • Thanks, Rachael! PS – Your pics from Iceland are amazing! I have serious wanderlust right now…

  • Thank you!
    A comment from a mother of four.
    I have always manage to ” fix ” my expenses for the latest 25 years – I thought I will never have financially problems as grown up… but life always bring you surprises.
    This summer I stood without money and job and for the first time I couldn’t fix it fast enough.
    I got really scared, for several months, so scared that I took the first job I got… but after 2 weeks I realized that I chosed the wrong “chapter” – working chapter. Now live feels almost as bad as having no control of ones finanses…
    I should have known how to chose the right chapter, since I’m not young, I am old with a lot of experience how to chose… I thought.
    I still have a lot to learn. I stick to your blog for a while, Cait. Life feels a bit easier if we are a few doing mistales together… 😄😄😄

  • Quoted from a motivational video that I watch frequently:

    ” Are the habits that you have today, on par with the dreams that you have for tomorrow?

    That’s something that you need to ask yourself every single day, because whatever you do on a regular basis today, will determine where you will be tomorrow.”

    We get to a page where we choose our adventure every. single. day. Success is a choice.

  • What an inspiring post, Cait! Congratulations!
    What I did when I had one of these books in my hands was to sit and make a map of all the possible options and then read them one by one until ALL of the paths were covered. Thinking about this now, it makes a lot of sense and explain a lot of things in my life. I like to know what’s ahead, and I like to be able to compare the many possible outcomes.

  • Though the particulars of your story are unique, there’s so much in this that I can relate to. I got my first credit card at age 15 (cosigned by my dad), but then got to college and got my first solo card at age 17 (!! seriously, banks?!). Like you, I treated like money I had to spend, and by the end of college, I had $12,000 in credit card debt, in addition to my $10K in student loan debt. My dad paid off my credit cards as a graduation present, and guess what I learned? Uh, that’d be nothing. Within three years, I was back up to a balance of $15K, only now I also had a $16K car loan and most of that student loan balance remaining. My now-husband moved in around that time, and gave me the nudge I needed to get out of debt, finally, and over the course of three years, I did just that. Thank goodness he helped me see that payoff was possible because, honestly, I think I’d concluded that I was just going to be in debt forever. Of course, after getting out of debt, we then had several baller years of overspending on dining out and travel, and didn’t rein that in for a while. I wish we’d had your blog back then and could have stuck with the shopping ban that we were basically in while I paid off my debt. Oh well. :-) We’re thrilled with where we are financially now, and because of some of our (mostly my) bad choices in my 20s, feel like we’ve earned this place and learned through trial by fire what we really and truly value. And it’s mostly the stuff in life that’s free or cheap, not the stuff you pay a lot for. I’m grateful every day for that lesson!

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