I Filed for Bankruptcy Before 30. Here’s How Things Got So Bad.

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I got my first credit card when I was 18. It was a Discover card for students, and my limit was something silly like $100—maybe $200. I didn’t know much about credit at the time, but I knew I needed to build my credit if I ever wanted to buy a car or house.

Credit Card Count: 1

Sophomore year of college, I got my second one: a Visa card with a limit of $500 to help me finance a Macbook Pro after my PC crapped out on me. It wasn’t enough to finance the whole computer, so my dad covered the rest and I repaid him in installments.

Credit Card Count: 2

Later that school year, I got talked into signing up for a Victoria’s Secret store card. “You can use it like a discount card,” the salesperson suggested. “Use the card to get the discounts, and then pay it off in cash right here in the store.” It sounded smart, in theory. But reality turned into racking up nearly $900 in debt—none of which I bothered to pay off in cash in the store. Nine-hundred dollars of 5/$25 underwear, lacy bras no one was going to see, swimsuits I didn’t need, a stick-on bra that’d only last through two uses, and a bustier/garter/stockings outfit for a lingerie-themed party. Once I realized how stupid that had been, I picked up some extra shifts at the restaurant I was working at, paid off the card, and canceled it.

Credit Card Count: 3, then back to 2

Sometime during my junior year, I hit a low point when my card got declined trying to buy a $4 kids’ meal at Bojangles’. I had to drive off without my food and avoid that location for months after. This was around the time my parents cut me off financially from everything except my cell phone and health insurance. I can’t remember how I got myself out of that rut. Working more hours, asking my parents for $100, something like that…

And then came my beloved Target REDcard. It could only be used at Target, but it got me 5% off every purchase. I think the limit was $150—a limit easily reachable in just one shopping trip.

Credit Card Count: 3

Senior year, the guilt of pursuing life as a novelist sort of hit. How could I expect people to buy my future books when the only ones I’d ever bought were Harry Potter and required school reading. So, I got an Amazon Prime membership, applied for an Amazon Visa card, and racked up a few hundred dollars’ worth of book debt. Worth it to start building my personal library.

Credit Card Count: 4

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After college, I moved back in with my parents to save some money. I worked two jobs, which left me very little time for sleep and socialization but allowed me to pay off my credit cards and save up for a cross-country move. I saved up $10,000, which was gone in less than four months. My car got totaled right before the move (not my fault), so I had to buy a new car. I went for the safest model on the market, stupidly choosing a brand-new model over a slightly used one. I’d later learn a lovely lesson about depreciation and regret this decision indefinitely. 

When I got to California, I paid $2,500 in fees to register my car in the state (use tax loophole). I spent like $1,000 on furniture (which I put on a credit card). And then I blew everything else on gas, food, and living expenses while working for less than $12/hour at Starbucks. Somewhere in there, I applied for another credit card to pay for moving expenses to another part of LA once I got an office job.

Credit Card Count: 5

Given that I was only making $36,000 a year—a majority of which was going to rent, my car payment, car insurance, and phone bill—I wasn’t able to make more than the minimum payments each month. I was barely staying afloat. So I found a company called Upstart that marketed to recent college grads and offered loans based on more than just your credit score. I took out an $8,000 loan, paid off my credit cards with it, and watched my credit score rise.

Credit Card Count: 5
Personal Loan Count: 1

Following that, the credit card companies all increased my limits. Little by little, I got closer and closer to those limits—hardly paying more than the minimum payments. Things came up—one roommate moved out, so my rent went up. I felt pressure to keep up with the Joneses by going to concerts, eating out frequently, buying new clothes, etc.

And then I wanted to buy a plane ticket home for Christmas. But holiday traveling is expensive. So I got another credit card, convinced by the introductory bonus miles offer. And they gave me a $10,000 limit.

Credit Card Count: 6
Personal Loan Count: 1

Somewhere around this time, I developed an anxiety disorder. I self-medicated with food and wine—but, most of all, with shopping. Fast-forward a while, and I was able to quit my soul-crushing job with another one lined up. Only, my then-boss refused to let me work my last two weeks (which was a blessing), so I ended up with a three-week, unpaid vacation in between jobs. My last paycheck covered my bills, but then I still had food to buy, free time to occupy, and a few new outfits to wear to my slightly less casual new office.

Oh, and I moved again in the middle of all of that. My rent went up a little bit, I had to pay movers to get my stuff from point A to point B, and I had to invest in some common space furniture in the new place.

Ah, and then there was the new industry I’d landed myself in: skin care/beauty. My drugstore cleanser-and-moisturizer-with-SPF routine was no longer good enough. I suddenly needed antioxidant serums, eye creams, multiple different types of cleansers, day creams and night creams, better sunscreens, night serums, facial sprays, exfoliants, and more.

Then, I got a puppy to help with my anxiety disorder. A lot healthier than Xanax and a lot more effective than meditation or running or sniffing essential oils. But—between vet bills and food and toys and professional carpet cleaning and replacing everything he destroyed—he got pretty expensive, pretty quickly.

Credit Card Count: 6
Personal Loan Count: 1

Six months (maybe a little more) later, I moved, yet again due to some unpleasant circumstances involving a cheap roommate and an aloof landlord. The moving expenses, slight increase in rent, and some household goods later, and I was cleaned out—and then some.

I had to borrow money from my younger sister who made far less money than I did and was infinitely more responsible with it. But after paying her back over the next few paychecks, I was back to nothing again. And so I revisited Upstart and took out another loan—though I was still making payments on the first. In order to pay off my credit card debt at that point, I had to take out a much bigger loan—this time, it was like $20,000.

Credit Card Count: 6
Personal Loan Count: 2

“I’ll be smart this time,” I told myself. I paid off the credit cards and was now paying $800 in personal loan repayments each month. But then shit came up. I was making $20k more than my starting salary at my first office job, but my expenses had also increased. I got an annual bonus from work—nearly half of which was deducted for taxes—and used it to buy a real couch to replace the futon in our living room.

I told myself I deserved a trip to Europe with my best friend. She’s a flight attendant, so our flights were free, which justified the whole thing, in my opinion. I put our hotels and plane tickets on a credit card (telling my friend to pay me back when she could), bought some new clothes to wear (I couldn’t look like a tourist, obviously), and invested in a new suitcase since mine was ripping at the seams. Once there, I failed to keep track of how much I was spending on food, wine, replacement train tickets after I read the ticket wrong and we missed our train to Florence, tours of the Colosseum and the Vatican, and souvenirs to bring home (Swiss chocolate, Italian wine, truffle oil). A week abroad is still not cheap.

Oh, and when we got back, I realized I’d broken my foot (a stress fracture from wearing unsupportive shoes while walking 10+ miles a day). Add medical bills and a walking boot to the trip’s expenses. I could barely walk and didn’t even attempt non-walking exercises, so I gained a bunch of weight and hit the heaviest I’d been in my life. To cope with the foot trouble and my depression over gaining weight, I got a lot of delivery food. And did all my shopping online—everything from toilet paper and groceries to things I absolutely did not need to buy.

Credit Card Count: 6
Personal Loan Count: 2

A few months later, I was preparing for a business trip: a conference in Boston. My work paid for the conference ticket and plane tickets up front, but I was responsible for the hotel and all meals while away—to be reimbursed later. My credit cards were maxed out, and my spare income had to go toward food and gas and other necessities.

I couldn’t bear to tell my boss that I couldn’t afford these expenses upfront. So I applied for another credit card. Only this one gave me a $900 limit, which wouldn’t be enough to cover the hotel. So I found another, which approved me for $4,500. Perfect.  

Credit Card Count: 8
Personal Loan Count: 2

Post-business trip, I was reimbursed, but I didn’t put the money toward paying the credit card. I had medical bills to pay, plane tickets to buy for the holidays, and I was toying with the idea of seeing a psychiatrist (I did go see one, but at $250 after insurance, I couldn’t go back for a follow-up session).


I finished writing a book I’d been working on for years and starting pitching it to literary agents. While I waited for the inevitable rejections, I needed a passion project to occupy my time. So I started a digital magazine. I poured my time and the only money/credit I could come up with into bringing this project to life.

I’m so happy with what I’ve created, but it’s still costing me—not in money (those were all upfront costs), but in time and effort. So I relied a lot on delivery food to help me push through late nights and my inability to find balance. Oh, and I was  still depressed about my weight and trying to continuously prove my worth at my full-time job so that I will hopefully get a raise and promotion in the near future.

But then I hit a big, huge wall. For the first time since getting a credit card (nearly 10 years ago), I wasn’t going to be able to make all my payments. And I’d never missed a payment. I’d been late by accident once or twice, but never missed any completely.

I stared at my neglected expense sheet in disbelief. What would happen if I lost my job or some insanely huge expense came up? I’d never be able to pay rent and bills and buy my food and dog food and I’d have to end up homeless—or just end things. In a panic-filled moment, I honestly thought my only option, should the worst happen, would just be to kill myself. For the record: This is not something I’ve ever considered, and I’m not at all considering it now. But my mind jumps to the worst possible scenarios, and at this point, I was hardly staying afloat and had no tiny bit of a backup plan.

What would happen if I lost my job or some insanely huge expense came up?

…and all of that brought me to researching get-out-of-debt free options, which eventually led me to contracting with a bankruptcy attorney. I’m a month shy of 28, and I’ve just filed for chapter 13 bankruptcy (which will allow me to repay 100% of my debts over the next 5 years—minus the outrageous interest rates). It’s the most embarrassing, difficult, soul-crushing, eye-opening, slap-in-the-face decision I’ve ever had to make.

I’ve finally admitted how deep of a hole I’m in to my parents and close friends, who have been supportive and empathetic during this time—while simultaneously agreeing to hold me accountable once I dig myself out of this mess. My credit is going to suuuuuuck for the next 7-to-10 years, but at least I’ll one day be able to contribute to a 401(k) and afford kids and a house and a rainy day fund. Instead of drowning in minimum payments, never having money for an emergency, and having no semblance of a savings account or retirement plan, bankruptcy is my only logical way out.

at least I’ll one day be able to contribute to a 401(k) and afford kids and a house and a rainy day fund.

After many panic attacks, tear-filled lonely nights, and eventual confessions, I’ve learned a very hard lesson—one that’s going to require a lot of work to make right.

READERS: Have any of you dealt with a similar situation? Or, on the other hand, are you really, really good with money? Share your experiences, book recommendations, financial wellness resources, compulsive/anxiety-induced spending tips in the comments.

Kaitlin Willow

Kaitlin is Founder and Editor in Chief of The Vim. She works for Dermstore during the day and writes novels and short stories in the evenings. She lives in Long Beach, California with the coolest dog in the world, Benny. (Find him on Instagram: @bennythejetsetter)


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