Memoir: Deep in debt, I moved back in with my parents at age 34

Memoir: Deep in debt, I moved back in with my parents at age 34

At age 34, I was deep in debt and out of options. It took the humiliation of moving back in with my parents to break me of my spendthrift ways

(Illustration: iStock)

In 2007, my husband and I bought our first house: a 1,200-square-foot starter home in Halton Hills. We both had steady, well-paying jobs—I was a sales rep at a tech company, and he had a gig in retail management—but for years, we lived paycheque to paycheque. I spent on the house, including a pale pink Jane Austen–inspired craft room complete with antique clocks and china teacups from an eBay shopping spree. I even dropped $3,000 on fancy Tonner and Barbie Gold Label collectible dolls. I’d been an impulse shopper my whole life. I never tried to rationalize my purchases—it was always spend, spend, spend. My addiction to shopping was emotional: I’d buy stuff whenever I felt depressed, anxious or insecure.

Two years later, our white picket dream crumbled. My husband and I realized we’d grown apart and decided to separate. When we split, I fled to Paris to see the French Open tennis tournament and find myself. I charged the trip and stayed in an expensive hotel, but I scrimped on meals, figuring that would make up the difference. I came away from the trip with $6,500 in debt. Over the next year, I travelled to Montreal and Hawaii, and back to Paris. By the time I was done indulging my wanderlust, I had $33,000 in credit card debt. Most nights, I lay awake poring over self-help blogs about how to fix my spending habits.

In February 2010, my husband and I divorced. We sold the house, but the profits were barely enough to cover the lawyer fees. I was out of options. I couldn’t afford to buy a place. Even renting would tap me out. So, at age 34, I decided to move back in with my retired parents in their 1,500-square-foot bungalow. I’ve always cared deeply about what my dad thought of me, and now I felt like a complete failure. I girded myself for my parents’ judgment, but to my surprise, they were incredibly understanding. There were just a few rules: keep your room clean, help out around the house, and pay $150 a month in rent.

Living with my parents zigzagged between heaven and hell. They cared about my well-being, provided an emotional and financial safety net, and—best of all—were away for six months of the year (they’re snowbirds). But when they were around, I felt like I was in high school again. There were squabbles about how much wine I was drinking, who got to cook dinner first and how things should be cleaned. A girls’ night out would turn into 20 questions about where I was going and how long I’d be out. “I’ll be home when I’m home,” I’d snap. Eventually, I started to respect their space and appreciate that their questions came from a place of concern. After all, I was intruding on their retirement. What parent expects their child to move back home in her mid-30s?

For the next four years, I tried to curb my shopping habits, repay my debt and adhere to a budget. I failed miserably. I was still at my job, earning about $70,000 per year, but I kept spending faster than I could repay what I owed. I tried writing down all my purchases. I started a money jar system for all my expenses. I used budget binders, Excel spreadsheets and money-managing software. Nothing worked. Debt repayment was no different: I tried consolidation, debt snowballs and a line of credit. On two occasions, it got so bad that my parents intervened and paid off my debt (I reimbursed them with interest). After the second time, I promised them I wouldn’t accumulate any more charges.

For a while, I didn’t. By 2013, I had cut my debt in half, down to $16,000. But the next year, I decided to revamp my wardrobe. I wound up spending $19,000 on clothing—$400 on Sophia Webster pumps, another $400 on an Equipment cashmere sweater, $300 on Current/Elliott jeans. By the time I was done, my debt was back at $35,000. I realize how absurd this sounds—I was living virtually expense free but kept digging myself deeper in the hole. It was like I was caught in an infinite loop, fuelled by a combination of self-doubt and defeatism.

By the end of 2014, I had an epiphany. I thought about my future and who I wanted to be. I realized that in two years I would be 40, with no retirement savings and a boatload of debt. “Never loan me money again,” I told my parents. “I need to learn how to get out of my own mess.” And in January 2015, I did. I committed to a year of no spending, aggressive repayment and simple living. I purged 50 per cent of my belongings—books, kitchen supplies, clothes—through donation and consignment. I cut cable, my home phone line and any other money-draining luxuries. It’s been a difficult change, with a few hiccups along the way. Once I bought a $90 set of makeup brushes, only to shake my head, wondering what I was thinking, and promptly return them.

I no longer equate success with stuff, but with experiences—I spend time with friends and family, volunteer, meditate, and reward myself with days off from work instead of shopping sprees. I’ve been living with my parents for five years, and though they’d never say so, I know I’ve overstayed my welcome. I’m currently sitting on a $27,000 debt load. My goal is to move out by April 2016, rent my own place, have my debt repaid by the end of next year, and eventually make it to a $100,000 net worth. I’m just taking it one dollar at a time.

Michelle Summerfield works in sales. She blogs at Email submissions to