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In a newsletter last week, Vancouver lawyer Monique Shebbeare shared the story of how she ended up deep in debt. After leaving a job on Bay Street in Toronto, Ms. Shebbeare found herself with more than $50,000 in debt plus the mortgage on her condo. Here’s her point-by-point look at how she became entirely debt-free over 14 years, aside from a mortgage.


I cut my expenses: This meant making difficult decisions months after I originally should have made them (rent out my condo, move in with roommates). Then I learned how to think ahead. I got used to doing without much in the way of new clothes, travel and eating out, especially at the beginning when having enough for basic monthly cut-back expenses was not a given.

I increased my income: At first, that meant adding sessional teaching and legal writing to my smaller contract work. Eventually, when I moved back to my home province (B.C.), it meant giving law a second chance after a hiatus of over three years.

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I resolved not to incur any more debt: I managed this with two exceptions I don't regret (during my maternity leave year, and eventually setting up my own legal practice). The hardest part of this was feeling cheap when people I loved wanted to go on trips or eat out at restaurants I couldn't afford. But I knew I would never get out of debt if I just kept incurring new debt, and I hated the feeling of constantly trying to dig myself out of my debt hole.

Bit by bit, I hacked away at my debt: My favourite guidebook on this journey was How to Get Out of Debt, Stay Out of Debt, and Live Prosperously by Jerrold Mundis. I slowly paid down each debt in a way that felt like I was making a dent, while over time using some of the increased income to enjoy life. I kept an Excel spreadsheet showing my debt repayment; it was very satisfying and motivating to see the debt levels go down.

I hired a money coach: For a long time, I had no money to invest. I hired a certified financial planner (CFP) from Money Coaches Canada to get into the nitty gritty of my debt, income, expenses and make a plan. It felt like a big expense at the time, but the results over time were worth every penny.

I was patient: Fourteen years is a long time. Sometimes it felt like forever.

When I paid off my debt, I celebrated: The month I made my last payment was deeply satisfying. Then, for one year, I allowed myself to use the money that I had been using on debt payments for whatever I wanted. A big trip with my daughter to England. A set of grown-up dinnerware. Things I gave up to reach this goal. The next year, I got responsible again.

There really is a world of difference emotionally between being in debt and not. I am standing on solid ground, and now I can look up and see what the rest of the world and this life has to offer.


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Rob’s personal finance reading list…

The bed is in the bathroom

Some international perspective on brutal urban rental markets. In this London one-bedroom flat, the bed is tucked into the bathroom, just steps from the toilet. The cost: In Canadian dollars, is about $2,555.

How to save on groceries

Four solid tips, including paying cash at the supermarket. Forces you to stick to your list and not make impulse buys.

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A cautionary story about seniors with dementia and their finances

The CBC reports on the case of a 97-year-old woman with dementia who had tens of thousands of dollars withdrawn from her account by someone who formerly had her power of attorney. A financial power of attorney allows someone to make financial decisions on your behalf if you’re unable to do so. There is no authority to monitor people who have power of attorney, which means it’s up to seniors and their families to make sure a trustworthy person is chosen.

Live to 100? I’ll pass

A columnist’s musing on why living to 100 doesn’t appeal to her. Worth a look if you’ve been reading about how science is working to treat aging like a disease and prolong lifespans. Sounds like longer lives for the wealthy.

Ask Rob

Q: Is a Costco membership a good choice?

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A: The annual cost for a regular membership at Costco Canada is $60, while an executive gold star membership costs $120. The gold membership gets you annual 2 per cent rewards up to $1,000 and other discounts. My family had a regular Costco membership, and we got some value out of it by buying items such as contact-lens solution, propane tank refills for our barbecue plus various articles of clothing and books. I let our membership lapse when our two sons were no longer living at home and we weren’t buying as much food in bulk. Also, the parking situation at our local Costco was awful. A disincentive to shopping there.

Do you have a question for me? Send it my way. Sorry I can’t answer every one personally. Questions and answers are edited for length and clarity.

Today’s financial tool

Four signs of investment fraud. March is fraud prevention month. Here’s an infographic that highlights how some people may not be taking the fraud risk seriously enough.

In case you missed these Globe and Mail personal finance-related stories

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