Getting into credit card debt is not as hard as most people imagine it to be.
One moment you’re thinking, “I can pay my bills tomorrow”, and the next, you’re using one credit card to repay another. Before you know it, you find yourself buried under a pile of credit card bills.
That was the situation Karen Keng, a technical director in CityTV, found herself in.
“It really started when I kept telling myself there’s always a tomorrow, or a next month to pay my bills,” she shared.
“Technically, I only have to repay the minimum amount for the bill so that the bank wouldn’t chase for payment. But it came to a point when there was no more tomorrow or next month.”
That breaking point happened in 2012.
In the two years leading up to that, Karen lived a lifestyle of lavish gadgets.
“I’m someone who likes gadgets. Whenever there are new phones or new tablets, I’d keep buying a new model. And then I’d get other accessories for it. There was even a point where I changed phones every day.”
Shopping online was Karen’s favourite pastime.
“When I got bored, I would search the Internet to find things to buy and I would convince myself that I needed the item. Other people usually convince themselves why they don’t need the item, but I was the other way around.”
“I put everything on my credit cards…”
Besides gadgets, Karen also loved Starbucks and good food. She would put all these purchases on her credit cards – she had multiple cards from different banks – and not think of the bills that were snowballing.
“It felt like the supply of money was endless,” Karen recalled. “Basically, I put everything on my credit cards – I didn’t use cash.”
Soon, she realised that she could withdraw cash using her credit cards, and started doing that too.
Each month, Karen would only pay the minimum sum and would even use one credit card to pay for the other. Her spending was based on the credit limit of her cards instead of how much there was in her bank account.
That quickly became a problem.
WHEN THE BILLS KEPT PILING UP
In 2012, Karen began to find herself maxing out on her credit cards and it became harder and harder to pay her bills. By 2014, she had come to the end of herself.
“Nothing worked anymore,” she shared. She knew that if she were to continue with her lifestyle, she would have to turn to illegal means to get more money.
“So I had to make a choice: did I want to do the right thing or did I want to continue this lifestyle?” said Karen.
“But I knew that if I continued this way, the next phone call could not be from the bank. It would be from the loan shark.”
Seeking help from her former cell group leader, Karen also admitted her problem to her pastor and her boss at work – two mentors whom she she trusted and respected.
“By telling them, I wouldn’t be able to run away from it anymore,” she explained. “Having to be accountable to them helped me stay on track.”
Karen voluntarily went to a counsellor who helped her draw up a repayment plan that she could propose to the banks. She added: “There was a chance the banks could say, ‘No, we want you to pay off your loans now or you have to file for bankruptcy.’”
Moreover, Karen could not comply with some of the steps that the counsellor wanted to take – for example, give up her job in church and find a better-paying one.
“I told God, ‘Let it be according to Your will for me – if You think I should file for bankruptcy, I will; if not, please help me through it.’
“I was already at the end of myself, and I’m committing everything into God’s hands,” she said.
Thankfully, the banks accepted her proposal to repay her loans a little at a time.
IDENTIFYING MY WANTS VS NEEDS
Karen revealed that initially, she did not think that she had a problem, but the realisation came that she was addicted to spending money.
“I could not stop myself from doing it,” she said. “Even when I knew that there was no more money left, I would still find ways to buy things.”
As she began the difficult journey of repaying her debts, Karen learned to differentiate between her wants and her needs.
“I started to give myself a target – if I wanted to buy something, I would have to earn enough from the extra jobs I took on. Instead of buying on impulse, I would wait for a while before buying the thing I wanted. That gave me a different kind of satisfaction,” she said.
Knowing that totally giving up spending was a sure way to lose the battle, Karen decided to set healthy spending boundaries.
“I would give myself a certain amount to spend in a month,” she explained. “So if I decided to spend on Starbucks, I wouldn’t get to spend on other good food that I liked.”
Karen also gave up all her credit cards and learned to live on cash – a habit she keeps even today.
“Even if Grab allows us to pay later, I wouldn’t use that scheme. Every time I want to buy something, I make myself look into my wallet and see how much I have.”
The journey taught Karen so much that she would not have it another way now.
“I don’t wish that someone would pass me $10,000 to repay my debts,” she said, “because I know that if that happened, I won’t have learnt my lesson.
“I needed to go through this to learn how to differentiate between a need and a want, and to understand that I have to be a good steward of what God has given me.”
Slowly but surely, Karen repaid every bank that she owed. In that process, God showed up multiple times to remind her that she was not alone in this.
“There were times that God would just show up,” she marvelled. “Once I had to do an MRI, which cost over $1,000, I later realised that I could use my Medisave to pay almost the full bill.
“Other times, I would have zero cash left in my wallet but I’d realise that I had value in my EZ-link card so I could still travel. Or sometimes, I had value in my GrabPay so I could still use that.
“In all these moments, it was like God nudging me to remind me that He is there and He has not forgotten about me.”
Even when life got tough and her goals to repay her debts were sidetracked, God remained faithful.
SEEING MIRACLE AFTER MIRACLE
In April 2019, Karen was devastated by the passing of a colleague. Not long after, she received news that another very close friend might have breast cancer.
“My world immediately crashed,” she recalled. “It happened during a peak period at work, so I used work to distract myself. But even then, I found myself having to escape to the toilet to give myself space to breathe. I could barely function at all.”
Experiencing the death of her colleague made Karen reflect on the brevity of life and plunged her into a dark period.
During this difficult time, repaying her debts became the last thing on Karen’s mind.
Miraculously, she received a letter from the bank two months later, informing her that she had cleared her loans. After some calculation, Karen realised that she was actually able to repay all her loans within a month.
“I called up all the banks to verify the figures and realised that God had outdone what I could by myself,” she shared.
“One of the banks told me that not only had I cleared my loan, but there was an extra $1,300 in the bank account that I set up for the repayment. Apparently, the account had been earning interest.”
At another bank, she had only $80 left in her debt. A third bank told her that they would give her a discount if she were to repay all her loans within that month.
Before June was over, Karen had repaid every single one of her loans and was officially debt-free three months ahead of schedule.
“In that moment, I realised that God remembered what I had forgotten. When I truly surrendered myself to Him, He did wonders on my behalf,” she said.
To anyone facing the same overspending issue she dealt with all those years ago, Karen has this to say:
“Do you want to stop? Because if you don’t, no one can help you. When you have made that decision to stop, surrender yourself to God and force yourself to be accountable to one or two people you can trust.”
This article was first published on City News and is republished with permission.
In this first instalment of a new series by City News on overcoming addictions, Karen Keng shares how God’s saving grace delivered her from an addiction to online shopping. For more tips on overcoming addiction, check out the original article.
- How healthy are your spending habits?
- What does it mean to be a good steward of the resources God has given you?
- What other addictions might you be struggling with? Are you ready to do something about it?