The cutting-edge solution to rising debt? Cash payment
By: Stacey Vanek Smith | NPR
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WASHINGTON, DC (NPR) — Discover the new revolution in personal finance: cash.
A growing number of Gen Z and Millennial debtors are controlling their finances by spending real paper money: no Apple payments, no Venmo, no cards.
One of them is Jamie Feldman, 33, a writer and journalist from Brooklyn, New York, and a TikToker enthusiast.
Until recently, most of his videos were about New York life, culture, food, and humor.
A ton of debt changed everything
But about five months ago, Feldman posted a TikTok that changed everything. Inside, she sits in her car, looking nervous.
“I have a lot of debt,” she said, looking away. “I’m starting with about $18,000 in credit card debt…which is so much.”
For Feldman, there was no big purchase, no catastrophic expense. It was just life in New York, working a low-paying job as a journalist and trying to keep up with wealthier friends: dinner, drinks, shows, weddings, baby showers.
“I just started making the minimum payments and ignored it,” Feldman recalled. “I just wouldn’t watch. And if I wasn’t looking, then it didn’t exist, and if it didn’t exist, then I didn’t have to worry about it.
I can’t live like this anymore
Then, during the pandemic, Feldman lost his job and his finances started spiraling out of control.
“I was just like, ‘I can’t live like this anymore,'” she said.
Feldman felt trapped and totally alone. No one was aware of his financial situation: not his friends, not even his mother. She therefore decided to reveal herself to the whole world, on TikTok.
“Why am I telling you this? she said in her TikTok. “For me to be held accountable, I’m going to need you to accompany me on this journey. I’m terrified and afraid of my mind.
At the time, Feldman had no real plan for how she was going to get out of debt.
Same life, different budget
Millions of Americans are in Feldman’s position.
After hitting an all-time high during the pandemic, the personal savings rate in the United States is now at its second-lowest level on record. Meanwhile, household debt is rising at its fastest pace in decades.
Jill Schlesinger, CBS news analyst and certified financial planner, says she hears people on her podcast all the time looking at their finances in shock: They have no idea how they’re suddenly so in debt.
Schlesinger says that in many cases their lifestyle hasn’t changed at all; many have even recently gotten a pay rise, but due to inflation and rising interest rates, normal life has become out of reach and they are suddenly drowning in debt.
“So many things cost so much more,” Schlesinger says, “that the pay raises they thought would propel them to a different kind of standard of living are disappearing before their eyes.”
Waiting for judgment
In fact, when Jamie Feldman posted her TikTok debt confessional, she was groomed for criticism, but instead received surprising support. “I got a lot of messages from people saying, ‘I have a lot of credit card debt too. Or, ‘I had credit card debt. Here’s how I got away with it.
Feldman started reading everything she could find on debt and finance. There was a trend that was all over TikTok that caught her eye and she decided to give it a shot: using cash to pay for almost anything.
Using money to budget is nothing new. In fact, finance guru Dave Ramsey has been talking about it for decades. A system that he defends and which has started to have a lot of success on social networks: the envelope system AKA cash stuffing.
The idea is that you have different envelopes for different expenses: groceries, entertainment, gas, rent, etc. You fill (or stuff) each envelope with a certain amount of money per pay period and only spend from that envelope.
When the envelope is empty, that’s it. (If you don’t have any envelopes on hand, never fear! You can purchase special envelopes from Ramsey’s site for $10.)
You are forced to keep a strict budget and the money helps you see what you are spending.
TikTok is full of young people sorting bills into cute designer envelopes, talking about how much they earn, how much they spend and how they organize their spending
Fashionable financial plan?
CBS personal finance analyst Schlesinger is skeptical of the money-stuffing system. “There’s really nothing new in personal finance,” she laughs. She likens stuffing money to a fad diet.
“What works: Track your expenses, budget, figure out where your money is going and where you can cut back. It’s not a sexy thing, but it works.
Schlesinger says stuffing the cash can also help people achieve these goals, but she says it’s so inconvenient in our current world that it could make sticking to a budget even more difficult.
money in action
But for people like Jamie Feldman, just spending money really helped. I met Feldman at a grocery store to see her use the envelope system. “Here’s my grocery envelope,” she said, pulling a Chase bank envelope labeled “Grocery” from her purse.
Feldman’s budget for this shopping spree: $45. The food should last him about a week and a half. Feldman planned his menus in advance and created a detailed shopping list.
At the store, Feldman is focused. His eyes don’t wander over refined cheeses or ready meals. She rolls her cart straight to the bread aisle, where the store’s brand is on sale ($2.99).
Feldman grabs a whole wheat loaf and throws it into the cart. “I’ve been eating a lot of peanut butter and jelly since I started budgeting,” she says. “That’s 20 slices, so that’s 10 peanut butter and jellies, baby.”
Feldman does the math in his head as he goes: chickpeas (0.89 cents), cucumbers for salad ($2.29), a case of ginger seltzer ($3.69), tofu ($1.99 $), ground beef for meatballs ($6.31), a whole chicken ($8.78).
There are places in the store that she completely avoids. “There are these beautiful olive oils in these magnificent bottles that call out to me,” she says, pointing to a distant alley. We stay away.
Feldman says most deleveraging comes down to small, mundane moments like this: thinking about menus, creating a list, avoiding the olive oil aisle.
Small change, big impact
But Feldman says those little moments had a huge impact on his life.
“It completely changed my understanding of my values and my relationships and how I am in the world,” she says. “It completely changed my life. It completely changed my outlook on everything.
Feldman cooks more, spends more time at home, and asks his friends for walks rather than going out for dinner or drinks. Some of his friends are no longer his friends.
Feldman posts her progress on TikTok almost daily (she’s now switched to a mix of cash and debit). And her progress has been so rapid over the past five months that she sometimes forgets how much of her original debt of $18,000 she paid off.
“Hi, I’m Jamie. I have $16,000 in credit card debt…” she begins in one of her TikToks. “No.” She shakes her head and starts again. my name is Jamie, I have a credit card debt of $15,000…”
My purpose is not to feel this way
Feldman says his goal is to be debt free. But more than that is to never feel the way overspending made him feel again.
“I used to swipe my card and say, ‘I hope it doesn’t get declined!’ Or I’d put my card in a restaurant and be like, ‘I’ll deal with that later.’ And that’s terrible. My goal is to not feel that again.
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