What’s your “a-ha!” moment?

Discovering that your paycheck won’t cover even minimum debt payments. Buying a house, or being unable to buy a house. Feeling suffocated by the (costly) clutter in your life. Wanting to stay home with the kids but fearing you can’t afford it.

All these defining moments turned spendthrifts into thrift-thrifts.

A couple of years ago I wrote a Smart Spending blog piece about what a reader called “a-ha!” moments. The reader, posting as “Bigdreams,” solicited such stories in a Smart Spending message board thread.

Some “moments” are epiphanies. Some are slowly dawning realizations. Readers variously described the experience as a slap in the face, a kick in the butt, a good hard look at oneself, a God-given wakeup call, the sudden glimpse of a bleak future.

However they arrive, a-ha! moments carry the same basic message: Something has to change.

Bigdreams was a former recreational shopper who’d taken to frugality. Shopping had once produced “quite a high” whenever good deals were found.

Then came the a-ha! moment: “(Where) was the money that I had saved?” Bigdreams lamented. “I didn’t take the savings and bank it. I just spent it somewhere else.”

Minimum-wage lunches, costly spa visits

Other readers could relate to Bigdreams’ financial bad dream:

“Sunset Hiker” was startled by a credit-card statement that categorized purchases. The number of entries in the “retail” section shocked Sunset into acknowledging “that I was buying more often than I’d thought.”

Watching a co-worker buy lunch out, “Scoop358” had a minimum-wage a-ha! moment. “That’s when it occurred to me to connect the money I spend to the wages I make. … Lunch is not equal to one hour of miserable work at this place.”

“Ibrake4garagesales” spent $345 on a three-day cruise. Once on the water, she wound up dropping $270 in the ship’s spa. “I felt dumb when I compared the (fare) against a 60-minute massage and nice-smelling products.”

When “Lynn D” had to move out of her place temporarily, she brought along only a few basics items of clothing. Guess what? No one noticed the fashion reruns. As a result, Lynn didn’t buy any new clothes for six months. (Why bother?)

Parental examples, Christmas (credit) cards

As a child, “Jestjack” watched his parents paying off endless auto loans. These days they’re in hock to credit cards. Object lesson: Jestjack carries no consumer debt and hasn’t had a car loan for more than two decades.

Reader “Whatever1” was only 9 years old when he figured out his parents wouldn’t need to argue about debt if they stopped spending foolishly. He has never had a credit card or a car payment, and in less than seven years had paid off most of his mortgage. Back at the old homestead, though, “my parents are still fighting the same fight and living the same way.”

“Roseofclair” found her epiphany one Christmas, after running up credit cards and lying awake worrying about them. That gave her a built-in New Year’s resolution: Paying down the cards. The corollary: She paid cash for the next year’s holiday. (Who says there are no Christmas miracles?)

A lost debit card brought “Kamikaze1” up short. After the second day, “I realized I had saved about $30 by not using (it).” When the replacement card showed up, the reader decided not to carry it.

Had a wakeup call yet?

All right, readers: What was your a-ha! moment? Was it when you…

  • Had your first child?
  • Made your first student-loan payment?
  • Added up the month’s NSF fees?
  • Found yourself dodging creditors?
  • Lied about the family finances?

Or maybe you’ve had the moment and ignored it. If so, here’s your chance to acknowledge reality. Post your epiphany here.

Those who’ve faced and conquered those budget dragons: Please share your stories. Feel free to post any suggestions you have: debt repayment strategies, free budget software, credit counseling, whatever.

Confession is not only good for the soul, it might be just the face-slap/butt-kick/bleak-future glimpse that you need to take back the reins.

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  1. For me, that a-hah moment happened in 1993, when I received a credit card statement with a $20 finance charge. For some reason, an image of me tearing a $20 bill into pieces popped into my mind. I paid off that balance and have only had to pay a finance charge ONCE since then. {knocks wood}

  2. Sharon V.

    For me, that moment was christmas 2008, when we realized we could not afford christmas gifts. We were loaded to the gills with debt, and we were both working temp jobs that dried up in the weeks before. What little savings and credit we had went towards rent and food. Since then, I started with a basic checklist of debts that had to be paid for the month. As time went by it became more detailed, and our banking became more streamlined. Starting January 2010, I set up a spread sheet, which has all our debt info, as well as a spending tracking section. I enjoy watching the debt levels go down, while our savings levels go up!

  3. R.D.L.

    It took a lot to knock sense into me. I wish it had come in the late 80’s when I was 60 and 90 days late on car payments and the bank hunted me down. Or when I had two weeks to go till pay day and less than $20 in my checking account and had to charge groceries which hardly anyone did in those days. Or that I would have learned vicariously on a shopping trip with a friend whose credit card was confiscated and she tearfully confessed to $20,000 debt. You’d have thought the aha came from being dressed down by a banker about my credit history when I applied for a loan in 1996 to buy a house. You’d have thought the aha moment would have come when I lost a $35,000 severance paywhen I paid off a bunch of debts, added a garage to a house, and remodeled some, by heedlessly signing for a second mortgage with an unscrupulous lender in 1997. Oh no, it took years longer for me to get it through my thick skull and I still fell down and got back up a few times. I hated to put the debts all down on paper and look at them and figure out how to pay them but I never got too over my head again. I would get solvent then charge a few things and have an emergency and end up in debt again. The last time I messed up I had about $7500 in credit card debt and it took over a year to pay it off. A little over a year ago I paid the last payment to the credit card company and began building an emergency fund. I’ve since done something I thought would never be possible which is to putt $10,000 in liquid accounts in case something happens. Now I don’t feel like running out and writing a check for a house improvement or some big thing. I’m starting to feel like I would rather have the money banked. I do use charge cards to delay payments on purchases and to gain rewards and points but I am careful to pay them off each month.

  4. This is a thought-provoking post that shows there are as many a-ha moments as there are people out there having them. Mine came, innocently enough, when I began my winter-to-spring closet switcheroo! It heats up early in Vegas, so we’re talking late February, early March, of this year. The realization that there wouldn’t be enough warm weather days for me to sport all of my outfit combos sent me into overdrive, and I proceeded to have my “Purgeapalooza,” which I wrote about in detail on my blog. Bottom line, I cleared out nearly 1,000 items (clothes, jewelry, small appliances, CDs, you name it!) in a weekend. I haven’t looked back. I’ve never felt more at peace, more grounded, more myself since I began on my minimalist journey. With Las Vegas as the setting, where “more, more, more is better” I am enjoying swimming upstream. Life is good!

  5. My Aha Moment was when I decided I wanted to work for myself full-time. I can’t do it with the debt hanging over my head. I can, however, freelance part-time to speed up the debt payment and start saving. Eventually I’ll be on my own and debt free.

  6. Hmm I think I’m still waiting for my “a-ha” moment.

  7. Heather

    Mine came when my husband lost his job just before Christmas last year. We met about 12 years ago, and have basically been living beyond our means ever since, we racked up nearly 20,000 in credit card bills, about the same in car loans and about the same in student loans, then we bought a home. It all seems somehow ok though, since we were making plenty to pay our bills every month. But, when we went from making plenty, to not making nearly enough, I felt scared, we have no savings and our credit cards were pretty close to maxed out. Now he’s making a lot less, but we’ve learned how to spend a lot less, we’re not buying new vehicles, we’re really focused on only buying what we can with cash. I have faith that we’ll dig our way out eventually, hopefully in time to save for retirement.

  8. I have my boss to thank for turning me to saving for retirement early, and what a difference that has been! It was my first job out of college, and when my first raise came in, my boss sat down with me and asked if I had been fine financially without the raise. If so, then why not take that 5% and put it into a 401k? It wasn’t really going to amount to much after taxes anyway.

    So… I did. And the next raise, I did the same thing. And slowly, within a few years, I hit the max 401k contribution, all without missing it. Starting when you are 22 makes a HUGE difference. And when you start off living on less, it’s easier to keep on that track.

  9. Mine happened a few years ago while on vacation in Vancouver. I’d brought along a stack of library books to read, and one of them was Your Money or Your Life. The very next day I started tracking my spending and just…changing how I looked at things. I wish I’d read it as a teen. I’d be retired by now if I had. Better late than never though!

  10. I recently read an article about a college graduate that had racked up a debt of $97,000.00 in student loans. The young lady was worried about how she was going to pay the loan off. She did take “some” of the responsibility for this debt. Her mother also stated that she wished that she had not been so naive about taking out loans. However, the young lady and her mother wanted the banks that approved the loans and the university that recommended loans as financial aid to take most of the responsibility.

    Here is my a-ha moment! I am glad that I put myself through college. I worked and took as many classes as I could afford (key words). I got my degree doing this and I am debt free! I am glad that my family taught me to be financially responsible and not ask others to take responsibility for my financial decisions.

    Banks are a profit business and are not going to turn away customers (even if these customers are not the best candidates for loans). Universities are a profit business, they have a payroll to reconcile and other expenses (they are not going to turn away students that can generate a revenue). Ethics and morals of both entities can be argued here ultimately we HAVE TO take responsibility for our decisions. A-Ha!

  11. Katherine

    Over a decade ago, I received a phone call from Discover Card. The representative kindly informed me that my payment was over 30 days late and asked how soon I would be making it. I knew that I hadn’t been paying enough attention to my bills as I had developed the habit of just putting the mail in a pile on my desk and getting to it sometime later (it wasn’t a matter of financial troubles … it was just a lack of responsibility on my part). So that was definitely a wakeup call for me. My response to the representative on the phone was something like, “Oh my gosh … I’ll have it done in about half an hour!” I rushed home and submitted the online payment on their website, and from that point on I transitioned to paperless whereever possible and set up automatic payment for EVERYTHING so that it would become worry-free.

  12. My a-ha moment came a year ago when I had a giant medical bill (or so it seemed) after having my gallbladder out. I also had a dental bill that was as much as the hospital bill. I had health insurance (thankfully) and dental insurance – not that the dental insurance did my any good.

    I had about $10,000 socked away in a CD, but I wanted to save it for student loan debt for when I graduate from grad school. I paid split my med. bill in half (should have offered monthly payments instead), and had to pay the dental bill in full. I cashed out the last of my savings account at home and had it wired to me. I contemplated taking help from my b/f for food for the month, but didn’t.

    I should have just cashed out the CD, paid the bills, and put the rest of the money in a savings acct for an EF. But instead I left it there, finally got the bills paid, and switched dentists to one who let me put the bill on a 0% interest/18 month cc, which I paid off in about 15 months.

    I now have the med. deductible saved + $1000 for dental (but I can still put the rest on the card and pay it off). I’m working on getting an EF together.

  13. My ahHA moment: A couple of years after I got my first job, I wasn’t really paying attention to finances, used credit cards, paid minimum balances, etc. I’m sure many people can relate.

    I’m not sure why I did, but I picked up a copy of “Personal Finance for Dummies” and one of the first chapters had a very detailed budget analysis. It included things that I had never budgeted for like magazine subscriptions, cat vaccinations, etc.

    The result: My income: $25K. My outgo $275oo.

    OOPS. Ah Ha!!

  14. My “a-ha!” moment came when I rented the movie “Confessions of a Shopaholic” and saw the scene where the main character is frantically trying to come up with enough across all her credit cards to buy a scarf. The scene was entirely ridiculous… until I realized that I had been doing the same thing for clothing items I just “had” to have. I immediately pulled all my credit cards out of my wallet and set up a debt spreadsheet so I could face what I’d done head-on. While I’m not debt free yet, I am happy to report that I’ve opened up about 20% of my credit in the last 6 months and increased my credit score over 40 points, so that I am now over 700!

  15. FranticWoman

    I didnt have an a-ha moment. I was raised in a thrify household with v. good financial habits I witnessed my entire upbringing. Being good with money was something I would do “one day”. “one day” took a long time coming but finally arrived. It was the same with quitting smoking: At 20 I thought that “someday” I would have to quit but that was soooooo far in the future but then I woke up one day and I was 40. Gulp. Someday arrived, the butts went out (permanently I hope).


  16. Donna Freedman

    @Caryn: Good for you! Keep plugging away and one day you will be free.
    Thanks to everyone for stopping by. Keep the comments coming! They’re great reading.

  17. What great stories!

    I’ve had two a-ha moments in recent memory. The first happened some years ago, shortly after I tossed Semi-Demi-Exboyfriend out of my house. He had been paying half the mortgage as “rent,” which allowed me to live on my teaching salary and bank about 95% of the alimony I was receiving. But after SDXB left, I wasn’t living on my pay; each month I had to use a little of the alimony to make ends meet. One day as I was driving to work it dawned on me: after the alimony ended (which it would in a year or so), the mortgage payment would gobble up MORE THAN HALF my salary, and my entire salary wasn’t supporting me!

    I took the money I’d stashed in Vanguard funds from the earlier alimony payments plus a small inheritance and paid off the mortgage. Smartest thing I’ve ever done: it allows me to live on what most people think of as a pittance — and to live pretty comfortably.

    The other a-ha moment: Years have passed. By this time I have a quasi-administrative job at the university’s main campus, 18 miles from home. I’m generally miserable, as are all my friends and colleagues who work at the Great Desert University.

    I’m driving to work and, just as I accelerate over the freeway on-ramp, a thought occurs to me: “I CAN’T WAIT TO GET HOME!”

    Say what? I’m not hardly even on the road to work and and the foremost thought in my mind is “I can’t wait to get home”?

    That was when I realized I truly hated my job, and that the dreary job combined with the accursed commute were what was making me miserable.

    It took about three years to get quit of the job — and only because the university’s financial woes shut our office — but with that morning’s realization I managed to take a few steps to reduce the overall stress: delegating more work, getting rid of a troublesome staff member, distancing myself psychologically from place and politics.

    Sometimes the obvious sneaks up on you and whacks you on the head with a two-by-four.

  18. I was watching a tv show and they asked where would you be with your debt in 5 years? Hmmm, I was going to be drowning just as I was when they asked the question. That’s when I changed. That was my moment. Now if I could only apply that to a diet!

  19. For me, it was when I was right out of college, many years ago, and decided to track my expenses to see how much I’m spending and how it related to what I earned (which wasn’t much right out of school). After dilligently doing this for a month, recording literally everything to the penny, I discovered just how much I spent – and how meager my salary was, in relation to how I wanted to live. Big eye opener. I ended up cutting costs, and was enlightened to how income can influence savings.

  20. Two situations I can put a date to:

    Summer 1990 – I was separated, soon to be divorced, and on a random radio button hit I heard Larry Burkett’s Money Matters show. I soaked in as much of his program as I could for the next couple of years, until my work schedule changed and I couldn’t be near the radio at the time of his show.

    May 2005 – My (second) husband had been off and on work so much during the past year that while the bills were somehow getting paid, we had only four days worth of food in the house. While we always had been frugal, and resourceful, I knew we had to ramp up the efforts after facing that cash flow crisis.

  21. Buying a brand new house because we felt it was time to “upgrade”. We are now stuck with an underwater mortgage in an area we learned we hated. Even though we are putting every extra dime into that dreaded HELOC we are years away from being able to break even if we sold. That is assuming the market doesn’t fall more 🙁

  22. Matty

    In 2004 when I quit a job I hated and did not of course, qualify for unemployment. My husband got paid once per month on the 1st. Prior to this situation, I spent money with reckless abandon. I grew up in a lower middle class family and resolved that when I earned my own money I would spend it as I saw fit and spend I did. I was addicted to Loehmann’s and was there without fail at least 3 times per week. I had 4 closets full of clothes and boxes and boxes of shoes. Going from $80,000 to $0, as well as making a paycheck stretch for the whole month really put things into perspective. I began to look into my closets with real shame and sadness for all the money that I had thrown away. I repeatedly promised God that if he would bless me with another decent paying job I would never again be so frivolous. I ended up donating most of the clothes and shoes and have never felt so great because I realized all those items were weighing me down. Nowadays I rarely shop for clothes or shoes, I have a p/t job and I make way less money but yet I am so content!!! A-ha!

    • Donna Freedman

      @Matty: Life feels a lot less crowded when it’s, well, less crowded. Glad it all turned out well for you.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  23. Norvasc

    I am 55, and my haha moment is to retire earlier than I anticipated. I am lucky I will have a fare pension, but much less than if I stay until 65. My dad died at 60 working so hard for a second pension with a second career. He got one pension check and was barried before the next came in. I will retire on less and will learn to live within it’s boundries. I look forward to becoming thrifty and learn to relax. Thanks Donna, I really enjoyed reading your posts

  24. Mine was when I couldn’t face borrowing money yet again from my parents (I had always paid them back, by the way); and instead decided to ask my little brother for help. There I was, nearly 30, having a decent job with decent pay, asking my baby-bro if he could spare 100 dollars so I could buy groceries until my next paycheck would come in.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Petra: It sounds as though you’ve taken control since then, or at least realized that things had to change. Good for you, and I hope your finances continue to improve.

  25. My a-Ha moment was in 2007 when, after years of arguments and meetings and spreadsheets and calendars and attempts to get my bosses to take some responsibility for the business (I was managing a small law firm at the time), the senior partner got fed up with me trying to get an answer to something and said “It’s not YOUR business!”

    And I thought, Wow. You utter bast**d. But … right.

    And when I had thought things through I realized that I needed an exit strategy. I had stayed with that job for much too long simply because a) I could walk to it b) the pay was good c) I got lots of vacation time. But what did walking to work benefit me if I was stress eating (and drinking) too much? What good was high pay if I spent every penny of it – and more – on stress shopping? The only *real* benefit was the vacation time. And I could get the same benefit from most other employers in my field.

    So I built up my exit strategy, paid cash for a used car, and quit. I even got severance. Since then I have paid off nearly $30,000 in debt. DH and I actually have a timeline to buy a retirement property. I don’t get sick nearly as often and I’m not habitually insomniac.

    So thanks, Mr. Partner. I still wish you ingrown toenails and hemorrhoids, but you did me a favor.

  26. Mine was turning fifty a year and a half ago and realising that I still had a huge mortgage(it seemed bigger at fifty than it had at forty nine) other debts and virtually no savings. I was living paycheck to paycheck whilst supporting my teenage son. Also I didn’t have nearly enough in retirement. I am slowly paying down the debt and the mortgage and living more frugally than ever. At times I feel a little dejeted and feel as if I have left it too late and I cant see a light at the end of the tunnel. However I keep plugging away, practising frugality and reading your blog and others like it. It it weren’t for this daily encouragement I would find it even more tough going. So keep up the good writing and I usually get a good giggle from reading you also.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Ash: Thanks for your kind words. It’s good to get feedback, especially if it’s feedback that recounts stories of personal progress. It sounds as though you’re making up for lost time.

  27. Amazing! I have had several ah-ha moments. I am now on disability for bipolar I disorder. In 2005 I was so immobilized with fear that my daughter (who was in college at the time) helped me to refinance my house so that it would not be foreclosed. Thank you God for loving children! In 2010, I filed for Chpt 13 bankruptcy to take care of the mess that my finances were in. Finally in 2012 I was off work for the umpteenth time w/my demons & filed for SSDI. I could only do that with the help of my youngest daughter. Again, God thank you! I was so paralyzed with fear & doped on meds that I simply couldn’t function. I spent all of my 401K money on living expenses between the time my job ended & my disability started & the shock of the tax implications was just mind numbing! When I received my settlement I repaid my oldest daughter for what she had spent for my last month of expenses while I waited for SSDI to kick in. I was so depressed from losing my job that I spent a year & a half in bed. The loss of my previous income as a nurse was a brutal shock, I now get about 20% of what I used to make in a year! The learning curve for this change was another shock & a pretty steep learning curve too! I now read about money & being frugal all the time & have set goals for my self financially. I am not buying any clothes this year at all (except my oldest daugher is making the outfit I will wear to my other daughter’s wedding) I did pay for the material. I have paid off a vet bill of over $1000 for my cats for the months of Jan-March of this year. I was finally solvent in April of this year. The only debt I have is my mortgage, & I am working really hard to pay that off early. I am 60 & want to have it paid in full by age 65. By the terms of the mortgage I wouldn’t have it paid off until 85! That’s like my whole life expectancy! A really scarey thought. My oldest has my DPOA, I am not always capable of running my own budget. But, the best part is that I am doing really lots better in all aspects of my life, I’m off a ton of meds, saving for the future & really pretty happy & the best part is: I can finally admit that I hated, really HATED my last job. I finally have some peace in my life. What a surprise!

    • Donna Freedman

      Wow. That’s quite a journey. I’m so glad you made it out the other side.
      Thanks for reading, and for sharing your story.
      P.S. You raised those kids right.

  28. Cejay

    I had mine about 6 years ago, the recession was bearing down on us and thrifting was in style. My husband worked at a Christian nonprofit and his hours had been increased but salary decreased. I suddenly decided that we could get out of debt except for our mortgage. After looking online and finding your Smart Spending blog and a great group of people I added the mortgage to that mix. I devoured everything I could find and I am proud to say that three years later we were debt free. Funny thing is I did not miss most of the things I once thought I had to have. Then last April I lost my job which brought in the most income. But we have survived and thrived on one income while I look for a job I like.


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