car moneyAt 19 years old, I was an active duty Air Force member stationed at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska.

I was on my own, over 4,200 miles away from home. I was living the life of an independent, responsible young girl; I had a budding career and I was going to college.

I was assigned to the Admission and Dispositions night shift at the base hospital. Since the base shuttle bus didn’t operate in conjunction with my work hours, my supervisor suggested I buy a car. My gut feeling was to save up money and purchase a used car.

I Qualified for a Car Loan

I had a 15 year-old Oldsmobile Cutlass back home in Pennsylvania with LOTS of problems, so I didn’t bother to ship it to Alaska. Instead, I went car shopping.

My supervisor and car dealers assumed I’d be able to secure a down payment or co-signature from my parents, except neither of mine have any money. I was on my own purchasing this car and yet I was still approved on a loan for a new car.

Car loans are easy to obtain when you’re on active duty with a guaranteed paycheck. Plus, your First Sergeant is notified when you don’t make payments, because defaulting on your bills means you aren’t deployment ready. I bought a $15,000 Pontiac Sunfire on 12% interest over 5 years. Manual shift, no power windows, no power locks, AM/FM radio, no CD player – in other words it was the cheapest bare-bones car on the lot.

I Was In Over My Head in Debt

My payment was around $300 a month and my insurance was also about $300 a month (remember I was only 19 with a sporty car). This meant that $600 of my $800 a month income was going towards the car. I remember signing a contract with the car dealer stating, “I will reenlist to make my payments” even though I didn’t want to reenlist. I wanted to serve my 4 years and then go to college full-time. But I felt pressured.

I listened to everyone around me telling me how nice my car was. I listened to all my friends who were buying new cars. I listened to my supervisor who loved my new car. The saying goes, “On any Air Force military base the nicest cars are always parked in the enlisted Airman’s parking lot.”  What’s not always obvious is how many of these cars are purchased on expensive credit and how many people are struggling to make payments.

I constantly had to call home and ask my dad for gas money because I was broke after paying my bills. My dad’s friends started a collection to “help out a local service girl get started in Alaska.” I realized I only needed their assistance because of my poor financial decisions; something I could control.

I started to resent my car and my $15,000 debt. I hit an all-time low. I committed to making a change.

How I Got Back On Track

When I established better credit, I refinanced the car through my bank on a better interest rate and lower monthly payment. I paid extra towards my principal and pulled myself out of being upside-down on the car loan.

I ended up keeping the Sunfire for 3 years before trading it in for the car I’m driving now, which is fully paid off. Through the help of personal finance guru, Dave Ramsey, and my own mistakes, I’ve learned that debt can hinder your life. It was difficult, but after all the financial drama in my life, I’ve worked to establish the debt free lifestyle I’m living today.

If I could go back in time, I’d tell my 19 year-old self not be pressured by the advice of others, in particular, authority figures. I wanted to trust my supervisor, and believe that he had my best interests at heart. In reality, I knew what the right decision was.