QA with 'Hot (Broke) Messes' author Nancy Trejos

When Nancy Trejos started her gig as personal finance columnist for The Washington Post in 2007, she was far from being in control of her own finances. In fact, Trejos, now 33, was a mess, drowning in credit card debt and, at her lowest point, asking her parents for money to pay her rent.

Nancy Trejos, author,
'Hot (Broke) Messes'
Nancy Trejos, author, 'Hot (Broke) Messes'

Hot (Broke) MessesNancy Trejo, a personal finance columnist for The Washington Post, was a mess, drowning in credit card debt and, at her lowest point, had to ask her parents for cash to pay the rent. She writes about her process of financial self-discovery in her best-selling book, "Hot (Broke) Messes."

She writes about her finance woes, and how she started the process of digging herself out, in her new book, "Hot (Broke) Messes." spoke with Trejos by phone from her office in Washington, D.C. Your parents, both immigrants, are very frugal. How did this affect how you approached money?

Nancy Trejos: I've talked to psychologists about this. What they told me is you never know how kids are going to turn out. Some people emulate their parents and their financial behaviors, and some people rebel from it. I rebelled. I ended up going to Georgetown [for college]. They have a lot of affluent kids there and I wanted to keep up with the Jane and Joe Hoya. I was able to get a credit card and it at least made me able to pretend to be like them. How did you get your first credit card?

Trejos: They were on campus giving out T-shirts and applications. Of course a lot of kids are going for it. Who didn't want a T-shirt? I was not prepared to have a credit card. I kept telling myself, "Well, I can buy anything, and I'll just pay it off, and it's OK if I just send in the minimum payment." Why was it so easy to ignore your debt?

Trejos: I was making my payments on time, so I would just pay the minimum. I wasn't chipping away at that debt. How did you feel giving personal finance advice to people when you had so much debt yourself?

Trejos: When the job was offered to me, I looked at the editor and said, "Are you kidding me? I'm a personal finance disaster." We figured I'd come up with some good story ideas, and I did because I was living it. I was trying to live in denial and not think about my problems, but that's impossible when you're talking to people every day who are on the verge of bankruptcy. I remember doing this one story on people declaring bankruptcy, and a couple of the people I talked to were around my age. I thought, "Oh my God, what if that happened to me? It could happen to me because I'm in trouble." It ended up being a good thing because it forced me to deal with my problems. What made you decide to seek out help?

Trejos: I was so low on cash one month. I sent off all these payments and then I finally looked at my bank account, and I realized I couldn't cover my rent. The next morning, I called my mom. I felt horrible. Here I was the only one of their children to get a college degree, the only one of their children with a professional job, and I was calling them for help. I was supposed to be the one who had my act together, and I didn't. That was a wakeup call for me. How did living in debt affect your well-being?

Trejos: There were nights when I was unable to sleep. I would be physically ill. There were nights when I would just cry because I wouldn't know what to do. I didn't know how I was going to make things better. I was scared. Would you call credit cards a former enabler in times of stress?

Trejos: Yes, definitely. A lot of us are emotional spenders. We have a breakup, we have a bad day at work, we have a fight with our parents or best friend and what do we do? We go on a trip or go shopping because we want to look better or want to feel good for ourselves. Or we go out and have drinks and expensive cocktails, or we go out and have dinner with someone because we don't want to feel alone. Even if we don't have the cash for it, we say, "I don't have to deal with it now," but you end up paying for it later. In 2008, you consulted a financial planner to help you get out of debt. What did she do?

Trejos: Step one was to know exactly what I was spending my money on. She made me go through all of my assets and liabilities. From there, she looked at all of my fixed costs and my variable expenses, and she put me on a budget. It was a good budget because she had me paying down my credit card debt and sending more money to my credit card with the highest interest rate to get rid of the most-expensive debt. The budget was taking care of my debt but also recognizing, hey, I do want to go out with friends once or twice a week. She crunched the numbers so I could live my life and not spend every night moping at home. Do you still have credit cards that you use?

Trejos: Only for work, and I get reimbursed for that. If I don't have the money in my bank account for it, I'm not going to buy it. Do you still get that urge to shop?

Trejos: Oh, yeah! Not as much as I used to. I've accumulated so much over the years. It's got to be something really good for me to buy it, and I have to have the money for it. How is your life different now than it was when you were in so much debt?

Trejos: I have more fun now. Being in debt is not fun at all. It's stressful. It's horrible. You're scared that you're not going to be able to support yourself, and that's not a good feeling for anyone to have. It's nice to not be afraid of looking at my bank account. I'm much calmer now than I was before. What would you say to your college self?

Trejos: Don't get that credit card.

See related: Help for bad credit, QA: Avis Cardella writes on overcoming shopping addiction, QA with finance guru Jean Chatzky, QA with 'Get Naked' author Manisha Thakor

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Updated: 01-19-2019