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Our favorite answer: Marrying the wrong person.

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There are currently 325 million Americans. They owe more than $1 trillion on their credit cards, another $1 trillion on their students loans, and yet another $1 trillion on their car loans.

So it’s safe to say, more than a few have made some serious spending mistakes. Let’s hear from three of them.

They’re financial experts who got burned long before they became who they are today – and in some cases, their self-inflicted wounds spurred them to learn how to never be indebted again. If they could rebound, so can you…

Jeff Kneal

Mistake No. 1: Paying max price for a minivan

“I spent $10,000 on a minivan that was only worth $3,000,” says Jeff Kneal, who runs CouponBahama.com.

Overpaying for a vehicle isn’t uncommon, but this was…

I took out a personal loan for $8,000 to buy what appeared to be a nice minivan for the family. Well, shortly after buying it, it needed repair after repair after repair. I ended up spending about another $2,000 in repairs over a four-month period.

It got so bad, Kneal says, “I ended up buying a cheap, $1,000 economy car, just so my wife and kids wouldn’t get stranded on the side of the road anymore. I was only able to sell the minivan for $3,000.”

Lyn Alden

Mistake No. 2: Going it alone

Before Lyn Alden founded her own investment strategy firm, she was a struggling college student loaded down with student loans. But her mistakes started after she graduated.

“Once I graduated, I didn’t refinance my high fixed-rate student loans,” she says. We have been in a decade-long period of unusually low interest rates, and my private federal loans were taken out earlier with a fixed rate, when we had higher interest rates. Not shopping around for refinance options, or ways to consolidate my high fixed-rate student debt, was a ‘big win’ that I left on the table.”

Even bigger…

A big mistake I made was not having a roommate after I graduated college. I could have saved $500 a month on rent and utilities every year for seven years. If that money were saved and compounded at a 7-percent rate, it would be worth over $50,000 today.  Besides, living alone for long periods of time is bad for mental health.

Kevin Dame

Mistake No. 3: Marrying badly

Kevin Darné is a self-styled relationship expert, having written the book, My Cat Won’t Bark! (A Relationship Epiphany) and running a website called Love Alert 911. His biggest financial mistake was also his biggest relationship mistake.

“The biggest money mistake I ever made was marrying the wrong woman!” Darné says. “Whenever you pair up a saver and a spender, more often than not, the saver will not be able to compete with the spender or get them to change their habits. They see debt as a way of life and as long as they’re able to make the minimum payments they feel all is right with the world.”

That wasn’t right for Darné. They got divorced – and then he did the same damn thing…

Even after my divorce, I turned around and gave my next girlfriend one of those “additional credit cards” for your “loved ones.” The card is a separate account in their name, but you are ultimately responsible if they don’t pay it. The original limit was for $500, but very quickly they raised her limit to $1000. Guess what happened next. Feel free to laugh at my pain!

Concludes Darné: “Marrying the wrong person or co-mingling funds with the wrong person is probably the biggest threat to one’s personal finances. Simply put you can’t control what someone does who has access to your funds.”

Portraits of James Duren, Jennifer Asiaka, and Tina Willis, who shared their debt stories with Debt.com

If you want to achieve financial freedom, you can get an education, invest in real estate, or buy into a business. But if you’re not careful, each of those things can drive you into debt.

That’s what happened to these three people – but they have since recovered and are now financially stable.

Use their experiences as a guide on what to avoid. And if you’re trapped in a similar situation, use them as a reminder that you can recover, too.

Mistake No. 4: A six-figure student loan

“My dumbest money mistake was taking out student loans for graduate school,” says J.R. Duren, a personal finance reporter with Highya.com. “When I graduated with my undergrad degree, I had very little student loan debt and very little debt in general.”

He felt that pursuing a graduate degree would give him the best chance of success, but had to take out federal loans to pay for it. Duren is now able to manage his six figures of student loan debt because of an income-based repayment plan.

Despite this, he still wishes he did things differently and avoided loans as much as possible:

As much as I try and stay positive about how my graduate degree helped me professionally and personally, I’m dead set on believing I should have worked full time before and during grad school to pay for my education out-of-pocket instead of through loans.

Mistake No. 5: Real estate regret

Tina Willis is a personal injury lawyer from Orlando, Florida who was offered “a golden opportunity” in 2008 to work at a small yet elite law firm in Atlanta, Georgia.

“Because I felt sure that this would be a permanent move, and the opportunity of a lifetime, we took all of our savings, and purchased the biggest home we had ever owned – and one of our dreams,” Willis says.

Although Willis loved her new home, she quickly started to regret the move.

“…We absolutely hated living in Georgia for a bunch of reasons: the traffic, the weather (gray and cold way too long each year), having a long distance marriage, the fact that my husband had a well-established business in Orlando,” says Willis. “Within just a few months we knew that we couldn’t stay.”

She backed out of her new job at the law firm, where she was on a six-month trial basis, but no longer had a way to make her mortgage payments. She quickly found a renter for the house and moved back to Florida with no savings left in the bank.

Despite those setbacks, Willis built a small business from the ground up.

…I had to return home and develop my law firm with no budget, including doing my own marketing. I taught myself how to make a website, learned SEO and social media. There were lots of twists and turns but now I have a small but thriving boutique injury law practice. And we managed to buy another dream home along the way.

Mistake No. 6: Investing in a pyramid scheme

“The biggest money mistake I ever made was joining a multi-level marketing business,” says Jennifer Aziaka, marketing director for Arbor Counseling Center.

Aziaka and her husband were forced to keep up with quotas by selling at least $500 worth of product every month, or they had to purchase the rest of it themselves.

“Then there was the quarterly big conferences. It would involve taking time off work, finding babysitters for an entire weekend, sometimes leaving Thursday night,” Aziaka says. “There was a bus ticket to go as a group on a chartered bus, costing about $150 each. Then the ticket for the weekend event itself was about $150-$250, maybe more.”

At the time, Aziaka stayed with the pyramid scheme because she believed in the dream that they were selling her.

“We didn’t scoff at it, because we wanted badly to succeed to build that dream for our family, to build a foundation for our future. We had seen those big successful people at the conferences do it, why couldn’t we?”

At the end of the year while she was doing her taxes, Aziaka counted all of the money they had invested into the MLM. It wasn’t pretty.

…It totaled up to about $30,000. I remember just staring at the amount on the spreadsheet, recalculating it, checking again… it was real. That was more than my first job paid in college. We could’ve changed many lives for the better with that money and helped a lot of people. Instead it went down the drain by us trying to get to someone else’s definition of success.

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About the Author

Michael Koretzky

Michael Koretzky

I’ve covered a Democratic and Republican national convention, a couple of Space Shuttle launches, and music festivals in Istanbul and the Cayman Islands. What did they have in common? At some level, they were all about money. Now I'm a PFE-certified debt management professional who’s cut out the middleman and writes about money for a living. Sometimes that means explaining the difference between DTI and DMP. Other times, it means writing about student loan memes.

Published by Debt.com, LLC