These days, my monthly budget is on the boring side. Aside from our regular spending, I’ve got a mortgage payment to fork over, groceries to buy, and utility bills to pay. Throw in some payments to my kids’ 529 plans and my SEP-IRA and I’m basically done for the month. After all of the bills are paid, the key for us is making sure that the rest gets transferred into savings so that it doesn’t accidentally get spent.

But it wasn’t always this way, and I was reminded of that fact the other day when I was flipping through one of my old notebooks. That’s when I found our monthly zero-sum budget for August of 2010, and that’s when our old lifestyle smacked me right in the face. Want to know how many bills I paid in that month? Twenty-four.

Car payments, credit card bills, and personal loans, oh my. It’s no wonder we weren’t saving anything. Fortunately, it was easy to look at that old monthly budget and pinpoint the exact cause of our unfortunate situation. The problem: We financed everything and never, ever paid cash.

Low Monthly Payments for Life

Fact: You can have nearly anything you want.

I can too. We all can. Cars. Clothes. Diamonds. Trips to Hawaii. Almost any earthly possession you’ve ever laid your eyes on can be yours.

Well, kind of.

If you’re willing to make monthly payments for as long as it takes, whether it’s five years, ten, or twenty, then it can be yours. Does that sound tempting? Probably not.

But that’s exactly what we do. In the fourth quarter of 2013, U.S household debt swelled to a monstrous $11.52 trillion. Of course, some of the money was borrowed to purchase homes, pay for college, or start a business. A certain percentage can also be blamed on things like medical bills, unemployment, and emergencies. But the rest? My guess is boats, iPads, and designer shoes. Oh, and let’s not forget furniture, date nights, and family dinners at the Olive Garden. The rest is anyone’s guess.

Stop the Cycle

We all know how easy it is to trade your car in for another. You walk into the dealership, they look your trade over, and you pick out another, nicer car. Your new car payment could even be the same as it was before. Heck, it might even go down. But are you really doing yourself a favor by trading up without the cash in hand? The answer is probably no.

I’ve been there. My husband and I traded cars around more times than I could count, mostly just because we would. Looking back, I think we were just bored. And sadly, we weren’t able to see that there were real costs associated with constantly trading up. We only focused on the monthly payment, and never had the goal of actually paying them off.

Fortunately, we finally made the decision to change our lifestyle sometime around the time that that budget was made. And once we stopped the madness, we made one huge change that put an end to the cycle once and for all. We began paying cash for anything and everything, and we refused to add to the pile by financing things we couldn’t afford.

Turning an Awkward Moment into a Learning Experience

In the meantime, we got serious about getting out of debt. Fortunately, it didn’t take long to knock out everything but the two biggest sums we owed — the loan for my minivan and my husband’s student loans. I still remember the day we paid both of them off once and for all. The total was well over $10,000 and it literally pained me to hit the keys that would initiate the automatic bank transfer. I mean, it hurt. That money was mine and was earned with my own blood, sweat, and tears. And if you subscribe to the theories espoused in books like Your Money or Your Life, that money was literally my life force, and it was getting sucked away by a stupid van that I overpaid for in the first place.