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How to become a hot broke mess

Nancy Trejos, personal finance writer at the Washington Post and author of "Hot (broke) Messes."

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Tess Vigeland: Bankruptcy is usually the last resort when you're in money trouble. Hopefully you can get your life under control before taking that drastic step. But that's rarely easy to do. And you might be surprised how universal money troubles can be. Turn the page of any newspaper, and you'll find all manner of tales from the financial crypt.

Nancy Trejos' story made the papers, for reasons you'd never imagine. She's written a book about the experience called "Hot (broke) Messes."

Nancy Trejos: I was in denial for many years about my problems. I'd made pretty much every financial mistake you could possibly make: I had credit card debt. I bought a car that I could not afford, because I thought it was cute. I bought a condo that I really couldn't afford either with someone I was not married to, and then we had to sell it years later at a loss, because we broke up.

And then I became a personal finance writer for the Washington Post, and it became really impossible to deny that I had my own financial problems. I overspent my account one month and I didn't have enough money for rent. Here I was, 31 years old and reporter for a major newspaper and I couldn't pay my rent. And I had to call my parents for help, and that was just a wake-up moment for me. I just decided I need to fix this.

Vigeland: How did you become a personal finance writer?

Trejos: Well, I had been at the Post for at least 10 years. And one day, an editor came to me and said, "Hey, would you consider being the personal finance writer."

Vigeland: And you said, "Yeah, I'd be perfect at that!"

Trejos: I looked at him and I said, "You must be kidding. I'm a personal finance disaster. How could I possibly take this job?" We kind of figured that I would actually come up with some good story ideas, because I was living this.

Vigeland: And I will certainly admit as the host of a personal finance show, my finances are far from perfect. Tell us a little bit about what that realization was like for you, that here you are, doling out advice, and yet, looking at your own finances and going, "Uh oh, there's a problem here."

Trejos: Well, I really started to feel like a phony at some point. Like I said, I would spend every single day talking to people on the phone who were in so much debt, I mean, they were on the brink of bankruptcy. And they would sound really embarrassed, and they would say, "I'm so sorry I'm telling you this. You must think I'm awful." You know, I'm supposed to be objective, but I would say to them, "No, I don't. I know exactly what you're talking about."

Vigeland: Well, in fact, you have a chapter in the book where you describe one of your most embarrassing moments as a personal finance writer. You were in a mall looking to interview compulsive shoppers.

Trejos: Yes, I was actually dreading going there, because I was afraid of what I would do. So, I told myself, I said, "You are not going to buy anything." But it got to the point, where I said, "Well, let me just go into the store. I don't like this store anyways, so it'll be fine. I'll be OK in there." But then I saw one store that I do like, and I saw a dress that was really adorable.

Vigeland: And this was while you were out, working, looking for people to interview.

Trejos: Yes. Looking for compulsive shoppers. It was terrible. And well, I ended up buying the dress. And then I went back to the office, and I had this shopping bag and I went to my desk and I hid it, because I didn't want my editor to see it. And I went up to him just to tell him how the day went, and he said, "Did you buy anything?" And I just turned completely red.

Vigeland: Giveaway!

Trejos: I said, "Um, I have to go now."

Vigeland: I'd like to hear a little bit about how you think you got yourself into this mess, and ask you a little bit about what your money situation was as a kid. Because I think we find a lot that so many of our money habits are shaped by what we saw our parents doing, what they taught us or didn't teach us. What was your household like?

Trejos: My parents were immigrants. My dad's from Colombia, my mom's from Ecuador. They didn't make a lot of money; they were just really frugal. They didn't buy anything that they didn't need. I guess I kind of rebelled from that frugal lifestyle for some reason. So, when I graduated from high school, I ended up deciding to go to Georgetown. A lot of students there come from affluent families, and I was hanging out with a lot of them. I wanted to do the things that they were doing, dress like they were dressing. And at the time, it was very easy to get a credit card, and I did. And I used it. I used it for all these silly things, for outfits and vacations. Because I thought, "Well, I'll get a job later, and I'll pay it off." Well, that was obviously the wrong thing to do.

Vigeland: So where are you now with your finances? This was a long process for you.

Trejos: Yeah, and I'm still a work-in-progress. I'm on a budget, I've paid off most of my debt, but like I said, it's still work. I still have to remind myself sometimes, "No, don't get that outfit. You don't need it." There are so many people out there in the same situation that I was in. And I think a lot of people are afraid to talk about it. And when you talk about your problems, then you don't deal with them. So, with this book, I just really wanted to show that hey, it's OK to admit that you've made financial mistakes, and it's OK to talk about them.

Vigeland: Nancy Trejos is a personal finance columnist for the Washington Post and the author of "Hot (broke) Messes: How to Have Your Latte and Drink It Too." Thanks so much for coming in.

Trejos: Thank you.

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