Tracy Hemingway’s dog stopped her going bankrupt.
By the time she was 24, Hemingway had $94,000 in debt – mostly from a liquidated business.
An insolvency officer told her declaring bankruptcy would mean giving up her beloved dog, Teddy, who would be classed as a luxury item.
“She was the only reason I was getting out of bed,” Hemingway said. “So I had to pay it off.”
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Getting rid of the $94,278 – eventually $113,375.40 with interest – took three years, with her last payment in November 2019.
Debt had piled up after Hemingway took on a cheerleading business as a financially unsavvy 18-year-old.
She kept pushing to make her passion work, made minimum repayments, and thinks she didn’t want to know debt was piling up.
“I’ll put my hand up and say I f…ed up, basically,” she said.
“If you imagine what you did with money at 18 … I didn’t have any idea.”
She’s learned a lot since then – bulk cooking, juggling side-hustles, splitting expenses through the year, attending clothes swaps.
Her hard-won experience led to new business Debt Free Diva, helping people set and reach financial goals.
There has to be some – budgeted for – fun among the sacrifices, Hemingway said.
In her payback period, she had some trips and put money aside for activities including Zumba.
“Financial freedom to me was not just about being a hermit under my blanket and not spending money. It’s about intentionally living, spending money on what was important.”
Her passion for the cheerleading business was partly why she got so deep in debt, she said.
The sport was an escape for her during time in foster care in Auckland and she bought into a franchise hoping to offer a safe place to others.
It wasn’t making money, she’d personally guarantee business loans and was collecting overdrafts and credit cards.
She had a $22,000 credit card at the age of 21 – it blows her mind that was allowed – and was living a lifestyle she couldn’t afford.
“I wanted to have the flashest car. I was having two Starbucks [coffees] a day.”
A tumour in her throat at 24 was the turning point; she looked at her finances and liquidated the business.
The tumour was benign but then her boyfriend left and she was given 90 days’ notice to move house.
She had 11 debts – including a car loan, various credit cards, overdrafts and a student loan.
Because of Teddy, a Cavalier King Charles spaniel poodle cross, and to be fair to the people she owed, Hemingway started figuring out how to repay them.
She read up at the library, got a full-time sales job with commission, and added countless side hustles: cleaning, Uber Eats driving, dog walking, recharging Lime scooters, filling in online surveys.
Using the snowball method of clearing the smallest debts first, she gradually paid them off, colouring in charts to mark her progress.
Grocery spends were capped at $40 a week, she sold her BMW and bought a Suzuki Swift.
Even small savings, such as from discount petrol days, were redirected to repayments.
Until a year ago, a slightly embarrassed Hemingway kept quiet about her finances.
After some inspiration, she decided her story could help other people, and sowed the seeds for the Debt Free Diva business.
She doesn’t want to be a financial advisor, helping people grow investments.
“I want to teach people to work with what they’ve got,” she said.
“I’m not living in this white picket fence, ideal modern world. I lived the pain of only getting five hours sleep because you’re working four jobs.”