Falling into debt is not a life sentence. You can overcome early missteps in a financial journey with discipline and dedication.

Recently, I wrote about walking away from my career in Information Technology to take a mini-retirement. I worked for 30 years in the industry before pulling the plug and taking time for myself.

My financial journey to this point has been a rollercoaster of successes and failures. I made bad choices along the way and somehow persevered and found myself in a position where I could leave my good yet stressful career.

Understanding the impact of financial mistakes

Early in my career, I had a stack of bills and a meager income while serving in the United States Air Force. I also had a very unreliable car, which sucked every penny and more to keep running.

I would spend nights and weekends at the auto hobby shop working on the car, trying to keep it roadworthy. Meanwhile, I was paying for the car with monthly loan payments and an exorbitant insurance rate because, like many 19-year-olds, I decided that I needed a Mustang.

Somehow, I managed to get a credit card and I also had a Deferred Payment Plan (DPP)account at the base exchange. I never had any money, and my credit card and DPP were completely maxed out by the time I left the Air Force. I also had a student loan from my year of college before joining the military.

During my last year in the military, I purchased a new Mazda truck. Clearly, I was in no financial position to make such a purchase. At least it’s clear to me now. Back then, my only focus was to get reliable transportation.

Do you have a car problem? Read – An Obsession with Cars Makes Financial Independence Unnecessarily Difficult

When I left the military, I packed up all of my belongings in a small U-Haul trailer and headed across the country for a new beginning. I left behind a $10,000 per year job and brought $28,000 of debt along with me for the ride.

I literally took a leap of faith when I moved from Colorado to Florida. Although I had a lead on a potential role with IBM, I had no job offer. I saw no light at the end of my financial tunnel, only the darkness of an abyss.

Taking ownership of financial mistakes

When I arrived in Florida, I took a job at Walmart and lived off of a diet of ramen noodles and pizza that my girlfriend received from her job at Dominos. She was going to college and working, and I was trying to find a better job to help us out.

This period of my life shaped every financial decision I’ve made. We were barely making it by, but we were happy and found ways to have fun.

I knew that I needed to get rid of the mountain of debt I had created to provide some breathing room. I also knew that I didn’t need a ton of money to enjoy life. Just enough not to be crushed by debt.

Sometimes you feel like giving up. Read – That Time I Nearly Gave up on My Financial Goals

Cultivate healthy financial habits for long-term success

I did wind up getting a job with IBM, and from there, my income and the income of my girlfriend and eventually wife grew. It took a long time to dig out of the financial hole I dug in the first few years of my adult life. There were times when it seemed that I would never be able to erase that debt I brought with me.

I didn’t know anything about personal finance or saving for retirement. I knew that a mountain of debt significantly limited my ability to do anything that costs money. It hurt to see that I was still paying for car parts for a vehicle I no longer had and hadn’t possessed for years.

I recently read an article by Sad NoCoinerHow $5/Day Millionaires Actually Make Money. The point of this story is that small money moves are not what make millionaires. You have to make big-dollar decisions to reach your goals. I agree that making millions by dropping a latte habit alone isn’t likely. However, when you are buried in debt, little moves can make a world of difference.

Save a dollar here, a dollar there, focus on paying towards debt. Rinse, repeat. Eventually, there is light in the abyss.

Learn about creating savings habits. Read – The Habit Formed by Saving $5 a day Can Make You a Millionaire and You Can Create a Savings Habit Now — Pain-Free

Building resilience and moving forward from financial mistakes

My early adult experience showed me the pains of living with debt and taught me the perseverance to defeat debt. I still made many poor decisions on my journey, but I never carried a balance on a credit card again. I was painfully aware of the downside of debt and never wanted to find my way into a position like that again.

Oh, that Mazda truck I bought was a key and heater model. Back in the 1990’s air conditioning wasn’t a standard feature on a base model truck. I drove that truck for six years in Tampa. If you ever want to build some character, drive in Florida with no air conditioning.