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By Erin Frank as told to Alden Wicker

NEW YORK (Learnvest) — In 2005, I moved to New York to start a job in book publishing. I had $28,000 in school debt and no credit card debt — but I underestimated how much it cost to live in the city.

I was making only $30,000 (about $27,000 after taxes), yet I wanted anything and everything. I was a huge fan of Broadway. I wanted to go out to dinner. As a result, my credit card exploded — in a year, I went from zero in credit card debt to $8,000!

My mom was really concerned, so she lent me the $8,000, with no interest. I used it to pay off my card — and then started charging it again.

One day in 2008, I tallied up my personal loans and credit cards and realized that I was $16,000 in debt — and that didn’t include school loans. It was more than half of what I made in a year.

When two co-workers and I started joking about how broke we were, I realized we were in similar straits. We looked around for help and inspiration, but we could find only investment and money planning groups for older individuals — people who made at least twice as much as we did.

So I proposed starting our own group, which we called “Money Lunch.”

My debt aha! moment

We brought lunch from home (of course) and met in a conference room to share our financial positions. We were honest to a fault and, most importantly, we never judged each other — no one’s debt made them good or bad.

This was the turning point for me.

I remember looking at a spreadsheet of my school loans, credit cards and interest payments and thinking, “This is the first time that I’ve actually seen the big picture.” It was like looking in a mirror — not only was my credit card debt a huge problem, but I was also nowhere near being out of it.

But it was a relief to see that everyone had problems. One girl had a larger salary, but she also had a lot more credit card debt, which helped me to realize that if we could help her, we could help me, too.

How our money lunch club worked

We set budgets. We created emergency savings. We read articles and books, then copied pages for each other. We even called credit card companies to lower our interest rates.

But our top priority was planning ahead. Although I couldn’t be there with my Money Lunch friend at an upcoming bachelorette party, we could come up with a plan beforehand to prevent her from spending too much.

We made it OK to say, “You know, you don’t really need that,” when everyone else was saying, “That’s so cute! You have to have it!”

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You need that emotional preparation and support because the real world wants to test you. And knowing that we had to share things with each other held us accountable because we were going to ask how much she spent on that bachelorette.

I personally needed a reality check all of the time on what I could afford because I always wanted to play at the level of people who had more money — our Money Lunch meetings brought me down to earth.

We usually talked ourselves out of anything unnecessary, but we also always allowed for an occasional treat to keep ourselves sane.

For me, it was going out to brunch. One girl needed new clothes because she was going through a hard time in her relationship and didn’t feel good about herself. She spent about $200, and we figured out how she could pay that off within two months.

Another girl liked to bake, so her treat was ingredients for a decadent chocolate pecan pie. And she actually turned her treat into a side business, selling holiday pies at our office Christmas fair and farmers’ markets for extra cash.

The invaluable lessons I learned

It was a really long slog. There were a few nights — OK, a lot of nights — when I ate bread and butter. But that’s what I needed to do to get out of debt.

We started a calendar system, which was crucial for me because after I paid rent, utilities and credit card minimums, I was left with $45 to play with each week. I would subtract expenses I knew were coming up from each week, which let me know in advance when I didn’t have anything extra to spend.

I also started what I call “secret squirrel saving,” which I continue to do to this day. Any cash pulled out of the ATM that isn’t immediately spent goes into a hiding place in my house. If I buy $16 in snacks, and break a $20 to do so, $4 goes right into the pot. Money from our yard sale? Yep, that gets squirreled.

To avoid temptation, I never count it until I need to use some or deposit it into the bank. Thanks to my secret squirrel savings, I will be able to splurge on a few fancy meals during an upcoming vacation.

Where I am today

Budgeting is a constant process of revision and tweaking, but thanks to those Money Lunches years ago, I learned to keep my eye on the prize.

I am now 30, happily married and living in San Francisco — another very pricey town. I left New York City after five years, but I took the habits that I adopted from my Money Lunch days with me.

In 2011, I paid off my last credit card. I’ve also paid off almost $20,000 in student loan debt, with only $8,200 to go, which is consolidated at a very low interest rate.

My husband and I now pay our credit cards off every month. And with the first $8,000 we saved, I paid back the loan from my mother, which also lifted a huge emotional burden for me.

As for my fellow Money Lunch girls, when we met up a year after I moved to San Francisco (for lunch, of course!), we realized that two of us had paid off all our debt, save for student loans — and the third girl was just about there.

These days, I talk about budgeting and money management with a new friend via instant messenger — she’s my online money buddy. This summer, I even helped her create a three-step plan for buying a piece of artwork. It’s Money Lunch 2.0!