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TikTokers are paying with cash to deal with debt

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

2022 has been a rough year for America's personal finances. After rising sharply last year, savings rates have plunged, and credit card debt has ballooned. And that has sparked a throwback movement among some young debtors, as NPR's Stacey Vanek Smith reports.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Jamie Feldman is a writer and avid TikToker. And about five months ago, she posted a video that changed everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIKTOK VIDEO)

JAMIE FELDMAN: I have a lot of debt. I'm starting with about $18,000 in credit card debt, which is so much.

SMITH: Feldman is 33. She's a freelance writer in Brooklyn. And she says there was no big splurge. It was just life in New York, working a low-paying job as a journalist and trying to keep up with wealthier friends - dinner, drinks, shows, weddings, baby showers. Then, during the pandemic, Feldman lost her job, and her finances started to feel out of control. And she felt so alone. Nobody knew about her debt - not her friends, not her mom. So Feldman thought, I'm going to come clean to the whole world on TikTok.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIKTOK VIDEO)

FELDMAN: Why am I telling you this? In order for me to be held accountable, I'm going to need you to come with me on this journey. I'm terrified and scared out of my mind.

SMITH: Feldman's TikToks have been watched millions of times. And she says people have been surprisingly kind, empathizing, offering advice. And for good reason - as prices have risen all across the economy, credit card debt has jumped at its fastest rate in more than a decade. And personal savings in the U.S. is at the second-lowest rate on record. It's left a lot of people like Jamie Feldman drowning in debt with no real idea of how to climb out. Feldman started reading everything she could. And there was this one trend that caught her eye, and she decided to give it a shot on TikTok, of course.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIKTOK VIDEO)

FELDMAN: Hi. I'm Jamie. And I'm a little more than halfway through a month-long experiment where I only use cash to buy things.

SMITH: Cash. Meet the personal finance revolution sweeping the nation. Gen Z and millennials have started using cash to buy things - no Apple Pay, no Amazon Prime, no Venmo, no cards, just cash organized in envelopes - one for groceries, one for gas, one for entertainment. So this is not exactly new. In fact, financial guru Dave Ramsey has been speaking about the envelope system for decades.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVE RAMSEY: We're going to put $500 cash for this pay period in an envelope, write food across the front of that envelope, and then you don't buy anything out of that envelope except...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Food.

RAMSEY: And we don't buy any food ever, except out of the envelope.

SMITH: I met Feldman at the grocery store to watch her put the envelope system to use.

FELDMAN: My groceries envelope. I don't have anything, like, fancy. It's just, like, a Chase Bank-branded envelope. But this is my groceries envelope.

SMITH: Budget for this shopping trip - about $45. And the food has to last her about a week and a half. She's already planned out all of her menus, made a list.

Do you want to shop?

FELDMAN: Yeah, let's shop.

SMITH: And off we went. Feldman is focused. Her eyes do not wander over to the fancy cheeses or to the prepared foods. We roll right past those to the bread aisle, where the store brand is on sale.

FELDMAN: Really good for peanut butter and jelly making, which I've been eating a lot of since I started budgeting.

SMITH: And the price...

FELDMAN: Two ninety-nine, which is pretty good - 20 slices, so...

SMITH: It's 10 sandwiches.

FELDMAN: That's 10 peanut butter and jellies, baby, right there.

SMITH: Feldman does the math in her head as we go - tomatoes, $4; tofu, $1.89; chickpeas, 89 cents. And she has to be vigilant. Prices are always moving. Over the summer, she got into the habit of buying a salmon fillet that she could stretch into five meals.

FELDMAN: That they'll cut up for you at the counter if you bring it over to them.

SMITH: But then the price went from $20 to $40, which of course does not fly with Feldman's $45 grocery budget. What will fly? A whole chicken.

FELDMAN: It's 8.78, and I feel like that's good, right?

SMITH: There are places in the store that she avoids entirely, but they do haunt her a little.

FELDMAN: There are these beautiful olive oils in these gorgeous bottles that are calling out to me.

SMITH: Do you, like, avoid that aisle?

FELDMAN: I - yes (laughter). We didn't go out down there today (laughter).

SMITH: Most of getting out of debt, says Feldman, boils down to these little mundane moments, like chicken instead of salmon or avoiding the olive oil aisle. But those little moments have a big impact.

FELDMAN: It totally changed my understanding of my values and my relationships and with just the way I am in the world. It changed my life. It changed my whole outlook on everything.

SMITH: Feldman cooks more. She spends more time at home. She asks friends to go on walks instead of to dinner or drinks. And some of her friends are not her friends anymore. But she is committed - tracks her spending every day. She uses a mix of debit and cash now. Groceries, though - still all cash.

FELDMAN: How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Good. How are you?

FELDMAN: Thank you.

SMITH: The total - $40.22, under budget.

FELDMAN: Thank you.

SMITH: Feldman posts her progress on TikTok almost every day. In fact, sometimes her progress is so fast, she forgets how much of the $18,000 in debt she's paid off, has to correct herself.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIKTOK VIDEO)

FELDMAN: Hi. I'm Jamie. I'm in $16,000 - no. Hi. I'm Jamie. I'm in $15,000 of credit card debt, and I'm a little...

SMITH: Feldman says she is going to keep budgeting, bargain shopping and putting cash into envelopes until her debt is all paid off. Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.