The first $10,000 or $12,000 was lazy procrastination and "oh, I'll pay it off later; I want to buy this now." The rest got ran up after I changed jobs, had the new company fold and took a couple of months off to try to figure out where I was going with life and what I wanted. Well, a couple of months turned into 6, and then when I started looking for work it was very hard to find (tech work in late 2000...my company had folded in early 2000 before the dot boom crash and tech job market crash) and wound up taking cash advances to pay other bills. Not to mention I didn't reduce my discretionary spending while I had no income.
The changing jobs and subsequent drama was just before and after I turned 30...I had a bit of an identity crisis about turning 30 because I wasn't where I thought I'd be (no wife and kids) and didn't seem to have any particular direction or goals. I had actually already begun curbing my spending and reducing debt somewhat before that episode because I had noticed that every time I got a raise I had less money (was spending more than my raises and running up credit bills).
I'm not aware that there was any emotional trigger for running up the debt. It was just I had no financial plan except "I want to buy this shiny thing today" and "I'll put this vacation on credit and pay for it later." Well, that's not entirely true...I had been contributing to a 401(k) since age 21, but more out of a sense of that was what I was supposed to do since retirement wasn't a tangible concept to me until I found REHP.
I could've used the 401(k)/IRA to pay off the debt at any time, but the taxes and penalties were unbearable (not to mention pretty much wiping out my nest egg) and I was afraid I'd simply run the debt up again. But now I've paid it off (well, when that EFT hits....not as of this minute) I know I have the discipline to maintain a budget. And I still have my 401(k)/IRA. It's a fantastic feeling and I keep saying "I've got it made".
I plan on making sure my "necessary" expenses stay low enough to support with low-pay job just in case, and to have more fun and retire earlier.
By the way, the FI/RE community has given me my direction: financial independence and early retirement. Thanks to intercst especially (his TMF board and REHP site was the first I discovered) and the rest of the community for helping me realize I don't have to work until age 67.
This post is a December 18, 2011 republication of my June 16, 2004 post to Early Retirement Forum.