April Moments

Maybe, just maybe, telling the story is just as important as the story itself

Climbing out of the pit and being debt free

Almost 10 years ago, Mike and I participated in a financial education class at our church. During the several-week course, we read through Dave Ramsey’s book, “The Total Money Makeover,” and used its corresponding workbook.

Prior to this class, Mike and I had successfully (and stupidly) financed two college educations, a car, a house and lots of other stuff – computers, shoes, clothes, purses, trips. I could go on, but you get the idea. We were a financial mess. Oh, and we had just learned we were expecting our first child. So we thought it would be a good time to learn how to crawl out of the hole we had dug for ourselves.

The class was great – enlightening, even. Especially because I had little financial knowledge beyond (almost) balancing a checkbook. We learned about creating a budget and actually applying it (that is the hard part!), implementing the cash envelope system and paying down debt. We loved the idea of being debt free. We knew that’s what the Bible taught.

I hate to admit it, but despite learning how to be debt free from the class and the book, we didn’t completely follow through with Ramsey’s methods. We made small changes. I quit using store credit cards. We planned ahead for birthday and Christmas gifts. We said we weren’t going to eat out very often, but we found ourselves making emotional decisions, like ordering pizza or picking up Chinese, when we were hungry and tired.

We were aware of the burden of debt, but we let it defeat us. We felt the hole was too deep. We occasionally paid extra on credit card and car payments, but at that time we weren’t willing to make the commitment to be debt free.

Why? Because getting out of debt requires sacrifice. It takes getting fanatical. It means feeling out of balance. For a little while anyway.

Fast forward almost eight years. Mike and I started setting some goals for our life. We began dreaming again. But most importantly, we sought the help of mentors – a young couple who had successfully gotten themselves out of a deep debt hole. We already knew how to get out of debt because we were familiar with Ramsey’s teaching, but our mentors reinforced his methods. We had our why because we were planning for our future instead of letting our past mistakes crush us. Now we had a who – mentors who could share their journey and encourage us on ours.

We got the kids involved. We asked them if they wanted to live in a house with a yard. We asked them if they wanted to go to Disney. We asked them if they wanted to travel to other countries. Yes. To all of them.

So we told them we needed their help, their cooperation. We would not be going on a vacation for a couple years. We would limit eating at restaurants. We would be canceling our cable. We would reduce the amount of groceries we brought home. We told them it would feel hard at times. Unbalanced for a little while. But Mike and I were ready to get serious.

We found ourselves saying no – to invitations, to trips, to dinners. And to smaller things like eyebrow waxing and Starbucks. When the kids begged to go to Chick-Fil-A, we reminded them of our goals.

First, we paid off all the old credit cards. (We had stopped using them years ago, but the debt was still there.) Then, we knocked out one car loan, then student loans, and another car loan.

Twenty-one months after partnering with our mentors, we became debt free. We were finally out of the pit. That burden was gone.

It is difficult to describe what it feels like to be out of that hole. There is really only one word I can think of: peace. I’m guessing that’s why Ramsey has another book called “Financial Peace.” I’ve not read it, but what a great title.

To be honest, compared to what others have done to get out of debt, including our mentors, the changes we made were not that drastic. Yes, we canceled our cable, but we kept our internet. Yes, we limited eating out, but we still enjoyed occasional restaurant meals. (This was due to planning ahead and budgeting for it.) Yes, we reduced our grocery budget, but we still ate well. (With my husband doing the cooking, how could we not?)

For me, the most difficult sacrifice, if you can even call it that, was not taking family vacations with our children. I dreaded when others asked, “Where are you going this summer?” We took a couple small, local trips, but we were committed to getting out of debt before going on a vacation.

Now that we’re on the flip side, we are planning a vacation for which we will pay cash. Mike and I have enjoyed a few long weekend trips together, and we have paid for everything ahead of time. No credit cards. No debt. There is peace in those decisions.

When my car needed work to pass inspection, there was peace. When Elliot needed new glasses, there was peace. When I need a Starbucks frappuccino, there is peace. Just kidding. Sort of. My point is that because we made trade-offs for a little while, we have gained an indescribable peace for the long run.

I realize I have written primarily about Mike and me, so let me get to the important part. Because we have taken care of our house – our finances – we are more able to put our eyes on others. We have always wanted to bless others, to give abundantly. But because we were entangled in the chains of our own debt, we could give only a little. Now, there is nothing wrong with giving a little, and I know that the Bible teaches to give in all circumstances. But giving the minimum always left us feeling like we wanted to do more.

Our mentors taught us that the only way to be abundant givers is to take care of our own finances first. We realized that most of us – Mike and I included – are so consumed with working at our jobs and getting by and surviving paycheck to paycheck, that we hardly ever look up. We don’t have the money or the time to help others as much as we’d like.

In addition to the peace of being debt free, there is something else that has happened. We now have more options with our time. For example, starting this fall, in order to allow our daughter to attend a preschool program that operates Monday through Thursday, I have decided not to work Fridays. This is just the beginning. Having the freedom to use our time as we choose means being together as a family more, spending more time with extended family and serving others.

Think about it – most churches have two great needs. Volunteers and money. What if we all took care of our own finances? How much more time and money could we freely give away?

So, yes, the majority of this piece has been about me and my family. But that’s because I had to tell you our story to get here, to make this point. I had to share how messed up we were to show you that all it takes is a decision. A decision to get serious, to be disciplined. After we made the choice and found our “who,” the how was simple. Not always easy but so worth it. The peace of being debt free is worth sacrificing.

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