The really boring news about our debt is we weren’t living super-fancy lives, jet-setting around the world, or driving expensive cars. We were just living our quiet, day-to-day lives and not making wise money choices. We were nickel-and-diming ourselves into a hole and, truthfully, not too concerned about it.
Things changed when Ellie arrived in 2009. When you have a kid, you start thinking about things you’ve never worried about before like how expensive diapers are, feeding them as teenagers, college tuition, and how much you want to do before they leave you. You also realize that time goes so fast and then you start squeezing them a little too hard and your husband makes you take a time out.
Just kidding–I never squeeze babies that hard.
I mean, most of the time I never squeeze babies that hard.
What I’m trying to say is, kids made us start to worry about money and goals and dreams and retirement. Those little suckers are wake-up calls. Taking a hard look at our finances when I was (gently) holding that cute little baby made me realize we needed to grow up. We weren’t really saying no to things we wanted and if something we wanted cost more than we had, we’d just charge it. There was no real restraint or concern for debt until Elliott Quinn arrived.
So in late 2009, I sat down and listed our debt to see where we stood. Here’s what it looked like:
$32,000 in student loans (those were all mine; undergrad and masters loans)
$15,000 in car loans
$12,000 in credit cards
$2,000 in medical expenses (Ellie’s birth/hospital stuff; in 2011 we would add $3,000 more to the mix with Harper’s arrival and lots of dental work for me)
THINGS DID NOT LOOK GOOD.
I guess I could have felt defeated by the numbers once they were all put together. Added up, it was more than we were making in a year so paying all that money (plus interest) back should have been daunting. But instead we just got to work. I’m big on personal responsibility, and this mess didn’t come from someone else. It was ours. We owned it.
If you’re in debt–that’s your doing. Maybe the circumstances were unavoidable. Maybe you were young and dumb and just didn’t know better. Whatever it is, I think the first step is seeing all your debt in one spot, taking a deep breath, owning where you’re at, and then figuring out where to go next.
I would like to say we stopped using our credit cards immediately after I saw all this madness on paper.
But that would be a lie.
We still didn’t have a good grasp on how to live within our means so we started tackling debt while still creating more.
(I told you I wasn’t a financial adviser–this would be your second clue if you didn’t believe me the first time I mentioned it.)
Technically, nine years ago we were making enough money to survive, keep up with all our payments, and still live the way we wanted. Deciding to not be okay with the status-quo of keeping up with minimum payments and relying on credit cards was a hard decision. Not because I thought what we were doing was right, but because I was afraid to not have stuff. I was afraid of looking poor. I was afraid of driving a crappy car and what if people who didn’t know me thought I didn’t have money? I was afraid of not buying new clothes when I wanted them or not going out to eat when I was too tired or lazy to cook.
Going without and making sacrifices to live without all this debt sounded nice in theory, but I didn’t really want to live with less. I know that sounds dumb and illogical, but giving up things sounded horrible. I was completely sucked into the lie that my life had to include lots of stuff–preferably new stuff everyone else had–to be happy and full.
So the very first thing that needed to happen before we could get a handle on this mountain of debt was a perspective change. I’m going to say this was probably the hardest part of getting rid of our debt. I wish I could just give you a list of things to do, nice, neat steps that can help you knock out your credit card debt in less than a year or something crazy like that.
But for me (and probably for you, too) the first step is a perspective change. You need to learn and accept that you aren’t “owed” new, nice, shiny things. You don’t “deserve” new shoes or another pair of expensive sunglasses. You don’t “have to have” the latest phone, the newest technology, or the 2017 model. What you have right now in this very moment is enough and will last a lot longer than you think it will.
For my outlook to change, I had to do a lot of work. A LOT OF WORK. I had to ask God repeatedly to make me content with my stuff. I had to stop going to the mall or specific stores because I knew I couldn’t control myself when I was there. I had to stop being around certain people who always brought out the keeping-up-with-the-Jones mentality in me. I had to stop carrying around credit cards so I couldn’t talk myself into this “one last purchase.” I had to stop convincing myself I had to carry around just one credit card for “emergencies only.” (You’d be surprised at how few emergencies actually arise when you’re out shopping and how often you can qualify a clothing purchase as an emergency.)
This took time. If you want to know a practical first step to change your perspective, I would say read your Bible. I know, that sounds simple and really hard at the same time. But here’s the thing: you need God-eyes to see your life. God-eyes change the game. They take your little to abundance. They take your measly to more-than-enough. If you live in America, you are literally sold a bill of goods that says you deserve nice things, your deserve wealth, and accumulating stuff is the American dream.
The American dream and Jesus rarely fit together well. Keep that in mind. Obviously, you get to decide the life you live, but if you’re going with Jesus, running your dreams and goals through scripture and the Holy Spirit will always serve and guide you well.
Last summer, after being debt free for almost a year, our minivan broke down. Not just broke down, but caught fire on the side of the highway. If you don’t think God has a sense of humor, let me convince you otherwise. We were on our way home from looking at a new (to us) car. My van was on its last leg and it would have been more money than it was worth to fix it. Like two to three times more money. So I had convinced Chris to go look at a car I liked and would be good to tow our camper with. ON THE WAY HOME FROM TEST DRIVING IT, our minivan started jerking horribly and smelling a little smokey. We were intent on making it as far as we could…and as far as we could get was about three more miles to the pull-off zone on the interstate where we sat as our car smoked and hissed and slowly melted.
I was laughing hysterically because HOW IS THIS EVEN HAPPENING. Chris Graham was furious. Both the girls were in the back sobbing, scared about the smell and also because their mom was laughing in a very evil way.
That poor minivan held out for as long as it could and when he knew we would be safe with a new vehicle, he finally felt peace in passing on.
Or something like that.
So we got a car loan after living less than a year with no debt. It bummed me out, but we needed a car and our savings wasn’t enough yet to buy anything worth driving. But because we had gotten rid of so much debt already, a small car payment didn’t hurt, didn’t rock the boat, and didn’t throw us off our game. (We are, as of next month, car loan free again.)
And finally, since November 2015, we’ve put money on our credit card and paid it off. The balance was never more than $1,000 but if I’m not careful, I’ll not watch our spending and we’ll end up with a bigger balance than I’m comfortable with. I convince myself that a big purchase should go on the credit card because we earn points! But then I get lazy and don’t pay the whole thing off right away. That’s a slippery slope, and I’m not proud of that admission. But it’s currently at a zero balance and I’m working hard to be more conscious of when I make excuses for purchases and spend money the wrong way.
(If you’ve been around here for a while or follow me on social media, you’ll know we also purchased a camper in early 2016. We paid cash for Betsy Ross. Hindsight would have been to put that purchase off for a little longer and then we could have bought a car without a loan, but no one saw the van explosion coming. If we had, I would have at least recorded it, because it was one of our finer family moments.)
I still pray about perspective change and work at it all the time. I still want stuff. I want a whole lot less stuff than I did nine years ago, but it’s easy to slip back into that mindset if I’m not careful. Tackling debt is hard. I think the first step is being completely honest with yourself about where you’re at. Then you’ve got to change your perspective. How you are right now got you in this mess and if you want to get out, you’ve got to think and act differently.
Tomorrow I’ll share how that looked for us.
(If you’re interested, here’s the original Debt post I wrote in April 2016.)
Just starting this series? Begin here.