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Our Journey to Being Debt Free

I hinted around about a big announcement on Instagram for a week or so!  Now it’s officially time to shout –

We are debt free!!!!

We are so excited about finally reaching our goal of being debt free!  It feels so good to finally have this burden relieved!  We know we aren’t the only ones on this journey or heading this way, so we want to share our story!

First, here’s what we do not want out of sharing this.  We are not sharing to gloat about money made or hard work or to say, “look at us. We have it together”.  We have hit humbling lows, resentment toward “the system,” and had nasty moments.  We are sharing to inspire, educate, and connect.

Jeff and I back in college!

Jeff and I are around college students, young adults and newlyweds from work to ministry.  This seems to be a popular age to accrue debt, but it can also be a foundational time to make profitable choices.  We are both under 30 and totally get the need to invest in education, build a career, and grow a family.  We are right there with you!  We hope our story can enlighten people to avoid debt, get out of debt, and be good stewards.  The bondage of debt is too great, not to warn you about.

“The borrower is slave to the lender”

If you ever read about marriage problems, then you probably read about money problems.  Financial issues are the number one reason why marriages don’t last.  Being in debt was one of the hardest things our marriage has gone through.  We knew life could be better, we knew we didn’t want to live with this burden, we knew we wanted to move forward.  We educated ourselves and decided we weren’t going to be slaves to debt.  We traded our entitlement and nights out to eat for a budget and leftovers.  We chased this goal together.

We became a team and managed the need to live, have a little fun, and get out of debt.

Let me say one thing.  It is not wrong to invest in education.  Without Jeff’s doctorate he would not be able to do any of his jobs.  He is the professional he is investment in higher education.  He knew what he wanted to do with his life since high school, so he worked his rear off academically, built a stellar resume and got into the school of his dreams.  There’s nothing wrong with that!  This was a path we took with a lot of prayer and wise counsel!  Where you can go wrong is living like loan money is yours and never needs to be returned.  Personally, where I went wrong was resenting Jeff for this debt.  Husbands and wives, watch out.  The devil is here to steal, kill, and destroy and it can even happen in a noble quest of getting out of debt.  We must guard our hearts.

How did we do it?

First off, our foundations were pretty solid.  My parents encouraged being debt free, budgeting, tithing, and ZERO credit cards.  Jeff’s family was very similar!  We both got full scholarships to North Greenville University (undergraduate).  We also had two cars that were paid for.  We are so grateful to our families and alma mater for providing for us and building a foundation for our financial freedom!

We were married in May 2011!  While Jeff was at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston (2010-2013) we were careful not to budget the whole amount of loans “given” to us.  Warning: they give way more than necessary.  What we didn’t spend went right into paying it back.  We were still smart with basic spending, choosing Taco Bell over Magnolia’s and a Beach Trip over admission to a plantation tour. Over the years, I worked a sales job, interned at Charleston Magazine (free work), and worked at a candy shop while photographing weddings and portraits across South Carolina.

If you are going to school on loans, please remember that this money is borrowed and will need to be paid back.  This amount will multiply the longer it takes you!  Imagine, a $15 meal out each week may not sound bad, but when interest on your weekly $15 x 52 grows at 7.9% interest (our highest interest rate) debt turns into a growing monster!  While we could have lived with cheaper rent, we were unaware of the nightmare of loans at this point in the game.   In hindsight, we definitely could have cut down our total amount spent by staying in a cheaper rental and tighter budgeting.

Christmas 2012, Jeff’s Papa and Granny let us borrow their Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey and Uncle Kevin let us borrow Financial Peace cds.  I don’t remember us seeking out this info, we ended up with it!  We listened to the strategies by Dave Ramsey together and discussed our options.  Dave’s plan of action and teachings were essential to our debt free journey!

When you look at Dave Ramsey’s 7 Baby Steps, we did things partially out of order.  I recommend staying on track.  We did step one $1000 emergency fund and a portion of step 3 a 3 month emergency fund, along with a baby fund (for a future Eli).  Jeff also saved a small amount per month to pay cash for a used truck because we knew that need was approaching.  We began step 2, the DEBT SNOWBALL asap!!

MUSC White Coat Ceremony and thrift store DIY halloween costumes!

Jeff graduated from med school in May 2013.  By June, he was a full time physical therapist and taught night classes for NGU’s Health Science Department.  I got a job doing part-time marketing for NGU Admissions.  These extra jobs, and living upstairs at Mom’s for a year allowed us to chunk all of our extra money to loans and live on a portion of Jeff’s income. 

This was the point where we realized our interest was growing at $100 per day…you read that right.  I would say this was the year gazelle like intensity kicked in (gazelle what?). A huge part of getting out of debt is living below your means and not over committing your finances.  It also means going crazy and working your tails off.  

Live below your means.

In 2014, We moved into a family rental neighboring mom, Jeff became full time at NGU and worked a full load of teaching and overage classes.  He worked PRN in clinics during his holiday and summer breaks.  Jeff’s job change did mean a pay cut, but it was a quality of life move that we are still grateful for everyday!  I was still at NGU part-time and growing my dream photographing weddings and portraits.  There was enough photography work for me, but when you are paying off loans, you get extra jobs to crush debt.  While building my business I kept my overhead at the very minimum- which is difficult!  I will note, we both love to work and excel, so this phase was tiring, but very fulfilling.  We lived on a large portion of Jeff’s income still limiting our fun money and cutting frivolous spending.

Our CPA looked at us in unbelief and asked “how many jobs did you have?”

In 2015, before Eli was born I shot 17 weddings (primary and second shooter) in 7 months.  Eli was born in September.  I took 5 weeks of unpaid maternity leave (hello, self-employed). My desire was to be a work-at-home-mom so I dropped the extra jobs, took care of Eli, and ran my photography business.  Interesting enough, I used my time not working extra jobs to educate and revamp my whole business- best financial and business decision ever!  Jeff still taught full time, overage classes, and PRN.  We budgeted Jeff’s whole NGU income for reasonable living and everything else (after tithes, giving and saving a bit) went to loans.

In 2016, everything was pretty much the same.  Still budgeting, still working like crazy.  We decided to set a goal for the debt amount we wanted to be at by December 31, 2016.  It was a huge goal, but gave us something reachable.  We crunched the numbers, budgeted, worked extra gigs and met our goal at the very last minute!  We knew that if we could hit this goal, we would be debt free by the January 2018.

Well, here we are, September 2017 and debt free!!! 

One thing to note, the last 9 months of giant payments were just to pay off the interest we gained over these few short years.  Imagine everything you work for in the last year just paying off INTEREST!

What’s next?

Now we are able to move on to the other steps of Dave Ramsey’s process!  We are also planning a get away family weekend at the end of October.  I can’t remember the last time we had a day off together!  I’m buying new seat covers for me car (toddler life).  We sponsor a few ministries and look forward to giving more and providing for more ministries.  We will implement regular date nights and babysitters!  I plan to invest in my business by doing a rebrand and a few other ideas are in the mix.  We will save to pay cash for a car for me in the next 1-3 years. We are also praying about the next step with our living situation $$$, but not in a rush for anything new.  The biggest thing will be saving and investing for the long run.  We know Eli and future kids will need braces, college, and we eventually want to RETIRE!

We are excited to finally reach this goal of financial freedom!  We are so grateful for this journey and all God has taught us and provided for us along the way.  We hope that reading through our journey has been encouraging!  Getting out of debt is possible!  Being good stewards of your money is possible!  With much discipline and gazelle like intensity, It. Can. Happen.  We love y’all!  If you have any questions or are trying to pay off debt and just need some encouragement let us know!  We are here for you!

Meanwhile, in real life…