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How I got out of debt

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It was July 2017. Josh and I were hiking in Jackson, Wyoming with some of our best friends. Somewhere along the trail, talk turned to money. 

For many of us, just hearing the word “money” makes our insides clench. The M-word can seem impolite, invasive. Sharing what goes on in your bank account is often more socially taboo than discussing what goes on in your bedroom. 

Lucky for us, we were with very good friends. So all topics were on the table. 

My friend started talking about a guy named Dave Ramsey. She’d told me about Dave several years before, but at the time I was a full-time working mom with 2-year-old triplets. I didn’t have the mental bandwidth to think about budgets and spreadsheets and debt snowballs. My main form of budgeting was to put everything on a credit card, cross my fingers that the balance wouldn’t get too high, and pay it off each month. 

I thought this was fiscally responsible. And it was… sort of. 

But the truth was…

I had no idea where my money was going. 

I never scrutinized those credit card line items. I simply looked at the balance, compared it to my bank account, and wrote a check. 

I didn’t know how much debt we had. 

I didn’t know the interest rates on those debts. I didn’t know how much I was actually paying by not paying things off early. 

I felt insecure about money. 

Let me be clear: I was living (and still live) a privileged life in upper middle class America. I know this makes my situation unique. Yet despite how much money we made, we were living paycheck to paycheck. If something had happened to Josh’s salary, hard times would have come knocking quite quickly. 

I knew we had some retirement savings… but that was all I knew.  

But I had no clue how it worked and the idea of trying to understand the stock market and investing scared the heebie jeebies out of me. 

I could foresee the day I had to send three kids to college at the same time… and it scared me.  

I had no idea how we would afford that. I tried to ignore this by telling myself we’d figure it out when the time came. 

In other words…

I was living a very normal financial life. And by “normal” I mean fearful and insecure, with my head stuck firmly in the financial sand. 

As I hiked along with my friend, I started to see a different way, a path where I actually had confidence and control over my money. And this path’s name was Dave. 

When we got back from Wyoming I went to my local library and checked out Dave Ramsey’s book, Total Money Makeover

I read cover to cover, obsessed. I took handwritten notes in one of my kids’ leftover composition notebooks from school. These notes became our financial plan for the next two years. 

Josh was not immediately on board. 

We weren’t destitute. He made good money. Our only debts were “good debt,” college loans and a mortgage, the kind we’d been told was okay. 

And yet… I knew that Dave’s plan offered a type of freedom we were not currently experiencing. I told Josh, “We’re doing this.” And since I’m quite stubborn when I get an idea… we embarked on the slow and painful task of learning to account for our money when we’d never accounted for our money before. 

I made my first spreadsheet. 

It was painful and awkward. 

I tracked down our credit card bills. 

I added up the categories. It was horrifying. (We spent how much on dining out??) 

I made a budget and allotted cash envelopes to each category. 

It was annoying. I remember taking my kids to buy new shoes and forgetting my “clothing” cash envelope at home. I gritted my teeth at the cash register and put yet another purchase on the credit card I was trying not to use.

We held monthly budget meetings

I tried to make them more light-hearted by calling them “Wine and Finances.” (Please note: when you’re first figuring out your money, no amount of wine will make this task more fun.) 

We started spending our money in accordance with our values. 

This was the biggest change. Because we tracked our spending, we now had the information necessary to spend our money in ways that reflected our values. 

This looked like a thousand small decisions. 

I decided that off-brand peanut butter tasted just as good as the name-brand organic kind. I found that running shoes purchased from a big-box store got me down the sidewalk just as well as ones from a specialty running store. When our van died, we purchased a used one with cash instead of financing new. 

Before you get the wrong idea, this wasn’t all deprivation and sacrifice. We included a dining out budget, date night budget, and yes, even a monthly massage budget. (If there was something we valued, it went into the budget!)  

We started to see the fruits of our labor. 

We knocked out Josh’s remaining law school debt rather quickly. 

Then we made a plan for paying off the house. It would take just over two years. 

The thought of not having a mortgage made me giddy. 

I kept thinking, “If we own our cars and education and home, what can they do to us?” I’m not sure who I imagined this nefarious “they” to be. Perhaps some kind of evil banker in a dark suit and sunglasses?  

But I’d started to understand something… 

The less money I owe other people, the more freedom I have.

And so, we kept at it. 

We eventually ditched the cash envelopes for an online budgeting tool called Mint. (Oh, how I wish I’d done this sooner!) 

Instead of hour-long lessons in pain, our monthly budget meetings became 10-15 minute affairs where we scrolled through the online budget, made notes, and adjusted for the next month. 

We used every extra bit of cash from my business and Josh’s paychecks to knock out the mortgage. 

Please note: We were also saving for retirement at this time. 

This is where I have to give mad props to Josh. He saw that my laser-focused debt-removal plan could come at the expense of our future if we didn’t simultaneously prioritize retirement savings. So while I scrutinized the budget and ran our monthly meetings, he maxed out our IRAs and 401K to ensure we wouldn’t find ourselves in our 60’s, sitting in a paid-for home with no retirement savings.  

If I had to criticize my beloved Dave Ramsey for one thing, this would be this: don’t focus so much on removing debt that you forget about saving for your future. Compound interest only works for you if it has time to compound. So if you’re embarking on a debt-destruction plan, don’t just demo your debt. Make sure you’re also building up your retirement. These two things can–and should–happen simultaneously. 

Now… to the climax of the story! (Which, spoiler alert, will be followed quickly by a big personal letdown!)

It was July 2019, almost two years since that fateful Wyoming hike. I headed to the bank with my three kids, about to write the largest check of my life. 

Josh’s end-of-year bonus had come in and my business had had a good year. I was going to pay off my mortgage and I wanted my kids along for the ride. 

As I walked into the bank, I expected there to be some sort of fanfare, perhaps a balloon arch, confetti, maybe a small marching band. Did no one know that I was walking in here to pay off my mortgage? Don’t they have a special entrance for that? 

I walked up to the counter and told the cashier I wanted to pay off my mortgage. She didn’t look nearly as excited as I expected. She looked up my account and told me the balance. My hand shook as I wrote the number on a check and passed it over. She stamped the check, gave me a receipt, and said with a smile, ”Congratulations.” 

We got donuts to celebrate. 

When we returned home that afternoon, I expected my house to look different, feel different. I owned this sucker now! But it looked the same, felt the same. 

I think this is the way it is when we reach big goals. 

The joy is in what you learn in the process of reaching the accomplishment, not in achieving the accomplishment itself. 

The next day I had dinner with someone I’d met online named Diania Merriam. Diania had seen my TEDx talk and wanted me to speak at a new conference she was organizing called EconoMe. Apparently Diania was part of something called the FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) movement. I had no idea what these folks were about, but apparently simplicity was their jam, so I met Diania for what turned out to be a life-changing dinner. 

Diania told me that FIRE was all about taking charge of your life through personal finance. As such, FIRE followers managed their own investments and understood the stock market. 

I sat there, dumbfounded. 

I’d just paid off my house yesterday, and here was this chick telling me that there was even more I could do financially? 

I thought I’d reached the mountain, but I’d only summited a foothill. Diania opened my eyes to the possibility of shaving years off my retirement date, of having the freedom to travel and live my life exactly how I wanted to NOW, as opposed to waiting until my 60’s. I was dazzled (aka intimidated) by her confidence and knowledge. 

I came home from that dinner and went on a long walk where I cried a lot. 

I felt like a fraud. 

How could I speak at this conference in front of these people who knew so much more than I did? 

I didn’t understand retirement and investing. My husband and our financial planner handled all of that. 

I felt stupid. Like a kid who’d brought a finger painting to a Picasso exhibit. I was out of my league. 

I wanted to back out of the conference. 

But somewhere along my walk I ended the pity party and put on the big girl pants. 

I had 2 choices: 

1) I could give in to my imposter syndrome and back out of this speaking event.

2) I could lean into what I didn’t know, learn, and see what happened. 

I’m proud to say I chose the latter. 

Being part of the EconoMe conference changed my life. I spent months working on my speech, the Journey to Enough, which is hands-down the best speech I’ve ever written. 

I met people who expanded my understanding of personal finance. But more than being super smart, they were good people. Kind people. People who wanted me–and everyone else–to achieve whatever goals we’d set for ourselves. And they realized that the best way to reach our goals is through having the financial freedom to do so. 

In the year since the EconoMe Conference, I’ve educated myself about investing through books and podcasts. We no longer rely on other people to manage our retirement. Josh and I sit down and do it together, asking questions and Googling until we understand. 

Have I reached the financial mountaintop? Hardly. I’m hiking along the path like everyone else, learning, growing, getting better step by step. 

If you’d like to join me and others who are exploring a new American dream through personal finance…

Join me at this year’s EconoMe Conference, happening November 13-14 at the University of Cincinnati. 

And exciting news… I’m giving away two free tickets to one lucky person! 

If you’d like to enter to win, fill out this short form

The deadline to enter is FRIDAY, October 22 and I’ll announce the winner on Monday, October 25. 

I’m excited to see you at the conference!

To living your best, most financially free life…

PS Are you a busy working mom who’d like to find more freedom in your home by simplifying your stuff? Get my FREE Simplicity Starter Guide and let’s get a plan in your hand so you can start decluttering your home today! 

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