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You’re going to love this guest post by Nicole, who runs her blog Door No. 2. Nicole Tombers is a Physical Therapist and writer in Palmer, Alaska. She’s an avid reader with a love of learning and a growing interest in educating others. Nicole enjoys eating good food, traveling, and exploring Alaska with her husband Brad and dog Tim. Their debt free story is awesome and really inspiring! Enjoy! ~ Jamie
I can remember so clearly the car ride home from the grocery store. We had put $300 worth of groceries on a credit card and I was in tears.
It was 3 months before our wedding, I was fresh out of graduate school (6 years at a private college), and we were working at a lake resort in northern MN for the summer. We were having fun! But we were broke. As a natural saver engaged to a natural spender, it was clear that we were going to need a financial game plan if our relationship was to remain free from guilt and resentment.
We had both heard of Dave Ramsey, and I knew I wanted to pay off my student loans as quickly as possible. So for the rest of the summer we became students of his methods through his books and podcasts.
In a whirlwind few months, I took my Physical Therapy licensing exam (Phew!), we got married (YAY!), and made a huge move from Minnesota to Alaska (Oh boy…) where I had signed a contract to work for the local hospital.
All told, we had $144,446.86 in debt. It felt utterly impossible that we would ever be able to conquer that mountain. But here’s how we did it.
We Plugged into a Community
In Alaska, we were in an unknown place 3000 miles from all of our friends and family.
One of the first things we did was to enroll in a local Financial Peace University class. This is Dave Ramsey’s program that teaches his “7 baby steps” to dumping debt and building wealth. They are hosted in churches, community centers, schools, and homes in towns all over the country, and there is almost certainly one starting near you.
Telling people – family, classmates, friends – about our debt free goals was beneficial for two reasons.
1.) We started to discover others who were working towards the same goals, often following the Dave Ramsey plan.
2.) We were able to explain why we were making certain choices and created an environment in which we were able to spend quality time with people without having to spend a bunch of money.
If you aren’t sharing your goals with your tribe, it’s going to create unnecessary stress and tension when you are repeatedly negotiating invitations to events that are not in the budget.
We Made a Plan
In order to become debt free, you first need to know where you stand.
We took inventory of all our outstanding loans in order to get a grand total. But we also to made a list of their respective amounts from smallest to largest, and to understand how much interest we were paying.
[It was really interesting and motivating to see how much we were paying in interest. We have friends who are perfectly happy paying their monthly minimums and living the life they want, knowing that they will continue to pay the minimums for several years, even decades.
And that’s their choice! But after seeing how much that interest could add up to over the long haul – and it’s A LOT – we were convinced that it was worth sacrificing for a little while in order to keep all those extra dollars in the future. Then we could use them for fun things like eating at fancy restaurants, going on vacations, and buying nice things – even if it meant that we would not be doing those things right now.]
So, with our debt list made, and a new big-picture view of our current standings, we set our budget. I am exceedingly fortunate to be married to a man who finds joy in making spreadsheets, doing calculations, and creating projections for our financial future.
Together, we agreed on how much we would spend in each budget category for the month and that amount was placed into the spreadsheet which we could both access from our phones to stay up to date.
Whenever something new or different came up that required a significant change in the budget, Brad could make projections based on where we were and how that change would ultimately affect our future debt pay off date. Then it was a matter of deciding if the change we were discussing was worth it.
We Got to Work
This was undoubtedly the most important contributor to our success. It was also the most unpleasant.
Fortunately, that huge student debt I incurred had bought me an excellent degree in which the job opportunities and salary prospects were high. Being in Alaska magnified that (although the cost of living is also higher than many other parts of the country).
Brad’s salary as a teacher was also quite a bit higher than it would have been had we stayed in Minnesota.
But, remember, we had a huge mountain of debt to climb so we didn’t stop there. Between the two of us, we had 5 jobs and worked 6-7 days a week. I won’t pretend it was fun. Even though we both had good jobs, it was not easy to get up and go to work on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays week after week.
It meant giving up lazy Sunday mornings together, fun weekend adventures, and late Friday nights out with friends. We were making what seemed like outrageous amounts of money for a young newly married couple, but it was not our own.
Every month we sent thousands of hard earned dollars out of our bank account and toward a loan payment. The only thing that kept us going was the knowledge that this was all temporary. Our debt amount was in fact falling little by little, and that it would ultimately give us a freedom of choice that at the time we could barely dream of.
We Paid Attention
Once you have a budget and begin to really feel how much work goes into each dollar, you begin to pay more attention to what things cost. The goal was always to stretch our budgeted dollars as far as possible.
Every week before I went to the grocery store, we decided what we wanted to eat that week. I made a list, scrolled through virtual coupons, and even planned meals around what was on sale that week.
While shopping, I stuck to the list, tended towards generic brand products, and walked around with my phone calculator open. I wanted to know exactly how much I was spending before I got to the register. Sometimes I ended up putting things back on the shelf when it wasn’t in the budget, and sometimes I found I had a few extra dollars and added a treat to the cart.
When it came to larger purchases or bargaining situations, Brad made the magic happen. He is skilled at researching products and finding the very best deal. He’s also not afraid to negotiate to get the price he wants, which I deeply appreciate since I’m somewhat of a pushover in that regard.
We Lived Simply
In order to throw as much money at debt as possible, we lived as simply as we could manage while still remaining safe and relatively sane. Our first apartment was a cheap basement duplex in which our windows were at grass level and there was no direct sunshine (which in Alaska is a real bummer).
We drove cars that got us from A to B reliably but were not flashy, or even all that comfortable. Our only vacations were home to see the family at Christmas (which isn’t really a vacation when it’s winter in Minnesota). Our activities consisted of getting out in nature, cooking together at home, and watching Netflix movies.
It was certainly not a bad lifestyle, but we knew we wanted more, and debt freedom was the way to get there.
We Said Yes
Paying off debt is a real practice in self discipline. It feels like it means saying “no” a lot. That’s true if you live in a world where the glass is always half empty. But saying no often means saying yes to something else.
Saying no to eating an entire tub of Ben & Jerry’s in one sitting (which, lets be real I’ve DEFINITELY done on more than one occasion) means saying yes to my health and weight loss goals. Saying no to staying up until 2 am watching a few more episodes of Game of Thrones means saying yes to getting enough sleep.
Saying no to buying this really cute sweater (when I have a closet full of them at home) means saying yes to our goal of being debt free. And, sometimes, we said NO to depriving ourselves and said YES to a nice steak dinner at a fancy restaurant. There’s a balance.
Unless you come into a financial windfall, paying off debt is often a marathon, not a sprint. It takes training and endurance. It requires an understanding that consistency and steadiness are the things that get you to the finish line.
And like a marathon, it’s REALLY HARD sometimes.
There were moments that we had to slow down, moments of greater energy, and times when we really leaned on each other to keep moving forward. But we knew that being able to check this monumental task off our list would change our lives for the better, and that if we just kept trudging forward we would eventually come to the finish line.
Perhaps MOST Importantly, We Faced it Together.
We both worked and we both stuck to the budget. Decisions were made as a team when unexpected things came up or big ticket items were wanted/needed, and we treated it as OUR debt. Credit – and HUGE appreciation – goes to my husband for never once bringing up the fact that a huge chunk of this debt was mine.
Don’t get me wrong, there were tears and disappointments and frustrations along the way. But every time there was an issue or need for reassurance we would go back to the spreadsheets. They let us remember how far we had come, decide how much of a difference a big purchase now would make in our end goal, and be reminded that there was an end date to all this madness.
Three and a half years later, we are DEBT FREE! We have taken back our weekends and made them a time of real rest and rejuvenation. We have set new goals for the future. And we are using our income to live our best life and bless others rather than sending it off to appease an unseen master.