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You are meant to live for more than being stuck in debt, to be stressed about money, living paycheck to paycheck, and not living the life you dreamed.
If you’re reading that thinking, “yeah, but I am stressed about money because I’m stuck in debt so I can’t do the things I really want to do. This is definitely not the life I dreamed”, I have good news. It won’t always be like this. Where you’re at is temporary, and things can get better.
Are you ready to learn how? Are you ready to get your budgety hands dirty and get to work?
Let’s dive into the process that moves you from, “holy cow I’m stressed and overwhelmed” to feeling like you can truly achieve your life dreams and goals. We went through 6 Stages that are part of the process to change your life and your finances forever.
Stage 1: I’m Stressed and Trapped in Debt! Somebody Help Me Please!
The first big step to changing a stressful money situation is to increase your awareness and come to reality about your finances.
I’m not going to lie, this is hard and confrontive.
Very few people I know like to face hard realities head on. You have to look inside yourself to find the root issues of how your life got off track in the first place, and that’s hard!
Before I learned how to budget, my finances were pretty disastrous. Throughout college I piled up $45,000 of student loan debt and wasn’t too worried about coming up with a plan to pay it back once I graduated. I did work during college, but only about 15 hours a week, and that was all fun money I spent going out to eat, buying beer, or going to the movies.
One year, I even qualified for a grant, but I just used it to pay for a spring break trip. Whoops! Clearly I was the model of amazing finances.
So I graduated without a clue how to manage my money, and got a job as a Paraprofessional at a middle school making $23,000 a year. I assumed I was in for the good life now that I had a real job with a salary, so I saw no reason to change my lifestyle. But every month, I watched as my bank account slowly dwindled lower and lower. Again, I noticed, but I didn’t change anything.
My Finances Changed When I Started Wanting More Out of Life
It wasn’t until I started dating my wife Jenna that I had a breakthrough. I knew I needed to fix something or I would never pay off my student loans and I wouldn’t be able to afford an engagement ring. Plus starting a family would be nearly impossible.
I had to confront my terrible habits of bad spending, no budgeting, and lack of financial priorities. It was hard, and tears were shed. But I couldn’t change if I didn’t confront reality.
On the flip side, you could be in a tough financial situation through no fault of your own. Car accidents, medical emergencies and surgeries, expensive medications, a broken furnace, and a whole medley of other things could bring financial chaos to your doorstep.
Either way, if you’re in crazy debt or money is constantly stressing you out, it’s time for a change because debt sucks. You were made for more than being stressed about money.
The big lesson I learned at this point in my life is that when you live your life for more than yourself and create goals that matter to you, change is easier. I’m not saying it’s easy, but anything is easier when you’re highly motivated by a goal. At that moment, I wanted to change so I could build the future I saw with Jenna.
Stage 2: Learning How to Live on a Budget and Fight Back Against Your Debt
Once you start facing reality, it’s time to get on a budget. I feel like budgeting has a bad reputation for being restrictive and limiting, but nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, it forces you to change and stick to a plan, but it also allows you to choose your priorities.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but making my first budget was the moment my life started to change. In that moment, I said yes to something better and turned the page on my bad habits and lack of priorities.
I’m not going to dive into how to make a budget today, so if you’re ready to make a budget, this article is for you. You can also grab a FREE Budget Spreadsheet that Jenna and I used to pay off $73,000 in less than four years.
Your budget is your steel plated armor and battle axe to fight back against debt. I just watched a Dungeons and Dragons video, so I’m all jacked up on D&D metaphors, haha. Any debt you have is a monster, or dragon looming in the shadows stopping you from reaching your true potential.
There’s no simple way around, so you have to charge through with your weapon drawn and strike back against your debt.
I know it’s a silly metaphor, but to be honest, that’s what it feels like sometimes learning to budget and get your finances on track. It takes WORK! And at times you’ll hate it and want to quit. On top of that, unexpected expenses are going to keep happening, which brings me to my next point…
Stage 3: You’ll Face Setbacks and Roadblocks, But Don’t You Dare Quit
Starting any new habit is hard and takes discipline to maintain, especially when you meet challenges and obstacles. This is where you need mental toughness and have to learn to fight like crazy for your dreams.
I’m a firm believer that living on a budget is the key to achieving your dreams in life. Like I said before, sticking to a budget takes work, so when you face challenges, and it’s so important that you fight through them.
A couple months after I started budgeting, I hit my first road block.
Even after all the time I spent making a budget from scratch, inputting all of my own formulas to auto calculate my income and expenses, my budget was broken. Everything still worked fine, besides the fact that I was losing money every month instead of having a surplus.
I was so frustrated and annoyed. I wanted to scream and I definitely cried a bit. Now that I was on a budget, I thought everything would go smoother! Luckily Jenna was there to help me navigate and find a solution.
Learn to Be Flexible and Adjust Your Plan
At the time I was hell bent to pay off my credit card as fast as possible. Months before this, I set up automatic withdrawals from my checking account of $75 a week, so $300 a month. This was far and beyond the $15 minimum payment because I wanted that debt gone now!
Jenna spotted the issue and I changed my payment schedule so I could keep my head above water. And that was only one of dozens of challenges we’ve faced together since then, and we’ve conquered them all because we didn’t quit. A really fun emergency was when our thermostat stopped working in the middle of winter.
I don’t know what your challenges are going to be, but I promise you’ll have them. When things don’t go the way you planned, KEEP GOING, and don’t ever give up. Your dreams are too important to quit just because something is hard. Find goals and dreams that are bigger than your obstacles.
Stage 4: Your Debt Starts to Disappear and You Start to Believe in Your Dreams
This is where the journey starts go get fun. After you’ve stuck it out for a few months, your budget will start to click and be easier to stick with on a daily basis.
You might still hit snags and roadblocks, but you’ll develop the skills and flexibility to get by unscathed for the most part. Plus, you’re starting to see progress!
Progress is a great motivator to keep you on track with your budget, spending, and goals. When you see your debt dwindle and disappear, all the endorphins fire off in your brain and it feels amazing! This is a great time to take a few moments to celebrate your wins and reflect on your journey.
Celebrate Every Milestone, No Matter How Small
Every time we paid off a debt, no matter how small, we celebrated. Just like the Minnesota Twins slogan a few years ago, “if we win, we dance”. It was usually something simple so it didn’t break our budget. A couple of our favorite celebrations are still a cheap bottle of champagne or going out for dessert and a drink. The celebrations were simple, but they signified so much more.
Each celebration moved us one step closer to being debt free. Our dreams of starting a family were getting closer to reality and it made us so excited to work even harder. We kept dreaming of our future and imagined what life could be like without debt. It was a reminder that our financial mess was only temporary and it gets better.
Bonus Tip: Use Any Financial Tool that Works, Especially a Debt Snowball
Besides our budget, another useful tool we used was a Debt Log, or Debt Snowball. When we paid off a debt, we rolled that payment right into the next debt on our list. It created a bigger monthly payment toward the principle and crushed our debt even faster. Using the debt snowball, we went from debt free in 25 years to debt free in less than 4.
If you want to use our Debt Snowball Template, download it for free here.
If you’re the kind of person who likes to set goals and challenge yourself, you can have a lot of fun with the debt snowball. The acceleration lets you set crazy, outlandishly quick time frames to pay off your debt, but they’re still attainable if you work hard.
Somewhere in this phase we drew a giant thermometer and put it on our fridge. It was crazy motivating and fun to fill it in every month. Have fun and keep paying off that debt!
Stage 5: Money Becomes Less Stressful and Your Heart Can Open to the Needs of Others
Stressing about money sucks, and although you might still worry about bills and finances from time to time during Stage 5, it doesn’t feel like a heavy weight on your life like it used to. Instead, your heart and mind wander toward other possibilities for your extra money. What new goals can you make and how can you be a blessing to other people?
This was a turning point in our lives.
We were getting close to being debt free and could see the light at the end of the tunnel. During this time we talked a lot about what we would do with the extra money that wasn’t going to our student loans anymore.
We made plans to travel and expand some of our budget categories, but one of the first ideas that came up was to give more. At this point, giving was a foundational piece of our budget, and we tithed every month no matter how tight our budget was. Now we wanted to give more.
Giving Changes Your Heart
It was an amazing transformation over the years. When I started budgeting, I tried to get ahold of every dollar I could and use it in my budget to pay bills, student loans, or get ahead on my credit card. I felt really stingy and couldn’t bring myself to give away more than my tithe. It just didn’t make sense to give money away when I was trying to get out of debt.
But the process of budgeting and learning to be a good steward with God’s money changed my heart like crazy. We felt blessed by all God provided for us over our first few years of budgeting and, trusting him, we wanted to find ways to bless others. Now that we are debt free, we enjoy giving more of our money to others who need it.
I’m not saying you have to be debt free or have your money under control to be generous and understanding of the needs of other people. A lot of people are generous by nature and showcase that in tons of different ways. I just needed the time for God to change my heart and learn to love other people in more practical ways.
Our goal is to keep increasing how much we give every couple years. In fact, we’re probably due to increase our giving here pretty soon.
Make it a goal to love on other people and give away some of what you’ve been blessed with.
It’s Never Too Late to Change Your Financial Priorities
It doesn’t matter which stage you’re in right now, you can start living the life you always dreamed of. Yes, it takes work and discipline to live on a budget and get through these 6 stages, but it’s so worth it. The transformation affects more than just your finances, it changes your life. Are you ready to change your life for the better?
Leave a Comment 🙂
Which stage are you in right now? How is the process of paying off debt changing your finances and your life?
Great post, very useful