On February 13, 2013, I announced on Facebook that my husband David and I were debt free, and we had paid off $51,000 in 3.5 years. We have been debt free, except for a mortgage, for 8 years now. There was no inheritance, no lottery winnings, not even an income above $40,000 per year. There was only steady progress and deliberate decisions.
Forbes places the average net worth of an under-35-year-old at just $14,000. In 2020 in a Federal Reserve Survey, 38% of respondents said they would not be able to afford $400 for an emergency with the money currently in their bank account. The average American is saddled with consumer debt that seriously hinders their risk tolerance, prevents them from leaving bad jobs (or bad bosses!), and promotes a poverty mindset. Living beyond your means is a prison.
Here is our $51,000 breakdown:
- Mechanic school: $27,000
- Credit card debt: $5,000
- Paid cash for two home births: $10,000
- Paid cash for two cars: $9,000
So how do you do it? Get on the same plan! We used Dave Ramsey. He advocates “gazelle intensity”, or taking drastic measures to save money so we could dump it all into debt repayment. We moved in with my parents, drove 10 year old cars, and cooked from scratch. We sold anything that wasn’t essential and took on extra jobs. Subscriptions and memberships got the axe. The budget was king, and the thrift store was my kingdom.
We communicated about everything to make it work. That’s the second step. If you combine finances like we did, each has to know what the other is spending on. We did have small allowances each month, which we could spend freely. Any time one category went over, we worked together to figure out another category to get the money from.
People thought that we were a little crazy. Okay, I was a little crazy. I took this as a challenge to see how low I could go, and yes, there is a line—washing cloth diapers by hand is my line! But it’s hard to adequately describe the benefits of paying off debt. Our money goes much further because the only thing we pay interest on is a mortgage. We were able to avoid government assistance except for children’s health insurance, and we avoided the dependence mindset. Part of the Dave Ramsey plan includes building an emergency fund, and having that security means we have the freedom to leave a horrible job if needed. We have the confidence, after paying off so much, that we can handle almost any financial challenge thrown our way.
Since then, we no longer follow Dave Ramsey to the letter. Buying a home with no credit was difficult, so I highly recommend that, if you have even an ounce of discipline, you keep one credit card, use it only for regular expenses, and pay it off in full each month. That will not incur debt, but it will keep your credit high, making any big purchase like a home or car much easier. I started with a secured credit card, and I have moved up to cards with rewards. I haven’t paid them a cent in interest. We also don’t keep a budget anymore, but the frugal habits that we developed have persisted. It’s like weighing your food when you start a diet—after a while, you can just see what the right portion is, and you no longer need to weigh.
Some things have stayed the same. I have never financed a car, and I have no intention of ever doing so. We recently bought David a new car, and the salesman was salivating at our high credit scores, so it was almost sad to dash his dreams by paying cash. Not paying interest more than made up for it. I scrounged and rode the bus and train two hours each way in my early 20s to save $3000 for my first car. By paying myself a car payment and driving each car as long as possible, I have been able to pay cash for each car we have.
Dave’s plan is all about being very intentional and intense about money, watching it like a hawk. I like to take a lazy approach now; it reduces decision fatigue. I have automated as many bills as I can, as well as automatically sending money to savings and investments. My investing style is “set it and forget it”; as long as I choose a market-matching index fund and keep adding to it year after year, I will be recession-proof.
Being debt free is just part of living within our means. We qualified for a much larger mortgage than we chose to take on, and because our mortgage was low, we did not lose our house when David lost his job and then had to take a job with much lower pay. I knew from challenging myself earlier how to cook from scratch and make do. We still live comfortably because we have already practiced this lifestyle. What would you do if your car was totaled? Can you pay your insurance deductible if you have a hospital stay? Not having an emergency fund big enough to cover these expenses is an emergency! Even very low income families can start saving. I’m not talking about the “skip a latte a day” garbage—I don’t even buy Starbucks at all. Everyone can do something, and by starting even at just $5 a paycheck, it creates a placeholder that you can increase as your frugal kung fu becomes stronger. Becoming debt free takes intention and consistency, but the benefits far outweigh the sacrifices.
Financial Peace University, Dave Ramsey
America’s Cheapest Family Gets You Right on the Money, Steve and Annette Economides
I Will Teach You To Be Rich, Ramit Sethi
Aubrey True is a mother of five kids under 11, including 4 year old twins. She has lived in Azle and Weatherford for most of her life. Her interests include coffee, reading, minimalism, and cognitive behavioral therapy.