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A very wise man and favorite mentor, my old boss Phil, once asked me what I considered to be the definition of rich. “I don’t know, a million dollars?” my ignorant 18 yr old self said. He replied, “To be rich is to have enough money for everything you need with a little bit left over.”
Back in 2015 when we unemployed and traveling full time, we were constantly asked how we could afford it. Well if you know me you know I’m the queen of living debt free and love to tell everyone how they should too. So the short answer was: “We don’t have any debt, and we set aside some money for it.”
Before that trip I had no idea what a foreign concept being debt-free-with-money-set-aside was to most people. Completely…foreign… concept. And it’s so ironic because more than anything else in life- starting a family, buying a new car, building a big house, going on vacation- most people dream about not having to work. Everyone wants independent wealth, everyone wants to win the lottery, everyone wants some massive inheritance, but most people are happy to work their whole lives with the hope that someday they won’t have to. Isn’t that ironic? Doesn’t that make you mad? You work your whole life so when you’re too old to do anything you won’t have to. What a joke! p.s. I’m just assuming everyone reading this is like $200,000 in debt and real mad about it. If you aren’t, good for you! But if you are, it’s time to break free.
It took me a long time to write this and I hesitated to post it because I don’t want to come off as bossy, judgmental, or a braggart. I write this not to boast, but to encourage and hopefully motivate. Gregory and I both grew up welfare-poor. We are not independently wealthy and we’re not millionaires. We’ve just saved more than we’ve spent and now have money for everything we need with a little left over. For all of you who are curious about how we’ve gotten to this magical place in our lives, here’s a little yarn and ultimately the long answer:
Greg asked me once if I would’ve dated him if I knew he was $50,000 in debt and I honestly had to think about it. He wasn’t, for the record, and I’m glad I didn’t have to. He says before we were married he hardly spent any money- his hobbies weren’t expensive, he never had a fancy car or a fancy phone, he made his money in summer, went home to farm in the fall, and traveled or worked odd jobs all winter.
For our first date he showed up in boots his company paid for, a long underwear top he bought on clearance, and jeans he found in a free bin. Dream man. When Greg proposed to me, as my then 11 yr old nephew was happy to point out, he didn’t have a house, a job, or a car. But it didn’t matter. Because it’s not how much you make- it’s how much you save. Greg would never tell you himself because he is a modest, humble man from the north, but I’ll tell you that seemingly penniless dirtbag had three times as much in the bank as I did when we got married. DREAM MAN.
While Greg has always been good with money, I had to learn things the hard way. Cue: Dave Ramsey. Once upon a time I lived paycheck to paycheck. During my first bout with college I was living with my mom, I had $30 in my change jar, about $4,000 in school loans, and suddenly no car. Well obviously I needed a car to get to work so I could afford new clothes and CDs or whatever my younger self spent money on. I remember one time I cleaned out said change jar for a teeshirt at American Eagle. Literally… my life savings… on a teeshirt.
My friend Carly loves to tell the story of the time we went to Casa Bonita and I paid in coins. Our server asked if I needed my change and I said “Lady, I just paid in quarters, I’m pretty sure I need my change.” Obviously I didn’t have the money for a car so I had to look into getting a loan and went to my oldest brother to cosign me.
He didn’t do that, and he didn’t just hand over the money because giving money to people who don’t know how to manage money is the worst idea on the planet. But he didn’t tell me ‘no’ either. Instead, big brother did me undoubtedly the biggest favor of my adult life: He offered to loan me the money himself, but only after I read Dave Ramsey’s ‘Financial Peace’ and made a budget for how I would pay him back.
Go ahead, read that again. Biggest favor. Adult life. That simple ultimatum completely turned my finances, and my life, around.
Well, obviously, as a young woman who did things like spend her life savings on a teeshirt, I approached the book like a reading assignment in senior English- begrudgingly at best. In spite of my hesitation and let’s be honest- my pride, as I started to read it opened up something in me I never expected; it made sense, it spoke to me. I realized how much money I’d been throwing away on things that didn’t matter, and how much I could potentially save once I stopped.
I read the whole thing, I came up with a budget, big brother loaned me the money, and even found and delivered a nice used Saturn (THANK YOU, Barry), and I stuck to the budget and paid it off as quickly as possible. I’ve never looked back. I don’t even remember what year that was. 2002? Like so many others, Dave Ramsey literally changed my life. I recommend his books to everyone. They’re easy to read, they make sense, and they’re super motivating. I’ve given all our copies away, but I’m just sure your local library has a stash you can borrow for free.
It took a few years on a student/national park concessionaire/ski resort salary (I dropped out of school for a few years there) but by 2005, using Dave’s methods I had paid off the school loans, sold the Saturn, and paid $5,700 cash for my first used Subaru, Suby. Holy smokes was Suby a hunk of junk. By the time she died she was duct-taped and zip-tied, the a/c didn’t work, and I had to put water in the radiator every time I went somewhere. Like after work I’d put water in, when I went to school I’d put water in, when I left school for work I’d put water in. It never occurred to me to get rid of her. She was paid for! A labor of debt-free love.
Altogether I dropped out of school for five years. In that time off I grew, I partied, I saved more money, I hiked, I came up with a career plan, and I fell outside the age limit where my parents salaries would be figured into my financial aid. Just like it didn’t occur to me to get rid of my p.o.s. car, when I went back to school it never occurred to me to take out any loans. I had my savings to fall back on, and I took necessary measures to make things as cheap as possible while I was in school:
- I swore off boys until I graduated.
- I lived with (and paid rent to) an aunt, then my mother, then a brother until my last semester.
- I only ever bought used textbooks, and sold most of them immediately after a class was over.
- I applied for assistance from my Native people, the Creek Nation.
- I made good enough grades to qualify for incentive grants.
- I worked full time, sometimes overtime, serving at a rib joint.
- I got my nursing degree through a community college rather than a state or private school. I only have an associate’s degree but I’m still a registered nurse and I make just as much as those with bachelor’s degrees.
- I drove my crappy car into the ground. Literally, I sold her for scrap.
- Because of my crappy car, I cheated on my school loan rule. I knew she was on her last leg and I didn’t quite have enough money to pay cash for a new car. My last semester I took out the biggest loan I could and put the whole thing in a high yield savings account so when Suby died, I had the cash to pay for my next Subaru, Sheila. Meanwhile, I kept putting rib money into that savings account and by the time I was finished with school I had the cash to pay the loan off completely before my first payment was even due. Thanks to big brother and Dave Ramsey, that’s the only debt I’ve had in over a decade, and I’m still driving that beautiful 2006 Outback that I paid $9,200 cash for back in 2010. Fun fact: The man who sold it to me was going through Dave Ramsey’s ‘Financial Peace University’ and realized he didn’t want to afford car payments anymore. What a joy.
I saved so much money in school that not only was I able to pay cash for my degree, I was able to take amazing vacations every school break- the Alps over Christmas, South America then Scandinavia one summer, a two-month road trip around the States another summer, and lots of shorter domestic trips in between.
Father and son customers at the rib joint told me once they have a doctor friend who made so much money that he was able to take a month off every year to spend in Belize. I told them that as a student and a server I had taken almost two months off that summer. The son said “Yeah, but he goes to Belize, not Boston.” I informed them I hadn’t gone to Boston either, but Ecuador, Peru, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. They just sat there. You don’t have to make a physician’s salary to live the life of your dreams, you just need to pay off your debt and save more than you spend.
When people tell me about their debt it makes me sick to my stomach. I love and hate hearing about it. I love it because my mind starts spinning with ideas of how to pay it off, and I hate it because I wish no one had any. Why do the vast majority of people I know think it’s okay to be in debt? It’s this “I need it, I deserve it, I’m entitled to it” mentality. I think of debt as a horrible, debilitating disease like the hiv or cancer. I don’t want it, and I’m going to do everything I can not to get it. The thought of buying something we can’t afford right now literally never even occurs to us. But most people in this country are as comfortable with debt as they are napping in the sunshine; it’s a normal way of life. Which is ironic, because how much time do you have to nap in the sunshine when you’re working so hard to pay interest to other people? Again, doesn’t that make you mad? That’s your hard-earned money, going in someone else’s pocket.
Every time we leave for our next big adventure we have people tell us “I wish I could do that”. While I’m sure that’s a compliment, I actually find it slightly offensive. No one handed this life to us; we work hard to make it happen. Instead of wishing you could do what we’re doing, why don’t you make your own dreams a reality? Money, bills, and debt is what keeps people tied to their jobs, their inflated lifestyles, their things, and their unhappiness. I’m not saying “Get out of debt! You’ll instantly be happy and thin and successful and rich and popular and YouTube famous!” (Isn’t that the American Dream?), but it certainly wouldn’t hurt. The fact that we’re debt free is what I appreciate most about our lives. Greg and I can live our dreams because we don’t owe our money to anyone else.
I know how very fortunate we are. Greg has always been good with money, and I figured things out when I was very young. Obviously not everyone will have such an easy time ditching their debt, and not everyone will have so little debt to ditch. But Dave Ramsey has a great motto: “If you live like no one else, later you can live like no one else”. I encourage everyone to find their own Dave Ramsey, their own catalyst.
I liken paying off debt to climbing a mountain. How do you do that? One step at a time. And like Greg always says “The only way to get into hiking shape is just to keep on hiking.” Getting out of debt is not a slow or easy process. If it was, everyone would be rich. Like any big goal in life, becoming debt-free takes discipline and sacrifice. What are you willing to sacrifice to live the life of your dreams?
Life is too short to worry, stress, get depressed, or fight about money. If you ever need any extra motivation, don’t hesitate to ask. I love helping people who want to be helped.