I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone tell me that they want to stay in debt. There are hundreds of thousands of articles on getting out of debt, paying down your mortgage early, side-hustling your way to financial freedom, and many more, but I have yet to read an article about how to stay in debt as long as possible, work more for less money, or increase your interest rates.
And yet I see many say with their actions that they do want to stay in debt. I’ve been approached by so many people who tell me that they’re eager to pay off their student loans as soon as possible, or save 20% for their down payment on a house, or get rid of their credit card debt but whose actions daily contradict that desire.
Now I’m not talking about the occasional stumble, everyone messes up at some point. Believe me, James and I have made more than our fair share of mistakes in our quest to get out of debt (I’ll talk on those more in another post). I’m talking about the ones who complain constantly about their student loan payments, or speak of their dreams to travel when they get debt-free, but they pay hundreds of dollars every month for cable, or go out to eat every night, or have any number of different monthly subscriptions. To them I want to shout, “do you even WANT to get out of debt!?!”
We used to be that couple. I wish I could look back over the years since I left home and think proudly about how well I’ve managed my money but unfortunately that is not my story. I have to fight the urge to spend daily. Always have, maybe I always will. Thankfully, I’ve now mastered (for the most part) the ability to tell myself “no.”. The first year we were married, we got a pretty sizeable tax return. Instead of building an emergency fund and paying off some debt, we bought a massive (and I mean MASSIVE- I have no idea how we got that thing into our tiny apartment) sectional sofa and a 54” TV. And to top it off, we financed what we couldn’t pay in full on the TV. Do you ever just want to go back in time and smack yourself on the back of the head?
Anyway, we lived like this for several years-buying what we wanted whether we could afford it or not, never once making a budget or doing any kind of meal planning. We talked often about how we wanted to get out of debt. I hated having debt-it was so discouraging to see our debt grow each month because of lack of planning. We’d go out to eat instead of using the groceries we’d already bought, then be short on a bill and have to pay with a credit card. It was just a cycle of ever-growing debt. And while we continued to talk of our debt-free plans and how we couldn’t wait to get out of debt, our actions told the truth.
And then, I found out I was pregnant. We were so excited, but also scared. We’d lost our first baby when we’d almost been married a year; I miscarried at eleven weeks. So while we were elated to finally be pregnant (despite our incredible amount of debt, we had actually been trying to get pregnant for about almost two years), we were definitely a little nervous. It also opened our eyes to a truth we’d managed to ignore: we were not financially ready to have a baby.
You’d think that this would’ve caused us to cut out all extras and get serious about paying off our debt. What we did instead was defer our student loans and put those payments into a savings account. We saved just enough to cover the six weeks I would be off work and to cover James to take two weeks off to be with us. And that was it. We still payed over $200/month for cable (it was bundled with a security system, but still), went out to eat frequently, and we still never meal-planned for groceries or made a budget. I’m sure people looked at us and thought, “do you even WANT to get out of debt!?” I’ve said this to myself countless times over the past three years and I’m sure that I’ll say it again, but the time I first said it to myself was the biggest, and it changed our lives.
That may sound a bit melodramatic, but it’s true. The first few months after our son Micah was born were extremely difficult. Our finances had just gotten tighter and tighter. Although he was exclusively breastfed, we still had diapers, wipes, and childcare restricting our limited funds even more. I felt completely hopeless. I’m already an emotional person, and post-partum is already an emotional time, and adding in financial struggles just made things worse. I truly felt that there was no way out and that we would never be able to get out from under our debt.
About this time, though, a woman I worked with mentioned that she and her husband had begun working through Dave Ramsey’s baby steps. I was so desperate that I would have tried anything, so I began to do some research to see what he was all about. There were so many great ideas and things I hadn’t thought about but it still didn’t really hit home for me. When Micah was a few months old, we were on our way to visit my in-laws and we had stopped for gas in some small town in the middle of nowhere. I vividly remember this moment: It was late, and while James was pumping gas, I looked into the backseat at my sleeping baby’s sweet face and thought, we have nothing for him.
We will never be able to take him on trips, or pay for his school. There will be no amazing 16th birthday present sitting in our driveway. While none of these things are essential, and he may still go without some of those things, I realized how desperately I wanted the option to do all that.
And like a ton of bricks it hit me: Did we even WANT to get out of debt? It was such a huge wake-up call. Even if we wouldn’t fight our way out of debt for ourselves, we would do it for him. We called and cancelled our cable that night in the car (our biggest extra) and began to look at other ways we could cut down our expenses. The biggest and most important thing to our journey has been to find our motivation. For many, just paying it off is motivation enough but for others, you need to look beyond the debt to what your goals are. We have still made many mistakes along the way but through a lot of trial and error we have made great strides toward getting out of debt.
I’ll be writing more soon about the best ways to stay motivated once you figure out what is motivating you to get rid of that debt burden. What about you? What (or who) is your motivation to get rid of your debt?