1 year debt free anniversary – was it worth it

It’s been 1 year since we clicked the mouse and paid off our last chuck on consumer debt. (we’re now just working on our mortgage). You can read all about our debt free journey here.

So what has this year brought?

Has it been as amazing as we’d hoped?

Yes.  Yes it has.

 

In the weeks after we paid that last bill off, Bruce and I headed down for a couples only long weekend in Waco, Texas.  We went to the Magnolia Silobration (Fixer Upper peeps unite!) and listened to live music, shopped, visited antique shops and just hung out. It was so much fun to share another side of Texas with Bruce too. I lived there in my early 20’s and have wished I could share more of it with Bruce and help him fall in love with it as I have.  This was a much needed little getaway after having our noses to the grindstone for so long.  We paid cash and savored every second of it!

 

Black friday we were all laying around the house watching the old classic, Titanic. So what did that make us want to do? It made us want to look into taking a cruise of course.  Go figure.  So as luck would have it, we found a black Friday sale and managed to get the 4 of us booked on a nearly week long cruise for under $1500 (included taxes)!  Again, paid in full.  It’s amazing how life can be when you’re not paying out so much towards interest and debt.  We had a modest Christmas, continuing to save as much as possible and while we’ve padded our budget a bit we haven’t gone too crazy.  Travel is our love though so we tend to all be in agreement to live a bit tighter and then splurge on seeing our beautiful country and the world.

We saved up, bought our airfare to Florida and took our cruise to Belize in February. It was so nice to get to have that experience together. Afterwards we rented a car and spent the day driving down to the Florida keys, seeing a state park beach and then seeing the everglades before our flight back to winter.  (I’m praying this beach was spared during the recent hurricanes.)

 

So one thing that we do differently than most people we know is that we don’t do all the extras when we travel. We aren’t big drinkers, and we consciously chose not to do any excursions from the cruise. This was for 2 reasons. The first was that we had a hard time finding things that we all found interesting and “worth it” for a 6 year old, a teenager and both of us. Second, we priced it out and decided instead of spending a 1/2 day at the mayan ruins we could use that same amount of money and do a 2 week camping road trip during the summer.  We don’t feel like we are sacrificing at all though. We make sure to enjoy everything we can do and savor it all.  Instead of the excursion we drank from coconuts in belize and ate fresh salsa on the pier while taking it all in.

We have made a decision that we’ll treat “vacation money” like “real life money”.  That means we don’t just surrender $1400-1600 for a few hours excursion just because we’re on vacation, for good or bad I can’t forget that that is the amount of a house payment back in “real life”.  Plus, knowing that is nearly the exact amount of what we later paid for 2 weeks full of memories always keeps us accountable. The more memories and time together the better.

 

So one of the biggest benefits we’ve had since paying off all those pesky bills was a huge peace of mind and the ability to FINALLY make some decisions where money wasn’t the first factor in the decision process.  For years Bruce has been wanting to switch careers. He worked long, unpredictable hours and could never count on being home in the evening. One of his big goals during our whole debt paying process was to be able to switch jobs and be able to see the kids play sports and be involved with their activities. Especially to have our little guy join cub scouts and for Bruce to get to be there to experience it with him.

In May Bruce accepted a different job and while it came with a bit of a pay cut, it also came with predictable hours and the guarantee of being home every evening. It was an answer to prayer.  It’s amazing how things worked out in terms of timing, he was able to put in his notice so he’d finish in time for the vacation dates we had set up months before.  He set up his start date at his new job for a couple days after we got back.  It was as if it was all perfectly planned out. 😉

So in June we started off our road trip fulfilling a lifelong dream of mine and seeing some of the Little house on the Prairie books’ sites. We camped on the actual land that the Ingalls family lived on in DeSmet years ago. The kids slept in this awesome covered wagon and Bruce and I slept under the stars in our sleeping bags. It was magical.

 

We then headed to Colorado Springs to visit with family before we made our way over to Durango to visit more family. Along the way we saw Garden of the Gods, Cave of the winds, St. Elmo ghost town, Gunnison, Crested Butte, Silverton, Ouray, then Durango. It was so great.  Afterwards we headed back and stopped in Iowa to see more family/friends. It was such an amazing time.  We camped for the first 9 nights and then stayed with people and in hotels. I love everything about a road trip. Long talks, good music, seeing the outskirts of areas and how quickly the landscapes can change. I savor it all.


A couple weeks ago I was able to go with a cousin out to see my aunt and uncle in New York City. It was amazing.  My favorite moments were when I got a chocolate croissant from an amazing little french bakery and an iced coffee and we sat in Rockefeller plaza taking it all in and catching up with each other.  We got to see so many amazing sites but my favorite moments were drinking wine, staying up way too late and finding out how hilarious my relatives are. It was so great to get to have basically a 5 day slumber party and laugh and play. I loved it.  My aunt and uncle spoiled us rotten so it didn’t cost me as much as it sounds like it did but it still was something that I felt really proud to pay for up front and then use cash throughout.

 

 

So it’s not that suddenly we paid things off and then life got easy, but I will say that an incredible amount of pressure and stress has been relieved in our lives and I am so grateful to get to have these experiences and say yes more.  We’re working to beef up a savings account, have started a college savings account FINALLY and are working to make sure all the details are handled.  Mostly though I can look back at the years we spent, first getting to where we weren’t building more debt, then breaking even, then finally paying extra towards bills. It was hard and there were so many months where we felt like we were running in place. I keep meticulous spreadsheets, track where we spend each cent and work really hard to make sure that we spend with intention instead of just flowing through without consciously deciding.  I’ve taken all those lessons I’ve learned and teamed them up with encouragement and fun and created a course I’m offering for free starting in October. It’s all been a lesson of perseverance, communication and teamwork.  I’m here to offer encouragement to anyone else out there who feels overwhelmed by bills, payments or is just exhausted of the game of trying to keep up with everything society says you should do or have.

I know that many people have no desire to travel, nor do I share these photos because I think you should (well maybe a little bit, traveling is amazing).  Mostly though I know that there is something inside of us all that lights us up and makes us feel alive and in tune with why we are alive. Travel does that for me, what does that for you?   Whether money is a factor or not, I offer you so much encouragement to add more of whatever that thing is for you into your life. Fill in all the gaps and cracks with experiences, people, and lastly things that bring you joy.

So in true full circle spirit, last night Bruce and our son went to their first Cub scouts meeting. Together they signed up and Bruce is going to be volunteering with the troop. Aspen came running in the door last night when they got home and could hardly get all the words out he was so excited to share how much fun he had.  It makes me think back to any random day 2, 3, or even 6 years ago that we had to make a decision to save money here or there, pay off something.. it was all those tiny steps that helped us to that moment last night and a million other small moments just like it. We couldn’t see how it was all going to work out while we were in the thick of it, but I’m so grateful we dreamed and had faith.

True Freedom! How we cleaned up over 48k in debt in just 21 months

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I was in conversation a few weeks ago with a close friend and we were talking about bills. I mentioned how hard we were focusing on paying bills because we were close to getting out of debt and only having our home left to pay.  “Wow, you’re lucky.  Must be nice.” That was her reply.  That stuck with me… we must be lucky.. it just didn’t sit right.

Over the last few weeks that’s been stirring around in my mind between errands and other thoughts and I finally am able to articulate why I don’t think luck had much to do with it and I certainly wouldn’t call the experience “nice”.  It was hard.  Really hard.  It is was raw and real and I feel like we’ve been paying off debt FOREVER!

Fair warning; this post is really honest and really long.

I believe in going after dreams, in living a big life and in living in true authenticity and joy.  I want a life that is full of love and experiences that make me grow and expand my life and relationships.

Let me rewind to 2011, our life was busy and full of joy. We had a small modest home in the suburbs of Minneapolis, 2 used cars we drove, a few acres of land a couple hours away with a camper, atv, an extra truck that ran and an extra truck that didn’t.  We’d spend the week working our tails off then pack up and go up to the “cabin” for the weekends.  As Sky got older and had more sports tournaments over the weekends we noticed that our attention, time and money were being pulled in more directions.  It was getting harder for us to really enjoy each thing we were doing because we were always racing to the next thing.  With a preteen and an infant we knew it was going to be many more years before we re-gained full chilled out weekends.  At the same time we were getting by financially, we didn’t think about all our payments since we were able to pay them all each month.  We didn’t consider ourselves paycheck to paycheck…  looking back we had about an extra 2-3 paycheck buffer that kept us feeling falsely safe.

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During a vacation to Colorado and out West in 2011, one of my dearest friends introduced me to Dave Ramsey and we talked about debt, and dared to dream what it would be like to have no payments.   It was after we got home that we had some serious conversations about money, goals and life.  We made a choice to stop reacting to life and instead make some hard decisions that would help us in the long run.  We knew that someday we wanted the best of both worlds, not the home and a cabin but instead a home where we could live like we were at the cabin. We set the intention and we got to work; that first year we sold the land, the camper, the atv, the trucks, extra furniture and everything we could think of.  Doing all of that also allowed me to continue to work part time and be home more to help raise the kids. It was a win-win.

Years before, after I was going through my divorce I remember feeling so hopeless financially.  I remembered sitting at the kitchen table with my dad and I was crying my eyes out. I had just gotten a notice that my credit card with an $11k balance was raising my interest rate to 33%.  As a single mom at the time I was panicked.  I couldn’t see out of the 10’s of thousands of dollars of consumer debt I was left with after that world came crashing down on me.  From that hopelessness I filed for bankruptcy.   I justified it in my mind and at interest rates of greater than 30% at the time on all my credit cards I had paid my original balances plus some but because of all the interest I couldn’t seem to gain ground.  I filed and felt like I got a new start. The ironic thing.. even the day after filing bankruptcy I still was never debt free. There were still student loans and other things I was still paying on.

Fast forward back now to 2012 and the hubby and I were in the midst of working to pay things off then our main car broke down.  Note – this is was a defining moment for us looking back –  We chose to let that car sit for a bit while we figured out how to fix it and we went out and we finance a newer one.  Eventually we fixed up the first and sold it for a loss. This cycle went on for the next couple years.  2 steps forward one step back.

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At the end of 2014 is when we officially had it.  I was fresh back from a life changing European trip working with women and had a glimpse of how big life could be!  I knew that life was so much more than work, bills and being tight on time.  We were done playing this game, especially with money.

We bought a used car for cash and put our financed suv up for sale.  It finally sold in the spring of 2015, we owed more than it sold for and we had to pay the different and take a loss but we wouldn’t change it.  That same time we were down to just around $1500 of debt.  Free of car payments and only a small minimum payment on 1 card left we felt our world start to open up again.  We’d been dreaming of moving out of the house we were in but were upside down in it and couldn’t figure out how to make it happen.  You can read all about that miraculous story here.  From paying down all that debt we were finally almost debt free but we were cash poor.  We knew we had to make that move happen.  In the meantime it built back up over 20k in debt again fixing up the old and new house and all the extras that come with a move. Add in a school trip for Sky to Europe at over $5k and other life that was turned to payments our world turned back into one of frugalness and very strategic spending.  Thank goodness for all the joy and how much we love it here, I admit it made it all worthwhile!

From January of 2015 through Sept of 2016 (21 months) – yes we managed to clear $48,986 in debt.  HOLY MOTHER!!!  I see that and it gives me hope.  We are a family that loves the simple things in life and living out here really made that easier to pull off but it has been anything but easy to make that happen.   We’ve had to say “no” hundreds of times a day to spending.   I’ve laid out all the details of how we saved money and what we did to bring in extra in this blog post for those that want to read all the nitty gritty details.

  1. We set a budget every month.  I can tell you what we spent in each area of our life for any month going back years.  I had to know exactly where all our money was going and then from there decide what to cut and what to allow.  I keep really detailed spreadsheets and I LOVE it, it must balance out my artsy side but I get a complete natural high from doing our finances and calculating all the numbers.
  2. We worked as a team.  The hubby and sat down at least a few times a month and laid out what our goals where we wanted our money to go, saw what was actually being spent, and made adjustments to get the two areas to match.  We stopped reacting to things and became very intentional.  We decided what to keep and what to cut, where to spend and tried to minimize unexpected things anywhere we could by predicting needs and planning ahead.
  3. Our entertainment budget averaged only $20 a month. FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY!!  That is pretty much a few redbox rentals and then add up the extra over a few months and it’s a cheap night out.  We saw 1 movie at the theatre as a family and went to 1 county fair as a family in 22 months.  We had tons of bonfires, game nights, movie nights at home and work nights.  Plus we knew that we wanted to pour money towards debt and a couple strategic vacations. (this was not counting our family vacation – where we flew then stayed with a family member)
  4. Our restaurant budget averaged $30/month.  That meant a few drive through trips a month and we saved them for when we really were short on time or energy and savored them, or we’d stock up so we could go out to dinner with family or friends.
  5. We swallowed our pride and embraced a more minimalistic lifestyle.  This was actually the most enjoyable part.  After my mom passed away, it took years of going through her things and sorting through the layers of guilt, grief and the reality of physical space that “stuff” takes up.  Year after year I was able to let go of more of it.  What happens is it becomes a bit addictive when you start to feel empty space around the house.  It’s freeing.  Craiglist, ebay and FB groups became our selling machines.  We sold and donated a TON of stuff.  I let the kids re-sell their clothing they didn’t use anymore and they could keep that money as well.  It became a family mission to live with less stuff and instead enjoy eachother more and free up more time for life.
  6. My husband packed a lunch EVERY DAY for work.  For years he ate these garbage burritos.  Super cheap and filling.
  7. I learned to make my own laundry detergent, toothpaste, from scratch recipes, cleaning supplies and more.  I did this both for cost savings and also for the health aspect of knowing what was in our products.
  8. We cut our cable and only late last year got a Roku.  We got cheap cell phone plans and have scraped by with cheap phones.  (one of my next goals is to get a phone that actually has enough memory where I can have more than 6 pictures and also have instagram, FB, gmail, yahoo and etsy apps all installed at the same time… seriously)
  9. We sold the financed car mentioned above and knocked out $12k in debt!
  10. A better interest rate on our house meant that we were paying down $400 more a month off principal than we were in the old house. We switched to a 15 year loan and had the same payment we did in our old house where we had a higher interest rate and a 30 year loan.
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To get the kids involved we filled a jar with beans. We used 1 bean for every $10 in debt on our last card to pay off. Here is Aspen counting beans to add to the other jar so he could see that one jar was getting almost empty and that mean we were close to being debt free!

 

Those are just a small sample of all the behind the scenes things we did while no one was looking so that we could be so “lucky”.  We had to consciously decide to not keep up with those around us who were able to go out and eat dinner out multiple times a week or month, drive fancy cars with payments or even get to buy new wardrobes each year.  Whether it was true or not we had to decide 100% that we didn’t EVER want to feel so stressed out about money again.    It’s funny, I can honestly say that over the years the times I had to make decisions based around money and feel the most consumed by thoughts of money are the years where it was the leanest.   This summer was a perfect testament to that.  In contrast to 2012 when our van broke down, we were in a panic we had no money to fix it right then nor did we have money to replace it.  So out we went that weekend and financed a $20k used SUV.   In contrast this summer our car went out, we were able to calmly share a car for a week as we assessed what to do; then we stuck to a $2,000 budget for a new car knowing that we wanted to pay cash for this car and stay out of debt. It was our true test again, our do-over to see if we’ve FINALLY learned our lesson.  2 months later and we are so happy with our decision and have zero buyers remorse.

I don’t share this to brag and I don’t share this because I don’t think people should have nice things.  I share this to offer hope to anyone out there who is feeling hopeless, feeling how I was years back facing 10’s of thousand in debt and feeling like I had no options and full of shame.   I share this to show it is possible to pay off debt and not have car payments.  It is possible to give yourself breathing room instead of living from crisis to crisis.

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I believe life should be about surrounding ourselves with things, experiences and people that genuinely make us feel good.  Living authentically and truthfully.  Living within our financial means so we have breathing room when life hands us a curveball or a friend goes through a hard time and we then have some money to help them with.

When we aren’t paying hundreds (or thousands) in interest and debt payments each month it frees us up to be more in tune with our creativity, our goals, our truest authentic selves.  It leaves money to get select things that truly make us feel good (like art, ahem 🙂 ).  It lets us come out of survival mode and into a part of our being that we didn’t even know was there.  It takes guts and courage to get so honest and real with a spouse about every cent.  Things we think are necessities or secret spending.  It’s taken incredible amounts of self discipline. Mostly though I think it’s taken patience.  Once we decided we were done wanting to live the way we were it wasn’t like we could snap our fingers and actually be done.  No, instead that was just the beginning of years of sacrifice and years of being patient and trusting the process.  Years of feeling like some months there was only a hundred left over to pay towards debt and knowing that better months were to come.  Patience and not giving up.

one of the many days of hanging laundry to dry inside at our old house.

one of the many days of hanging laundry to dry inside at our old house.

Another lesson, other people will spend your money for you unless you learn to consciously control it.  People shamed us, people judged us, people laughed at us, people talked behind our back about our choices, people didn’t take time to ask us our goals but instead assumed we were in a downward spiral.  Looking back I can only imagine what it looked like to people close to us.  Suddenly they hear we are selling the land, camper, atv, trucks, furniture… they must have been scared for us.  Wondering if one of us had a secret addiction or gambling problem.  Wondering why we were giving up all the things we loved.  What they must have thought when we sold our nice 2012 suv and got an older ’02 model with some rust.   This is the lesson we learned in humility and believing in ourselves.  The lesson in making a plan that worked best for OUR family, choosing how OUR money would be spent and then learning to not care what anybody thought.  We learned to know  in our hearts that we were doing what we had to do for the best LONG term well being of our family and put that priority over the short term sacrifices.

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I am also partly sharing this just for my own self to fully grasp it and have it documented to share with our kids so they can understand all the times we said no to things.  Also because it gives me hope, after living so lean for years I can see a light at the end of the tunnel.  I see a year of intense saving coming up, making up for lost time and creating a buffer  so the hubby can switch jobs and have more free time.  I see hope of more travel, and lets face it… some new bras.  Truthfully though I hope other things don’t change.  I love the feeling of being a team, knowing we are working towards a goal, choosing time together over things and places.  I loved saying no 900 times so that we could budget in a family vacation that we’d savor and never forget.

I’ll be back in a few days with a write up of many of the things we did to make this happen.  We’ve found inspiration in so many others before us who have paid things off.  It’s funny because in theory it doesn’t seem like it should be that big of a deal to not have consumer debt. Maybe that’s why we so easily get into debt, we assume we’ll fall back out of it just as easily as we fell into it.   But the truth is it was really freaking hard just to get to the point where we stopped accumulating more debt.  Our incomes both fluctuate so it was easy to live high during the good times then freak out during the slow seasons.  It’s only when we figured out how to live within the earning of the slowest seasons and then consider the busy times as bonus that things started to change.   Even just giving up cable.  It was years ago now and I in my head was remembering it as no big deal.  However, I recently found a journal of mine and I was journaling through the process of giving up cable.  It was hard!  I was going through withdrawl.  I was missing my shows I loved, I missed my ability to watch things when I wanted (thank you dvr).  I felt completely disconnected from the world.  It took a good month or so I noticed reading back through my entries before I started to really unwind and really enjoy the new quiet space in my life.

Last Saturday night, we put all four of our fingers on the computer mouse and as a family we clicked to make our LAST consumer debt payment!!!!! Then we had an epic hour long dance party.  Singing, dancing and feeling thousands of pounds of pressure being lifted.  Especially for the kids I wanted to make that night a big deal. A celebration, an end of a chapter.  A night they can use to bookmark these past few years as well.  We all gathered round and counted down and did our own private scream, yelling, “3…2…1… We’re DEBT FREEEEEEEEEE!!!”.  It was awesomely nerdy and fantastic and felt amazing.   Next up… savings and house.

I thank you for reading our story.   We are sending out love to all of you and we thank you for all your support over these last few years.  We’re saying cheers to each of you on the same journey and saying prayers for all of us; that we may be able to live with a wisdom beyond our immediate knowing that guides us in love, compassion and joy.

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