and ramblings on everything in between
Debt. The word takes up such little space on the page, but can have huge impacts on someone’s life. Just like weight, we can rack it up in a short amount of time, then spend years trying to lose it.
Two years ago I was given a copy of Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover. Up until that point, I had tried to be cautious with money and even dared to think I was good at managing it, but the ideas in this book presented a new challenge for me. I was two weeks away from starting a full-time job after being unemployed for 18 months, and I was also beginning to explore the Christian ideas on how we should manage and treat our money. I was carrying around $14,000 in student loans and next to nothing in my savings account. I wanted to work towards a debt-free life that would allow me to do what I love for less money instead of having to do what I hate to make more money to pay the bills. I wanted to start tithing and living a minimalist lifestyle.
For 23 months, I obsessed over my budget, additional revenue streams (or side hustles as they like to call them over at ManvsDebt), and unnecessary purchases. I did what everyone else tells you to do – I created a budget, I stopped buying things I didn’t really need, I said no a lot, I started babysitting on the weekends, and I put every extra penny towards my loan. I became cheap. Very very cheap.
I’ve given up a lot of material things, like buying new clothes. I am not ashamed to say that my friends give me their bags of Goodwill clothes to rummage through before they send them off to charity. I don’t think there is a day that goes by when I’m not wearing an item of clothing that was previously worn by a friend. I’ve made the decision to maintain an 11-year-old car, which drives my father nuts. He holds the mentality that once it starts to show signs of wear, you take out a new car loan. (I don’t dare tell him that I plan on maintaining it for another three years while I save up to pay cash for a different one). I’ve cut my entertainment money down to almost nothing.
It certainly hasn’t been easy over-analyzing every purchase and trying to live within my means in a world that doesn’t know what “within your means” means, but I had to decide what was more important to me – that item/meal/vacation or living debt free? Romans 13:8 says, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another.” If I didn’t have the debt holding me back, what else could I do to show love to others? To grow in my faith? To be an example?
I knew over time I was going to lose the debt, but I didn’t realize how this journey would shape how I viewed life. I’ve learned the importance of waiting and only purchasing things when I can afford them. I’ve learned that I don’t need to have a new kitchen table, flat iron, or pair of shoes to make me happy. Above all else, I’ve learned how important it is to trust God. There were definitely months when I looked at my budget and thought, “How in the world is this going to happen?” But God always showed up. Large car repairs were counteracted by overtime at work. Housing expenses that increased 100% were evened out with an unexpected bonus my mother received and gifted to me. God knew what I needed and always provided it, and most of the time it was in unexpected ways I never would have guessed.
Like anyone working towards a lofty goal, I had plenty of time to think about how I would feel when the goal was finally met. I imagined throwing a big party for myself so everyone could tell me, “Well done.” I thought about splurging on a night out in the city. I daydreamed about running through the streets telling everyone, “I’m DEBT FREE!” When I submitted my final student loan payment, I imagined the loan company would show up at my door and throw confetti and balloons at me and yell, “You did it! You’re DEBT FREE!” I felt like it was going to be this huge, big deal.
But it was a normal Friday. I felt normal. The people around me treated me like they normally would. I didn’t throw a huge party. I didn’t splurge on a $100 dinner. I bought myself lunch at Chipotle (because I bring a brown bag lunch every other day of the year). And then I babysat. Yep, that’s right. I did the one thing that I have done for the past two years to get myself out of debt even though I was no longer in debt. Why you might ask? Because of my 20 mile march.
I recently heard the story of two explorers who set out in 1910 to see who could reach the South Pole first. It is an extremely interesting story, which you can find in greater detail here. The winning team trekked 20 miles each day no matter what. Did you see that? NO MATTER WHAT. On the good days, on the bad days, on the days they felt like it, on the days they didn’t.
While attending a leadership training at my church, we watched a video on Jim Collins’ and Morton T. Hansen’s research to figure out why some companies thrive in uncertainty and others do not. They compared company success to elements in the story of the two explorers mentioned above. This might seem like a bit of a stretch for ministry leadership, but my pastor encouraged us to apply the 20 mile march mentality to our life. There are days I go to work and don’t want to do my best. There are days I don’t want to be diligent about being a Christian. There are plenty of days I don’t want to write. And there were certainly days when I didn’t want to say no to a new pair of jeans or a night out with friends so I could put that money towards my debt. But the story of the two explorers got me thinking about what would happen if I marched 20 miles at work, at church, at home even on the days I didn’t want to? How would that change me, my relationship with others, my relationship with God? People like to say we’re creatures of habit, so where will life lead when we replace bad habits with good? When we let our journey forever change us?
Even though I hit submit on my last student loan payment, my march can’t end here. I’m quickly realizing it has only just begun. Becoming debt free is one battle, but staying debt free will be another. My goal for early 2014 is to have a full funded emergency fund and then I’ll spend two years saving up for a different car. There will undoubtedly be hiccups and mishaps along that way that deter my savings, but I’ll continue my 20 mile march regardless. And trust.