Chelsey: Today’s post is from my friend Alison Johnston– it is her personal story of how she and her husband climbed out of $78,000 of debt in a short and focused period of time. Their story is inspiring and challenging, and if I didn’t know them personally I would have a hard time believing this was possible! Money is a challenging topic and major life stressor, but Alison’s testimony provides some wisdom in how she and her husband worked through their debt in a way that built communication in their marriage and a better financial future for their family.
From an early age, I believed debt was a natural part of life. I was told I would always have a mortgage, a car payment and assumed student debt would take decades to payoff. After taking Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University through my church I realized life didn’t always have to be that way. Through patience, perseverance, and by sticking to a plan, my husband and I were able to pay off over $78,000 dollars in debt within 14 months. I learned that it is possible to embrace and tackle personal debt, to sacrifice the lifestyle we could have enjoyed so we could better enjoy our future, and to trust in God’s plan for our finances.
After college, I had no idea how much student loan debt I had. I knew that I had student loans, but I had no idea how much I owed. My plan was to put the debt on affordable monthly payments and pay it off over time. I also purchased a modest, used car after graduation and added that to my monthly payments. The amount I owed on student loans was two times the national average, plus my car loan.
My soon-to-be-husband (Nathan) on the other hand, had no debt when he left college. As we prepared for marriage, we dug into the total amount I owed. We both were stunned to see the figure- $78,000. Not only was that a huge weight and burden on my shoulders, but I would now be bringing this into another person’s life. I felt ashamed and embarrassed with how I had managed my finances. Nathan was uncomfortable with the amount of debt I had and it was an eye opening experience of the stress that debt brings to a relationship. He now jokes that he married an above average woman in more ways than one!
Nearly $1,000/month was needed to make minimum payments on my loans. We had no idea how to tackle this huge mountain and did not know where to begin.
Through our church, we became connected with finance guru Dave Ramsey and his class Financial Peace University (FPU). The class appeared to be starting just for us, as the first session was only two days after our wedding! FPU was a great vehicle to get our debt moving out of our lives, but it is a lot easier to sit in a class and hear words about eliminating debt than actually putting those principals into practice.
The 14-month period was long and at times seemed like it would never end. Every month there were budgets formed, surplus above our basic needs calculated, and payments made. We sold a few items and cashed out some $50 savings bonds to speed up the process. We had our fair share of heated budget meetings as we deciphered want vs. need. The budget helped us grow together as we embraced tough conversations and persevered together. Many months it felt like we barely made progress at all. An extra $100 here or there seemed tiny compared to the $78,000 we owed.
We lived our lives simply and made sure to save any penny we could to put on our debt. We had to make sacrifices and put off things that we wanted in the moment, like buying a house or updating our furniture. Toward the end of our debt payoff, we challenged each other to spend only $25/week on perishable groceries and eat food we had amassed in our freezer and cupboard. This fun game boosted our moral while keeping our expenses down and surplus money up. At first, we were not sure how long we could live on $25/week, but we kept it up for two and a half months! With the support we gave each other, and our friends and family behind us, we were able climb out of the debt pit that seemed so insurmountable at the beginning.
December 23, 2015 the final bank note hit “$0.00 owed”; we screamed, danced and cried. We praised God. We were debt free. When we go back and calculate our average monthly debt payments- it seems impossible that we were able to repay so much money in such a short time. God truly blessed this process in how we managed His money.
5 tips to take control of your finances:
No matter how overwhelmed you feel, you can do it! There are many resources out there that can help you be successful; classes, books, and financial coaches. If you have debt you would like to kick out of your life, here are a few tips that helped us be successful:
- Making a new budget monthly is key to ensure you know where each dollar is going. A budget you build is simply telling your money where to go. “Budget” often brings up negative, restricting mental images, but we have found it so freeing.
- Stay diligent with your budget. To have a specific amount set aside for food, clothes, entertainment, etc. allowed us to enjoy those things guilt free because we decided how much to spend on each category ahead of time.
- Have a partner or a person or two that can help keep you on track. There are so many ways we can spend our money and it is key to have someone to bounce ideas off. For me, I had Nathan and my family alongside me. With our support system, we were able to stick to our budget and make huge progress on our debt.
- Make tithing a priority. In the beginning of eliminating debt, it is going to feel like you don’t have any money to spare, but trust that God will guide your giving. In the Bible giving is the one thing God challenges you to test him on. (Malachi 3:10) Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of Heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.”
- Be patient, but also dream big! Think of all the things you will be able to do with your money when you are not making payments each month; vacations, retirement savings, paying off your house, and giving.
The goal you set may seem insurmountable and impossible to accomplish, but you can do it!
We still live on a budget and the day we sit down and build it is my favorite day of the month. What we learned from my debt is that we will always live below our means and never get into personal debt again. We have a fully funded emergency fund and are now saving up to purchase a home. The skills we learned as we worked together, communicated, and served each other while getting out of debt are the biggest blessings from our debt repayment. These are marital skills we could not have paid anyone to learn (unless you count that $78,000). We know how to work as a team and feel we can accomplish almost anything!
Fueled by this life-changing journey, Alison has since received training and education to become a professional financial consultant (woo! Go girl, go!) Alison is extremely passionate about helping individuals and families work their way out of debt. If you would like to connect with her for further advice or financial consulting, don’t hesitate to reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.