Today I am sharing with you my family’s personal journey into debt-free living. We started out in a lot of debt and couldn’t make the choices we wanted to make. Then one incident happened that shook the entire thing up and we began our journey to financial freedom. Now we own 4 rental properties and are at the point where we are focusing on building more and more passive income.
I know there are a lot of women and moms out there that really want to stay home and care for their kids and household, but logistically finance-wise can’t see that happening. I also know there are a lot of women out there that WANT to work, but childcare is just too expensive so you feel stuck. So regardless of whether you want to stay home or you want to go to work, it is important to at least have the option to if you wanted it or something happened and it was needed.
Our journey into debt
I want to start out by first sharing with you how we got into debt. I think it’s important to see the progression and also so that you know we aren’t where we are now because we only ever had a small amount of debt, we had a lot.
My first debt ever was student loans. I came out of school with about $25k in student loans. Then I went back to school for my Master's degree and took out a loan for $8k, which I didn’t need that much, but that was the max they offered so I took it.
Justin also had a student loan debt of around $30k. He got a job after he graduated that paid pretty well and put every dime towards his loans. He was able to pay his loans off in a year so they were a non-factor for us.
Once I got a job we decided to buy a house. I wanted to buy our forever home. We stretched ourselves to get there and then, naturally, you have to furnish a house. Enter in credit cards for new couches, tables, and whatever else.
After the house came the new cars. I got a BRAND NEW Kia Optima, along with a $20k car payment. My husband got his DREAM car, an Audi A6, along with a $30k car payment.
Add our lack of self-control when it came to eating out and all the other bills on top, we got in over our heads very quickly.
The “we can afford the payment” belief
Due to the rise in our income, we also raised our bills and got stuck in the mindset of “it’s okay because we can afford the payment.” We COULD afford the payments! Not only could we afford the payments, but we could also still tithe, we had money in savings, and our jobs were secure. We felt like we were in the sweet spot. We had upgraded to a few nice things that we worked hard for, and honestly spent a decent amount of our adult lives without, and so we felt like we earned it.
When situations change
After having my first baby I started to have the itch to be a stay-at-home mom. Then we had our second and I started really desiring to stay home. As a teacher, childcare took up the majority of my income, but the insurance benefits for our family were important.
Then in 2015, the housing market was REALLY good. Justin and I got the itch to upgrade our house again. The “dream house” we bought didn’t have a very open floor plan, it wasn’t in a cul de sac, and among other things, Justin had gotten a raise and we thought we might as well capitalize on the market to get into our ACTUAL dream house. We found a house that was about $100k MORE than the house we were currently in but it checked all the boxes. So we started the process.
A blessing in disguise
We were in the 10 day inspection period for both houses when Justin got a job offer from another company. The company he worked with at this time was a great job, the money was good, and he loved it. But he was working nights and weekends and long days, it wasn’t what we wanted for raising a family.
This new employer reached out to him and basically, the job seemed perfect. Monday through Friday 8-4, no more nights and no more weekends. We WANTED him to take the new job, but the pay was significantly less and we were just about to buy this new, very expensive house. Justin wasn’t able to take that job because we couldn’t afford him to take a pay cut.
Two days later, I started feeling super tired and nauseous. I took a pregnancy test and it was positive. I remember sitting at the kitchen table next to Justin and feeling SO overwhelmed. Now we were going to have to pay for 3 in daycare (our other two were 2yr and 6mo at the time) and I still couldn’t quit because we would for sure need the pay and insurance from my job now.
Just then my phone rang, it was my realtor. She said, “Steph, I’m so sorry to tell you this but the buyers for your home backed out because your floors aren’t real wood. I know it’s the smallest thing - I think they were just looking for a way to back out and this is how they are going to do it.” I literally started crying on the phone and told her that that news was the best thing that could have happened. We dodged a BULLET.
The day that changed everything
We settled back into our normal life where we felt comfortable and not stretched too thin. One day we got a letter in the mail from Africa Fire Mission which was a nonprofit we supported. They were asking for $3k to ship a container to Africa.
I looked at Justin and said, “I want to be able to do this, I want to be able to get this letter and have the ability to write a $3k check to something we really believe in. $3k is a chunk of change but when you put it in perspective of us having almost $1k/month of car payments, it’s not that much. I mean we make good money but for what? To drive nice cars that sit in parking lots most of the day or for a house that we are never in because we have to work all these crazy hours? We are paying a sitter a ton of money and I can’t be the ones to raise our kids? Like what is going on?”
That day everything changed.
What we did next
Justin ended up taking that job that paid less but the hours were better so we could spend more time as a family. We sold Justin’s Audi and he took my Kia. I bought a minivan in cash with over 100k miles on it from my mother-in-law for $3k. Our car payments dropped from almost $1k/mo to about $300/mo.
We had our third baby in March of 2016 and I quit teaching to stay home.
We put our first dream house on the market and bought a house that was about $80k less than that house and 1000 square feet smaller. People made comments because we had just had our 3rd baby and we were downsizing everything. It’s important to remember that we were still “comfortable” and able to pay all of our payments without downsizing. The issue was we were so in debt we had no choices.
Paying down our debt
Next, we began to work on paying down our debt snowball. We paid down our credit card and started dumping what would have gone to those payments into Justin’s car loan. We got a $10k inheritance from Justin’s Grandma and we put that towards the car loan. If we ever got anything from bonuses or taxes it never touched our bank account.
Justin got paid and within 24 hours we had no money. Why? Because I was starting to tell every single dollar where to go. We had our cash on hand for miscellaneous stuff, gas, and groceries. We paid our bills and then EVERYTHING leftover went to our snowball.
I went back to work for 2 years teaching online trying to see if I could have the best of both worlds. Long story short, it was not. It was not fun to work from home with 4 little babies, but I did it and basically, we lived off of Justin’s income and my income went straight to paying anything and everything off, building our savings, paying college funds that we wanted to have, and contributing towards retirement. Until we got to where we are at now.
Our current situation
We are currently debt-free, are creating more and more passive income for ourselves, and have an awesome college fund for the boys. We are able to happily give so much money right now and with open hands. It’s just a totally different life. We have bought 4 rental properties. Justin has switched jobs after the company he worked for laid off a ton of employees. I quit teaching again and have started my own business helping others. We have been able to be foster parents. It’s just an entirely different way of life.
Important takeaways from our journey to debt-free living
- I worked for about 6 more years than I wanted to. After I had Noah, our first baby, I wanted to quit but continued to teach for 4 more years. I also had no desire to work online, but I knew if I could make an income and 100% of it could go towards our debt and savings, it would just catapult us to the next level quicker. We pushed our current desires aside in order to reach the life we wanted for our future.
- I CONSUMED myself with financial literacy stuff. Dave Ramsey’s podcast was in my ears as I drove to and from work, and as I did the dishes and laundry. I read his books and led Financial Peace University at our church.
- We told everyone we are getting out of debt. People were aware. We still did things with friends and family, but a lot of the time we did game nights in. I started cooking more and we ate out less. We said ‘no’ to ourselves so much. We went on 1-2 week spending freezes to jump a little bit ahead.
- I took complete charge of our money. Justin knew the plan and the goal and he just let me run with it. He worked, I gave him money, and that was that. This isn’t a deprivation or a time to be a princess or a prince (as Dave Ramsey says) and throw a fit. This is the time to humble yourself and make the hard choices to get back on your feet. Dave says, “Children do what feels good. Adults make a plan and stick with it.” After years of being “children” so to speak with our money, we decided to be adults, together.
Was it worth it?
This is your life. You can do the slow grind or you can do the “extreme” as we did. Our family went from crazy-in-debt to having no debt, a big savings, colleges funded for our kids, retirement stacked, and our giving is our highest payment each month (even over our mortgage) in 2.5-3 years. So if you would ask me if I would do it again the way we did it, I would say 100x yes.
Our house is smaller and not as ‘nice’ as our other house but our kids run up and down these hallways just like they did in the other house. We all still snuggle up on the couch for a family movie night just like we did in the other house. Our older cars still get us to the places we need to get to just like our newer cars did. We still have a backyard in this house where our dog can play just like she did at our old house. Our neighbors in this house are just as special and amazing as our old house.
We thought we were giving our family the best when we upgraded to nice things. When in reality we gave them stressed-out parents that worked all the time.
Resources for your journey to debt-free living
Now, it’s a different story. Part of leaving a legacy you want to leave for your children is by doing the hard thing as an adult. Showing them that it’s okay to come to a screeching halt and pivot, even when that means we all sacrifice and have to say ‘no’ to things we want for this SEASON.
There is no freedom like having financial freedom. Finances touch everything in your life. Outside of the freedom, we receive in Christ, the tangible and intangible freedom of owning your finances instead of the other way around is one of the very best things I’ve ever experienced in this life.
If you are currently in a spot like we were, in over your head in debt, feeling stuck with no options, I encourage you to take action. I have numerous podcast episodes full of free information that can help you on your journey to debt-free living. Click here to access my podcast directory and begin listening to the episodes on finances.
Another great resource that I'd love to give you to help you get started is my free checklist Setting the Stage: The pre-work of paying down debt. This is a simple step-by-step checklist to help get your mind in the right place and your debt organized. I also am always sharing tips on my Instagram, so make sure you are following me there!
P.S. If you are already on a debt-free journey and find yourself ready for a little bigger commitment that will help propel you forward, check out my signature money mindset course, "Entrusted With Her Finances".