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$49,244.38 isn’t just a big number. It’s a huge number. A massive number. And it is the exact number of dollars — and cents — I currently owe for my college education. For my Associate’s and Bachelor’s degrees.
But it isn’t all I owe. It isn’t all we owe.
In fact, when you add my personal debt to the medical and credit card debt of my family of three — and tack on the personal loans along with my husband’s student loans — our collective “debt” rises well above the $60,000 mark.
Of course, I never thought I would end up in this position. Neither of us did. My parents were both pretty money savvy, and they taught both me and my brother about fiscal responsibility and financial responsibility. I grew up keenly aware about the dangers of debt and credit cards, but when you want a college education — when you need a college education — you do what you can.
You earn scholarships and grants and then take out loans. Student loans. Bank loans. Personal loans.
That said, I admit that not all of my “expenses” were warranted. As a college student, I ate too much, I drank too much, I traveled too much. … and I saved too little.
I lived a life which was well above my means, and now I am paying for it.
Every. damn. day.
The good news is that while our debt may seem insurmountable, we are we doing what we can to make ends meet. To make the most of of a crappy situation. And if we stay on our current trajectory, we should be out of said debt by 2021.
Within four years, our “bills” should be paid off.
Because even though our debt is roughly half of our annual income, we have a strategy. We have a method. We have a tried and true “get out of debt plan.”
Part of our plan is obvious: We live mindfully and shop frugally. We allow ourselves occasional “splurges,” but we have cut out pointless spending and totally cut up our credit cards. In essence, we live a cash-based life.
But the best thing we have done to eliminate our debt is to invest in it. And by that I mean, my husband bought a $20 book about money management.
The premise of the book, Total Money Makeover, by Dave Ramsey, is simple: Its very cover describes it as the “most straightforward game plan for completely making over your money habits” there is. Period. End of discussion.
But there’s more to the program than just bullet points and advice. There’s a method to his money-saving madness — and it’s helping us in ways I never could have expected.
Step One, as Ramsey describes it, is to create a small emergency fund. Specifically, he urges readers to tuck away $1,000 as soon as possible. This was an easy one for us, as our savings account already sat above that threshold, and so, before we knew it, we were on to Step Two: aggressively paying off all of our debt but the house. This step, as you might imagine, is easier said than done. WAY easier. I mean, how does a person living paycheck-to-paycheck find the “extra funds” to throw at their debt — or at anything, for that matter?
For us, we found it where we could: We went on a family cell phone plan and shopped around for a cheaper cable/Internet plan. We started shopping at big box stores and stopped going out to brunch. We also unlinked our damn credit cards from Amazon. (Sorry, Amazon. It wasn’t you; it was me.) It was at this time that I also began to take my freelance writing career seriously. And I mean very seriously — I bust my butt to get ahead. I never turn down work; in fact, I work every single day from home: In the morning, in the evening, and even sometimes during my daughter’s naps.
Of course, I’d be lying if I said we followed Ramsey’s plan perfectly (and we still have several more steps to go — he outlines seven in his “baby steps” plan). I mean, we still eat out from time to time and take day trips and annual vacations. After all, our daughter is young and will only be young once. And while we are paying down large chunks of debt every month, we are paying down our smallest credit card debts first, after which we will move on to personal loans and student loans. (And this, I should add, is our biggest deviation from the Ramsey plan, as Ramsey firmly believes paying off your “smallest balance [debt is, and] should be your number one priority” — regardless of interest rates or if that debt is interest-free.)
But we are still tackling our debt firmly and aggressively. And every month, we take several steps forward.
We know there is no going back.
That said, is our approach the “right” one? Maybe. Maybe not. Hell, if Ramsey were to read this he may be outraged by our “interpretation.” But this is what works best for us. In fact, this is the only long-term financial plan that’s ever worked for our family.
Make no mistake: things aren’t as “easy” as they may sound, neatly summarized here. Trust me, the day in and day out struggle of conquering debt is hard work. We have been forced to cut back and cut corners many times. We buy most of our food in bulk and happily accept hand-me-downs, and we’ve had to cancel dinner dates and playdates. Our budget has forced us to say no to both bridal showers and birthday parties because we simply could’t afford the unexpected trip, the gas, the presents, or the tolls.
But I wouldn’t have it any other way. Because at the end of the day, I have a happy, healthy, and soon-to-be debt free family — and that’s what matters most.