Bookending ‘The Year of No’

Today is President’s Day in the United States, and a Federal holiday. It also happens to be the day my family sets aside each year to get our taxes done.

In 2017, the President signed into law the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. The law’s purpose was to lower the amount of taxes paid by most Americans (hopefully stimulating the economy, creating jobs, etc.). There is plenty of debate elsewhere on whether this legislation is a good or bad thing, I only mention it here because I knew it could have some effect as we worked to pay off our student loans in 2018.

I was eager to get my taxes done today, because I honestly wasn’t sure how it was going to play out. As I read stories like “More Taxpayers Will Owe The IRS In April Because Of Underwithholding, Report Says,” I started to get a little nervous.

Would our work to pay off our student loans feel like a pyrrhic victory? Fortunately, the answer ended up being, “No.”

Our taxes are filed, and not only did we end up paying less taxes throughout 2018, but we are also receiving a refund. This refund will go toward our next goal of going to Disney World in September. I am quite happy with all the hard work from 2018 turned out. It was all worth it.

The filing of our taxes is the final bookend from The Year of No. Although the year ended with some personal setbacks stemming from the unexpected death of my mother, I am happy to report that the efforts of 2018 weren’t further penalized by having to pay additional taxes.

We are still not 100 percent completely debt free because of events toward the end of last year, but we are done with the debt I hated most: student loans. For that, I am very grateful.

An interesting tidbit I gleaned from my discussion with my tax preparer this morning, in addition to other education I learned last year, is that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Acts might actually reward taxpayers more than they realize.

You can potentially lower your tax bill by putting your money in pre-tax savings, such as a 401k, an HSA (if available to you), and college savings plans (if you have dependents who will go to college). This could lower your tax bill by moving you toward (or even into) a lower tax bracket, which would also lower the amount of taxes you end up paying.

Is the new tax law best for the country? That is another debate entirely. But, paying less taxes can be much better for your pocketbook, especially if you’re trying to get out of debt.

I wanted to stress how important I think it is to hire an expert. Our taxes are probably not complex enough to necessitate having to use a professional tax service. However, there are enough changes in our tax law from year to year — let alone when major legislation is passed — that I find great value in having someone who knows much more than me guide me through the finer points. My go-to is Hume’s Tax Service from when we used to live in Lawrence, Kansas, and I don’t plan on stopping using their services just because we moved 50 minutes away.

While I was there, I also took the time to ask how recent tax changes would affect our future plans, such as buying a house, and received some important information that will help us as we move toward that goal.

But first, we’re going to Disney World.

This chapter of my life was called “Getting out from the burden of student loans.” It is finally complete.

A fitting end

After 14 years, roughly 195,000 miles, and a ton of memories, my little blue Toyota Corolla is no  longer part of our household.

Our plan was to replace it in March of 2019, but I was involved in an auto accident in November which caused me to rethink that plan. The accident took off half the bumper, and I’m sure I could have replaced it. But having already gone down the path of sinking money into an old vehicle that wasn’t worth fixing, I wasn’t going to repeat that mistake.

I found a 2010 Toyota Corolla with 84,000 miles on it and it cost half of what my 2003 Toyota Corolla cost when I bought it in November 2004. Yes, it was bought on credit. Despite all the things I’ve written about on this blog and our minor stint 100 percent debt free this year, I have zero negative feelings about that.

Red Toyota Corolla
Out with the old, in with the newer (but certainly not new).

Allow me to explain.

I found a flaw in Dave Ramsey’s system, and it has everything to do with Baby Step 1: Save $1,000 in a starter emergency fund.

The starter emergency fund is just to get you buy while you go crazy about debt and get it paid off. That worked well for us for a long time. But if you live in a place where having dependable cars is a necessity, you won’t be replacing your car for only $1,000 if you have one die. There will be fees associated with taxes, tags, insurance, and in the case of the state where I live, inspections. And what you don’t pay for in dollars, I promise you’ll pay at least as much in time getting your a different car established in your name.

When you get to the end of your debt free journey as we did but have nothing to your name but $1,000 and things start going bad, guess where you end up? That’s right: credit. I’m sure I could make a case against doing what we did. I’m sure we could have been more strict, more intense, more whatever. We even received a financial gift that helped out a lot with our van purchase, but had we not had that gift we would have definitely used credit either way.

That’s not to say I think Ramsey’s plan is a bad one. I think it’s great for a lot of people. My biggest complaint would be that the plan tends to be touted as the only way to financial fitness, and its devotees tend to believe the same way (I was one of them).

I think his plan needs updated. Maybe your starter emergency fund should be a percentage of your monthly income. Maybe while you’re paying off debt (which is typically two years or less according to Ramsey’s experience), you should be saving a little every month rather than putting it all on debt. I don’t know what the answer is, but I’m sure it needs adjusted. I don’t believe Baby Step 1 is correct.

We are no longer following Dave Ramsey’s Baby Steps plan.

That’s not to say I wouldn’t recommend Dave Ramsey and his plan to those looking to go from zero to hero in terms of financial knowledge. I think his plan has many, many good points and has obviously helped many people.

But the plan might not be what is best for your situation, and I think that’s something Ramsey’s plan misses. That is now the path my household is on. We are figuring out our own plan for our situation, and we’ll take it step-by-step.

Yes, I want to be debt free. Yes, I want to financially wise. But I also don’t want to be confined to dogma because someone else is too scared to think outside of the box.

So Dave, it’s been fun. I will still listen, still be a fan, and still recommend you to others. But your plan doesn’t work for us, and we’re going to find a different way.

 

Knowing when to pause

As this year began, I was filled with an amazing amount of hope for how it would end. Little did I know how different it would end.

Financially, we are at a standstill because life has been put on pause. On Oct 13, 2018, my mother died unexpectedly. I had a good relationship with her. Perhaps not surprisingly, her death has hit me hard.

There have been many financial lessons learned in the past month. As such, I’ve been thinking about writing on the following topics from a financial perspective:

  • Writing a will
  • How much one should spend on burying the dead
  • Life insurance
  • How to let your loved ones know where all the very important papers and logins are
  • Being prepared for a death

But now is not the time to write about such things. My heart is not into writing much. It’s hard enough getting through the day, let alone thinking of writing. Dave Ramsey likes to stress the personal in the phrase “personal finance,” and now is one of those times where I certainly see why he does that.

Left unchecked, I could very easily self-medicate through spending and consumption. Would a new Apple Watch or iPhone bring back a little fun? Would going out and purchasing a “project house” help occupy my mind in my non-work hours? Would replacing my decrepit car ease my pain a little during my daily drives?

The answer to any of those questions may very well be “yes.” However, the risk is very high that the answer could be “no,” or “only temporarily,” and so the only real answer in times of uncertainty and turmoil is “wait.”

The funny thing is, at this moment, I really don’t care about being debt free. It’s very, very low on my list of things I find important for the time being.

Right now, I’m in a period of reflection. There are some key points surrounding my mother’s death that are challenging my thoughts on my own views of personal finance, but I need to allow some time for my views to mature. I will definitely write about them, but now is not the time to do so.

For now, I will round out the year. I will work, I will spend time with my family, I will grieve, and keep repeating all those things. For now, I wait.

A step backwards

Just when I thought I was out … they pull me back in. — Michael Corleone, as played by Al Pacino in The Godfather: Part III

When I started writing this charting of our journey to debt freedom, I decided to be highly transparent through the process. I wanted my writing to be helpful to others who might be on the same journey, even if our circumstances are unique to us. I had hoped that giving a glimpse into our family’s journey, it might helpful to many more.

Sadly, we are no longer debt free. I am sorry. But if you will allow for my side of the story, please keep reading.

In July, I wrote about our decrepit van and the struggle we were having keeping it afloat. It was limping along until August, but then ran into yet another issue that I couldn’t troubleshoot on my own. It wasn’t for a lack of trying. I went to a local salvage yard and bought a part for next to nothing in a last-ditch effort hoping it would fix it, but the effort was in vain.

The van, which we called Rosie, had reached end of life. She wasn’t safe to drive anymore. The blinkers and the horn didn’t work, so getting around in the city without the necessary safety accoutrements didn’t seem to be the right choice since Rosie served as our main daily kid-hauler.

It seemed like we were destined to sink more money into it, but then the unexpected happened. We received a windfall in the form of a financial blessing. The amount was more than enough to cover the cost of a replacement van. We’ve been planning, researching, and saving to replace the van in December, but we weren’t fully funded toward that goal yet. And then this out-of-the-blue windfall happened, and we examined our options.

We could:

  1. Throw more money at the van and hope that the fixes would get us by until later when we could have the full amount to pay for a newer vehicle with cash;
  2. Purchase a somewhat newer, and somewhat similar mileage van that would be completely paid for with the money we received and what we had saved up so far, or;
  3. Purchase a newer, lower-mileage vehicle with everything we wanted but would require a small loan to get us all the way there, coupled with what we had in savings and our newly acquired funds.

My wife and I discussed it, and felt like putting more money into a vehicle that was destined for the scrapyard was a foolish decision. We could have went with the second option, but we believed that would be a temporary stopgap. So, we chose option three.

For most people, option three would be a terrible choice. However, we were in a unique situation where we had most, but not all, of the funds to purchase. The market for used vehicles is always hit or miss, but we knew exactly what we wanted and there happened to be the exact type of van to meet all of our needs and wants available elsewhere in the metro area.

After two test drives, lots of discussion, and some paperwork, the deal was done.

Believe me, it pains me to write this. And yes, all of this was a choice. Whenever someone says, “I had to buy a (insert whatever purchase here),” that statement should almost always be read, “I chose to buy a new (thing).” We chose to go back into debt for this purchase. No matter how small the amount is, it was a choice we made.

This weekend has really made me think hard about the baby steps. If you’re following the plan and you have things like working cars or a home that needs little maintenance, then things are going to work out great. But what happens when you get out of debt and things you’ve held together on a string start falling apart? It takes time to save up enough money for an emergency fund, and then start replacing things. If all goes well, then you’re golden. But if not?

Also, I’ve thought a lot about dogma. Those following the Baby Steps tend to be fairly cultish in adherence to the principles (raises hand). The principles are sound, and wise, but are they 100 percent applicable to all people? When do you step away from a dogmatic approach and ask, “What’s the best to do for us, in our situation, right now?” I’m not saying I have the answers to these questions. I am merely asking them.

This weekend’s van purchase was hopefully one we’ll utilize for another decade. We purchased Rosie in 2009, and it make it until last this year. That’s quite a run for a van that was made in 2000. The new van is a 2012 Toyota Sienna minivan with 107,000 miles on it. It runs and rides like a dream. The blinkers work, the horn works, and it has excellent tires. Even though our last van was a Sienna, they have made great changes in the last 19 years, and our new van has an incredible amount more space for our family of five.

I regret that we were not in a better position to make this an outright purchase, but we didn’t have enough saved yet to make that happen. Perhaps we shouldn’t have put $900 into the old van in July. Maybe my wife and I shouldn’t have taken a vacation to celebrate our 15-year anniversary that same month. It’s possible we could have been more intense in our savings since we paid off our initial debt in June. But that’s not what happened, and now we have to deal with the choices of our actions, past and present.

Most importantly, we had to tell our children of the decision, why we did it, and what this means going forward. It looks like The Year of No is still on. In a few months, we’ll be back to where we were in June; we just had to take a little detour to get there.

Dear reader, I’m sorry if I let you down. Please know I didn’t make this decision flippantly, and weighed heavily all the options we had before us. In the end, we did what we felt was best for us at this time. But I hope you can appreciate my effort to be transparent, even if that means admitting to backpedalling a little for a short time. I value integrity to a great degree, and felt I had to be forthcoming about our decision this Labor Day weekend.

My hope is that in a few months, this won’t feel like such a sting. And in a year, my hope is this won’t even be a blip on the greater story of an American family trying to navigate this country’s financial waters.

Time will reveal if my suspicions are true.

Minding the blind spot

Recently I posted an article on social media by a minimalist author I read, Joshua Becker. The article, “All The Things I Want to Say About Money But Never Do,” spoke some tough words about the difference between those who say they want to have a different life but live very differently than the story they tell.

Probably one of the hardest hitting lines of the piece reads like this: “You would have more money for the things you want if you stopped foolishly wasting it on other things.

Woo, boy. Let’s just lay it all out there.

To be clear, Becker wasn’t talking about things like “if you’re poor, stop being poor” or how the ever vilified millennials could afford a house if only they could give up their love for avocado toast. Becker was quite clear — there are people he knows who have said they wanted to do things differently with their lives and finances, yet the lifestyle they choose daily reflect a different pattern.

I have people in my life who are like that also. Over time, I have learned to keep my mouth shut. Well, mostly. I’ve gotten better about it over the years. I have found that no one wants to hear how they’re doing something wrong, especially when they’re not ready to make a real change.

An acquaintance of mine called this viewpoint “disgustingly condescending and unrealistic,” in addition to “extremely elitist and smug.” He then went on to talk about my family’s progress in getting out of debt, and then spent the rest of his time talking about how our progress would be impossible in his current situation. As such, he derided our progress in claiming that the success we had couldn’t be applied to everyone.

I tried to point out that we sacrificed a lot, cutting down expenses to the bone. I tried to explain that I had worked two jobs, and as such put all extra money on our debt. I tried to point out that our income hasn’t always been good, and that there were plenty of times where there was no more money at the end of paying bills for the month.

He didn’t hear what I was saying. No, he didn’t want to hear what I was saying. The hard and simple truth was this: he was brimming with envy, because he wasn’t living our life.

That is a dangerous road to go down, and one that will never lead to happiness or success.

There was something he said that gave me enough pause that I’ve spent weeks thinking about it. He said, “But the amount of money you were able to put toward paying off debt each month is more than some people even bring home in a month. That’s your blind spot.”

He is partially correct. My family’s ability to pay on debt was more than some people bring home every month. But the blind spot isn’t mine, it’s his and everyone like him.

I don’t consider my family rich in the western mindset view of that word (but I would say we are in the global sense). We’ve worked really hard to get to zero, but our total net worth, especially for the age of my wife and I, not very far in the positive column. We may have cut off all the red chain links, but the black chains aren’t linking together, at least, not yet.

But this discussion really isn’t about money. The actual conversation revolves around the idea that you are responsible for your destiny. Money problems are only a symptom of a greater problem that you haven’t yet taken ownership of your life. Even worse, when your thoughts are consumed comparing your life to someone else’s, you end up stuck in a cycle of defeat.

Envy is the seed that plants a tree of spiritual death.

For every 10 people who have asked me about how to make a change in their career or how to pay off their debt, there’s only one or two who actually make an effort to create change. Yes, of course, there are people out there who are burdened with terrible wages, no skills, and difficult life circumstances. Of course! But that in no way means there isn’t a way out for those who have grit.

Change won’t happen overnight. Sometimes, it takes years. Take the story of the woman whose picture of her name badges went viral last year. The picture shows the progression of her work from a fast food worker at KFC, to eventually becoming a registered nurse.

There are people I know who found free programs to teach coding, sacrificed their time to learn some new skills, then found an apprentice job. Taking a pay cut from their previous employment, they are working toward an unknown future but betting on the one thing they feel they have the best investment in: themselves.

Or how about a friend of mine who has spent a long time working in the service industry, and decided that life wasn’t good enough for him? He learned new skills, dove into the work, and just accepted a position where he’ll be doing tech support for a company in Kansas City. He used to be just a guy that served drinks at a local watering hole, but now he’s on a different path. “I’m excited to get out of the bars,” he told me.

If you go to your favorite search engine and type “what the rich don’t understand about the poor,” you’ll find no shortage of articles talking about successful people and their blind spots. But what if you flip that on its head? If you search for “what the poor don’t understand about the rich” you get very different and sparse results. The best answers I could find on that question came from Quora: “What do rich people understand that poor people don’t?”

It seems there’s plenty of blind spots to go around.

Outside of the books necessary for my job growth and my decade plus interest in nutrition and health, the only other topic I’ve read and researched immensely would be personal finance. The one thing all of these texts have in common are a common question that is asked of the reader, either blatantly or with subtlety — what are you doing to improve?

I most like how the philosopher/writer Mark Manson put it: “How do you choose to suffer?” If you want to make change and make progress, it is imperative you learn how much you’re willing to suffer to get what you want. There is no way around it — struggle is necessary for growth and success.

I am positive I could look at just about anyone’s budget and find ways to make cuts. I am certain I could look at someone’s work and lead them on a path toward greater prosperity. Will someone else have the same outcome that we are now enjoying? I certainly hope not. I hope he is more successful. I hope she makes fewer mistakes. I want everyone to be successful, and enjoy a rich, full, happy life. And that, most certainly, will mean different things to different people.

There’s an old saying that says, “You can show someone the door, but you can’t make them go through it.” To those who want to poo poo their life and compare their circumstances to others, there will be no happiness. Those who blame the government, their families, their jobs, or whatever for their current situation will have no peace. Can they truly look themselves in the mirror after yet another year and say, “Nothing has changed because the world hasn’t let me progress?”

On the flipside, there are those who refuse to be complacent. They may be battered, but they are not done fighting. They may have the odds stacked against them, but they are working to find their way to the next level, and the next, and the next.

I don’t have enough time to outline all my failures, nor would I choose to do so. Instead, I’m working to keep getting better at all the things I do. I’m going to persist in looking forward, and I keep stepping away from my past. I don’t find much value in looking backwards.

You have before you two paths, one that leads to self pity, and another that leads to struggle. The obstacle is the way.

Change!

How did you do that?

In a previous post, I talked about one of two common questions I’ve been asked since becoming debt free: “What’s next?” This post is about the other common question I’ve heard quite a bit as well: “How did you do that?”

You’ve probably heard or said this question before. It happens a lot when someone loses a lot of weight. We all want to know the magic secret. “How did you lose 20 pounds? I have to know how you did that!”

We’re all looking for the secret to a higher level of success. While I don’t know if what we did is exactly secret (this is a public blog after all), if these words can encourage others to examine how they are doing things then I find it important to share.

  1. Have a plan. I stumbled for years before I found Dave Ramsey’s book “The Total Money Makeover” and decided the plan he outlined made sense. Maybe you don’t think Ramsey’s plan is right for you, and that’s OK. But don’t sit around without getting more knowledge about how you should move forward. Do some reading, investigate, watch some videos, whatever. Knowledge is power, and there’s no reason in a modern society to claim ignorance. Between your local library, videos, blogs, podcasts, and much more, cost shouldn’t be a factor either. There are lots of ways to increase your knowledge for free or cheap, if you’re willing to give up complacency and start searching.
  2. Go all in. We made huge strides when we decided to stop doing things at half effort. We looked for ways to cut expenses. We looked for deals. We increased income. And probably most importantly since I’m married, my wife and I got on the same page. We said no a lot. It was painful to turn down going out to eat, buying that extra self indulgence, or rewarding ourselves because we “deserve it.” Going all in requires a lot of intensity, but focused intensity is how you win.
  3. Have a monthly budget. I’m not sure if people are good or bad about this, but there’s no way I could live my life without a budget anymore. At one point in my life that wasn’t the case. I was so horrible. I spent money and kept checking my bank account to make sure I didn’t go over. That worked pretty well until it didn’t. I certainly didn’t have a plan to save or pay off any debt. I spent and spent and hoped everything would turn out OK. Now, we have a monthly budget (made in a spreadsheet) that allows us to tell our money how we’re going to spend it. We adjust as needed, but no more do we spend without a plan. There are many resources available to help you get started making a budget, so don’t make any excuses not to do it. Speaking of that …
  4. Stop making excuses. I was the king of making excuses. There was always some reason we weren’t making better progress. Only after I took a hard look at myself and my family’s situation, and was honest about why things were as they were that I came to realize we could do more. As a species, we are incredibly efficient at feeling sorry for ourselves. When you’ve finally reached you’re “I’ve had enough!” moment, you can reach into the pit of your stomach, purge the excuses, and get to doing the work of making a real change.
  5. Put off buying all that stuff you probably don’t need anyway. Do you really need a new car, or would a repair and contentment or a used car do fine for now? Are those name brand shoes a necessity, or can you get by with some “el cheapos” until later? Why are you still going out to eat for $10 to $15 a pop when you could easily bring a lunch for $2 a meal? If you delay your desires for a little while, then you can reap the rewards in the near future. The time goes by quicker than you might think. Resist the urge to indiscriminately spend now, and then go get yourself some nicer things later when you can use money instead of credit.
  6. Work hard, but also work smart. I was totally willing to work any kind of extra job to accelerate our debt payoff process, and had the support from my spouse to do it. I looked around and came across some side income that utilized the same skills from my profession, which happened to pay a lot better than being a janitor or a casino security guard (two jobs I seriously considered). The side job also allowed me to work from home, so I didn’t have to be away from my family for hours on end. Cutting costs will only take you so far, but bringing in additional income will catapult your efforts to the next level. It was hard work and stressful to keep things in balance at times, but it was so worth it.
  7. Ignore everybody. You might come have people in your life who won’t understand what you’re doing or why you’re doing it. From my experience, there are plenty of people who are willing to tell you how you’re doing it wrong and why your efforts aren’t that special. Ignore them; ignore everybody. The number of people I have found who are actively working to pay off debt and improve their financial future is very low. Fortunately, we were also surrounded by people who were encouraging us. But really, you have to ignore them, too. If you get too comfortable with your progress you may be tempted to back off your intensity. Don’t back off. Ignore the haters, say thank you to your supporters, and push really hard to the end.
  8. Have a big “why.” My family was a big motivator, for sure. I want to bring my children up with sound financial principles so they grow up and hopefully avoid some of the mistakes their mother and I have made. In addition, I was angry. Our student loan was our last debt, and I hate how the student loan system is set up. When students enter higher education, they are allowed to borrow huge sums of money. Regardless if you fall on financial hardship, like say the global economy almost collapsing, you’re indebted for life. Government-backed student loans are not bankrupt-able. I made that an excuse for a long time until I decided to funnel anger into energy for getting out of debt. We’re no longer a slave to that system of control, and I hope I can teach my children to stay free as well.

There is probably more to it, but that’s a lot of the main points. What’s keeping you from paying off your debt? If I can do this, then you can do this. It certainly won’t be easy, but I doubt you’ll regret it.

And as Ramsey says, “If you pay off your debt and hate it, you can always go get you some more.”

The spiritual side of getting out of debt

Note: This post is religious in nature. If you’re not interested in that, I totally understand.

It’s not in my typical purview to discuss religious things in an open forum. While I have no problem discussing it in a one-on-one setting where reason, debate and healthy questioning can flourish, it seems that modern discussion of such things online often deteriorate into misunderstanding and hostility, of which I have no interest in participating.

However, I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the part that my faith has played in our journey in becoming debt free, so I wanted to share my story. Everyone believes in something, but this is my journey. If you choose to follow down a debt-free path, I hope you share your experience as well.

There are many Judeo-Christian texts that highlight the importance of knowing how to handle money. I’m not referring to the gross prosperity gospel — a belief that God will reward you financially if you are obedient — but rather practical, ancient advice on how to handle financial matters.

For example, here are a few things that Judeo-Christian text warn about with regard to finances:

  • “One who lacks sense gives a pledge and puts up security in the presence of his neighbor.” – Proverbs 17:8. This is a clear warning not to co-sign for others. It’s literally saying you’re stupid for doing so.
  • “The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender.” – Proverbs 22:7. Fairly clear cut advice, that borrowing money makes you a slave to the one who loaned it to you.
  • “During the seven plentiful years the earth produced abundantly, and he gathered up all the food of these seven years, which occurred in the land of Egypt, and put the food in the cities. He put in every city the food from the fields around it. And Joseph stored up grain in great abundance, like the sand of the sea, until he ceased to measure it, for it could not be measured.” – Genesis 41:47-49. Here we see a warning to take advantage of prosperous times save for the inevitable bad times that will come.
  • “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’” – Luke 14:28-30. Put another way, “Failing to plan, is planning to fail.”

And so on, and so on, and so on.

Two years ago in 2016, I felt a spiritual calling to move to a different city. I wasn’t sure how much this would positively impact my life, other than I was tired of commuting 50 minutes each way. I certainly knew plenty of people who did the commute from the city I lived in to the city I worked, and considered it “just the way it is.” But I could not escape this tug. I told my wife about the urge to move, and she reluctantly agreed. Like myself, she didn’t really want to move from the city we lived in (we loved it dearly), but she agreed we should follow this “call.”

Our house sold in six days. We moved two months later, and things haven’t been the same since. Within a week after moving, I was officially converted from a contract employee to a full-time employee, giving me benefits, more take home pay, and a solid foundation to make progress on our debt. We attended Financial Peace University, which is rooted in religious principles but is certainly not exclusive; if you have no religious affiliation you’re more than welcome to attend. We made a commitment to go all-in on our debt payoff, and on Sept. 11, 2016, began to work diligently on becoming debt-free.

From the upbringing of my youth, I remembered there was a passage in Proverbs that read, “Dedicate your plans to the Lord and you will succeed.” Well, I thought that was a bunch of hogwash. See, I had been committing a fair amount of plans and nothing was coming of it. It was only until I re-read that passage in late 2017 that I realized my mistake: I had completely misremembered it. The real passage reads like so: “Commit your work to the Lord and your plans will be established” – Proverbs 16:3.

You see, there is an important distinction between plans and work. It’s pretty easy to think your planning is the same as action, but it’s not. It’s the beginning of action, but not the follow through. It’s interesting how these passages can have both a spiritual and a practical value to them. The revelation of my mistake hit me hard. So, I decided to give it another shot. I wrote that verse out on a piece of paper with a challenge written underneath: “Are you there, God?”

Things changed.

My wife and I changed course at the beginning of the year. We doubled down on our efforts. “If we did this, this, this, and this, we could be debt free by the end of October 2018,” I told her. She was in.

But October wasn’t my real goal. My actual plan — the one I wanted to see established (you can read that word as “to be made true”) was that I wanted to be out of debt by July 26, 2018. That date is our 15-year anniversary, and I couldn’t think of a better present. While we were dating, my wife revealed to me the extent of her debt. I brought some to the marriage, but hers was twice the amount. Getting a master’s degree all on student loans can do that. Realistically, I had a choice to make: do I walk away from this, or do I saddle up and see what happens? I obviously chose the latter.

I had my actual plans, but how could that work? I looked at the possibility of taking on another job. I was content to do whatever I could get my hands on. Amy agreed to take on extra kid-rearing duties while I worked extra, so now I just had to find something. I inquired into possibly being a pizza delivery driver, a janitor, or even security at one of the nearby casinos. But another opportunity came that fit me perfectly. It was almost too good to be true.

Using the freelance website Upwork, I secured a gig that had me doing something I know pretty well:

  • I did web development work (what I do full-time),
  • for members of the United States House of Representatives (I previously worked in government for nine years),
  • in a web software called Drupal (which I also work in full-time and have for many years),
  • using a tool called Coda to complete the job (which I happened to write about five years ago, but haven’t used it much since then until this year).

To top it all off, my duties changed at work about a month before my side job, began, allowing me more freedom to work two jobs without getting completely burned out.

Everything just fell into place, just like that. I have never had so many positive things line up so wonderfully than it has this year. And it all worked: we are going to be out of debt by, early even, my desired goal of July 26, 2018.

So what’s the point of this discourse? As I said, we all believe in something. I’ll leave that to you to figure out what. But when it comes to achieving Big Hairy Goals, especially paying off debt, I don’t believe it’s all numbers. There’s psychological, spiritual, philosophical, and other factors that come into play. I would encourage everyone to look deep at what can help motivate them, to guide them, to drive them.

I am a deeply flawed, very imperfect human being. But my faith has played an important role since started this journey in earnest 21 months ago. And fortunately for me, it’s grown stronger for me this year for the better.

I hope you find your strength as well.

 

How weird people live

It’s been said that normal people are broke, and weird people are the ones who are trying to be the opposite.

We are definitely weird people. Lately I have been learning more about how these weirdos live.

Last week a friend hit me up to join him for lunch. He offered to pick me up, and when I went to his car I was blown away. Gone was his crappy beater car, and in its place was a 2011 Honda Civic. As long as I have known him, he hasn’t had a car made in the same decade he was currently living, but something had changed.

By both our standards, the car was quite an upgrade. It was clean, ran great, and had a nice interior. It has a few miles on it, sure, but with Hondas and Toyotas, more than 100,000 is just getting broke in.

I feared the worst when I got in his car.

“So, what are the payments like?” I asked.

“No payments,” he said.

“You paid cash? Well, a cashiers check?”

“Yep,” he said.

Just a few years ago, he and I were neck and neck with our debt. He pulled ahead, and began saving cash instead of making payments. When his old car finally went to the Great Junkyard in the Sky, he got this car to replace it. And he still has money in his emergency fund.

Another friend of mine also got out of debt a few years ago. I told him of our progress, and he told me the best is to come.

“It’s amazing how much opens up when you don’t have debt hanging over you!” he said.

I had to know more. What kind of things?

“The ability to save more quickly. The ability to take vacations with cash. Not being in the materialistic rat-race, always having to keep up with the Jones’.”

It’s hard to be weird. We could easily afford a car payment and upgrade a vehicle, perhaps even both of them right now if we wanted. But doing so would take the momentum out of our primary goal: to kill the last of our debt. What good would it be to go back into debt this close to being done? What sense would it make to go into debt when we are done?

So, we ride this out. We work on patience. It takes discipline to be weird, to not rush out and satisfy our desire for instant gratification.

It’s interesting being this close to the end. At the moment, I can only wonder what the other side looks like. If my weirdo friends are any indication, it’s a life filled with more peace and stability.

That sounds pretty good.

The duality of staying on the path

Last weekend, after working all day on my side job on a Saturday, I decided some family and outside was important so I grabbed my son and said, “Let’s go for a walk.”

Across the street on our cul-de-sac is a heavily wooded area, so we opted for some exploring. From the outside, it was a little rough. There were logs to climb over, thorns, vines, and various detritus to overcome. My boy is 3.5 years old now, and I was sure he would want to turn back. Nevertheless, he persisted. We fashioned a couple of walking sticks, beat against branches in our way, and pushed on deeper into the woods.

The further we went, the clearer the area became. The trees were more spaced out, and it became much easier to walk. We kept going. We had to see how far we could go. It was new and exciting. We stumbled upon a path in the woods. I’m unsure how it got there. Was it from the abundant deer we have in our area? Was it from neighborhood kids from before? There’s no way to know, really.

The path isn’t visible from outside of the woods. The path is only visible when you’re deep in it.

It struck me how similar that is to how things are going for us now with our financial journey. When we first got started, getting adjusted to being on a budget was not easy. Saying “no” to desires can be quite an exercise in self discipline. There are plenty of thorns that crop up along the way, like unplanned or forgotten expenses, which can be a defeating blow, at least momentarily.

Over time, the woods opened up, and the walk became easier. We have gotten used to a new normal and deny ourselves things all the time.

I ran out of cologne a couple of months ago, and decided not to get more until we are out of debt. It isn’t expensive, but it would take away from The Cause. My black hoodie has holes in the pockets, and a small brown stain on it that I’m positive people notice when I’m wearing it. The bands near my wrists are starting to fray as well. I don’t care. It’s good enough and the weather is starting to get warmer anyway. I’ve talked about how terrible my car looks, but it runs and it’s paid for, so screw it. I swallow my pride, pull into the parking lot where I’m surrounded by cars made within the last decade, and go about my day.

My wife is a natural saver, while I am a natural spender. Somehow, over this journey, I have started to change. I’m not tempted like I used to be. Believe me, I have tried. I have looked at cars and driven by houses for sale in the hopes of a little motivation, a little more drive to push in. It hasn’t worked. There was once a time I would scheme and plot to get things I wanted without saving up for them first. “Oh, I think we can afford it. I can make the monthly payments. We can make this work.”

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

And now, I’m hardly tempted. I’m on a path, in the middle of the woods, here with my family. I can only wonder what it will be like when we’re out, but we’ll find out soon enough.

What Toys ‘R’ Us can teach us about ourselves

Not only was I a Toys ‘R’ Us kid, but I was also a Toys ‘R’ Us adult.

My first semester in college I decided to find a job. I was living at home and commuting to school, but needed something to pay for gas and match my parents for the tuition cost. There was a job board in the registrar’s office, so I made my way down there to see what was available. As you might have guessed, this was just before the web had really taken off; I had to go look in person.

It was October, and that job board was posting for a seasonal job at Toys ‘R’ Us. It sounded fun, and I figured that if I had to work, it might as well be fun. I got hired, and although it was a seasonal job they extended an offer to me to stay beyond and become a regular part-time employee. I was thrilled.

Working at Toys ‘R’ Us was a lot of fun. I enjoyed the many different types of customers that came in the store, and I enjoyed even moreso the people I worked with. Even though the action figure aisle was a horrible mess at the end of business every day, I enjoyed cleaning that up, too. Well, except the Power Rangers, because I don’t like Power Rangers. I worked there for 2.5 years, took a little time off, then came back for another 2.5 years. I think I worked almost every position in the store and had a blast.

So you can probably guess that I was saddened to hear the news: after 70 years in business, Toys ‘R’ Us will close or sell all U.S. stores. Since the announcement, there has been a lot of discussion about what did in the retailer. But the story I found most compelling was that it wasn’t Amazon, it wasn’t online shopping, and it wasn’t poor branding: the biggest problem was debt.

The company’s biggest problem: It was saddled with billions of dollars in debt. That debt stopped it from making the necessary investment in stores. And that meant an unpleasant shopping experience that doomed the chain. – Amazon didn’t kill Toys ‘R’ Us. Here’s what did, CNN Money

As an adult with kids, I have made a few trips to the beloved toy store looking for a certain something for the kids. We’ve bought bikes there, giant stuffed animals, Lego sets, and other items. I certainly noticed the derelict appearance of the store up the road from us. It wasn’t bad — it needed some fresh paint an some updated technology — but it was certainly noticeable.

Therein lies the lesson: like Toys ‘R’ Us, if you have debt, it could lead to putting off necessary investing in yourself in order to keep making the minimum payments. What could Toys ‘R’ Us had done if it didn’t have billions of dollars in debt? Maybe it could have created an unrivaled digital shopping experience. The ad jingle, “I don’t want to grow up/I’m a Toys ‘R’ Us kid” is ingrained in a lot of minds, but perhaps they could have expanded their marketing efforts so that no one would dare think of going anywhere else for toys (or baby items, for that matter). I mean, really: with names like Toys ‘R’ Us and Babies ‘R’ Us, the only way you can mess that up is if you are too burdened to do any better.

Just like us individuals with debt, we have so many opportunities at our disposal it’s hard to mess it up. Sure, you have to do the work. But there are better opportunities all around you if you know how to look, and if you aren’t shackled with (usually self-inflicted) overwhelming odds. Like Toys ‘R’ Us, if we aren’t looking for the opportunities, and if we’re carrying too much debt, a changing tide can crush us.

Three years ago, I switched from a “stable” job in a sector I had been in for almost a decade. I had worked in government for nine years, and then an opportunity came to work in the private sector at a company I greatly admired. There was a catch: all the things I got used to working in government would not immediately be available to me at my new job. I had to start out as a contractor. That meant I had no paid time off, no vacation days, and no sick hours. It didn’t have retirement benefits or health insurance. I had to go find health insurance for my family of five on my own. It wasn’t a salaried paycheck: I got paid for the hours I worked, period. If I didn’t work 40 hours, then I didn’t get paid for 40 hours.

It ended up being one of the best professional decisions I have made to date.

I remember thinking at the time that it was similar to my beginning at Toys ‘R’ Us. I wasn’t guaranteed a more permanent position, but I was given the opportunity to prove myself. Just like at Toys ‘R’ Us, I ended up with the better gig 1.5 years later, coupled with a better salary, benefits, awesome health insurance, paid time off, and great people to work with.

And as it turns out, I have a lot of fun at my work, too.

So my lessons from Toys ‘R’ Us are twofold: don’t get saddled down with debt, because it will keep you from investing in yourself. And, when an opportunity comes, learn how to look for it and take a chance.

I’m saddened by the loss of Toys ‘R’ Us. May we all never grow up, not too much, anyway.