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.

 

‘The Year Of No’ monthly report: May

Even though I felt like this month has felt a little slow, we are now a step away from the end.

For the month of May, we paid off $1,979.39. We have $1,676.75 left.

Through some creative budgeting (it’s fine, really – nothing crazy), it appears the final debt payment will be June 15, 2018. God willing, we are two weeks away from being debt free.

I make that prediction with a strong degree of caution. Things could happen in two weeks. Emergencies could come up, or some tragedy could befall us that would mean it gets postponed.

In addition, we’ll have a child’s birthday party to pay for out of the next pay period. That alone will require a little creative party planning to pull off.

Alas, here we are. Many mistakes have been made along the way, but now we have wisdom. We have tried to wander out of debt, but now we are running. We used to be losers. But now, we are winning.

This will be one of the longest stretches of time in my adult life.

Bring it on.

From a waterfall to a trickle

Things were going so well.

I suppose it’s not fair to say that things aren’t going well, but the momentum has certainly slowed down quite a bit. The extra income has halted, and now we are stuck with simply being patient. That is certainly not one of my better qualities.

Geez. Some people are never satisfied.

As it stands now, we should be finished paying off our debt sometime in June. I have a date in mind, but I’m hesitant to pronounce it publicly. I don’t like to count my chickens before they hatch. I have learned that lesson. So many times I’ve purchased something on credit thinking, “Well, we can afford the payments” or “We’ll have this paid off early” only to have something happen that prevents that from coming true.

That is not a good mindset to have, and it’s one that isn’t part of my thinking anymore. We’ll just be patient, and if it pays off by the date I plan, then great. If not, then we’ll keep plugging away.

There were a couple of expenses that have come up so far this month I forgot to plan for. In our state, older vehicles (definitely ours) need inspected either annually or semi-annually depending on what year they are (odd or even). And of course there’s the annual renewal of license plate tags that I totally forgot about. Granted, these weren’t huge expenses to take care of, but it slowed our momentum down a little bit this month.

That’s all to say that we haven’t cut any more links off the debt chain since April 30. Given the rate we have been paying things off, that feels like an eternity. That’s not to say we haven’t paid on the debt, it just wasn’t enough to warrant cutting off another link. However, the next paycheck is at the end of the month and the progress will continue.

So, we wait. With waiting comes more restraint. It’s so tempting to let off the gas now that it feels like we’re close to the finish line. But now is not the time for celebration. Now is the time to keep going as we have since the beginning of this year: head down, nose to the grindstone, determined and focused.

As others have learned, never celebrate too soon:

‘The Year Of No’ monthly report: April

Whew, what a month April was.

To start things off, we hit the four-figure month at the start of the month. I had hoped that number to happen at the end of March, but a delay in the paycheck from my side gig kept that from happening. But a paycheck is a paycheck, even if it comes in late, so we took it in stride. Combining that late March money with the rest of April’s efforts turned out to be quite a landslide.

Amy managed to find a few dollars here and there from grocery shopping, and we scraped by on clothing money for the month to make a hard push this month to see how far we can go. The effort was a smashing success.

April 2018

It’s the end of April, and our remaining loan balance is down to $3,643.22. It’s insane to think that at the end of March we we had $10,467.32 left, and now the end is completely within reach.

Sadly, the snowball is going to slow down quite a bit. My side gig has come to an end, so whatever is left will come from income from the primary job, and cuts/savings we make throughout the next six weeks. The good thing is, we have narrowed down to just six weeks left — 45 days from today to be exact.

But, you never know where extra money is going to come in. I’m going to try and sell a few things, and when I got home there was an unexpected royalty check (I’ve done a little writing before) which will also help the cause.

I am truly thankful and blessed to be able to do the side work, but it wasn’t without sacrifice. There were many days of working the day job, coming home and having family time, then working on the side gig late in the evening. It took a little bit of a toll, both mentally and physically. I could certainly stand to lose a few pounds that I put on, and I haven’t exactly been 100-percent “present” for anyone for the past few months.

And now, everything is slowing down. Spring is here, and things are in bloom. The irony is not lost on me. We’ve gone through the dark of winter, and now we need to see what is starting to grow.

Only 45 more days and this long journey will be over: it’s slow and steady from here on out.

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.

The Beginning of the End

It’s a Big Day™.

For the first time in my post-college adult life, since marriage, since kids, since what feels like forever, we are down to four figures of debt remaining. Eighteen years of stupid later, the end is in sight.

I received another paycheck from my side gig today, then turned around and put almost all of it on the debt. This marks an important milestone for us. Since starting The Cause in ernest on Sept. 11, 2016, we are now down to 25 percent of our debt to go.

Throughout this journey, we have marked our milestones with celebrations. At 75 percent, we did something, although I really can’t remember what exactly. It was probably food. When we hit 50 percent, we combined a celebration with a birthday gift to my youngest daughter, going out to eat (the milestone gift) and playing video games (the birthday gift).

I’ve been telling the kids that when we hit 25 percent, we would do “froyo for dinner.” Yes, we are quite the health-conscious parents. When you celebrate a milestone in The Year of No, you gotta make it count. The links snipped from the Debt Chain, we did froyo for dinner. I’m glad I skipped lunch today.

Family celebrating with froyo
We celebrated hitting a milestone of having 25 percent of our debt left with a little froyo for dinner.

We’re down to $8,433.66 left to go. I have thought all day about what it means to be here now. For years this has felt like an impossible task. Then we got serious, and less than two years later, here we are headed toward the end.

The ending is there; We can see it. It’s closer than ever before. We are coming around the final lap and we can see the ribbon waving in the wind at the finish line.

‘The Year Of No’ monthly report: March

While much of the United States is caught up with college basketball fever this month, we’ve had our own version of March Madness.

This month has been a very busy one. I have worked a lot, and Amy has been busy tending to the kids more than usual. However, we did take time for a little fun on March 17.

Yes, that was St. Patrick’s Day, but it was also her birthday. We budgeted for some gifts for her, and we went out to eat on the cheap thanks to some free gift cards to a local restaurants received from from friends.

March 2018

In March, we paid down $3,392.59, bringing down our remaining loan balance to $10,467.32. I am very excited that we are almost down to having a four-digit figure on our loan. How exciting! I’m a little peeved it didn’t happen this month. We are so close, but we will simply stay the course and keep plugging away.

Perhaps more importantly, when we reach anywhere in the $8,000 range, that’s when things start getting interesting. That figure is what I call “The Beginning of the End,” which will bring us to just 25 percent left.

I’m thankful that we don’t have anymore birthdays or big events for awhile. I hope that April stays an anticipated snoozer as far as expenses go. Thanks to a wonderful Christmas gift of season passes to our local amusement park, we have cheap entertainment for the family when it opens April 21. All we have to pay for out of pocket is the parking fee, bottled water we always bring with us, and snacks we leave in our vehicle.

Stay the course, keep focused, keep grinding. The light at the end of the tunnel is right around the corner.

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.

The Working Dead

Lately I’ve been thinking about the different strategies there are to getting out of debt.

When it comes to our family, we had two viable options:

  1. Cut a lot of additional expenses and slowly cruise to debt freedom.
  2. Keep expenses at a stable level, but add an additional income stream to accelerate The Cause.

I have a tendency to go a little extreme. More accurately, I look for the maximum possible outcome for a given timeframe. So, we went with a third option:

3. Cut a lot of additional expenses and add an additional income stream to aggressively accelerate The Cause.

Since mid-January, I’ve been working my day job full-time in addition to a second, part-time side hustle. After work I come home, see the family, eat dinner, help put the kids to bed, then get on the computer and work on the side gig (I do web development for my regular job and my side income) for three to four more hours. I do this three or four nights a week, and sometimes I put in some of the extra work on Saturday.

I may have underestimated how exhausting the third option would be.

Don’t get me wrong: I am truly thankful to have an additional income stream coming in. The work is in my wheelhouse, and it’s really helping to pay down our debt at a faster rate. I don’t have a good estimate how much faster just yet. The work is a fixed contract and will dry up in May or June most likely, but I’m happy to have it for now.

Additional income can be more effective than cutting costs. We were able to find more than $230 monthly by cutting expenses, but it’s not hard to find much more than that with extra work. For example, my state has a minimum wage of $7.85 per hour. Working 15 hours per week brings in $471 per month, more than double what we cut monthly. Fortunately, the breakdown of my side work is more than minimum wage, and coupled with the cuts we are already making is proving to be very effective.

But the additional work has made me feel like a bit of a stranger in my home. My wife, Amy, has mentioned that she has felt lonely lately because I’ve been so busy. Even though I’m in the house, I’m home but not there. We are making it work for now, but it’s certainly not a pace I could keep up for a long period of time. It’s clear to me now that I would likely leave any job that required me to work this heavily for too long a time period.

The process has been somewhat enlightening. Although I am thankful and blessed it’s not the case, there are plenty of Americans working multiple jobs to make ends meet. I can’t imagine how exhausting it would be to work all the time only to pay basic living expenses. In our case, I’m simply nuts. For others, it’s a necessity.

I am working to find some semblance of balance. The thing that keeps me going is we’re really close to what I call The Beginning of the End. Once we reach 25 percent of the debt left, then that is The Beginning of the End. We are not there yet, but we are close. Another thing that keeps me going is that I know this isn’t forever. It isn’t for the rest of the year. Just a few more months, and we’ll be set. The timeline resets; we return to zero.

The other day, Amy was talking about The Year of No and her friend made a comment indicating she was also doing the same type of thing this year. Amy replied, “I can’t take much credit, it’s mostly Eric. He busts his butt to get things paid off, I’m just really along for the ride.” I need to take this time to clarify this for the whole world: Amy is essential to our goal of getting out of debt. As previously mentioned, working multiple jobs to make ends meet is terrible. But with kids in the mix, it becomes total insanity. Amy helps take care of our three rugrats, so I can spend the time I need to work on this extra hustle. It’s but for a short while, and then things will return to our usual normal.

Once I can truly see the light at the end of the tunnel, once we get to The Beginning of the End, I will feel better. But today, right now, I am tired.

I just need an overwhelming amount of love. And a nap. Mostly a nap. – Townes Van Zandt