It's June 2016 and that means it’s been three years since I started taking control of my finances. It feels like a life-time ago, I can’t even believe it’s only been three years! Since that time we’ve paid off over $40,000 - $30,000 of which was last year alone. So, that right there should clue you in on the fact that changing your life financially, or in any area, doesn’t happen overnight.
So, I want to take you back, back to the beginning of where I believe my money troubles started and hopefully my story can help at least one person out there re-route their mindset // behavior and start to move in the right direction.
I grew up in a single-parent home with my Mom. I have to say, my Mom is the BEST Mom there is, my childhood was glorious and wonderful and long and I am eternally grateful to my Mom for creating that for me! Being the mother of two and working full-time while running the two of us everywhere we needed to go was no easy task I’m sure - but I never once heard my mother complain. Looking back, I hold her in even higher esteem because I literally have no idea how she pulled everything off.
Even though we lived off of a modest income, we lacked for nothing. We had a home, clothes, food and tons of toys and entertainment. I can only recall a couple of times in my childhood when I was made fun of for not having “cool new stuff.” As the youngest, I got a lot of hand-me-downs, including a bright purple sweatshirt and matching sweatpants with ‘1,2,3’ and ‘A,B,C’ written across them. I swear, I attribute my getting voted ‘Best Dressed’ in High School to YEARS of making up for that terrible outfit!
That being said, I never once felt “poor.” Sure, we didn’t have all of the newest gadgets, but I can remember always getting most, if not all, of my Christmas Wish List and always having TONS of new clothes twice a year for school, not to mention everything else that comes along with raising a kid. I mean we had a computer and a DVD player - so what if it was months after everyone else, what did that matter?
Even though I could tell that most of my friends had more than I did, it just never really came up. I wasn’t jealous of them and it never bothered me. Money wasn’t a thing. We didn’t hold it over each other - we shared, we borrowed, and that was it - until college.
When I got to college, suddenly my lack of car, my dELiAs [which wasn't cheap] & Forever 21 wardrobe, along with my being from West Virginia were giant flashing lights above my head signaling to “snobs” everywhere that I was less than. I still had a pink Nokia flip-phone by the time everyone had moved past the Razr and onto the iPhone. I still had shoes from Payless. I still owned Old Navy. I still had a CD player. I grew up eating hamburger helper and chicken patties [and LOVED them.] I didn’t wear TheNorthFace. I didn’t wear UGGS. I didn’t know the difference between H and F lead [still don’t - that’s an architecture thing.] But, for the first time ever - people were treating me like that stuff mattered.
It was tough, no uncomfortable. For the first time, I felt “poor.” It sucked to be looked at like I was a number instead of a person.
[Sidebar: I do want to stress that even compared to these “snobs” [which wasn’t everyone - I don’t want to over-generalize], I still grew up in an EXTREMELY privileged household. Yeah, we weren’t loaded, but like I said - we lacked for nothing. Every need was met and we had extra, not a lot of extra, but we had extra. Our home was beautiful and we took care of our things and took pride in keeping a lovely home. If I learned anything about money from my Mom, it’s that you take care of what you have, even if you’re renting, and she always prioritized the tithe. She understood that God could do much more with her 90% than she could do with the full 100%. But, when I got to college, I stopped prioritizing and quit tithing altogether. I felt like there was no way I could afford it with how little I was starting from and it was THE most financially difficult season of my entire life. I could write an entire post on this alone - which I will probably do in the future…]
For the first time, I wasn’t immediately hitting it off with people, in fact quite the opposite. For the first time, there were A LOT of people that didn’t like me. So, what did I do?
I started shopping. A LOT. I used one of my scholarships to buy a car - Steve, my Jeep, which I still own and has been paid off for almost three years now, and I spent most of my other student loan money going to the mall, buying piles of new clothes, you know, instead of saving it for real things like school supplies and tuition. I treated my student loans like free money and went CRAZY - so much so, that I spent all of my student loan, what was intended to cover the full year, in the first semester and had to apply for a second loan my freshman year to cover second semester.
The thing is, I wasn’t doing anything entirely different from everyone around me. I don’t know their stories, maybe they could afford it, or maybe they were racking up credit card debt as they went - who knows. All I know is, I surely couldn’t afford it if I was using student loans to be there in the first place.
Taking out that second loan was a huge wake-up call. From there, I got better, but not enough. At the end of the year, I had excess, so what did I do? Save it for next year, so as not to go through the same thing again? Or, travel around Italy as a 19-year-old for three weeks with my boyfriend?
I’ll let you guess what I chose. Let’s just say - Venice is my favorite place on Earth.
Just one year later, [second semester of my second year] the Bursar’s office reclaimed $5,500 of my loans saying that I didn’t need it because my loans had exceeded the Cost of Attendance. But by that point, the money had already been spent. This time around, I actually did spend it on things that I needed, but if I hadn’t gone to Italy - I would have had that money.
[Sidebar: If you didn't guess by my former lead comment above, I went to school for Architecture and it is one of the MOST expensive majors. We did’t have many books, but we had building materials and that stuff adds up QUICKLY. One of my models - that I never finished because I ran out of time and lazar printer access cost me $250 for about 1/5 of the entire model. Yes, looking back, there were ways around this, but how to save money on model building materials was never the focus of our schooling...]
I went through a two-month long process proving to the Bursar’s office that I did indeed need that money. It was a terrible drawn-out process of combing through every bank statement, showing what each item was, writing a 10 page paper, going to countless meetings - all of which put me two-months behind in my classes. It was constant. And in the end, they didn’t give me one cent of it back, but instead gave me a short deadline to come up with the money or be expelled and lose all of my credits for that semester.
That was a real low for me. I tried everything I could think of to scrape it together, because $5,500 was A TON of money for me back then - it still is, only now I can get it together in a MUCH quicker timeline. In a last-ditch effort, I finally asked some family members to let me borrow the money, which they did gladly.
Third year was different, in that it was the most dangerous of the years, financially speaking. I had lost my main scholarship due to my grades slipping from falling two-months behind in all of my classes but studio [I pulled multiple all-nighters to make up my design work including one stint of being awake for 61 hours straight - super healthy] the previous year and due to other circumstances, I could no longer have a co-signer on my student loans.
I moved off campus, took a smaller meal plan and got a job - at Hardee’s, yet another thing the “elite” made fun of me for. There’s a reason Pretty in Pink is my favorite 80s movie - it’s just so darn relatable, that and Ducky’s Try a Little Tenderness moment is the most epic thing.
Somehow, with less money, I managed to pay my tuition that year. To this day - that math does NOT make any sense. I lost money and didn’t have any student loans outside of what FAFSA gave me and was still able to pay the $880/ quarter for my tuition that financial aid didn’t cover. I give all the credit to God for that - He worked miracles, miracles I definitely didn’t deserve.
Moving off campus meant - furniture. Since I didn’t want to take my bed from home and then not have a bed when I came back on breaks, I went to school without a bed. Yup. I piled blankets under my sleeping bag and slept on the floor. No big - I’d save up for a bed.
Before I could save up, we decided to throw a party, which we did often. I don’t remember this particular occasion, possibly my roommates birthdays - anyways, we threw a party. At some point during the party, a few people needed to use the bathroom. I pointed them to my room, saying there was one in there, not thinking anything of it. Minutes later they came pouring out of my room laughing hysterically over the fact that I didn’t have a bed.
“Who doesn’t have a bed? HAHAHA She’s sleeping on the floor! HAHAHAHA”
I was both livid and mortified. Who cares that I spent what little I had of my hard-earned money on booze for these total strangers to consume [clearly an irresponsible choice - I know, I know.] And how did they show their gratitude? By laughing in my face. I had had enough.
The next day I applied for a credit card.
As soon as I could, I went to the mattress store and bought a box-spring and mattress for $400 out of my $500 limit. The rest went to new bedding and I was maxed out. But then, the oddest thing happened - my credit limit went up, and it kept going up so that by three years later I had reached $14,000 in credit card debt. Ouch.
College was one bad financial decision after another. In second year, I joined a brand-new sorority - which I definitely don’t regret, but it wasn’t the most responsible thing I could have done - and when I was battling the Bursar’s Office, I still managed to pay my dues, probably late, but still.
I participated in a NY travel trip third year, signed up to spend a semester abroad during my fourth year - back-packing across Europe and enrolled in summer school. Before my fourth year began, I earned a couple of new scholarships and was able to get student loans again to pay for that $9,000 Europe trip.
At that time, my outlook on money was that it was just money. If I had to spend the rest of my life paying off all of these student loans, I would, because I wasn’t willing to sacrifice missing out on once-in-a-lifetime experiences or really any experience for that matter. Obviously, I don’t regret going to Europe - it was amazing! I traveled through 10 different countries for 70 days and all I had to do for “class” was sketch, take photos, and write a case-study when I got back. Also, I became Best Friends with Carl, my now husband, on that trip and wouldn’t trade those memories for anything!
Even though I couldn’t technically afford any of those things, I still felt like I deserved them. I thought, I’m a college student - I’m here and I should be able to have the same kind of experience as everyone else around me. [New clothes, Party Money, Sorority, Europe Trips, etc.]
Trust me, I’m still paying for that belief, four years after graduating.
Apart from almost not being allowed to go to Europe due to my loan not being released until two days after the program started, fourth year and fifth year were a lot less financially dramatic up until my very last semester of college.
One of the biggest blessings of this time was my VA stipend. My Dad is retired military and as a dependent I received a little over $900 a month during the school year and about $300 a month during summer school. That’s A LOT. I definitely should have been able to pay for everything without any problems, but because of my total lack of knowledge when it came to money and how to handle it coupled with my belief that I deserved a “normal” college experience and my efforts to keep up the illusion that I actually could afford all of it, I was a total financial hot mess.
The VA benefits are typically only for four years, but because I was in a five year program, they agreed to extend it for one semester into my fifth year. They didn’t have to do that at all, but instead of being grateful, I resented the fact that they were going to put me back into financial panic right when I was going to be focused on finishing college and graduating. [UGH, I really was such a mess during that time - still am, just not at that level anymore - thank God!]
By the time I graduated I was three months behind in rent, thankfully my apartment complex didn’t press charges against me, because they could have - and I had racked up student loans and credit card debt into the six figures, not to mention owing my family $5,500 plus the almost $1,000 to my Mom for bailing me out with my overdue rent.
I was FREE. It was over. So I thought.
That summer Carl and I moved to Charlotte jobless, well - I got transferred to a Hardee’s in Lowell, so not entirely jobless, and we found a place to live with days to spare. With my student loan payments looming in the distance, I had to get a higher paying job. Thankfully, after two months at Hardee’s and one month at Amelie’s, I got an architectural position in November - just before my payments would kick in.
Once I started working in my career - I was making more than I ever had. So, yet again - I started shopping A LOT. What? I needed new work clothes and shoes and I needed to go explore this awesome new city - obviously. But, I also started doing something else - I started tithing again.
That January we started attending Elevation Church and because I’m obsessed with learning I began listening to all of the old podcast episodes of every. single. sermon. from the very beginning of the church - seven years worth at that point. One of the very first sermon series was called Freakonomics - an entire series on money, not one sermon, an entire series.
I know, the church gets a lot of smack for talking about money - but I’m so glad that my church talks about it openly and often. Even though I had started tithing again and even though I was making more money than I ever had before, I was still overspending by $1,000 a month, racking up even more credit card debt. Then, one day, while listening to that series, I heard Wade Joy, the Worship Pastor, tell his story about his finances and he said, “I realized that we were not being good steward’s of all that God had given us.”
Those words shot straight through to the core of my soul. I was convicted in that moment. I fully recognized that I had been making bad decision after bad decision. I was taking all of the good in my life for granted, not being grateful for all that I had and still expecting more. That day I made the decision to turn my finances around. I didn’t want to leave a legacy of debt and ingratitude behind. I wanted to live a life of generosity and that wouldn’t be possible if I didn’t clean up my act.
From one credit card statement to the next I had cut my overspending in half. I scheduled a meeting with my campus pastor, who happened to be a former banker, to go over some financial planning. I also started consuming everything from Dave Ramsey that I could get my hands on and slowly but surely began working his program.
The previous December I had paid back my Mom and with my Christmas bonus, tax refund and regularly scheduled payments - I paid back the $5,500 to my other family members as well. That was one thing I did correctly. I HATED owing people money, especially family - so I paid them back first. I started with just monthly payments, but after getting those two large sums, I threw it at the debt I owed them and paid them back 8 months ahead of schedule. I’m SO grateful I did that, even before making the mental switch of turning my finances around.
It took some time, but after a while I had completely stopped my overspending and was starting to save money for an emergency fund - Baby Step 01 of Dave Ramsey’s plan. After I got my $1,000 saved up I moved on to putting anything and everything extra that I could towards debt. I’m not sure of the exact total, but I believe I paid off around $10,000 on my own, including the debt to my family, before Carl and I got engaged.
When we got engaged, [December 20th, 2013] I pushed pause on paying extra [I still paid minimum payments] on my debt to save for our wedding. Between the two of us saving, the gifts we received and the crazy deals we got - we were able to cash flow everything for our wedding up until the very last month [October 2014], which we put on a credit card [the first time we had used one since June 2013] and immediately paid off with wedding money.
After we got married, we signed up for Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University [and if you’ve made it this far, I have a pass for one free lesson and it’s yours if you want it - first come first serve] and began to work his program together. Since then, we have a weekly budget meeting, we don’t use credit cards, we cash flow everything [including my business] and we’re paying off debt faster than we ever thought we could.
Before starting this journey I assumed that I // we would always have debt. I assumed that I would spend the rest of my life paying it off, and now - if we stay at our current rate, not accounting for any raises, bonuses, or extra income, we’ll have it gone in two-three more years!
I can’t tell you how grateful I am to have had this realization now and not forty years from now. I know from personal experience how hard debt can be and how much of a weight it is to carry. If we didn’t have all of this debt, my business would have started much sooner and would be further along by now. We’d be able to travel more and go out more - we’re quite the foodies. But, even though all of that is either nonexistent or at a much smaller scale than I would want, I’m grateful for the debt.
Wait - what? Did I read that correctly? Grateful… for debt?
Yes. Obviously, I wish I would have known better back then, BUT if we didn’t have this debt we never would have taken control of our finances. I’m sure that we would have gone through life spending every bit we had, racking up credit card debt and going about life in a “normal” way. Money is one of the top causes of divorce, but because we have this debt, we were able to face tough financial circumstances together, from the start, and really work on this together - building a strong foundation for our future. There are no secret shopping sprees for either of us. We’ve got a budget and we both look at it weekly, making sure we’re still on track. I mean, once we pay off six figures worth of debt in our twenties - together - what CAN’T we do?!?
If you take anything away from this at all, I hope you realize that you can take control of your life. Don’t let your money happen to you - happen to it instead! I really appreciate you reading my story. This is Part 01 of a two part series I’m writing about money. My next post on the topic will be more practical, how-to steps and talk more about how we slowly but surely began to speed up our process, but I didn’t want to start there. That stuff is great - but the last thing I want to do is come off ‘Holier Than Thou’ and leave you thinking, “Easy for her to say, I’ve got…” Everyone’s story is different. For those of us with debt, we’ve all come to it in different ways. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how you accumulated it or how much you have whether you had to have it because your back was against the wall or you made stupid decisions or both [like me] - it is possible for ANYONE to turn it around!
If you’re struggling with money or are well-off but want to get a better grip on things, I can’t encourage you enough to check out Dave Ramsey’s class! This is not a sponsored post or anything like that, I just fully believe in his program because it works - he’s helped millions of people get out of debt over the last 20+ years and he’s helping us too!
Until the next post, I’ll leave you with Dave’s message…
Love & Blessings,