My Journey to Debt Freedom

Marshal is sharing his story as part of LIFE’s sponsorship of the Debt Movement, whose goal is to help people pay down their debt. He’s LIFE’s $2,000 Debt Scholarship recipient. LIFE promotes people taking personal financial responsibility, and debt reduction is a large step toward that goal. —Editors

My debt journey is not a personal journey but a joint adventure with my beautiful wife, Sarah, and our three, also beautiful children Tatum, Caleb and Emma. I am 37 years old and have been married for 15 years. I have been in various levels of debt since I was 17. I brought that debt into our marriage and continued to compound the problem by accumulating additional debts. My debt problems became our debt problems, and we continued to live beyond our means.

This has been our story for the past 20 years. I have moved from my first debt, owing $3,000 on a 1987 Pontiac Firebird, to accumulating over $65,000 worth of debt in credit cards, car loans, student loans and family debts. In the past, we’ve made several efforts to get out of debt, but be we lacked focus and intensity. We also lacked discipline and never attempted to reconcile what we earned with what we spent. This comprised our day to week to month to year life. Each day a little worse than the previous.

There was no hope. I felt a tremendous responsibility for jeopardizing my family’s future and mortgaging away tomorrow for a taste of satisfaction today. I could never see a day in which we could retire, travel, pay cash for a vehicle, actually own our home or finance college. There was not a foreseeable day where we would experience financial freedom.

One of “Those” Days

I had a particularly memorable moment about 18 months ago. I remember having “one of those days” where things seemed to pile up against me. I sat down to collect my thoughts and figure out how we were going to get through another situation where the money stopped before the month ended. As I reflected, my internal dialogue said, “Hey Marshal! Look around! Right now, you make more money than you’ve ever made and you still have the same old problems you had when you were a broke college kid!” I remember feeling somewhat foolish as I thought more about the situation. I did not act on this right away and we continued to struggle along for about six weeks.

Shortly after that, I had a conversation with some friends. They were discussing something I had never considered. To put it simply, they did not borrow money. I did not believe this was possible. After all, we were never able to save money and I knew what our bills looked like. They suggested a book for me to read. As I read it, I was floored. I had no idea this lifestyle was possible. I tend to be a little skeptical, and I wanted to know more so I pursued more books, six in all. Some of the books were faith based and others were not, but they all told the same story. It was the same as my story and I was ready to be debt free. That’s when I started considering the whole variety of solutions, including a trust deed (here’s more information

Getting My Wife on Board

I might have been ready but Sarah was not as convinced. She was understandably nervous, after all debt was all we have ever known. It took a lot of discussion to decide that cutting up our credit cards was a good idea. We did cut them up and pledged that credit had no place in our future. This was a first for us, talking about our future in absolute terms. Suddenly our future was not a “someday” dream; it had a specific date. In two years, we would be able to do “this” and in five years we could save enough to do “that.” We started calculating when we would be debt free. It was so exhilarating and I remember crying with excitement. With our renewed attitude we called companies that will help you repair your credit and discussed our plan and asked for help.

We laid out our plan and we started. We saved $1,000 for emergencies. It took less than two weeks to set that money aside. This was the first time we ever had money designated for an emergency, and I suddenly understood why we did not need credit cards any more. It is amazing how such a small amount of money could have such a dramatic impact.

Working Our Plan

It took about two months to pay off the first credit card balance. It was such a liberating experience, and I immediately closed the account. We continued on this path, paying off our car, another credit card and a line of credit. The numbers almost didn’t add up. We were so focused and dedicating every extra penny to debt repayment. That is where we stand today.

Yesterday the final payment was made on our last credit card and that account is in the process of being closed. We still have about $25,000 in student loans and some smaller family debts to repay. We are laser focused on our plan and securely on a path to have those paid off in December 2013. We may miss that target, but it won’t be by much and 2014 will be our debt free year.

I really have not allowed myself to dream about our debt free day yet. I do know when we get there, I’m ready for that challenge. I cannot wait for the day we start saving for retirement, funding a multi-month emergency fund, saving for our kids’ college education, and starting to pay down our mortgage. I don’t know what happens beyond that but I’m excited to find out!

Lessons Learned

I would be remiss if I did not take time to mention some other points. First, the most important lesson I have learned in this journey is how to tell myself “no.” This has been a tremendously powerful tool in our debt battle and has spilled over into other parts of my life. I have lost over forty pounds by telling myself no.

It has taught me to have more patience with Sarah and our kids, which has strengthened our relationship. And it has allowed me to enjoy my job more than ever! It has allowed me to enjoy other people and generally have a brighter look at life. Our children have noticed the changes and it has positively impacted how they view finances. It is amazing how good decision-making is contagious! Finally, I wholly believe that God placed people and events into my life that influenced my decision and led me to this path. This short story does not cover all of the details of our experience but there are so many things that cannot be explained away as coincidence. I cannot tell this story without saying thank you to God.

I do imagine my story does not sound much different than the hundreds of other debt freedom stories. I’m okay with that. We have gained freedom beyond imagination and hope that our story can become a testimony for others to explore their own debt situation and experience the liberation of debt freedom.

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