It was six years ago this week and I will still never forget that phone call. I knew this moment would eventually be here, but in the back of my mind I pretended if I didn’t think about it, things would eventually work out. We would just make more money. Someday we would pay off that balance. We could start saving next year. What’s the worst that can really happen, right?
Just a few minutes before the phone call, my wife Andrea was at the grocery store with our 10-month old son. Whenever she is out in public, people immediately recognize her as the morning-show news anchor from one of Phoenix’s local news stations. Today was of course no different.
At the checkout, Andrea waited for each item to go across the scanner and into the bag. The total came to just over $150, which for our family of three was the standard going rate for a week of groceries, diapers, and formula. She handed her credit card over to the cashier and it was DECLINED. The second card DECLINED. The third card DECLINED.
The day was February 23rd, 2011: The Day We Went Completely Broke
The next day when I came home from the fire station, Andrea and I sat down at the kitchen table and began to unravel this dirty little secret we were not only keeping from everyone else, but we were also keeping from ourselves.
It started the moment we left college and entered the real world. I joined the fire department and Andrea landed her dream job with the local television station. Not to brag, but the reality was we were young, we were making a six figure salary, and we didn’t have kids (yet). Life was easy…or so we thought.
As you can imagine, we started off life completely normal according to society standards. We bought a brand new truck, a luxury car, a new home, and all the bells and whistles to go inside. We went on lavish vacations, cruised all over the Caribbean, purchased expensive jewelry, and said “yes” to everything and anything. We were known as that “fun couple” and when you are young and dumb, wearing that label is one of the best compliments you can receive.
After four years of living paycheck to paycheck, overspending, overindulging, and not paying attention to our money, we financially hit rock bottom. We had maxed out our credit cards, overdrafted the checking account, and had never thought to build up a savings account. All we had left to show for our financial stupidity was $52k of debt and a ton of shame.
“We Will NEVER Live This Way Again”
I remember sitting there at the kitchen table staring down at the floor in disbelief. Did we really let it get this bad? Were we so foolish to think the debt would never catch us from behind? How did this happen? Why did it seem like everyone else had it figured out, but yet we were sitting here flat broke?
To make things worse, we started worrying about the reaction from our friends and family. What were they going to think of us if they knew the truth? Would we tell them and how would they react? What about our son Carter? If we couldn’t even afford our family at this point in our lives, what would happen as life progressed, became more complicated, and much more expensive?
All of these emotions came crashing down into our pseudo-perfect world and that was when we finally had to face reality. It was now or never.
That was the moment when we both said:
“We will never live this way again”
Never again will we make this much money and be this broke. Never again will we be unable to buy groceries. Never again will we be sitting here at this very kitchen table completely out of money, out of hope, and without a plan! Never again…
That day would be known as day one of our own debt-free success story.
We Created A Plan
The only good thing about hitting rock bottom is you have nowhere else to go but up. One of my favorite quotes by John Maxwell is this:
“Everything worthwhile in life is uphill.”
This saying became our motto. If living paycheck to paycheck, going deeper into debt, and overspending was easy, then the opposite would have to be true. Taking back control of our life and money was going to be hard. Period.
A Cash-Flow Plan
The first thing we needed to do was to figure out how to manage the money coming in and going out each month. Many people call this a “budget”, but we preferred to call it a cash-flow plan.
It’s simple really: budgets sound like prison food and water and a cash flow plan sounds like something Andrea and I would be willing to do together.
The Envelope System
Next we realized our spending habits were out of control. We had to order new credit cards throughout the year because we wore out those magnetic strips from overuse (not really, but you get the point).
We decided we would go to an all cash lifestyle. We would become one of those weird people who carry around cash in envelopes and only spend what was inside each envelope for the month. We started the envelope system in February 2011 and I am happy to tell you we still use our crazy envelopes today!
Stop Borrowing Money (Forever)
We realized it would be impossible to dig our way out of debt so we decided at that moment we would never borrow money again. Never. Not for a couch, a car, a vacation, or even a house (luckily we already had a mortgage).
We were done playing with debt. We had been told in the past debt was a tool. Well, I believe it can be a tool for some people, but for Andrea and I, debt was a tool that created a disaster in our lives. We can admit it – we don’t manage debt very well. The choice became ours: we would never play with debt again. Period.
Sitting at our kitchen table, we one-by-one cut up every single one of our credit cards. It was scary, we were a little freaked out (okay, really freaked out), but it was also one of the most freeing moments I can remember in our little debt free story.
Since that day we haven’t once used a credit card, we haven’t once borrowed a single penny from anyone, and contrary to what society will tell you – we are still here to talk about it!
Cut Back Our Life(style)
When you’re completely broke, it doesn’t really make sense to have wants over needs. One of my favorite quotes from Seth Godin is this:
“Once you have enough money for beans and rice and taking care of your family, money is a story.” – Seth Godin
I hadn’t heard this quote until just recently, but it struck a nerve with me right away because money was our story. We had to decide what our story would be. Would it be a story of struggle or a story of freedom? Would it be a story of stressing over every bill each month, or would it be a story of financial peace?
We made the decision to change the ending to our story. Things were about to go from wild to almost out of control.
We sold (just about) everything
We sold clothes, furniture, pictures on the walls, shoes, textbooks, and even sold Andrea’s luxury SUV. We turned off our cable and purchased this HD antenna. We cancelled subscription services we had forgot we subscribed to and we began saving money in any areas we could think of.
Lowered The Interest
We had spent so long ignoring the reality of our debt, we really had no idea how much we were paying towards our debt or how much we had been paying in interest.
Once we realized we were overpaying interest with both credit cards and student loans, we started to look at ways we could lower the interest rate. One of they key things we quickly learned was debt consolidation didn’t really do much for our money except make it convenient to have only one payment with an average interest rate and a small fee tacked on.
If you get out a calculator, it is obvious debt consolidation is a CONsolidation.
But, we knew we could save a ton of money with a lower interest rate.
We lowered the student loan interest rate by 3% and dropped our credit card interest in half with a personal loan.
Make More Money (Side Hustle)
Since we were no longer using our free time to spend money, we decided we would spend our free time making money.
I started a pool cleaning service in our neighborhood and was able to generate $1,000 – $1,500 extra every month. Cleaning pools during the Phoenix summers of 118°F was not at all fun, but neither was remaining in debt. I did other odd jobs and worked as much overtime on the fire truck as they would allow. The best place to go when you’re completely broke……to work.
Found (Giant) Ways to Save Even More
We sold our luxury cars and any other big ticket items we could to save a lot of cash. This allowed us to knock out a substantial amount from our debt.
If we were going through this same process today, one thing we would change is health insurance. For many people, the cost of health insurance has climbed towards and in some cases past the monthly amount we pay for our mortgage or rent.
To save literally thousands of dollars a year in health care, I highly recommend health share programs.
November 17th, 2011
There are four days I will always remember for the rest of my life. The first is the day I watched my beautiful wife walk down the aisle. It’s still the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
The second and third days were when our kids were born. No dad will ever forget that moment.
The fourth day was November 17th, 2011. This was the day we paid off our debt.
We jumped in our slightly used Kia and drove down to the Bank of America near our home. Our remaining balance was $1,272 and we had the money in our account to finally pay off this last chunk.
I remember pulling up to the bank and my heart was racing. I grabbed my checkbook, Andrea’s hand, and we walked in side-by-side just like we had been doing over the past seven months. There was a small line to see the teller and both of us were standing in line, huge smiles from ear-to-ear, and giggling like a couple of school girls on the playground.
The teller waived us over and it was time. It was our turn. All the sacrificing, all the eBay and Craigslisting, all the overtime, all those days cleaning pools in the summer heat, all the whispers from the family, and not to mention the overflow of straight up rude comments from our friends, would all be coming to an end. This was the moment Chris and Andrea would become debt free.
I opened my checkbook, put my pen to the paper, tore out the check and handed it over to the teller. She handed back our receipt with our new balance: $0.00 PAID IN FULL.
#boomshakalaka (you won’t see that anywhere else…)