Today We Are Debt Free: $75,000+ Paid Off in 31 Months

My wife Heather and I will never forget today…May 19, 2011.

As of today we are completely debt free.

We owe no one any money for anything.

We got up this morning and paid off our final debt to Citibank…goodbye graduate school loans. It has been a long, hard process, but one of the most freeing experiences of our lives.

In 2007-2008 my wife and I began to talk more seriously about moving from California to Texas so that we could be closer to family. Our daughter had just been born in July of 2007 and we were feeling overwhelmed living in Los Angeles. Don’t get me wrong…we loved living there, but we had made some unhealthy financial decisions that just left us feeling like we didn’t have any room for error, or any room to step out and take risks.

Like a lot of people in LA we were hoping that the home we had purchased in Pasadena in 2005 was going to pay us back a huge profit after we sold it a few years later. And for a while, that dream looked like it might come true. I would on occasion search comps in our neighborhood and I noticed that our home’s market value was listed about $110,000 more than what we had paid for it two years earlier. But that all came crashing when the housing bubble burst, and the home that we thought was going to make us a huge profit ended up costing us.

So in June of 2008 I quit my job as the college director at Bel Air Presbyterian Church. We sold our house in July of 2008…having to actually come up with $40,000 to pay off the loan (that’s how bad our house price sunk)….wiping out all of our savings that we had stored away in a savings account…$40,000 to be exact. And in August of 2008 we loaded up our cars and drove from Pasadena to Dallas, TX.

We felt overwhelmed.

My wife was continuing to work for her company in LA from our home in Dallas, and I was struggling as a marriage and family therapist associate…often bringing home $-0 after we figured in what I made that month vs. the amount of money I was paying for supervison.

$55,000 in student loans for two graduate degrees.

$20,000 in credit card debt that we racked up in the month leading up to the move and the move itself.

Total: $75,000….it seemed like a mountain we couldn’t overcome and we felt stuck.

So we just decided in October of 2008 that we were “sick and tired of being sick and tired” of all the debt. I had heard that phrase from Dave Ramsey who I had just discovered on the local Dallas affiliate 570AM. I had heard of Dave before, but I just thought he was that crazy guy who told people to cut up their credit cards and pay with cash for things. But the more and more I listened to him the more and more I was drawn in.

I still remember my wife and I purchasing his book The Total Money Makeover Workbook and audio CD’s. We probably actually bought them with credit at the time…sorry Dave. For a couple of nights we sat down and listened through the audio CD’s and we worked through the workbook. We were stunned. Could it really be this easy to get out of debt? No tricks? Just straight forward hard work?

Those couple of nights sitting down at the kitchen table with Heather as our baby daughter was asleep were the turning points for us. We made a promise then to just attack the debt with “gazelle intensity” as Dave talked about.

So for 31 months we drastically changed our lifestyle.

We stopped eating out…except for an occasional inexpensive meal every few weeks.

We stopped buying clothes. I think Heather and I probably have spent a few hundred dollars in the last 31 months on some necessary items.

We drastically cut entertainment. We’ve probably been to less than 10 movies in those 31 months. We cut magazine subscriptions. We didn’t buy new gadgets or spend much money on music.

We stopped buying books and started visiting our local library. (Wow…talk about huge savings there).

We stopped going to coffee and made our coffee at home.

I stopped buying lunch at work and started packing my lunch.

We drew names at Christmas. Heather and I limited our gifts to each other at 1…$25 limit (that drew out our creativity).

Heather and I went away on 1 vacation for 5 days…but that was it.

We drive 8 and 12 year old cars with 136,000+ miles on both of them. And when we buy cars next they will only be bought with cash. No car leases for us moving forward…or as Dave calls it, “car fleecing.”

And those are just some of the things we did.

Even as I talk about the things we did and didn’t do, I heard stories of others who were even more intense. We realize now that there were many things we could have done better, but we have made it. We made mistakes along the way and still kicked ourselves for overspending at times. We did get rid of all of our credit cards, but one….don’t know why…..but that is now on its way out the door.

Looking back we think that we could have knocked off that debt even sooner, but life got crazy at times and emergencies happened and we lost motivation and will at times. One of the most crucial turning points for us is when we saw Dave Ramsey speak live at the Potter’s House in Dallas in March of 2010.

Seeing Dave speak live was just the kick in the pants we needed. You see, we had paid off $20,000 between October 2008 and March of 2010, so we felt pretty good about ourselves. Our friends couldn’t believe how much we paid off. But after seeing Dave live we realized we had to pick up the intensity or it would drag on for us. So from March of 2010 to May 19, 2011 we paid off $57,000…14 months.

As we sent off that payment today we looked at each other and almost couldn’t believe it. For our entire marriage we have always had some kind of debt hanging around our necks like a slowly tightening noose. And now we finally feel free. Without the debt a lot of our decisions don’t hang on finances and we feel the freedom to make choices we wouldn’t have been able to make years ago.

But this is just the beginning for us. If you know anything about Dave Ramsey’s 7 Baby Steps, well then you will know we are only now beginning Baby Step 3. We want to buy a house (the only debt the program allows–15yr fixed loan w/20% down on the house/a payment that is less than 25% of your take home pay) so bad, but we don’t want to make the same mistakes we have made before.

So we are going to be patient. And we are going to continue to work hard. We will work on our 6 month emergency fund, and then we will work on a down payment for a house…and we will continue to work the program. It is what has worked for us.

We always believed before that somehow we would be rescued. Some new job…some huge bonus…winning the lottery even though we don’t play.

But waiting around to be rescued by someone or something else got us nowhere and left us feeling powerless. We realized we had to take responsibility for our debt and radically eliminate it.

This makes sense to me.

As a Marriage and Family Therapist I continue to tell couples that their marriages only improve when each individual in the marriage takes responsibility for themselves and stops waiting for, or pointing at their partner to change. Only then, when we own our stuff, and take responsibility for our issues..that is when true change can happen in a marriage.

The same goes for debt. Only when we own our debt and take complete responsibility for it…then we can eliminate it and live in the freedom of not being slave to the lender (Proverbs 22:7).

I was hesitant to share some of the details of our story because money is a touchy issue in our culture. But we have shared our story with friends and family…and we have seen them motivated by what we are doing and they have begun to do the same. Change is happening. I also share my story quite openly with many of the clients that I work with in the therapy setting because finances are quite often the main point of contention within the marriage. And I have seen clients embrace Dave Ramsey’s program and have witnessed them change their lives because of the principles that Dave teaches.

And quite honestly, I don’t think Heather and I would have made it without the countless friends we have who are also working the 7 Baby Steps. They have been constant encouragement for us on this journey. Every Friday Heather and I looked forward to listening to the Dave Ramsey Show because it is “Debt Free Friday” where people call in to scream they are debt free. We have been astounded at the stories that people called in with. Many people paid off less than the $75,000 we have paid off…but I think even more people called in who had paid off way more money than Heather and I have paid off…often in shorter periods of time. That weekly show was the fuel that kept us going for 31 months and it’s going to be a huge source of encouragement for us as we continue to press on.

The work is not done but we feel a huge load of relief as we know that all of our hard work has paid off.

This Friday Heather and I will be celebrating our being debt free by dining at a nice steak house in the DFW area. But do you want to know how we are paying with it? We are paying with the cash we collected from all the coins we put in a milk jug from October 2008 to May of 2011. In fact, we loaded up the whole family last Friday. Heather, our 3 and half year old daughter and 10 month old son…and myself…and we dumped all our change into the Coinstar at Kroger as it counted up the money we had saved. That was our tangible motivation and we wanted my daughter especially to know at such a young age the importance of being debt free. Every week we added more coins just hoping that at the end of this we might have enough money to celebrate at a nice restaurant. We looked forward to this steak dinner for 31 months. And now it is here.

So no matter what your debt situation is, don’t give up hope. You can do this. Thousands and thousands and thousands of people have done this.

Start today.

Our final goal is to drive out to Nashville to the Dave Ramsey headquarters so that we can scream we are debt free from the lobby of the building. I know it sounds crazy…but not anymore crazy than living in debt.

33 Comments

  1. by John Dyer on May 19, 2011  6:36 am Reply

    What a powerful example of discipline you'll be able to share with your kids, clients, and friends. So proud to know you guys!

    • by Indy on August 9, 2011  12:41 pm Reply

      Unieblevable how well-written and informative this was.

  2. by Gabe Smith on May 19, 2011  8:01 am Reply

    That's awesome, you guys! Thanks for sharing your incredible story with us.

  3. by sam duregger on May 19, 2011  8:09 am Reply

    Rhett,

    That is one incredible story! Candace and I are just about to begin the debt-free program, we have the audio books from his Total Money Makeover and have begun to budget and look at our spending. This post is completely motivating for me!

    I realize the sacrifice and part of me is plain scared to begin. But hearing how much you paid off in such a short time (with 2 kids) is nothing short of amazing.

    So. Thanks for this, and let's catch-up soon.

  4. by Brian French on May 19, 2011  8:09 am Reply

    Great story! Encouraging to hear! Thank you! I agree with full on gazelle intensity, it's hard to maintain but so worth it when it's all done!

  5. by Kyle Reed on May 19, 2011  8:11 am Reply

    That is an awesome story and very inspiring.

    I subscribed to Dave's thoughts and continue to be debt free and want to remain debt free.

    Thanks for sharing that

  6. by eloranicole on May 19, 2011  8:25 am Reply

    this is incredible! thanks for sharing. :)

  7. by Heidi on May 19, 2011  8:34 am Reply

    Thats so awesome!! Congrats you two :) I just started on baby step #1 of the program, and am excited to be able to scream I'm DEBT FREE!!

  8. by Jared Still on May 19, 2011  8:39 am Reply

    Absolutely love, and continue to be encouraged by your story! We're still in the hole, but the light is at the end of the tunnel bro...thanks for the encouraging and inspiring testimony! Love you guys!

  9. by Michael Gray on May 19, 2011  9:24 am Reply

    FREEEEEEEEEEDOOOOOOOMMMMMMM!

    Congrats, Rhett! I can only imagine the burden that is lifted because of this. Heidi and I are at that initial turning point now and we're tired of being "normal". With upcoming job and housing changes, we're ready to get out of debt like you and your family have. This is a very timely inspiration for me. Thanks for sharing.

    Now all I want is for you to post the audio of the "We're debt free" call you make to the Dave Ramsey Show. Please tell me you're going to do it...

  10. by jason smith on May 19, 2011  9:56 am Reply

    On the same journey. This just encouraged my socks off!

    Thanks.

    I especially like the goal of driving to Nashville to scream "we're debt free."

    Jason

  11. by Wade on May 19, 2011  10:08 am Reply

    So encouraging for my wife and I who have been married for only a year now. We look forward to this day! Thanks for the encouragement to keep working.

  12. by Wyatt on May 19, 2011  10:11 am Reply

    Super excited for you guys, what an amazing feat! Just think how much quicker you would have emerged from debt if dad would have paid us the $2 per mention in each of his sermons growing up.

  13. by Blake on May 19, 2011  10:28 am Reply

    Rhett!

    That is such a great story. You and Heather are such an amazing example of re-focused discipline and we are so happy for ya'll. Your children are going to see the two of you leading by example and more than likely they will understand money and debt in a way that some in their generation will not. Enjoy that Steak! Danielle and I can't wait to celebrate with you when we're back in Dallas. We'll bring some $3 wine!

  14. by Scott on May 19, 2011  11:13 am Reply

    So inspiring. Thanks for sharing your story, Rhett.

  15. by Brian LePort on May 19, 2011  1:29 pm Reply

    Rhett,

    These are really great tips and this is an amazing story. My wife and I don't have this kind of debt, but by the time I am done with my studies it could be close. I may have to return to this post in the near future. In the meantime, I have been trying and will continue to try implementing some of this steps (e.g. making my own coffee at home).

  16. by Casey Bedell on May 19, 2011  2:05 pm Reply

    Rhett,

    Thanks for sharing your story. I can't imagine having all my student loans out from under me. I await the day!

    As I think about debt, and in particular the debt we have, I not only see discipline needed, but I see the gospel needing to take a deeper root in my own heart leading to a deeper repentance. No doubt some of my debt is necessary (grad school like you), but some is unnecessary. Lifestyles often end up costing us way more than we bargained for.

    As a minister, I am not one to discourage hard work, but I am one who wants to put the gospel out front and remind folks that their progress or lack thereof, will not enhance or diminish the meaning of life. More importantly, it does not affect the quality of ones union with Christ. The gospel says that by faith, what is true of Christ, is true of you. That is true liberation!

    I say all that because most folks won't have white knuckle discipline, and even if they did, I would still begin with the gospel, wanting it to lead to a greater faith and greater repentance, which would lead folks to repent of certain lifestyles that put them into debt. Good news will bring about good fruit and the good fruit is not ultimately the good news, just a reflection of it.

    In the end, I think true gospel liberation is the power needed to bring about idol liberation, which seems to be what underscores most debt.

    Once again, thanks for sharing your story.

  17. by Peter P on May 19, 2011  2:46 pm Reply

    I want to do the Dave Ramsey thing, but whenever I read these kinds of posts I always think that there's not one thing on those lists that we currently do.

    We don't eat out, don't go to movies, don't buy clothes (except essentials), don't have TV, don't buy books, don't drink coffee or soda, don't subscribe to any magazines...

    I really don't know what there is that we could cut out!

    I am really impressed with your perseverance though. CONGRATULATIONS!!!

  18. by Drew Sams on May 19, 2011  5:10 pm Reply

    Brings tears to my eyes as I read the story that I have watched you live for the last 3 years. Proud to call you family and am thankful that your example has changed the way Erika and I spend; so much so that we are heading towards being debt free in the next few months.

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  20. by Tammy on May 19, 2011  11:57 pm Reply

    Congratulations!! This is inspiring!!

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  22. by Linda Stoll on May 21, 2011  11:55 am Reply

    Your story is motivating, inspirational, encouraging ... your "can do" attitude is so refreshing in a day when so many are getting discouraged and wringing their hands instead of making a plan and being courageous to make the hard choices to get to their goal.

    I'll be sharing your post with the people in my world ...

    Congrats!!

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  25. by amy on June 16, 2011  11:11 pm Reply

    Thanks for sharing! We are 6 months into our journey with a very similar amount of debt and the end seems a lllllooooonnnnnngggg way away. I have been praying for encouragement and your story is it for me tonight. I hope to someday be sharing our success story. Congratulations, you so deserve to celebrate!

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