In America, college degrees and piles of student loan debt go together like peanut butter and jelly. But when student loans linger long after graduation, so do the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Talk to any recent college graduate, and you’ll likely notice this trend. Unfortunately, my wife and I were no different. And if I’m being honest, I never really liked peanut butter and jelly.
According to research by Northwestern Mutual®,Among the generations, Gen X reported the highest levels of personal debt with $36,000 on average. They’re followed by Baby Boomers at $28,600; Millennials at $27,900; and Gen Z at $14,700.
By the time we reached our second year in marriage, we exceeded the average in a negative way—my wife was accepted into a doctorate program at a private institute, and we accumulated a total debt of one hundred twenty thousand dollars. It felt like an ominous cloud drifted in and decided to follow us wherever we went.
Finance is one of the biggest reasons married couples fight and marriages fail. We realized our debt could be a serious source of stress and conflict. We were facing a tough road ahead, and we had to act fast. So we made it our goal to get out of debt. We did the research, made significant sacrifices, delayed certain parts of a “normal” married life, and after seven years, we are now debt free.
I want to share the guiding practices that helped us get out of debt, but you should know that I am not a financial adviser. I can only show you where we stumbled in hope that you don’t. I can only share our story in hope that what we learned can help you too.
Before I share our practices, I’d like to make it clear that I do not believe it is a sin to borrow money. However, I know firsthand that debt degraded my spiritual life. Over the years, I learned of three ways that debt negatively impacted my life.
1. Debt compromised my generosity. I wanted to provide for my wife and my family. I wanted to bless those around me whenever I could. But debt kept me from doing that. “Honor the LORD with your possessions and with the first produce of your entire harvest,” (Prov. 3:9, CSB).
2. Debt clashed with my work ethic. Why work now when I could just borrow? Why not just enjoy the immediate gratification? This was a dangerous mindset for me personally because I struggle with procrastination. The Book of Proverbs even calls it foolishness: “The plans of the diligent certainly lead to profit, but anyone who is reckless certainly becomes poor” (Prov. 21:5, CSB).
3. Debt prevented me from rest. When we were eliminating our debt, I had to work extra hours or take on freelance work. This would often compromise my observance of the Sabbath. “Hustle” ultimately hijacked my Sabbath. It left me spiritually bankrupt. “No one can serve two masters, since either he will hate one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Matt. 6:24, CSB).
Now that you know my heart behind debt, here are four practices that helped us achieve financial freedom.
1. Create a budget.
Imagine pulling your phone out of your pocket and opening a navigation app. You desperately want to reach a final destination, but you don’t know your current location.
This is virtually the same as wanting to get out of debt without a budget. A budget may seem like an insignificant thing to include in a list like this, but I can’t count how many people we’ve met over the years who wanted to kill their debt and didn’t know what was coming in or out of their bank account on a monthly basis.
On the other hand, if the word “budget” scares you, don’t worry. A budget is simply a plan. If you’re going to get out of debt, you have to have a plan—a step-by-step guide on how to reach your final destination (i.e. financial freedom). And if you’re going to have a plan, you have to know your numbers. If you don’t know, you can’t grow.
If you’re just starting out, you can use a free template like this one. Just click the link, click “File,” then “Make a Copy.”
You’ll want to devote time to assessing all of your spending—including the recurring and one-time expenses. Line-by-line, look at every single expense from the past few months and label each as “keep” or “kill.” If you’re married, you should do this together.
Once you have your budget, use the free app “EveryDollar” by Ramsey Solutions to track all of your spending. You can even sync it with your spouse’s phone to track your spending together.
2. Seek advice from your network.
We are blessed to have many friends who are exceptionally smarter than us and savvy with finances. However, the wisdom wasn’t going to find its way to us. We had to swallow our pride and seek each person out. The lessons from these conversations forever changed the trajectory of our life and relationship with money.
From this experience, I learned our network affects our net worth.
The same goes for you. You likely have a friend, coworker, or family member who is wise with money, and if they’re anything like the people in our network, they want to see you succeed. The key here is to get specific. All you have to do is meet over coffee or lunch, share your story, and ask a few pointed questions like:
· What’s the best piece of financial advice you have ever received?
· What would you do if you were in my situation?
· What’s the best strategy you have seen for paying off loans (e.g. The Debt Snowball Plan)?
Remember, relationships should not be transactional, but by humbly seeking the collective wisdom around us, we can all be better.
3. Be relentlessly frugal.
Here’s where the real work comes in.
After you’ve created a budget and established a list of things to stop doing, it’s time to cut back. The numbers in your budget won’t lie. You should know clearly what actions to take. For example:
- Cut the cable.
- Stop eating out.
- Break up with your barista.
- End your print and digital subscriptions.
- Find free entertainment.
If you’re relentless, your newfound frugality should affect every part of your life—your hobbies, relationships, and habits. Your unyielding clash with consumption will bring on difficult change, but it’s worth it in the end.
We decided to share a car, stopped eating at restaurants, packed lunches, lived in an apartment with no amenities, got to know our library, and discovered ways to have fun for free.
We also learned the benefits of “found money.” Whether you get an annual raise, a bonus at work, or a sizable tax refund, if you use this money wisely, it can go a long way toward paying off your debt.
4. Set recurring check-ups.
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” —African Proverb
I believe this proverb to be true for finances—especially within the context of a marriage. If you’re going to eliminate your debt, it’s important you get on the same page about finances, act as a team, and save together.
Depending on your situation, I would recommend meeting weekly or monthly to check up on your spending strategy. During this time, you’ll want to get on the same page about what’s working and what isn’t. The key here is to focus on your process and ways to improve your spending habits.
Next, you’ll want to set quarterly or annual meetings to dream together and set life goals. When can you eliminate your debt? What do you want to do with your financial freedom? You can even establish your family values if you haven’t yet and talk about the big picture of pre- and post-debt. If your budget allows for it, make it a get-away trip.
Warning: You will make mistakes along the way. You will go over your budget some weeks or months. Remember to learn from your mistakes and respond with grace instead of guilt.
In your weekly or monthly check-ups, you’ll want to discuss things like:
- Is our budget working?
- Are we tracking everything well?
- What will we do the same next month?
- What will we do differently next month?
Looking back, our journey from debt to financial freedom was just that—a journey. It was full of dismal valleys, magnificent peaks, and yes, disgusting peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Like most arduous hikes, I developed a beautiful, newfound bond with my wife because we endured each step together.
Whether you’re considering the journey, stepping into a financial valley, or emerging out of one, I hope you know that the journey is possible. It just requires one step at a time.
Adam Richards is obsessed with words and stories. A former journalist, he got his start editing and launching magazines in south Florida. Today he works as a digital marketing strategist for LifeWay in Nashville, Tennessee. When he’s not at work, you can find him hiking with his wife in the Nashville area or on a pickleball court working on his dream of going pro.