Influence

 the shape of leadership

How We Paid off $70,000 in Debt in Less Than Five Years

Achieving financial freedom — even on a small income

Ah, debt — the elephant in the room. Though it’s uncomfortable to discuss, it lives and is loudly evident in many of our lives.

For young church leaders, debt is usually the by-product of an education. Many seminary students take on thousands of dollars in loans. After graduation, making the monthly payments while working in low-paying ministry positions can become a real struggle.

When my wife, Kayla, and I got married and the grace period of our student loans concluded, we owed around $70,000 for our degrees and our car. Meanwhile, our annual income was less than $38,000.

In fact, over the last five years, we’ve never made more than $60,000 per year. This is important to note because we paid off our debt while making less than $30,000 per person.

Strategize

The budget is the least significant part of debt payoff. It’s a system. But the system is useless without willing individuals operating it. We never went through an organized financial process, such as Dave Ramsey’s program. In fact, I had never heard of Dave Ramsey until years into our system. The important thing is to find a system and strategy that works for you.

One of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done is click “pay” on a loan.

Here are four strategic things we did to pay off our debt.

1. We set a goal. From the beginning, we had an end in sight. We wanted to be 100 percent debt-free by the time we reached 30 years of age. That gave us seven years to pay off $70,000.

We did the math. We needed to pay down roughly $10,000 a year in debt. I remember looking at our budget and laughing. There was no way we could afford to allocate $833 a month toward debt payments. So, we started with what we could afford. We were comfortable with $400 a month, which was the sum of the minimum payments on our loans. Even that made things tight, but we figured after a year of doing this, we could increase that amount.

2. We said “no” a lot. Starting at $400 a month, we slowly paid off the first loan. We then did what Ramsey calls the snowball method. The $400 became $500, which became $700, which eventually climbed to $1,200 a month for years.

When you are paying 35 percent of your monthly budget toward debt, you must learn to say “no.” We said “no” so often that people do not even ask us to go out to eat with them anymore.

It wasn’t just eating out that we politely stiff-armed. We said “no” to a lot of things: cable, unlimited data, and new clothes, shoes and furniture. The list goes on. (We always valued a vacation, so we did say “yes” to that.)

To pay off debt quickly, you must intentionally say “no” to many things and be content with it.

3. We capitalized on secondary income. From the minute we both had full-time jobs, we always had secondary income. Whether it was designing resumes, building websites, writing, or doing part-time administrative work, we understood that to hit our goal, we needed secondary income.

Instead of using the secondary income to improve our way of life or increase what we could spend that week, we put it all toward debt. One year, I had a job that paid commission. We used the hourly income to live on and agreed to pay the commission toward debt. That commitment nearly doubled our yearly debt payoff, which ultimately allowed us to become debt-free much earlier than our original goal.

Did we want a second job? No. We had enough on our plates with our full-time ministry jobs, but we prioritized paying off debt. We wanted to become financially free.

4. We waited to have children. When we set our goal in 2013, we knew we couldn’t achieve that while caring for children. So, we decided to wait until we paid off our debt, and God honored that request.

I’m not suggesting you do the same. It’s a very personal decision, but it is key for our context. For those who already have children, there’s a good chance you can’t do what we did because of your life stage, but I’m certain you can do something.

Something ... that’s the goal here. 

Budget

Living on a budget is no different than trying to eat right or work out. It’s all about discipline.

A budget allows you to tell your money where it goes. The discipline comes in when you see you have $1,300 in your checking account, but according to your budget, you have $100 in spending money for the week. Once the $100 is gone, it’s over.

Here’s an approximate estimate of our budget breakdown:

  • 35 percent: debt (student loans, car, etc.)
  • 25 percent: housing (everything household related, including rent, electricity, internet, Hulu, etc.)
  • 20 percent: living (everything else that costs money, including car insurance, gas, phones, spending money, haircuts, dog expenses, clothes, groceries, etc.)
  •  15 percent: giving (supporting the local church and missionaries)
  • 5 percent: savings (building a general savings account)

(For some, giving may not be a priority. Yet I believe God supernaturally helped us become debt-free as we gave out of our lack.)

Achieving the Goal

In late April of this year, we finally reached the finish line, paying a total of $70,000 of debt in just under five years.

Strange as it seems, one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done is click “pay” on a loan. I treated it like a game, strategizing the fastest way to get that number to zero.

Kayla and I are expecting our first child in October. We hope to move into our first home in June. Our budget will soon look a lot different. But, there’s now margin to live a life of freedom.

We can’t help but thank God. He inspired the goal. He gave us the discipline to keep our perspective right. He opened up opportunities to supplement our income. He honored our request of waiting to grow our family.

Some of you make significantly more income than we do. Some of you don’t. Either way, you can do something. Start now. Strategize and dream of that day your debt is gone. It’s closer — and easier — than you think.

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