For many, debt-free living is a huge goal. But paying yourself out of debt can take years. In the meantime, don’t forget to enjoy your life.
By Elsie Callender, Contributing Writer
Why can’t all our debt just go away?
I’ve wondered that, quietly or out loud, so many times in the six years since I graduated college.
My husband and I got married with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. Our incomes could hardly make a dent in the amount we owed. But I chose to see the glowing positive. If that was the price we had to pay for meeting each other within the first hour of student orientation, then so be it.
I also was wildly optimistic. I figured we would pay off our debt in five years, tops, and welcome a new baby into the world with a tidy savings account.
That hasn’t happened.
As time wore on and our debt shrank only slowly, I began to feel bitter. Also resentful. And trapped.
I was frustrated that we couldn’t seem to get ahead. All our hard-won earnings went straight to the government, paying for our past rather than building our future. I grew tired of being a renter. I desperately wanted a home of my own–something not too big and not too small, with plenty of cozy permanence.
Once we’re debt free, I told myself, our lives can really begin! We can actually start saving for a house and living abroad part time. We can have children without having to worry too much about finances. Maybe sometimes we’ll even stay in hotels when we go out of town, instead of peoples’ couches!
I prayed about our debt everyday, (please make it go away!), worked incessantly, and got all kinds of frustrated when our emergency fund would be depleted–again–for car repairs and medical bills.
My fondest wish was that we could be debt free.
I was fully aware that money can be an idol, but since we didn’t have much of it I didn’t think that was a problem. It took me years to realize that being debt free can be an idol, too.
In our Western Christian culture, we’ve elevated debt-free living to a level it shouldn’t be. We act like getting out of debt is next to godliness, and every Christian must be debt free or working towards it with all their might.
Now, I’m not saying that paying off debt isn’t an excellent goal, because it is. But God has taught me some priceless lessons in this season of life. I might not have learned them if it weren’t for our financial struggles.
It’s taken me six years, but I’m finally learning to thank God for our debt.
Through this process, my husband and I have learned so much about working together as a team, about stewardship of our resources, making a home with what we have, and about changing our expectations and learning to be flexible. Living with debt is a trial that’s refined us.
From right smack in the middle of paying off our debt (we’re just a little beyond the halfway point!), here are my biggest pieces of advice for others on the journey:
First off, don’t put your hope in financial stability.
Whether you’re in debt or living comfortably on the other side of it, your hope and security should be in God. Getting out of debt is not the thing that sets you free. You might not owe a cent to anyone, but if you put your hope in your finances then you are still trapped. Being in debt has taught me to rely on God, but I also know that even after we’re debt free, it can all be taken away in a moment. Finances aren’t constant, but God is.
Don’t put off having children … at least not too long!
I know the feeling. You want to be able to provide good things for your children, to be a little better off financially when you bring them into the world. You have to be wise and practical.
At the same time, children are an incredible blessing and a gift, and if you have the opportunity to have children don’t give that up lightly. Not to be too negative, but you just don’t know what the future will hold. Enjoy having children when you can–when your body is younger and your own parents have many years ahead of them to spend with your kids.
I wanted to be debt free when we started having children. Now that the journey is taking more time than I anticipated, I’m extremely glad we didn’t wait any longer than we did. We won’t pay off debt as quickly now because I’m working a lot less than I did pre-baby. Still, we’re confident that God’s timing was perfect.
Recognize and revel in the simple, ordinary pleasures that are all around you.
Ironically, living in want has taught me that we already have plenty. It’s an on-going process, but I’m learning to fully savor the simple, everyday pleasures of my routine, to be content with what I have at this moment, and to practice living more abundantly on a daily basis. Life is rich, regardless of the size of your bank account.
Spend a little, sometimes.
Yes, absolutely, make a budget and stick to it! It’s extremely hard to get out of debt (or stay out) if you don’t have a budget. However, we’ve found that it’s healthy to do some mindful, not-strictly-necessary spending upon occasion. We’ve continued to go on regular date nights because we’ve seen how beneficial they are for our marriage. We spent money on a road trip and on a babymoon that we knew we wanted to do with just the two of us, pre-kids. Certainly, we won’t have those opportunities again for a while! We would be further along on our debt timeline if we hadn’t made these and other purchases. However, I don’t regret the money we’ve spent when we took an intentional, considered approach.
With all the things I’ve learned about stewardship and contentment, I still wish we were out of debt. When we make our final payment, you can bet we’ll celebrate! But, by God’s grace, I’m also willing and ready to see what else He has to teach me on this second half of our debt-free journey.
I know I have more to learn.