We finally did it.
We paid off just over $180,000 in debt in 10 years.
Was it easy? Nope.
Did we work hard at it? Yep.
Did we think it was even possible when we started? Big giant NOPE.
Did we do it anyway? Absolutely!
Now that debt is a thing of the past, it seems appropriate to take look back and see what things helped us the most on our journey to becoming completely debt free.
Here are the 3 actions that we believe helped us stick with it and reach success.
1. Play the Comparison Game Wisely
Let’s be honest. We all compare ourselves to others. We secretly judge their photos on Instagram or their vacation stories or even the kind of cars they drive – and wonder why our lives aren’t all perfect and wonderful.
But perfect and wonderful are a lie. The illusion is easy enough to cultivate on social media. (When’s the last time you saw someone take a picture of their spouse’s angry face when they were in the middle of an argument? Nope, that doesn’t make the social media cut.)
We knew we didn’t have the nicest clothes. We drove older used cars. We were very aware we looked different, and we often felt very different, than others.
Knowing our human proclivity for comparison, we did our best to stop comparing ourselves with a bunch of rich Americans. And by rich Americans, I mean just about every middle class family we encounter every day.
The top 1% of money earners in the world make $25k a year or more. So from a worldly perspective we are all extremely rich already.
But if we only look around at our friends and co-workers we won’t feel very rich at all. They have such nice things. And we like nice things too. But eventually we had to learn how to be content with what we already had.
How did this happen?
By traveling the world.
Traveling outside the US has been extremely empowering.
We’ve had fantastic opportunities to take multiple trips to places such as Panama and Haiti with our church. These were much needed reminders that our “good enough” was downright luxurious relative to the means of others in the world.
Even during our fancy vacations to Aruba and Cozumel it was easy to see the extreme lifestyle differences between those of us lounging on the beach and the locals working in the restaurant/bar delivering non-stop food and beverages to our beach bum crowd.
Suddenly, back in our own home, we started to see such luxury all around us in our “older” stuff.
We discovered we have more square footage in our living room than some have in their entire house.
I learned that every time I turn on the shower, hot water comes out. Oh…and we have freakin’ water…and a shower…in our house!
Our living room furniture is all the same furniture I bought used when I moved out of my parent’s house 12 years ago. Pretty it ain’t, but it works just fine.
Our TV in the living room is a 32-inch box thing that nobody has anymore, but it was a birthday present from my wife’s parents 10 years ago. Pretty? No. Works just fine? Yes.
Our entertainment center? A hand me down we got 9 years ago from a co-worker at my old job who was literally throwing it out because it was old.
Walk into our bedroom and you’ll find my wife still has the same dresser she had from Jr. High. My dresser is the same I’ve had since elementary school. Do they match? Nope. Do they hold clothes? You bet.
We are living like kings!
Of course this doesn’t mean we didn’t ever buy anything. It just means we rarely bought things because we realized we didn’t really need anything else. But when we did buy things, we bought smart.
We started small. The rug in our living room cost $40 at a garage sale and we borrowed a steam cleaner from a friend.
Clothes were bought rarely and only on sale or at the thrift shop. Some of my favorite shirts and shorts are in great condition and came into our home “gently used” from the thrift shop. Something about getting a $50 shirt for $2.99 at the thrift shop just feels right.
And as we saved money in these areas, we were eventually able to upgrade our “buying-used” philosophy to cars. From a 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee to a 2002 Toyota Highlander and most recently our 2009 Toyota Sienna minivan. All bought used and with cash. Not a new car in the bunch. But this means we haven’t had a car payment in 8 years! Which means a lot more money to invest and pay off the house.
Of course over 10 years we have bought some things new because we had to. (Having a baby forces you to do some drastic things, you know?) But for the most part, we’ve lived in a used, outdated, non-matching environment. Think the “before” pictures on HGTV.
Many of our friends probably think we’re broke.
But being content with what we have is really just a byproduct of the perspective and gratefulness we’ve slowly discovered as we’ve become more familiar with the lives of many others around the world who would love to live in our luxurious environment.
2. Strive For Something
This has been an interesting one for us. We’ve always talked about the things we’ve wanted to do once we were completely debt free – including our house.
But sticking with the disciplines outlined above over the long haul is really hard. We were struggling to be as intense as we wanted with paying off our house.
So about 3 years ago I randomly got a horrible new boss at work. New Boss was a brand new manager with…let’s say poor relationship skills.
New Boss was completely sold on doing everything “by the book.” I, of course, never read “the book” and couldn’t stand the nonsense this book-learning regularly required.
I spent 3 months trying to figure out New Boss and it was a nightmare.
Of course, eventually New Boss won, because, you know, BOSS. I ended up losing all the project work I was passionate about to take on all the drudgery work I couldn’t stand.
Time to look for a new job, right?
Well…apparently not. I had 3 equally frustrated co-workers that quit to start their own company, and they asked me to come along. I was tempted, but it didn’t feel like the right move in my heart.
I thought maybe I need to start looking for another job somewhere else in the company. But there wasn’t anything else I was really qualified for or passionate about. Another closed door.
So eventually after a sad, frustrated and depressed version of myself kept coming home from work, my wife was fed up.
I really wanted to pursue something outside the corporate world. I was tired of dealing with idiots and surely all the idiots were inside corporate jobs, right? (It made perfect sense at the time.)
So my wife made me a deal. I could leave my corporate job as soon as the house was paid off. Probably not a smart choice, but it felt so right in the moment.
I immediately started praying and my wife started getting really intense about our budget, putting every spare dollar to our house payment each month.
We rediscovered our intensity about paying off the house because I was ready to start doing something more interesting with people who had brains. Suddenly our house payment was the single barrier preventing me from doing that.
I never felt right pursuing other jobs which was incredibly confusing. I actually did a casual phone interview with one company, but nothing felt right about it.
So I stayed put.
For 3 years I bounced around the company to different departments, none of which inspired me at all.
I eventually took 3 weeks off when our third child was born. That same week I got an email with a job opportunity with another team at my company that I had heard really great things about. So many great things, in fact, that I didn’t think I was even qualified to work with them.
Now watch this closely.
I wasn’t going to apply but my wife said I should, if for no other reason than to just practice my interviewing skills. That was definitely something I could see coming in handy.
So I applied.
The night before my interview I chose to sleep in our son’s room since he was out of town with the grandparents and new baby #3 was still waking up at all hours of the night in our bedroom. I wanted to get a full night’s sleep and be fresh for my 9am interview.
At 8:15am the next morning my wife rushes into the room and wakes me up. “Don’t you have an interview? Aren’t you supposed to be leaving?” For some reason my alarm didn’t go off. I rushed to the shower, barely got dressed and actually made it to work 5 minutes before my interview started.
The interview went fine, but it also solidified my impression that I wasn’t what they were looking for. It was just a good practice interview.
Imagine my surprise when I got a call from HR asking me back for a second interview. Yea! “More practice,” I thought.
I actually woke up on time for the second interview and met with the woman who would be my boss’s boss. She was great and definitely didn’t fit the corporate executive mold I was used to. She hated “the book” as much as I did. I liked her immediately.
We chatted for over an hour and departed pleasantly, but I still thought I was just practicing my interviewing skills.
A week later HR calls to tell me that the job was mine if I wanted it! There was very little negotiation because I didn’t care about money. I just wanted to work for this team that understood how to get really great work done.
That week I started sitting with my new team, and discovered they had been doing the things I was trying to do 3 years ago with my old team…except they actually had leaders and executives that believed in what they were doing.
They were incredibly comfortable breaking bureacratic rules where necessary to get the work done.
I had found a job and team I could really love!
One week later we paid off our house.
It turns out my 3 years of frustration in my job wasn’t a sign that I needed to find a new job. It was simply a mechanism that got us to focus our efforts where they needed to be.
And it worked. We paid off our house in just 7 years and 4 months.
Was that a really fun time? Not at all.
Were we focused on a long-term goal for our future? Not really. We just wanted our mortgage payment to disappear.
But it worked. It was the thing that provided us motivation and the ability to focus and make sacrifices.
It doesn’t really matter what your goal is, but you have to have something you’re striving for. The more you want it, the better.
3. Look at the Bigger Picture
So here we sit completely debt free, and me in a job I really enjoy.
The whole time we thought We were paying off our mortgage so I could quit my job and go do something else. Now we realize we have no idea what the future really holds for us.
But we are certain that there is a bigger plan for us that we are completely unaware of – and that’s both exciting and scary at the same time.
We’ve also been talking to the kids regularly about getting the house paid off and how that was a big goal for us.
One Saturday we took them out to a local pizza place with games, rides and go carts to celebrate this big accomplishment as a family. Being a Saturday night, it was quite crowded.
As we were sitting at a table in one of the big rooms with giant TV’s everywhere playing cartoons, our 5-year-old son looks around and says to almost no one at all, “Wow! A lot of people paid off their house.”
It took us a while to comprehend his innocence in thinking that everyone was there because they had paid off their house – that paying off your house is just a natural thing that apparently a bunch of people do.
Of course, one day we hope he’ll understand that life is so much more than just trying to live in a nice house with nice things.
We do have a nice house, and eventually we will have some nice things. But we are determined that none of those things will ever have us.
“When God can do what He will with a man, the man may do what he will with the world.”
– George MacDonald (1824-1905)
What have been your biggest motivators along your financial journey? Was it a person? An event? Maybe a goal you’re striving for? Let me know in the comments what keeps you heading in the right direction.