The Most Important Part Of The Story
The most important part of this story is that it wouldn’t have been possible without God answering our prayer. Our prayer for Reed to get a ridiculously well paying job so we could pay off our crushing, insurmountable student debt and be free to one day give large amounts of money away to bring glory to God.
I’m going to give you the back story to our story first, so if you’re interested only in the specifics, skip ahead to the “paying off the debt section.” If you do that, you’re going to miss out on the best part, though.
We prayed for 9 months for Reed to get a job on the railroad, a job that pays very, very well. During that 9 months we had no place to live, no steady job (reed worked odd jobs), and we couch surfed on our gracious parents’ and grandparents’ floors and basements, and did a lot of car camping. We were fervent in prayer and knew that God would give us something good, and those 9 months were very long, and honestly very boring. Reed was even trying to get a job, ANY job, and couldn’t get one. Not delivering Pepsi, not as a farm hand, nothing. Everyone turned him down, and we felt like God was holding us out for something. The Bible talks a lot about praying expectantly and with faith that He will provide for us, like in Psalm 5:3: “In the morning, I lay requests before You and wait in expectation”, so that’s what we did. After 6 months of praying, a job posting was opened on the railroad. After two more months, the railroad (affectionately known as “CN,” said with enunciated distaste. I’ll get to why later) FINALLY responded and set reed up with an interview. A MONTH after the interview, in late January 2014, they offered him a position. He started his 7-week-long training in Chicago one month later, and right before that we used the last of our money & took one last road trip to California in our trusty ’03 Honda Civic, packed down with camping gear and two months’ worth of our things. It only took 9 months, but God had finally answered our prayer.
CN pays very well, but they are very strict, impersonal, and almost own you, in a way. I say that lightly because I know slavery is very real and it’s nothing like that, but there’s a level of freedom you don’t have with that company. We knew that going in and wanted to use it to pay down our debt, but it was definitely a sacrifice. So when we enunciate distastefully every time we say CN, we say it because they call you at 2 am to go out of town for two days, only to come home for 10 hours just to do it again. Or when you are starting your days off at 12am and they call you at 11:59 to take a train out of town for two days. Or when you think you’re going to be called out so you stay up all day, just to have them call you right when you’re going to bed, and then have to be awake for an insane amount of time.
Paying off the Debt
We started with $92,500 in purely student debt between the two of us. Astronomical & outrageous, we wouldn’t be able to do anything we wanted to do in life with that huge of a burden. I would’ve HAD to work and not be at home with my kids, and we would have still been stuck making minimum or less-than-minimum payments, not making progress on savings or retirement or anything, all the while just accruing more interest on the debt. By the way, the interest on our debt after two years of not paying it would have been about 10k. TEN THOUSAND DOLLARS in interest, just in two years. That shouldn’t even be allowed, but that’s another topic.
To start, we wrote out all of our separate loans and then made a chart, pictured below. We made a bar graph for each loan, and made dashes for each $1000 increment and half dashes for each $500 increment. We had all our totals, interest rates, and what the interest would be on each loan after two years listed by each loan. We decided to list out the loans in order of importance based on which loans would grow in interest the quickest. Each time we made a payment, we colored in the increment and wrote the amount and date underneath.
Making our chart made paying off our loans so much fun. It sounds childish, but we were always so excited to color in our chart and we argued about who got to color it in each time. We hung it in our living room, and would just sit on the couch and stare at it and it felt like we were both making progress and getting nowhere at the same time.
The first time we made a payment, it felt like we were doing nothing. We paid $500 dollars, FIVE HUNDRED dollars, and it felt like nothing. It was so discouraging. We’ll never forget it.
Slowly, we started to make progress. It got really boring, really mundane, and really sucky at times, especially for Reed. We decided I should stay home because we wanted to see each other whenever he was able to be home, and the only job I was offered offered me 10$ an hour (??? at a law firm. still bothered by that).
Paying off debt requires a lot of discipline, and it gets exhausting, and you have to constantly make decisions about it. Before we got every check, we would decide what we were doing the money, and then right when we got it we would pay whatever we had decided to pay on our loans, then pay our bills, so we usually had no extra money left over to tempt ourselves with.
This is what our lives looked like for 20 months. Very mundane, but one of the biggest investments we’ve made in our lives, to free ourselves from the crippling debt. We constantly had to remind ourselves to be grateful for Reed’s job, especially when CN did stuff like punish him for taking three days off work when he had influenza and didn’t leave bed the entire time. Or when he was almost killed in a railroad bridge fire.
In January 2016 we found out I was pregnant with Maren, which was unplanned, so we just kept going and hoped to pay off as much as we could before she was born. We knew we wouldn’t be able to stay at CN after she was born.
When we got our tax returns in February 2016, we had paid off $60,000. We also won a local debt paydown contest with Superior Choice Credit Union (they usually do it once a year beginning in January, so check them out if you’re paying down debt). They rewarded us with $5,000 which was HUGE and we felt like it was truly a reward. We are still so grateful for it. That brought our total up to $65,000 paid off within 20 months.
After that point, we had to be done. We were in a one bedroom apartment with a baby, and renting wouldn’t be worth it anymore, so we decided to 1. quit the railroad and 2. buy a house and use our monthly mortgage as our investment.
So we haven’t made any payments since February 2016, BUT we are still investing (you can see what we’ve done to our fixer upper here, and we are making money on the sale of our house and putting into another house we can make money on. So we’re still making progress, it just makes more sense for us to put the money into an investment rather than just pay off loans right now. One day, and we’re so excited!
Tips for Paying Off Debt
We aren’t experts for sure, but here are our recommendations to get you excited and motivated to continually (not just initally) pay off your debt.
1. Make A Plan
Add up all of your debt and figure out approximately how much you can pay in debt per month. Decide if you’re going to find extra work, sell a car, or have a garage sale to get you started. There are two authors I recommend to read about good ways to pay off your debt: Dave Ramsey’s books and Suze Orman’s books. This is a biblical principle as well. “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’” Luke 14:28–30
2. Make A Chart
It’s kind of like you’re five and giving yourself a sticker, but it actually works. We got so excited to color in our chart every time we made a payment and it was motivating to see our progress every time. We also had a notebook we would write every payment in so we knew exactly how much we had been paying on each individual loan.
3. Tell Every Dollar Where To Go
Have a plan for your money before you get paid, every time. Spend it on the important stuff first, then debt, so you’re wiped out of money and don’t have any left over to tempt yourself with. Because you will be tempted.
4. Practice Discipline
It takes discipline to tell money where to go. Every month, with every purchase, or would be purchase, you have to make a decision. You have to decide not to buy that thing you really want, to delay gratification. Know beforehand that it’s going to suck for a while so it can be great later.
5. Give Yourself Rewards
Every time we paid off a set of loans, we would give ourselves 1% of the loan amount as a “reward.” We went on a camping trip, out to eat, & when we pay them off completely we’re doing something BIG. 1% of 92,500? You do the math. We probly won’t even be able to get that amount of money, but the idea is still there. Even if we go on a camping trip to the mountains for less than that, it will still feel like a huge celebration. I encourage you to set aside an amount of money to spend on something you enjoy after paying off a loan or an increment of money. It keeps you going when it starts to get really boring and and gives you something to look forward to.
6. Get Support
We told family and friends about our progress, and they were so excited for us. And when it was discouraging they would encourage us to keep going. I highly recommend not doing it alone.
Pray that God gives you wisdom for how to spend your money. The Bible says: “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” James 1:5. Or pray, like we did, and ask for something crazy like a well paying job. Pray that you can have your heart aligned with God’s in how to spend your money. When you do this, you start to see that extra shopping spree or even going out to eat as something that you could instead invest into God’s kingdom. This article from Christianity Today about “The Economy of the Kingdom” is really good, I recommend reading it for both christians and non-christians.
Since February 2016, we have gone from financial abundance into and out of very, very lean times, and then up and down again. We have always had enough, and our accountant has asked us multiple time while doing our taxes “how did you even live??” God has given us everything we need, and we are praying big things for our financial future to grow God’s kingdom. Maybe one day I’ll expound on what those big things are, but in the mean time, I encourage you to evaluate your finances to see where you could find more financial freedom. It is truly freeing.