My wife often says, “I love a little hardship; I’d recommend it to anyone!” She doesn’t say this with blind optimism – she has experienced living meagerly (after living well for most of her life), and believes (as I do) that we are better people and that we have a stronger marriage because of all we’ve faced together.
When my wife and I made the decision to become debt-free 3 years ago, we were 60k in. We were also 6 months into a marriage and had just found out we had a (surprise!) baby on the way. It was time to grow-up. In fact, it wasn’t a hardship at all. It was the best thing we could have done for our marriage because we refused to blame the other person, listed our debts in a debt snowball plan, and started figuring out how we could eliminate them by earning more money and cutting monthly expenses. We decided that eating out once a week (or less) should be the norm, and we began shopping for the lowest price on only essential items. We stopped shopping for new clothes, and anything we didn’t need to live, in lieu of the freedom we knew we would soon feel. We even scheduled “bill paying” date nights because it became fun to sit and track our progress over a cheap bottle (or box) of wine.
I like to share our story because it helped to change the face of our marriage and has shaped the discipline with which we currently run our lives. My wife and I are not perfect – we both love to indulge in all the best life has to offer. We just choose to do it more conservatively than we did before, and only when we can pay cash for it. The hardest part of how we live is actually how starkly it contrasts with the rest of society.
I don’t think it surprises anyone that America has become a buy now, pay later society with little regard for the negative emotional effects of debt. We live like we’re on a treadmill and if we can’t pay cash, we accrue debt and pay the interest on it without thinking of the consequences. Except that all the while your mind and conscience tell you that you truly can’t afford it. You write it off, but until you’re free of that debt forever and get off the treadmill, you’ll never know the emotional burden it caused. The never-ending cycle ruins marriages, destroys countries (e.g., Greece), and is a sickness that our society is now used to, as it if were just allergies to be treated daily instead of an illness you could eliminate forever.
In my daily research of all things financial, I’m sick to my stomach at what our nation has become. We work so hard to avoid the hard facts related to money, and when we do, it’s short-lived because of a bailout or a quick fix. The nation is in debt, but more importantly, we are all personally in debt in one way or the other. Many Americans seem to have stopped using the common sense our country was founded on and we’ve now moved toward a hedonistic, “it’s all about me” and/or “I don’t have to take responsibility for anything” approach.
I think it also boils down to something much greater related to how we feel about ourselves. Our lives are a smokescreen of fashion and excess without true direction or meaning. We no longer believe in our own strength to overcome adversity. We no longer understand how to summon our individual power in order band together with others to make something happen. It is because of this that I invite all of my readers to at least get started eliminating your debt in small ways. If you need a hand, the simplest approach is to follow Dave Ramsey’s “7 Baby Steps.” While I don’t completely agree with all of Dave’s Baby Steps, they are an excellent, basic blueprint to set you on the right path.
Within each of our marriages and families’ lies the ability to eliminate debt, and the stronger we become as individuals, the greater our nation will be. It’s no longer necessary to live beyond your means, and even the poorest among us can work to be free of the cancer that is the burden of debt. It is time to step up, take some responsibility, and stop expecting that our debts will eventually take care of themselves. We are the only way out of our own problem.
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John P. Chladek, MBA, CFP® is the President of Chladek Wealth Management, LLC, a fee-only financial planning and investment management firm specializing in helping families and couples who are not yet retired realize their financial goals. For more information, visit http://www.chladekwealth.com.