It is far too easy to become bogged down and depressed by the numbers representing our total debt. At this point in our journey, we still have credit card balances, a consolidation loan, student loans, and mortgages. I try to channel some motivation from our past mistakes, resolving to fight back against our debt and towards a better future. Sometimes, however, it can be counterproductive to focus on the past. You get caught up in wishing away mistakes and overcome by a sense that the hole is just too deep. An extraordinary goal like early semi-retirement can seem like a crazy pipe dream. I’ve found that the most effective way to reflect on our past is to straddle that line between inspiration and regret. I am trying to build an awesome life. The unavoidable truth is that my past, for better or worse, is the foundation on which I am forced to build that life. Whenever feeling less-than-optimistic, I like to recognize that we did make some good choices along the way, in spite of our current financial situation.
I have an advanced degree, for which I continue to pay (principal and interest). However, it could be a lot worse, as in the not-so-uncommon six figures of education debt. I fortunately chose to go to a cheaper, state school, and worked many part-time jobs to help pay for expenses. My career is providing me with a higher income that we are using to pay off debt and build assets. While the plan is for early semi-retirement, I anticipate continued use of my education as a consultant/freelancer. The loans can be depressing, especially when you consider my plan to not pursue a long-term career. Even so, I have grown from the challenges of my occupation and experienced some really rewarding moments along the way. Overall, I count my graduate education as a positive choice.
BUYING A HOUSE
Mr. Smith and I purchased a house the year before we got married. We had been living in an apartment while I finished undergraduate school. We chose to stop spending money on rent and to start building equity. Now, we have 11 years paid off on the thirty year mortgage and rent out our “starter home” to a friend. The house needs some repairs, so our friend pays us a fairly low rate. We need to get to work on fixing it up in order to recoup more in monthly rent. This property will continue to be a source of income once we reach semi-retirement. Although we didn’t have any set plans back then, we will reap continued benefits from this purchase in the future.
A LOW-COST WEDDING
We were only 23 years old and our parents weren’t willing to pay much towards our wedding. Circumstance can really force you to be resourceful and creative. I purchased a (beautiful) dress from a consignment store. We had a friend do the photography. Some other friends helped us make the favors and centerpieces while we had a few drinks one night. The reception was at a fire hall, where we could supply our own alcohol. The catered food was our biggest expense. We had a wonderful day without “breaking the bank,” because the fancy stuff really doesn’t matter. And now, a big, expensive wedding is something that we don’t need to include in our budgeting plans.
Mr. Smith’s mother died when he was five years old. Her death has affected him in so many ways, including his acceptance of the fact that the end can come at any time. We probably were extremely rare life insurance customers at the young age of 22 years old. I count our life insurance policies as both protection and a long-term investment. We purchased whole term policies, which can be cashed out if we reach old age. Hopefully, we will grow old together and have this money available, if we need it.
EARNED 401K CONTRIBUTIONS
I found a great employer six years ago. They automatically contribute to a 401K. This allows me to use my entire paycheck towards paying off debt, while still benefitting from a growing 401K.
BOUGHT USED CARS
Again, it helps to remember that our financial situation could be worse. We did not go out and automatically buy brand new vehicles after landing a new job. And we didn’t lease vehicles either. We purchased reliable, used vehicles, and took care of them. Now, we have two paid off vehicles which I count among our assets.
OK, let me explain. Having a large family was always part of the plan – we have three and hope to add a fourth in the next couple of years. There are a lot of initial costs when you bring a new person into this world. Two big examples are the medical bills and unpaid time off from work. The point is that we already have those expenses out of the way. Yes, the children will undoubtedly continue to cost us money, but we don’t have to budget for those initial costs in the future.
HAD SOME FUN
I went away for undergraduate school, living with Mr. Smith for part of that time. We went to parties and routinely spent money on take-out food. I was a bartender and Mr. Smith played in a semi-pro football league. We did a small amount of travelling, including an amazing cruise to the Bahamas and a very memorable sightseeing trip to Washington, D.C. during a snowstorm. These past experiences allow us to be content with our current, frugal lifestyle. We aren’t miserably wishing that we could trade places with our single friends and go out drinking all night. We did that. We had enough fun to hold us over until we achieve our financial goals.
WE DIDN’T GO CRAZY WITH SPENDING
Finally, I have to be thankful that we didn’t dig ourselves in too deep. Yes, we made mistakes and were irresponsible with money. But, we won’t have to file for bankruptcy or face mortgage foreclosure. Our situation is fixable and we will NOT be in debt forever. I credit this fortuity with our moderate spending through the years. We purchased pretty much all of our furniture via Craigslist. I never bought high-end clothing, shoes, or purses. We only went on limited, and fairly cheap vacations. I didn’t spend money on going to the hair salon or getting pedicures. Mr. Smith occasionally spent money on used video games. We didn’t eat out at expensive restaurants. Our first house was even on the cheaper end of the real estate market.
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My mantra is that “everything happens for a reason.” Ultimately, the person we are is the result of our past choices. If we had made different decisions along the way, including with respect to finances, we might have been content to settle for a standard, cookie-cutter American life. Our struggle with debt led us to discover a better option in early financial independence and fueled us to make the drastic changes necessary to reach our goals. There is a penance to pay, but by staying positive and focused, we have faith that our plan will come to fruition.