journey-to-financial-freedom
Debt Free, Financial Freedom, Frugal Living

My Family’s Journey To Financial Freedom!

Hey everyone! My name is Holly and I’m so excited you are here. I am a middle school teacher (part-time) and in addition to blogging here at The Sweet, Simple Things, I also manage a cloth diaper blog called Rocking the Cloth. I live in Minnesota with my husband, Joe, my kids, Sam & Eli, and our dog & cat, Ruby & Gherkin.

My goal is to share my family’s journey toward a content and joy-filled life, along with our journey to financial freedom.

As of now, my family has paid off over $83,000 in debt over the last three and a half years. (Update: We are now DEBT FREE! We have successfully paid off all 105k worth of debt). This included mostly student loans, but also both of our car loans and about $3,000 on a credit card. In that time, we also paid for my master’s degree, paid for the birth of my son (and some of his health issues), and put about $7,000 into our house without going into debt.

I’m not here to tell you about how awesome we are that we did this. In fact, we have made so many mistakes along the way (especially during the first half of this journey) that sometimes I wonder how I can even talk to people about this.

But we made huge strides and grew so much over the second half of our journey. We are completely different people now.

Our story starts about four years ago.

One Day Can Change Everything

Almost exactly four years ago, I went to school (I am a teacher) like any other day. I received an email midday from an administrator that said they wanted to speak with me. I immediately felt uneasy because this was an unusual email to get.

They showed up for the meeting and one of my worst nightmares was confirmed–after teaching in this school for three years, I was being let go.

I didn’t see it coming at all and was sick to my stomach. For days, I couldn’t eat or sleep. I didn’t know what I was going to do.

At the time, my oldest son was about to turn one. I wrote down every expense we had to see if it was possible to make it on just my husband’s income so I could stay home with him. Staying home wasn’t part of my plan, but it made me feel better about losing my job if I could become a “full-time mom”.

I kept running and rerunning the numbers, but unfortunately, I just could not see how to make it work. Our financials were spread too thin. I had a car payment for $256, my husband’s car payment was $445, and together our student loan payments totaled almost $900. Plus I had just started my master’s degree (which isn’t free!) Having over $1600 going to debt payments every month was not helping the budget! But alas, I didn’t see much I could do about it at that time.

A Blessing In Disguise

Even though suddenly losing my job without warning while in a stressful financial situation was one of the worst times of my life emotionally, it led us down a much better path.

I reevaluated my goals as a teacher and decided to focus on special education. It made sense for me to start teaching in that field because that was what I was pursuing my master’s degree in. I ended up finding a job that fulfilled me much more than my last did, paid a few thousand more per year, and combined all of my degrees/teaching licenses perfectly in one position. It was an incredible blessing! I can see now that God had his hand on my situation.

This also gave my husband and I the wake up call we needed to get our finances straightened out. I had heard about Dave Ramsey from a co-worker at my previous job. He was a Financial Peace University coordinator and talked very openly about his journey to financial freedom.

He was providing for his family of four as the sole income provider on a teacher’s salary without relying on debt–if that isn’t inspirational, I don’t know what is!

With my new job, I had to do some training over the summer. My commute was longer, so while driving to training every day, I decided to try out some of Dave Ramsey’s podcasts. I was learning so much about finances that I never knew before. I thought I was pretty good with money because I didn’t use credit cards very often–we just had a little bit on one card, and we justified it for whatever reason–but I realized there was so much I didn’t understand.

Making A Plan

After a couple of weeks of listening to podcasts, I realized something had to change. I brought the idea of Dave Ramsey’s “Baby Steps” to my husband and proposed that we make getting out of debt a priority. He liked the idea of getting out of debt, but he wasn’t fully on board with making it a top priority at first.

I tried to convince him the best I could on my own, but he wanted to do things a little differently. One day, my husband listened to a podcast with me and once he heard about the program straight from the source, he was much more on board. We got to work right away creating a new budget.

Making a zero-based budget is the single most important thing we ever learned how to do regarding money. Sure, we budgeted before. But our budget was just an Excel sheet of what different bills cost, and what we thought certain areas of our life SHOULD cost, regardless of whether or not they actually cost that much (because we had never truly added up our lifestyle before!)

Creating a budget that works for your family takes trial and error. It took us several months to get a good handle on our actual spending. But without making a plan for our money, we wouldn’t have been able to accomplish anything.

Our First Year

We accomplished quite a bit in our first year following the Baby Steps. We paid off our credit card, my husband’s car loan, and most of my car loan. I also paid for some classes in my master’s program.

It felt amazing to make that kind of progress. However, I do not think we reached a true “gazelle intensity” (or a deep level of commitment that makes us go crazy) by that point–that came later.

We made it to the most daunting part of our debt: our student loans (which made up basically 75% of our overall debt). We were about to take the real test of strength and endurance.

Year Two

During our second year of this journey, we became pregnant with baby #2! We knew that giving birth was expensive (as is raising babies), so we put the extra debt payments on hold and stockpiled as much money as we could. We hoped that after paying hospital bills, we could apply the rest of the money to debt.

However, at our 20-week anatomy scan, we found out our baby was going to be born with a cleft lip. We were devastated and stressed out not knowing if this cleft lip was going to be part of a syndrome or one of many other health issues the baby might face.

But God is good, and we pushed through it. What choice did we have? We continued to stockpile cash to be as prepared as possible for what might come. I wish I could say that we were gazelle-intense and didn’t waste a single penny that year, but we still were not where we needed to be with that.

Our son was born and we were very lucky that his cleft was relatively mild. However, he still had plenty of doctor’s appointments, and eventually surgery. We used our savings on medical costs and making up for my lost income while on maternity leave.

My hope of being able to move the bulk of that money pile to our student loans did not come true. But thanks to following the principles of this program, we added no new debt at all during this time. I was also able to finish up my master’s degree during this year, and we paid for that in cash.

Year Three

During year three, I was excited to get back to paying off debt and making it our primary focus. However, we now had two kids in daycare! That wasn’t cheap, and honestly, it ate up the majority of my income as a teacher.

Nevertheless, we continued paying down what we could, and we were able to tighten up the budget a bit more.

It was in year three that I started learning more about minimalism, and it really resonated with me. I was sick and tired of feeling like I never had enough. I didn’t want to be looking to material possessions for fulfillment and wasting my money on useless things.

It had been so long since my family had been able to do anything fun without feeling guilty, like take a vacation or even do something fun locally. Thinking more about this helped spur us toward true gazelle-intensity because I didn’t want to be spending money on things that didn’t matter anymore.

New Beginnings

It was about halfway through year three that my husband got a new job. That new job paid more, and it finally brought our financial situation to a point where I felt comfortable leaving my job because we would still have some money in the budget to be able to pay down debt if I did. There is no doubt that this job has been a HUGE blessing to our family–without it, we wouldn’t have had the tools to do what we have done over the past year.

I left my full-time job at the end of the school year (actually, I was able to do a job share and I teach one day a week now–it has been awesome for my sanity and my family). After leaving full-time teaching, my gazelle intensity kicked into high gear.

We had only managed to pay off half of our original debt amount by the end of year three. One day, I played around with the budget, reworked it and reevaluated our priorities, and I realized if we did this thing right and went gazelle intense, we could pay off the second half of that debt in only one year.

So that is what we have been doing! (Update: DEBT FREE as of June 2019!) That is over six-figures of debt paid off in less than 4 years, though as you can see from reading my story, this hasn’t been a fluid payoff plan.

We have had ups and downs, and it took three years to get the first half finished. But thankfully, we finished the second half in less than a year. This intense journey has all lead us to where we are now. My family is forever changed for the better.

The Keys to Gazelle Intensity

The focus of this website is to help encourage you on your own debt-free journey. I also want to help you find ways to live comfortably and contentedly within a frugal budget. I’m spending less money than I’ve ever spent before, and I am happier than I have ever been.

Our quality of life does not suffer at all by living this way. In fact, we have been able to raise our quality of life in many areas because we have cut out the things that do not matter.

We have all heard the cliche that money can’t buy happiness, and it’s true. That said, it solves a lot of problems, so there is nothing wrong with having money or feeling happier when it’s not a stressor in your life. In fact, making sure money isn’t a stressor is a big part of this.

But we do need to change our way of thinking to get out of the mindset that spending our money on things, or even spending money on experiences is what makes life great. It’s not, and this is a very counter-cultural attitude, but it is essential for getting your family to financial freedom.

 

Where are you in your journey toward financial freedom? Let me know in the comments–I look forward to meeting you!

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4 Comments

  1. Queen says:

    Thank you, Holly, for sharing your family journey to financial freedom. It sure wasn’t a rock and roll journey or one that was accomplished in a twinkle of an eye. At present, my family is also immersed in debt and struggling to keep up with our day to day finances.

    And in order to help my husband meet up with our expenses, I decided to start a home-based business since I am a stay home mum.

    It has not been easy so far but I do believe that with the right direction and decisions, we will achieve our dreams just like you and your family did.

    I will definitely be sticking around your website to learn from your journey and all the ideas you have to offer to help us get to a better place too.

    Thanks for sharing this… 

    1. Holly Lee says:

      Thank you! I’m glad you found it helpful. You guys will do it and be financially free–I know it! Once you change your mindset into believing that is possible, you start looking at each financial decision with more intention than before. Once you start making intentional decisions with your money, you are well on your way. Good luck!

  2. AmDetermined says:

    Hi, your family story is very encouraging because I learned a lot from your post. Firstly, a family must cooperate together before success can come their way. You are a good wife to your husband. I also learned that determination is very important in everything that we do. You are very determined & there are many other people that listen to the same podcast that you listen to that are still in debt today. I will share your post on my social media for my friend to learn from you.

    1. Holly Lee says:

      Thank you!

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