“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!”
I’m sure we’ve all heard this saying. Well, we were swimming in $50,000 of debt. That’s a whole lot of lemons, my friend. And at the end of the day, we didn’t have the money to buy the sugar to make this situation any sweeter. So what did we do? We ate the lemons. Figuratively, of course. What I mean is that we stopped putting it off. We stopped hoping they would somehow disappear or we would be blessed with a lump sum. We stopped scouring the internet for the secrets to paying off debt and simply started down the dry road of becoming debt free. At the start, it felt like we were being asked to climb a mountain in flip flops. We felt uncomfortable. We felt unequipped. We felt scared. Even from the start, we didn’t think we could do it (motivating, right?) Excuses aside, we dug ourselves into this hole and now it was our responsibility to climb out. Here is a little snippet of our journey to becoming debt free.
Log in. Look. Cringe. *hopelessness sinks in.* Log out. Before we moved to South Korea, our Navient and Navinet accounts were bursting. Together, we had accumulated over $50,000 in student loan debt. This balance was not our original student loan total (I know, right!?) We had already spent months slowly chipping away at debt and had dropped the total by several thousand dollars. Though this was our only debt, and what some might deem as good debt, it was still a horrific burden in our eyes. In our opinion, no debt is good debt. Though the world will tell you a different story, being a slave to a lender steals freedom and holds you back from dreams. Short-term gratification will never satisfy in the way that long-term gratification can. Debt is a liar that tells you having what you want now is better than dealing with its painfully restricting ramifications later.
Several months before getting married, Nick suggested the idea of moving overseas to teach English as a solution to becoming debt free. Online sources promised a quick and bountiful income, an easy work schedule, and opportunities to travel! It sounded too good to be true, so we sent off our applications and were accepted almost immediately. Our dreams of being debt free would soon be a reality!
Fast forward to March 2017. Two years after coming to South Korea, I am ecstatic to share that we are finally debt free! That $50,000 we came to Korea with is now Z E R O. Of course we feel amazing! However, I’m not here to brag and boast about being debt free. I’m here to tell you how we did it. I’m here to share some inside pieces of our debt free story. I’m here to hopefully give you some hope about paying off your debt. I’m also here to share the truth behind becoming debt free (spoiler: it’s not as pretty as our social media feeds made it seem!)
Our first year in South Korea, we were not as aggressive about paying off our loans as we planned. We probably put about $1,000-1,500 a month toward our loans. Could we have put more? Absolutely! Why didn’t we? Short-term gratification. We were enjoying living in a new country, eating out, shopping, and being newlyweds. Our teaching hours were minimal (about 25 a week), though we were at school for longer. We were able to go on a summer adventure to Seoraksan (budget friendly, but still, a vacation). We ate out a few times a week. Life was about as comfortable as our debt was sitting in our accounts. Yes, we still kept a budget, but it wasn’t fixed. We’d move our budget around as as life required, or rather, as we desired.
Year two was a different story. We took new teaching jobs with a significantly higher pay. Okay, that makes it sound like it was all our skill and effort to land these jobs. In my opinion, we were completely unqualified for these positions and this pay based on our minimal teaching experience. We truly believe God gave us these jobs as an opportunity to get out of debt. It was our choice whether to be faithful to the blessing He provided or repeat year one again. We chose the former. For the past year, we left our apartment at 8:00 am (or earlier) and returned home at 8:00 pm (or later). I can’t tell you how much respect I have for teachers! Teaching is an extremely active profession: you’re on your feet for the majority of your day, you’re constantly talking, and you’re regularly on your toes thinking of how to stretch a lesson, handle a situation, or engage with your students. Don’t get me wrong, teaching is deeply rewarding. It’s also downright exhausting.
Luckily, these new jobs allowed us to fork over $3,000+ a month to eat away our debt! We lived minimally. We budgeted for food, tithe, giving, transportation, utilities, additional home needs (toiletries, cleaning supplies, etc.), a small savings, and a personal spending budget of $50 a month each. Yes, $50. One huge benefit of teaching overseas is that your housing is paid for (except utilities). You also don’t need to own a car (goodbye insurance, gas, and maintenance costs). I actually started this blog in the midst of the two years of restriction. I saved for items I wanted to blog about, asked for them as gifts for my birthday or holidays, and wrote about ethically made goods I already owned. Considering the fact that shopping ethically is typically more expensive, being financially restricted and passionate about supporting incredible brands was frustrating. Thankfully, Nick helped keep me grounded. I never compromised finances for the sake of blogging and never will.
Let me be the first to say that living this way was not easy. I got really good at saying no. Can be I totally transparent? There were many moments where I felt shame and embarrassment throughout this year. I was constantly having to tell people I couldn’t go to that event, needed to eat at a different restaurant/only meet for coffee, or many times, I would just not attend outings altogether to save money. We did this for a whole year! Most probably wouldn’t have guessed the mountain we were climbing or what was happening behind our smiling faces at church and social events. Most probably didn’t see nights filled with tears or fear because we didn’t budget as accurately as we thought. Living this way took incredible faith. What kept us going? Ultimately, hope. Throughout this process, God saturated our lives with moments of hope and encouragement. Each month, we would watch our debt drop. I can’t express how rewarding that was! Toward the end of our loan payments, we would run (literally) to the bank to transfer money, just so we could see that number drop further!
Now, I’m not sure if you’ve read many posts or watched videos about how to become debt free, but I actually found some to be discouraging or unrealistic. A few posts I read talked about putting all one’s savings towards debt payments. What if you don’t have a giant savings to begin with? Others explained tips for how to get out of debt quickly, but mentioned the blessing of receiving a lump sum that got them out of debt faster. Believe me, we dreamed of having a lump sum drop into our laps. We hoped that would be our situation, but it wasn’t. Though this is much easier to say now, I am actually thankful we paid off each dollar of debt the long, hard way. We put our heads down, stuck to our goal, and finished strong. This process forced us to learn a million little lessons about patience and perseverance. This process was a pressure cooker for our marriage, and in the end, only strengthened our friendship and love for one another.
So, you’re probably curious about some of the choices we made that helped us hold to a strict budget and accomplish our goal? We were forced to be creative and stop a lot of little habits. Instead of buying lattes, we made coffee at home. A bag of fair trade coffee for a week costs about $10, while one soy latte costs about $5. Instead of going to the movies or subscribing to Netflix, we watched movies we already owned or looked up free shows and documentaries online. I think we went to one movie this year because someone gave us movie tickets as a birthday gift! Instead of vacations, we enjoyed staycations. We’d budget for an occasional date night out, but usually just played board games and ate popcorn on our bed. All these alternatives may seem small, but they add up quickly when you consider how many of these activities are normal or necessities in most households.
Questioning how in the heck we were able to go on a vacation to Bali while paying off $50,000 in debt and living on a shoestring budget!? Allow me to explain. For this entire year, we lived in a studio apartment that was probably the size of your master bedroom (kitchen, bathroom, and all). Because we lived in an apartment designed for one person, our school gave us a monthly stipend of about $180. Yes, we absolutely could have put this toward our loans! Perhaps we should have. However, we chose to save this additional income each month specifically for an end of the year, debt free vacation. We knew this was the only way we could accomplish a trip like this!
Some other factors you have to consider: Nick and I both moved to South Korea, so we had double the income. If you want to pay off loans by teaching abroad, you have to consider how much you can pay off on one salary. We don’t have children yet, so our living expenses were quite minimal. Additionally, we primarily ate a vegetarian diet for most of this year. We made this decision for health reasons and found that it was a huge blessing financially. We were able to buy more groceries for less money via this small switch (meat was eating up a huge portion of our food budget).
What’s next for us? We are looking forward to some much desired rest, relaxation, and time with family and friends back in America! Beyond this, we are planning to follow Dave Ramsey’s baby steps from here on out. We didn’t follow baby steps #1 and #2 perfectly (we actually skipped baby step #1 and jumped to completing #2). Now that we are debt free, we plan to stay debt free for the long haul! No turning back. I would highly recommend Dave Ramsey’s debt free baby steps to anyone who is looking to become more financially grounded. Instead of fearing our financial future, we are beaming with excitement for what’s to come!
We could not have accomplished this goal without the incredible love and support of our friends and family. Guys! You’re amazing! Our family sent care packages of encouragement, bought us gifts for birthdays and holidays we definitely couldn’t afford, helped fly us home for a visit, and motivated us to keep our eyes on the prize. Our friends would treat us to meals, pray for us, give us a word of encouragement, and never make us feel guilty when we needed to go to a restaurant or activity that was less expensive. Friends from afar continually checked in on how we were doing, prayed for us, motivated us, and also encouraged us to finish strong. Becoming debt free is never a solo game. There were many backing us, fighting for us, helping us accomplish this goal.
Last and most importantly, we could never have paid off our debt without Christ as our anchor through the process. Ultimately, our faith was so small. Yet God continued to pour into us, encourage us, and open doors we didn’t think were possible. God continually asked for obedience, and as we surrendered our closed fists, we saw breakthrough and transformation. God continually asked us to release tight grips, and as we slowly let go, we felt more secure than ever before. No, we didn’t receive a lump sum to pay off our debt, but we saw an array of other miracles this year that we know was God showing us His hand of protection and favor in this journey.
I acknowledge our story is quite unique. I realize many of you are not in a position where you can pick up and move abroad to get out of debt (which obviously isn’t the only solution!) I admit there were a vast array of financial burdens we did not have to bear in the process of becoming debt free. Despite our circumstances, I hope our story can encourage you in some way. Reading the financial breakthroughs of others deeply motivated us. It was fuel to keep us moving toward our goal when doubt crept in. If you’re buried in debt and feeling hopeless, believe me when I say I understand. Becoming debt free is possible. Now? The real journey begins: mastering the art of remaining debt free and learning how to live and give like no one else!