When Austin and Shelby Pierce became husband and wife, their combined debt exceeded $100,000. The bulk of this number came from student loans from when they attended private colleges, Austin at Morningside College, and Shelby at Colorado Christian University in Lakewood, Colorado. Before they wed, Shelby requested they develop a personalized premarital counseling program to address various issues that plague most marriages, including money. That is when they were introduced to Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University Program. They took the program twice, once before they married and again to ensure they had laser focus to tackle their debt.
Like many couples, Austin and Shelby took the Program because they wanted to start their marriage off right and take control of their money. In 2015, they made the decision to follow the program to eliminate their debt. Within five years, they made their final payment and became debt-free in December 2020. According to Austin, they “told their money where to go, instead of figuring out where it went.”
The couple intently followed four main Ramsey principles in their quest to become debt-free. First, they developed a monthly budget and dictated where they would spend every single dollar they earned that month. They established categories including the typical food, rent, and utilities, then added items specific to them, including weekly date nights. They set the monthly budget, then followed it religiously. At the beginning of the next month, Shelby would copy and paste the previous month’s budget, make adjustments if needed, then repeat the process, month after month.
Next, they used Ramsey’s infamous “envelope system” converting from using credit cards to an all-cash system. They had physical envelopes for each budget item and each envelope contained the precise number of budgeted dollars. Shelby attempted to make the envelope system more palatable by decorating her envelopes. When the envelope was empty, plain or fancy, that category was done. The Pierces laughed that some months they would have 3 really nice date nights and then stay at home on the fourth date night because the envelope was empty, or do something small, like go out for Blizzards if only a few dollars remained.
Another widely-known piece of Ramsey’s advice the couple implemented was the Debt Snowball effect to pay off debt. This system for attacking accumulated debt has one pay off balances from smallest to largest, regardless of the debt’s interest rate. Minimum payments are made on everything except the smallest balance, and the largest sum is paid toward that. Once that balance is reduced to zero, those funds are added to the payment on the second smallest balance until that is paid off, and so on. In this manner, debt reduction momentum builds and the snowball keeps rolling to reduce bigger and bigger balances until are all paid off. Shelby mentioned they followed this method for the most part, except for one balance had a higher interest rate than the others. She laughed as she said that really bothered her, so she jumped ahead and paid off that balance, then went back to the system to pay off the remaining debts. Austin chuckled, too, when he said they could picture the creditors becoming angry as the couple reduced the company’s earnings by paying their balances off early.
Another piece of advice from the program caused the couple to share a laugh. During one of their sessions, the question was raised about an emergency fund, or how much cash they had on hand to use toward unexpected expenses, should one arise. They looked at their bank accounts, quickly performed the math, and came up with only $151.90 (out of the Ramsey recommended $1,500). Yet, they knew they were ready to take on this seemingly impossible task of paying off their six-figure debt.
Their journey wasn’t easy and, like everyone else in life, they had setbacks along the way impacting their plan. An unexpected car repair left them without transportation for a while and cut into their budget. They also had a relative move in with them for a period of time, which both said they would never change. There were also times when they felt like giving up and hoped for a magical fairy to eliminate all of their debt with the wave of a wand.
In spite of all the obstacles they faced, the couple remained focused and committed to paying it all off. They relied on a few things to keep them going when they were ready to give up. They reminded themselves they knew it wouldn’t be easy and they were in it for the long haul. They stuck to their monthly budget and followed the envelope system relentlessly. Shelby kept her numerous spreadsheets so they could look back and see how far they had already come, which in turn, gave them the strength to keep going. They put together a support system to cheer them on and found accountability partners to push them when needed. They established a timeline with milestones along the way to celebrate as each was reached. They also set up small things to look forward to, such as going out for ice cream once an account was paid in full. They would intentionally put larger denomination bills into their envelopes, which would encourage them to hold onto them rather than spend them on small items they decided they could live without. Along the way, they have purchased two homes and have built their $151.90 emergency fund into one that now contains more than $2,000.
Shelby said they eventually found themselves looking at money as a tool to use and reduced the power that money had over them. Austin added that “debt is expected in our society; however, it is possible to live without it.” They said there are things they could have done differently to lower their amount of debt. For instance, consider attending a state university rather than a private college, pursue more scholarship opportunities, and take more high school classes that earned college credit, any of which could have saved them a lot of money.
The final word of advice comes from Austin. He said that he looks back now and makes the assessment that, “we took something that seemed impossible and made it to be only extremely difficult.” The extremely difficult process helped strengthen their marriage, their peace of mind, and their tenacity to take on anything. The couple encourages anyone wanting to pay off their debts to be intentional, make a plan, and then follow it through. With some luck and a well-executed plan, they may become debt-free, too.
Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University uses 7 “baby steps” to financial peace. Learn more at: http://www.daveramsey.com/fpu/
Starting with $151.90 in their bank account and $102,000 in total debt, the Pierces took something that seemed impossible and reduced it to only extremely difficult.
Strength is built through communication and discipline. Our marriage is stronger because we worked together to eliminate our debt.
By Michelle Lessmann, a fully licensed Office Professional in Keith Bales office of Thrivent. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.