Monday, January 14, 2013

The Question of Why

One woman paid off Christmas layaway accounts for complete strangers.  What would you do if you had money instead of debt?

Getting out of debt is hard.  If it were easy, everyone would do it.  When my husband and I first started following the Dave Ramsey plan, I often heard him say that knowing why you’re getting out of debt is important.  I didn’t fully understand what he meant until recently.  For the first year that we followed the debt snowball plan, my husband and I were paying off debt to gain some peace and simplicity in our lives.  We didn’t really articulate this out loud to each other; it was more of a quiet understanding.  

But then we got down to just my federal student loan, the payment of which is under $400 per month.  At that point, I could sense my motivation waning a bit.  Why did we have to pay off this loan so quickly, considering the interest is under 3% and the payment is such a tiny portion of our income?  We were already experiencing peace and simplicity, since we didn’t have a lot of debt payments anymore.  Couldn’t we just put my loan on the back-burner, while at the same time swearing off any future debt?  

This is why “the why” is so important.  Without it, it’s easy to justify not paying off debt and instead living like everyone else – with car payments, credit cards, student loans, and vague plans to someday retire. 

So on Christmas Eve this past year, as my husband and I wrapped the modest presents we had purchased for his family, I realized it was time to have “the talk.”  We were sitting in the guest room at his parents’ house, with scissors, tape, ribbons, and tubes of decorative paper strewn in front of us. I could tell he was feeling the same sense of guilt I was about the gifts.

“Do you think we got enough for everyone?”  he asked with forced casualness. 
“Hmmm…I don’t know.  I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.  Should we go back to the store?”  It was early afternoon, so lots of places were surely still open.  

“I told everyone we weren’t buying a lot this year, but you know how they are.  They always go crazy at Christmas.”

“Yeah…”  I measured a strand of ribbon around the page-a-day calendar meant for my father-in-law.  Maybe making it look festive would soften the blow?

“But we’re paying off debt, I know.”  He continued wrapping the arm warmers we’d bought for his sister, who’s an avid runner.  “How much were these?”

“Twenty-three dollars.”  The pile of gifts in front of me seemed to be shrinking by the second.  “I’m sorry.”

“No, no, it’s fine.  I warned them.”

“Next year, I promise.”  

When we finished wrapping, we lay on the bed for a little while, resting in preparation for the Christmas Eve festivities that would soon begin.  Church, dinner, opening presents, taking pictures, drinking, teasing the pets with crumpled up balls of wrapping paper.  This was the calm before the storm.  

“You know, last year I read about this woman who paid off a bunch of past-due water bills in her town just before Thanksgiving.  I’d love to do something like that.”

“Oh yeah?”  He grabbed my hand.  “What made you think of that?”

“I don’t know, I was just thinking about why we’re getting out of debt, and trying to stay motivated.  I’m trying to think of some things I’d like to do once we can use our money for what we want.”

“What else would you do?”

“Hmmm… I was listening to this Dave Ramsey lecture, and he mentioned this woman he knows who goes into the Waffle House on Christmas and leaves a $500 tip for the server, because she knows that working at Waffle House on Christmas means you really need money.”

I turned to him and I could see his eyes light up a little.  “That’d be fun.”

“Mmmm.  What would you do?”

“I don’t know.  Maybe help out my parents.”

“Yeah?  How?”  

"I think they have credit card debt, and I know they don’t have a lot of money in retirement.”

“Maybe once we pay everything off, we can help them pay off their cards?  Send them some money each month to help out with their bills?”

I realized then that my husband and I each have our own reasons for becoming debt-free.  His primary motivation is the idea that someday, he can help his parents retire. Since I’m not close with my family, my primary motivation is to help people in our community.  Other people might want to travel or buy a dream home, or make a career change.  Whatever the reason, it is important to have a “why” in order to stay motivated. 

Some people might argue that since my student loan payment is so small, we can start saving money for ourselves and help others now.  But the thing is, debt equals risk.  If my husband and I lost our jobs and we still had my student loan hanging over our heads, we would be kicking ourselves for helping other people before we helped ourselves.  It’s the reason flight attendants instruct passengers to put on their own oxygen masks before helping fellow passengers put on theirs – because helpless people are of no use to anyone else, and sometimes putting other people first sets you up for being a burden to others in the future.  We have to clean up our own mess before we can help anyone else clean up theirs.  

This last Christmas was nothing special in terms of gifts, but my husband and I did note that it would be the last one we spent in debt, if all goes according to our current plan.  Maybe next year, I’ll find myself paying off someone else’s water bill or helping my in-laws pay off their credit card.  

In the meantime, I find myself every day thinking of another “why,” and cannot wait to get to “when.”

What would you do if you didn’t have student loans or other debt hanging over your head? 


  1. I am paying off these bastards as fast as I possibly can. Last month, I put nearly $7,200 on my federal loans. I also made my normal monthly payment of $220 to Nelnet, since the interest rate is much lower than the loans with William D. Ford.

    I mention this not to brag, but to show that I take this very seriously. This is also one reason why I roast shills and pieces of trash, such as Jack Marshall, who tell us to "quit whining." I take responsibility for my actions, even though they were influenced by dishonest, deceitful "in$titution$ of higher education." I, and millions of others, continue to pay for our "mistake."

    Such shills should really grow a brain, a backbone and some balls. Non-dischargeable debt loads CLEARLY negatively affects the U.S. econony, which is driven by consumer spending. (We don't manufacture goods to any great extent.) On a personal note, this toxic debt makes it harder for me to feed my son and pay for any extras.

    We are very frugal, out of necessity. Plus, we have never been that materialistic, either. However, you would expect a couple - one with an MS and the other with a JD - would be doing better financially. Take care, and keep these posts coming.

    We need your writing style, on this front. I recognize that I go hard at the pigs and cockroaches. However, we also could use help from those who are a little less aggressive. Thanks!

  2. Wow, $7200?? That's awesome! I know how tough it is to save that kind of money, especially when there are so many other priorities, too. And especially when you surely have friends and family who are buying new things and going out to eat while you're scrimping and saving. We feel the exact same way about the two degrees thing - we should be doing so much better. Someday. I will try to keep the posts coming, as long as you do the same. I tend to go dormant from time to time, when life gets hectic, but I will always return.

  3. Terrific post--very meaningful. Thank you.