How We Owned Our Problem with Debt

Last week, I spilled my guts about the downward financial spiral my husband and I fell into just three years ago. I attributed our mounting debt to several factors: buying our apartment, financing several thousands of dollars of car repairs only to buy a new-to-us minivan a few months later, and stuffing our wallets full of credit cards, on which we charged everything from our groceries to our electric bills.

Unsure of how to undo the mess we had made, I turned to the Internet. I am a member of an online message board with an amazing group of moms, of whom I normally ask all my I-have-no-idea-what-to-do-about-this-diaper-rash type parenting questions. But one rainy day in January, I turned to these women with another kind of problem: “How do you handle money in your family? We’ve got a bunch of credit card debt and I can’t seem to make a budget work for us. Help!”

A few of the women empathized with my angst. They also had debt. They also struggled to pay their bills and keep ahead of their credit cards. That made me feel better; we weren’t alone. But as heartening as their empathy was, it still didn’t tell me what to do about our situation.

Then two more women posted; and what they said to me was straight-up inspirational. Not only did they know what we were going through — because they, too, had struggled with debt — but they had come out the other side. They had paid off tens of thousands of dollars, built up an emergency fund of 3-6 months of expenses, and met all sorts of other financial goals along the way. And they had done all this by following a simple financial plan called The Total Money Makeover How We Owned Our Problem with Debt.

Wait a minute, hadn’t I heard of that before? Wasn’t it was written by some Christian financial counselor named Dave Ramsey? Could a conservative, Southern Christian actually help me? An Orthodox Jewish woman living in Israel?!

I asked my online friends a number of pointed questions about the religion stuff. Yes, they told me, Dave is an evangelical Christian and he does do a lot of “The Bible says…”. But they also told me that it’s definitely possible to skim over that stuff and cut straight to the financial messages.

And those messages are simple, universal and life-changing:

(1) Create a baby emergency fund of $1,000

(2) Pay off your debt using the debt snowball method

(3) Increase your emergency fund to 3-6 months worth of expenses

(4) Save for your retirement

(5) Save for your kids’ college education

(6) Pay off your mortgage early

(7) Build wealth so that you can enjoy life, help others and leave a legacy to your children

Feeling more hopeful and motivated than I had been in a long time, I set out to borrow a copy of the book The Total Money Makeover. By the second chapter, I was convinced that we could actually follow Dave’s plan to get out of debt. But what would my husband say?

I convinced Frankie to read the book, while I spent the next week wading knee deep into our finances. I made an exhaustive list of every debt we owed. The balances on our five credit cards. The “minus” (overdraft) in our checking account. The loan to my parents for our van. The payments on our new oven. I totaled it all up and held my breath: We were just over $30,000 in debt. Not including the mortgage on our apartment.

It was a pretty big hole. And when you considered the small size of our “shovel” — in Dave Ramsey speak, shovel means income — the hole looked even larger.

But somehow, seeing that number in black and white wasn’t nearly as bad as I had feared. The number was bad, yes. But knowing the number was actually, kinda, good.

The next numbers I had to tackle were our monthly spending. I gathered credit card receipts, checking account withdrawal stubs and canceled checks. I broke it all down into a simple expense sheet divided into the most basic categories I could come up with. And then I plugged in our income – my husband’s from his salaried position and mine from my freelance jobs.

I figured we were spending more than we made, but I was genuinely shocked by how much more. About $1,000 a month. At that rate, if we did nothing to change our habits, we would have doubled our debt in just 2.5 years. As sobering as that was, I felt strangely motivated. I knew the truth, now it was time to share it with my husband.

Honestly, and he will tell you this as well, he experienced a bit of resistance. But once he got past the initial sticker shock, he agreed that paying off our debt was the only answer. Now “all” we had to do was follow Dave Ramsey’s seven baby steps to financial freedom. WE COULD DO THIS!

Of course it wasn’t always quite so simple. But I’ll leave the details of how we followed — and faltered — along those baby steps until the next post in this long missive.

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This series is now complete. You can read the rest of it here:

Part 3: How Saving $1000 Changed My Life

Part 4: How We Paid off $30,000 of Debt in Just 6 Months

Part 5: The Rocky Road to an Emergency Fund

Part 6: Finishing Our Emergency Fund – We Did It!

Part 7: So, We’re Out of Debt and Have an Emergency Fund. Now What??!!

Comments

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Comments

  1. Another great post. We too have struggled with debt, we’re almost debt free except (I expect to make our last car payment this December)for our mortgage and we have an emergency fund. But, we continue to struggle to live with our means especially on one salary so I can stay home with our daughters. I was feeling like we were the only Jewish family out there trying to follow Dave Ramsey. My husband and I read Total Money Makeover, also overlooking all of the New Testament references. While there are some amazing blogs out there that deal with frugality and living within your means almost all of them have a Christian slant. While we don’t keep kosher, it’s wonderful to have a Jewish frugal blog to read in addition to the other frugal mom blogs I follow. Sometimes we look at the Jewish Community in our area and it seems like everyone else is doing better than us. We choose to buy a house in a not Jewish neighborhood because we couldn’t afford to buy in the Jewish neighborhoods. It adds to our feelings of isolation, but posts like this make me wonder how many of those people that we think are doing so much better are just living with large amounts of debt.

    • Living within a one-income family’s means is tough, I totally hear you! I have been wondering how to address that issue when I finally get to that point in our story. Yes, we are “living like no one else” b/c we have no debt (other than mortgage), but we definitely aren’t living the high life.

      • Hey Mara–GREAAAAAAT post! We are a Jewish household following the Dave Ramsey way of life and at first, it was a little harrowing with the heavy Christian overtone. But the guy knows what he’s talking about. We are not Orthodox, but it is so lovely to find another Jewish mama blogging away. Shanah Tovah and have an easy fast!

        • Ammie – thanks so much for finding me and stopping by! Sorry I didn’t get to respond before YK, but I’m glad you’re here :) Can’t wait to check out your blog, too!

          • Stephanie says:

            I just found this, and don’t even know if you’re still reading, but I am SO relieved to have found other Jewish families following Dave Ramsey – I really thought I was alone!! We should start a group :) I love his ideas so much that I’ve started to teach the course at work for others to follow.

            Thanks to all of you for sharing!

          • That’s amazing that you are teaching it at work. Is there a lot of Christian content in the material (I know he uses a lot of biblical sources on his radio shows and in his books)?

          • Stephanie says:

            There is some Christian content in the material, although it is “tamed” for the workplace version. He is supposed to be re-filming the workplace version in the next year where they say it will be tamed even more. We are Conservative Jews and took the online FPU course at home (the same video as the current workplace edition) and, although there was some Christian content, we were easily able to ignore it. I told my husband that I found other Jews that followed Dave and he captured it perfectly – he said “Christian or not, that material changed our lives”. I’m happy to tell you more of our story in a private email – I’m like you, not sure I’m ready for the whole world to hear it yet :) Let me know!

  2. Superior read. I wish i might take recommendation like that and just do it. as a substitute sick think about it for every week then neglect it :( possibly i can change

  3. It’s been a while since I’ve read this series – probably since you first posted it. But I was finding that I needed some motivation as my husband and I have really been struggling to stay on the straight and narrow. This was the perfect kick in the tush. Thank you so much, Mara, for writing this. I just LOVE this series and tell people about it all the time!

  4. Hi Mara, I have been loving reading your blog posts today. I have been sucked in! You are inspirational! What’s the forum you are talking about with all the info for moms? Lana

  5. thank you for posting this info! I found dave ramsey a few months ago and we’ve been following it to get out of debt. I really want to try going to the Financial Peace University he runs, but I am concerned we will feel so out of place being the only Jews and lots of mentions of the Bible and his evangelical slant. However, i love hearing how you guys subscribed to his plan and I found you when I did a Google search of “Jewish Dave Ramsey”!

    • Thank you so much for leaving your comment. How cool to know that you found me via Google!!! I never could have brought myself to do FPU either – I thought it’d be too “in your face”. If you do sign up, I’d love to hear how it goes for you! Good luck – I know you can do it!

      • Stephanie says:

        We ended up doing FPU online. That way, we didn’t have to go to a church to do it, but we still got all of the value out of it. I’m so glad we did! I hope that helps!

  6. Anna G. says:

    Nice that you’re so disdainful of a person’s financial advice simply because of his religious views. There IS a lot of advice in the Torah about how to handle finances. Just because this guy isn’t Jewish doesn’t mean he can’t read – or believe the Torah.
    Being a bigot is unattractive, no matter where you are standing.

    • Mara Strom says:

      Hmmm. Your comment confuses me. Did you read thru my entire post? If so, you would have seen that we did follow his advice — and if you keep reading this series, you will see that I repeatedly credit his system with a lot of our financial turn-around. I agree that “being a bigot” is unattractive — and much worse than that. Thankfully I wasn’t being one.

  7. I just have to say that your story has motivated me so much! My husband and I are 33k under and we’ve been paying the minimum on all our debt hoping that at some point we’ll be done. I had heard about Dave Ramsey’s method for some time now, but I was skeptical, to say the least. Something about your story seemed so real and so relatable to me. So much so, that it has inspired us to take action and get aggressive about living debt-free. We will be starting Dave Ramsey’s method this next pay-period and I have decided (after a lot of thought lol) that I would start my own blog and document our journey so hopefully we can pass on what your blog has given us. :)

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