Quicksand – the “money” kind

Posted: September 24, 2008 in Family, Perspective

I hate debt.  I hate that feeling of having a monetary noose around your neck that keeps you from truly moving and threatens to “hang” you if you don’t do something about it.  But that is where Stacey and I have lived for the past 13 years.

Our debt history began when my wife was in college (before we were married).  She was attending pharmacy school at Mercer University in Atlanta, GA.  All was going well for her financially, until her mother dropped her financial support for her out of the blue – literally the night before she was return for her 2nd year (4th in college, 2nd in pharm school).  I won’t go into the details in this past (maybe a later one), but it was a very ugly situation on her home front and a rough time for her.  She was left with two options:  (1) Pack up, go back home to mommy, or (2) find a way to stay in school.  She chose option 2, which I’m very proud of her for doing.  She didn’t give up.

Unfortunately, Mercer was a private (i.e., expensive) school.  While she managed to find a good job as an intern at a Children’s Hospital and acquire a lot of scholarships, she had to resort to loans to meet expenses.  A student loan helped her pay for school (which isn’t a big deal), but she needed credit cards to pay for some of her monthly expenses.  One foot in the quicksand…

I had already accrued a bit of my own debt due to foolish spending.  By itself, it wasn’t so bad.  But once we got married and our debt situations merged, it became a bigger issue.  Two feet in the quicksand…

Still, we were not too worried.  She was approaching graduation (pharmacists make great money), I had a decent job at a local church in Birmingham, and we could see light at the end of our debt tunnel.  So we went ahead with our plans.  I traded a piece of junk 1990 Nissan Pathfinder (relax, Jason – it was an older one than your wife’s…heh) in for a 1997 Chevy Pickup truck.  She traded a literally-falling-apart 1989 Chevy Celebrity in for a 1996 Ford Contour SE.  Still, payments not too bad.  But they were payments.  Up to our knees in the quicksand…

Then we bought a house.  To this day, I don’t think it was a bad decision, because our mortgage just about equaled the rent we were paying at an aparment, it helped our financial situation out tremendously later.  But, owning a house means more expense.  We had a lawn, so we needed a lawnmower, a weedeater, all that.  We needed paint.  We needed furniture.  We needed silly things to put on shelves just because the shelves were there to put things on.  Much of this stuff was charged, as we anticipated increases in income and saw no problem in paying it all off.

Plus, home ownership is not all fun.  This house was a great house in the great town of Homewood.  But, it was 50 years old.  And when you buy a 50-year-old house, you buy problems.  First, the siding started rotting.  So we needed siding.  Oops, no money for siding (and I don’t know how to do it myself), so – BAM! – there goes $10,000 in financing to get vinyl siding and keep our house from rotting out.  Second, I was cleaning up some rust on our ancient, metal, crank-out windows one day, only to create a foot long oval-shaped hole in the window sill.  So – POOF! – another $1700 for window replacement (for 2 windows).  Third, the A/C went out.  Another $5,000 (because we had to have the nice heat pump).  Then plumbing problems, window replacement, tree removal, and on and on.  Up to our waist in quicksand…

In the meantime, the “promise” of a salary I was hoping for never happened.  I was stupid, because I was spending money I was counting on but would never receive.  (That is also a whole ‘nother blog post, so don’t get me started now).

Other stupid decisions – I traded my 1997 Chevy truck in on a 1996 Isuzu Rodeo after owning it for only 4 months (simply for the reason Stacey didn’t like to drive it), and rolled the debt into that.  My wife traded her Contour in on a 1997 Mitsubishi Montero, which she only owned for 4 months before trading it in on a 1999 Infiniti G20 to “save” gas money (nevermind the debt rolled into it…wow).  After major mechanical (warrantied) problems with the Rodeo, I traded it in on a 1999 Ford Expedition (which I kept an amazing 5 years!!).  But that one killed us – the mechanical problems on the Rodeo and a “reset” odometer (another blog post) after a warranty repair meant the vehicle was worth nothing.  So we rolled a LOT of that debt into the purchase.  Up to our chest in quicksand… 

We took some steps to try to help ourselves out.  We took out a second mortgage and refinanced as much of our credit card debt as we could, saving us interest and making the interest tax deductible.  We made payments on time (and we paid as much “extra” as we could), and we never got behind.  But by this point, we could barely move.

Then, in April 2001.  I quit my job to take a full-time, non-paying job in helping some friends plant a new church in Birmingham.  But that folded in January 2002, and I suddenly found myself without “work” and without a clue what to do next.

***

So there we were, living the American Dream.  A nice house, 2 nice cars, our first child on the way.  Yet living in debt that just blew us away.  You ever see those commercials where they say things like, “The average person has credit card debt of $8000.”  We saw those ads and went, “I wish!!”  I won’t give exact figures, but we had 5-digit debt…well into 5 digits.  Up to our necks in quicksand…  Unable to do much of anything at this point.

But then came the opportunity to work at Crosspoint.  Financially, it could not offer much since it was a fledgling church at the time.  But what it did force us to do was move from Birmingham to Decatur.  We rented out our house in B’ham and rented one in Decatur for about a year, before we finally decided to sell the house in Homewood.  Having bought in Homewood, we actually made a great investment and wound up selling our house for about $40,000 more than we paid for it.  That put a significant dent in our debt and enabled us to get a new home in Decatur.  And ever since then, our debt has been gradually going down.

But it has never went away.  We’re still bobbing between our knees and our waist in the debt quicksand, as if there’s this final little piece we can’t quite get rid of as life expenses of a family of 4 in 2008 increase.  Plus, our spending discipline – though better – still leaves a lot to be desired, especially when it comes to unexpected expenses.

***

About 2 months ago, I stopped and prayed to God, simpy saying, “God, I’ll do whatever at this point.  Just help me get rid of this debt so I can invest better in my family’s future.  If I have to move into a shack, I will.  Just show me what to do.”

God answered my prayer the next day.  The next day.  My mother called me and informed me that my grandmother’s estate had not been depleted by her medical expenses, and there was a little bit left.  And the part of this that sends chills down my spine is that it’s not too little, not too much – but just enough to pay off my debt.

I was floored.  And now, after a couple of months of waiting, I finally have the money in hand to pay things off.

But here’s the sad part.  This has not happened because I am disciplined.  It has happened because God bailed me out.  I did not deserve it.  (Seems to be a running theme with God – to bail us out when we don’t deserve it).  This humble realization is challenging me to do better.  Last week, I traded in a very expensive car on something cheaper.  And having debt finally paid off will free us to save and NOT use a credit card.

On October 1st, I pay the last installment of my own student loan.  And after that’s all paid, we will have saved literally about $1,000 a month.  A month.  So now that God has intervened, what do I do?  Just keep living the same way, trying to tiptoe across the quicksand?  Or respond to his grace by being smart in my financial stewardship?

I think the answer is a no-brainer.

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Comments
  1. jalack says:

    Dave Ramsey loves people like us….

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