Several years ago, I received an email newsletter from Jon Acuff with this invitation: “I invite you to step outside of ordinary and dream about something audacious. Gone is the practical. Death to realistic. It’s time to hope big.”

For much of my adult life the only “something audacious” I could dream up was paying off debt.

Paying Off Debt

Megan and I married on November 6, 2010. We put some of those wedding-related expenses on a credit card. Megan was in cosmetology school at the time, and to keep the Sallie Mae beast happy, we had to feed her $286 each month. In June 2011 I joined a Mastermind group that cost $2500/month. No, that isn’t a typo. I stuck with it for four months and spent a total of $10,000. The investment has paid off, but not that year, and not in the ways that I’d initially hoped.

Most people would find no fault with our spending money we didn’t have on a wedding, new career, and business development. Those three big expenditures were an investment in our future, right?

I still felt like a horse harnessed to a heavy cart with blinders restricting my vision. Plodding forward step by weary step. No end in sight. It’s hard to “step outside of ordinary” when practical financial concerns weigh you down.

Debt embarrasses most men, especially if you have a family. Debt whispers in your ear: “You should have been more disciplined. You should have saved more. You should be smarter with money. You should earn more.” Debt shoulds on you.

My Wake-Up Call, re: $31,100 in Debt

Finding out my wife was pregnant with our first child was my wakeup call. I didn’t want to make excuses for myself anymore. I wanted to be able to say, “I’m good with money.” I wanted to welcome our child into a lifestyle characterized by freedom, not financial bondage. Megan and I wanted a marriage punctuated by intimacy, love, and dreaming, not spats over misspent money.

Audacious? Maybe.

These debt obligations filled the cart:

  • $1000 (good-faith refund to a client)
  • $3000 (business loan for app development)
  • $3100 (credit card)
  • $6500 (credit card)
  • $7500 (credit card)
  • $10000 (Sallie Mae school loan)

We were looking at an additional $5000 for Megan’s insurance deductible when we welcomed Salem into the world.

paying off debt

Photo credit: @rainchurch (Flickr)

If you have ever eaten a raw oyster, then you know that feeling of a silver dollar-sized booger sliding down your throat. That’s how $31,100 in debt made my spirit feel.

I had a choice to make: I could either compound the problem by ignoring it, or I could do something about it. Megan was a dancer for fourteen years. The thought of not being able to afford ballet lessons for our little goose did something to me. I chose to change.

Increasing My IQ + Making a Plan

I couldn’t unload the cart right away, but I could start loosening the blinders, one book at a time. Here are six of the ones I read:

  • Increase Your Financial IQ (Robert Kiyosaki)
  • Rich Dad, Poor Dad (Robert Kiyosaki)
  • 31 Days to Fix Your Finances (Trent Hamm)
  • The Total Money Makeover (Dave Ramsey)
  • Start Late, Finish Rich (David Bach)
  • The Automatic Millionaire (David Bach)

I even listened to the Money Girl podcast during my runs.

Megan and I sat down one night to create a plan. The first step was creating a $1000 emergency fund, which was the minimum that Dave Ramsey recommended. We committed to giving 10% of our income to church, worthy causes, and individuals in need. Robert Kiyosaki is fond of saying that God is his business partner, and that resonated with us.

The third part of the plan made us swallow hard: diverting 20% of our income to paying off debt. That would require us to live on 70% of our income when living on 100% felt like a stretch.

Audacious.

We would begin a debt snowball by meeting the minimum payments on all of our debts except for the smallest one. We would scrape together another $100-200 each month to pay back the smallest one faster.

Audacious.

The math showed that based on our current income we could become debt-free in three years.

Sobering.

Don’t Relinquish the Freedom You Already Have

We had a garage sale. We sold stuff on eBay. We even used “fun money”—birthday money, Christmas gifts, random windfalls—to make our payments larger. We paid off one, then two, then three. The cart got lighter. We picked up momentum.

When a new balance showed $0, we made a point to celebrate with a nice dinner out. These momentary breaks from the often grim and exhausting process gave us positive feedback. Don’t let a white-knuckled grip on a goal prevent you from embracing small victories, from savoring beautiful experiences.

While your freedom is restricted, don’t relinquish the freedom you already have.

Audacious.

Over the next eleven months, the strangest thing happened: my business partner opened the floodgates, and we paid off over $30,000 in debt, two years ahead of schedule. The Sallie Mae beast went elsewhere for her meals. I tore up Citibank balance transfer checks and recycle them. Cash reserves enabled me to pursue more audacious business ventures.

“What Do I Really Believe?”

Guess what? Life still isn’t perfect. It never will be.

More money didn’t fix all of our problems, only some of them, and perhaps the least important ones. More money won’t make you happier. Until you believe that, true freedom will elude you.

Watch this documentary.

I would have told you that debt crippled my imagination. But the truth is, I allowed morbid preoccupation with debt to dominate my thought life. I allowed worry, which is inherently passive, to get in the way of action. I put my dreams on the shelf because I saw no way to pay for them.

Plenty of people in worse financial circumstances have found ways to accomplish a lot more than I have.

Are circumstances conspiring against you? Are you a victim? Or do you refuse to let circumstances and an apparent lack of resources rob you of the present, as well as a future that doesn’t yet exist?

Nurse that victim mentality, and the future you fear will visit you soon enough.

As you chew on what I’ve written, ask yourself, “What do I really believe?” Are you a mostly blind horse pulling a heavy cart? Or are you a smart, creative, and scrappy individual who can begin loosening the blinders at any time?

One belief leads to passivity. The other leads to action. The second belief is more audacious than the first, I think. By all means, be audacious. Be audacious enough to stick to a plan. Paying off debt is a worthy goal.

But my hope for myself and for you is bigger than a debt-free future. My hope is for a wealth of all the things that are more important than money.

I’m actually in the process of writing a guide about paying off debt and getting better credit. Be sure to sign up below, and I’ll follow up with new content as I write it.

Do you want to build a profitable business you love?

Duh. Pony up that email address, and you can learn from my failures. You can laugh at my mistakes. You can envy my success at croquet, slow running, and modest bank accounts. Let’s make good money and leave the world better than we found it.

No-nonsense business advice for content writers and freelancers. Served warm with a side of dad jokes.

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