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Ten years ago, I walked onto a college campus and signed up for a credit card to get a free T-shirt, just like many other college freshmen do. But that card led to store cards, personal lines of credit and a lifestyle that depended on debt as a backup plan during “emergencies” or when I ran out of money.
When I graduated from college a few years later, I was like many young 20-somethings fresh out of school—wide-eyed and loaded with debt. I made a small salary working with a nonprofit, but even though I was serving others and doing something I loved, I constantly felt the weight of debt on my shoulders.
I understand what it feels like to tread water and go nowhere. I’m also guilty of living above my means. I know how frustrating it is to get paid on Friday and immediately use that money to pay a bill. For a long time, I was sending my money backwards to pay for impulsive and stupid decisions in the past—just like 90% of new college graduates are doing today. I was sinking into debt with no end in sight.
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But that’s where my story begins to separate from the norm. I made a choice to do things differently, and with a lot of persistence, I eventually reached my goal of becoming debt-free.
Now, at 28, I am completely debt-free, working in a ministry I love and ready to begin a marriage without owing money to anyone. I use my personal experience to teach teens, college students and young adults about the dangers of debt and how to make a plan for their money.
But getting to that point wasn’t without a lot of hard work and sacrifice.
What are some of my keys to becoming debt-free?
1. Learn the word no.
I had to learn to say no to myself and things I wanted but couldn’t afford. I had to say no to my friends who wanted to do things that weren’t in my budget, and I also had to learn when and how to say no to spending money in ministry. It’s easy to excuse careless spending when it’s for Kingdom work, but we have to realize that we can’t help others through giving if we are sinking ourselves financially.
As an example, I often meet my high school students for lunch. They always give me a hard time because I don’t usually buy food. I pack my lunch and explain that I am saving money. If I ate out for every lunch and dinner meeting I have, I would be broke! Sometimes you have to remind yourself—and others—that time spent together is what matters most.
2. Take a second job.
Working in ministry is an extremely important calling, but we have to align our choices—including spending—to reflect our decision to serve. Often, part of that choice is agreeing to take a lower salary.
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While having a full-time job, I also took a part-time job at the YMCA for extra cash. I took on odd jobs like doing hair for a bridal party or helping my mom’s bakery with new projects. For a while, I even lived on a farm and boarded horses to help pay for my rent. Your income doesn’t have to be limited to one source.
3. Focus on the goal.
Be clear about your goal to get out of debt and communicate it to people in your life. This will keep you accountable and help others understand why you make the choices that you do. I had a goal that I was working toward, and my friends and family knew it. Since then, I have had four friends turn their finances around, get on a budget and begin working toward paying off their debt because they were inspired by the example I set! Make a change in your own life and see how it impacts others around you!
4. Make a budget.
This is Dave Ramsey 101, and following it allowed me to get out of debt. Having a budget gives you the freedom to say yes to your goal and no to things that could distract you from achieving it. I worked that budget into the ground!
5. Get creative.
Sometimes you just need to sit down for a few minutes and think about creative ways to make cash. My mom offered to let me work an order of 3,000 cupcakes because she knew how badly I wanted to pay off my last credit card. I worked for 36 straight hours that weekend and didn’t sleep, but I earned $2,000 and paid off my final credit card. If you are worried it will take time away from being with your students, get a part-time job where they hang out. Then you are spending time with them and making money to achieve your goals!
6. Separate wants from needs.
Try to avoid the temptation to upgrade. When something gets old, we automatically want a new one. But I’ve had the same running shoes for two years and trained for two full marathons and three half marathons in them. Sure, it’s time for some new ones, but I haven’t been injured and they still feel fine, so I’ve saved money by extending their life.
For me, it all came down to choices. Making a few choices here and there have really added up. At 28 years old, I have a paid-off, beautiful $16,000 car, and my credit card debt is gone. Best of all, I’m engaged to the most wonderful man I know, and we’re starting a life together without any form of debt.
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