Well, today I want to do something different…time to share a bit more about me and my backstory. I share a lot about where I am currently in my finances and how I got out of debt but I haven’t shared much about how I got there.
The Early Years
I was born to two teenage parents in Baltimore, Maryland in the early 1980s. My mom was 16 and my dad 17. My parents got married a few years later. I was the flower girl at their wedding.
Neither of my parents finished college so employment opportunities were limited. I remember a couple of years when my dad was out of work and my mother was the only one working. But, my younger sister and I always had what we needed and there was always food on the table. Later once my parents divorced, my mom work a day job and took an evening job delivering pizzas, in order to make ends meet! She’s a hustler! Maybe that’s where I get it from.
As a younger child, I was very protective of any money that I received and I was always trying to figure out new ways to make money. At one point I decided to sell artwork. One problem…I couldn’t draw or paint to save my life. But I found a way around that little problem. I enlisted my uncle’s help to draw the pictures and I sold them to other family members. I don’t recall sharing any of the profits with him (sorry Mike) but an entrepreneur was born. Later, I had other business ventures. In elementary school, I sold snacks (candy bars, chips, and gum) and turned quite a nice profit! In middle school, I made earrings and sold them to classmates.
Once in high school, I wanted some of the finer things in life. High school girls were a lot more sophisticated than those in middle school. In addition to needing the latest name brand jeans and shoes, I also now “needed” to have my hair done professionally (fingerwaves, braids, frenchrolls) at a salon, carry a pager (seriously…this was pre-cell phone) and have manicured acrylic nails (don’t judge me…it was the 90s).
The College Years
In college, I started out studying biology with plans to one day go to medical school.
I was able to attend school for free, at first. Those were the good ole days when disadvantaged students from low-income households could qualify for all sorts of financial aid. For my first 3 years, I attended a local in-state school and paid absolutely nothing out of pocket.
But then panic was starting to set in…what if I didn’t get into medical school? What could I do with a Biology degree? I thought long and hard about what to do. Incidentally, I learned about the physician assistant profession and was intrigued. It was (and still is) one of the fastest-growing health professions, with a great starting salary, and I could be finished in 3 years. Where do I sign up??
I applied to PA school and was accepted. I transferred schools at the end of my 3rd year.
Needless to say, my parents were not happy.
They had a good point. Who transfers to another university with only one year left before graduating. But in my eyes, transferring to a new program would create an opportunity for greater earning potential for the future. Unfortunately, I was transferring to a university with much higher tuition, and at the same time, giving up some of my in-state grants and financial aid.
Enter in….student loan debt.
Knowing that I would have to pay it back one day, I did my best to only borrow what I needed. I lived on campus but opted not to add a campus meal plan to save on costs. My grocery budget was very strict- $30 a week. I purchased a mini-fridge and toaster oven, and along with the George Foreman grill that my grandparents purchased for me (anybody remember those??) and I made it work. I ate a lot of ramen noodles and frozen pizzas. I added an extra 1.5 years to my undergraduate education and accumulated $30,000 in student loan debt in the process. But it was a great feeling to be a college graduate and move on to the next phase of my life. I believed that earning more money would be the solution to many of my problems.
The Young Married Years (2004-2010)
Six months after graduating I married my college sweetheart, Eric. We had a modest wedding and then, after returning from our honeymoon, we relocated to Michigan so that my husband could attend graduate school. Thankfully he was attending graduate school for free! This was a great blessing because like many young married couples we didn’t have a lot of money. We had $5,000 in a shoebox (literally) thanks to generous family and friends giving us cash for wedding gifts and one car, a Ford Focus.
Those summer months were loads of fun. But by August, the money in the shoebox had dwindled significantly and I was no closer to finding a job. My husband began classes but the graduate stipend that we were anticipating was delayed another month. I found a job a couple of weeks later. Hallelujah! The only problem was…the only job I could find was nearly 100 miles from home, leaving me with a two-hour commute in one direction.
I was desperate… so I did what I had to do until I could find another job closer to home. My student loans were in deferment and expenses were relatively low. The rent on our 2-bedroom apartment was $565 a month and Eric’s parents had paid for his Ford Focus while he was in undergrad, so no car note.
This would have been a perfect time to start paying off my student loan debt.
But we had other plans.
We took lots of trips when Eric had breaks from school. Cancun, Miami, and Jamaica. We made the most of our child-free years. I also decided to enroll in an online graduate program and started working towards a Masters degree. I finished that degree in about 2 years, adding on about another $10,000 of student loan debt. Combine that with Eric’s roughly $10,000 of student loan from undergrad and we were nearing $50,000 in student loan debt.
When I was still in my early 20s I had decided that by the time I was 30 I would complete a doctorate. Nice goal right! I figured I would one day want to teach at the university level. So off I went to enroll in a doctoral program, which meant more student loan debt. I didn’t even think about the possibility of trying to pay out of pocket for this degree. By this time Eric had finished graduate school and we had relocated back to Maryland where Eric was working full time as an assistant pastor.
I quickly secured a job at a hospital outside of Baltimore. Yay! Two incomes! With the increase in pay we probably could have afforded to pay out of pocket, for at least a portion of my graduate education. Instead I mindless signed on the dotted line, not really thinking about the final total. In the meantime, I traded in our Chevy Blazer for a shiny gold Lexus.
The next year we celebrated the birth of our first daughter.
With a new baby on the way, of course, we “needed” a bigger place so we upgraded from our rented condo (which was already 3 times more expensive than our graduate school apartment back in Michigan) to a rented 3 story townhouse, adding an additional $500 a month in rent. I was able to briefly cut back to part-time at the hospital in order to spend more time at home with the baby.
A few short months later Eric had the opportunity to pastor his own church. It meant more responsibility and career advancement, but would take a pretty significant drop in pay with the move to Southern Virginia, where the new church was located. We also purchased a house because we were sick and tired of “wasting our money renting.” We purchased a new construction 3-bedroom townhouse in Virginia after only visiting the area twice to house hunt.
I secured a hospital job and went back to work full time and continued to work on my doctorate online. By the time I walked across the stage the next year to to earn my 3rd and final degree, I was 6 months pregnant with our second daughter and was $40,000 deeper in debt. If you aren’t keeping track…we are now nearing $100,000 in student loan debt and we owed another $10,000 on the Lexus. Oh yeah, let us not forget the $250,000 in mortgage debt for the new townhouse.
2010 to Present
After completing the doctorate degree I went into full panic mode…time to tally up the debt and pay the piper. I started a debt notebook to document how much debt we owed and I set out to obtain new streams of income. In addition to my hospital job (night shift), I took on one online teaching job, then another, then another, then an adjunct teaching job at the local community college. I would work at the hospital 3 pm- 3 am. Get home at 3:30am, shower, and then sleep until 7:30 or 8 am, help my husband get the girls ready for daycare, go back to sleep for an hour or two. I would get dressed, then teach a class from 11am-12 pm, grade papers, grab lunch, and then head back to the hospital…and then do it all over again.
The good part? I made a LOT of money during this time.
I was now making a six-figure income on my own.
The bad part was that I was extremely unhappy, tired, and cranky all the time. On my off days, I tried to keep up with the housework and laundry that had piled up, and then I would “treat” myself to a spa day or a shopping binge in an effort to make myself feel better. My husband and I were making good money but we were not on a budget. We spent our money with no real plan.
Since I worked hard I had no trouble shopping hard. I didn’t think twice about dropping $400 or $500 on shoes in one day or spending $250 on a spa day to treat myself. I wasn’t charging things on my credit card so I figured it was harmless.
We could afford it, right?
The problem was, we weren’t making a dent in the student loan principle because we were only making minimum payments. We also had two small kids in daycare and the monthly bill was more than our mortgage.
In 2014 we relocated back to Maryland. Eric resigned from his position in Virginia because he felt called to plant a church..from scratch back in the Baltimore area. Ok God…it’s on you! This move meant relocating to a significantly higher cost of living area, while at the same time losing a stable income and benefits.
As a result, I became the primary earner for the family.
I took a full-time teaching job in the Maryland area and we packed up our things in preparation for yet another out-of-state move. We made the decision to hold onto to the house in Virginia. We considered selling it but determined that it would result in a significant loss. After being in the house for just 5 short years, we hadn’t really made a dent in the principle in the 5 years that we had lived there. And because the house was new construction property the purchase price was inflated. Thankfully we found some relatively reliable renters and the rent covered the cost of the mortgage payment.
We rented a townhouse for one year. The rent was significantly more than our Virginia mortgage and the place was noticeably smaller and cramped. I quickly grew restless and impatient. I was tired of “wasting money on rent”. Plus it was even harder for me being a renter after having owned a house of my own. So we purchased a single-family home and moved again…at least this move was only across town!
The financing and approval process was a hot mess.
It was very intrusive. The finance company wanted countless documents, letters from employers, tax returns…I felt like I was at their beck and call whenever they made a new request. I was asking them for their money, so they had every right. But this very stressful process was the catalyst for the start of our journey to financial freedom. I re-read the Total Money Makeover and got gazelle intense about budgeting and paying off the last remnants of the student loan debt that was lingering. I also began documenting my financial journey on Youtube.
We eventually moved into our new home and in May 2016 I gave birth to our miracle baby (check out this video of our NICU journey). In August of 2016, I made the final student loan payment.
Recommended Post: How I Paid Off Nearly $100,000 in Student Loan Debt
We officially became debt-free…other than our mortgages.
The journey is certainly far from over! We are 3 years into growing our church. The student loan debt is now gone so I have been able to get rid of a couple of my part-time jobs. The extra income is nice but not worth trading my time and peace of mind. I can slow down..just a little bit! We continue to work the Dave Ramsey Baby Steps and are currently saving cash for a car, maxing out retirement plans, and saving for the kids for college. Along the way, I stumbled upon the ideas of minimalism and financial independence, which I am currently exploring. Hopefully, if you stick around you will see much more about these topics as I continue the journey!
Thanks for taking out some time to learn more about my story.
Until next time…Live well and be blessed!