Three years ago I was having a conversation with my friend Mark about how even though I had a good job it seemed like I just wasn’t able to get ahead financially. I wasn’t living an extravagant lifestyle. Sure I had car payments, student loan payments and a few credit cards, but that’s what everyone has, right? I’m not sure how old Mark is but he’s got a few decades on me and from what I know about him, he’s doing pretty well for himself. When he mentioned that he’s debt free I was astounded. I thought everyone had some kind of debt, that’s just the way things were. I asked him what his secret was, hoping that I might be able to use the same technique myself to also become financially comfortable. What he told me was initially disheartening but in retrospect it’s some of the best advice I’ve ever been given.
He didn’t get to where he is due to inheriting a fortune, selling stocks before the dot com bubble burst or by inventing some gizmo in everybody’s kitchen, he did it through hard work and living modestly. He recommended a few financial authors and talk radio shows to check out and that was that. I subscribed to a some podcasts and was initially turned off by quite a few of them, but a road trip to Myrtle Beach that Fall would change everything.
If you’ve never driven from Pennsylvania to Myrtle Beach it’s an eleven hour drive, if there’s no traffic. Of course, there’s always traffic. As I was sitting on the beltway waiting for Washington, D.C. to funnel its way into work my iPod started playing Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” and I thought to myself, “I didn’t know I had that on here.” After a few seconds I realized it was the intro music to The Dave Ramsey Show, one of the podcasts Mark told me to check out, but I’d completely forgotten about. He seemed like a decent enough guy and unlike most of the other financial radio shows I’d listened to it didn’t seem like he was trying to sell you anything. That alone drew me in and with hours alone in the car I managed to run through a few more podcast episodes. Now I knew why Mark had suggested I check out Dave’s show, because his ideas were more or less common sense, and from what I could hear from his callers, they seemed to work.
On my way home from Myrtle Beach I contacted my friend Kim and stopped by her house to borrow her copies of some Dave Ramsey books, including The Total Money Makeover, a book that would come to change my life. When I got home and opened the book I thought it had to be a joke, the font was huge. I checked Amazon and sure enough, there wasn’t a large print version available, so this had to be it. Unlike other financial books I’d seen this was written so the average person could understand it. No condescending attitudes, just simple, common sense advice that anyone could use. In fact, it’s really just fleshing out the ideas that are available for free on his website. I’m not sure what it was about that first week of October 2008 that made me decide “enough is enough” but at that point I decided to give this Dave Ramsey guy’s principles a try.
When you’re twenty-seven years old and over forty-one thousand dollars in debt, taking advice that seemed too simple to actually work was a leap of faith. I think what convinced me that I could succeed was that throughout his radio show and his books Dave mentioned that his ideas aren’t quick and they aren’t easy, but they work. Something about being the exact opposite of the whole get rich quick mentality that everyone is looking for really appealed to me. The secret to making the whole process work was to do something that I hadn’t though of before, focus on one thing at a time. I won’t get into the details of The Total Money Makeover Baby Steps in this post (maybe another one) but forcing myself to stop trying to do everything at the same time, while initially scary, really paid off. In the past I’d try to pay a bit extra on each of my bills in an effort to pay things down, but it never seemed to get me anywhere. Stopping, getting my house in order and attacking one thing at a time with focused intensity allowed me to check off one goal after another. I was really making progress.
Having measurable goals that I could achieve was really motivating. As I rolled through the Debt Snowball I could really feel the momentum start to build. Sure I got picked on for being a little (OK a lot) weird by living on a written budget, but being able to see that I was paying off bills, eliminating debts and not just reducing them, kept me on task. By the end of September 2010 , almost exactly two years from when I started, I was 100% debt free. At first it was a bit surreal. I didn’t owe anyone any money. At all. Well, now what do I do? I needed another goal to work on.
When you don’t owe anyone any money it’s kind of crazy how much extra room you have in your budget. I could have gone on a big vacation to celebrate being debt free or bought myself a new phone to replace the dinosaur I’ve been carrying around with me since 2004, but I kept up the intensity and managed to save up an emergency fund of six months worth of expenses within a few more months. At this point I knew that I had the budgeting and saving money thing figured out. It was around the same time that I was finishing up that emergency fund and feeling confident that I looked at a calendar and realized it was five months until I turned thirty years old, and I was fat.
Now, I was never Fat Albert fat, but being six feet tall and weighing 230 pounds I certainly had plenty of room for improvement. Everyone knows what you need to do if you want to lose weight, eat less and exercise more. In the past I’d tried eating rabbit food and going out for runs or biking and after about two weeks I’d give up because I wasn’t seeing any results and, well, it was hard! Using the discipline and focus I’d learned through the process of taking control of my finances I started by making one change to my lifestyle instead of trying to upheave everything all in one shot like I’d done in the past.
Using the free “My Plate” feature on livestrong.com I started tracking the calories in the foods I was eating. I knew I was eating a lot, but wow, I was eating a whole lot more than I thought. I made up my mind to stick to the calorie goals on the website and that meant significant changes in my habits. The first week was rough. No more snacking after dinner, no more sodas and cutting my calories more than in half had me very hungry until I adjusted. I kept at it and after a few weeks the pounds really started to come off. Once I reached a plateau I introduced some exercise into my routine. I didn’t go off and join a gym or do anything fancy, just walking during my lunch breaks at work and some calisthenics in the morning, but the exercise combined with losing the weight really started to help me feel better physically and mentally. By keeping it simple and staying focused I’ve managed to lose 55 pounds in the past five months. I still struggle with finding the motivation to exercise some days, but just like anything in life, it’s a process.
You’d think that turning 30 last Thursday I’d take some time to look back and see how far I’d come with getting my finances in order and losing a ton of weight and end up being pretty content. I won’t lie, the things I’ve accomplished are pretty incredible, but I’ve got my eye on a new goal, and this one’s got a whole new set of challenges in store for me. I want to buy a house. As a single guy it won’t be easy, but I’m saving like crazy and trying to learn as much as I can about real estate, mortgages (yuck) and everything that goes into buying a house so when I have a down payment ready I’ll be able to work intelligently with a real estate professional to make another positive change in my life.