Today’s guest post debt story comes from Kalen at Freedom Sprout. Kalen Bruce is the founder of Freedom Sprout where he simplifies financial concepts to help you raise money-smart kids. He believes if we teach financial literacy to our kids now, we won’t be showing them how to dig their way out of debt.

I was 18 years old when my wife and I got married. My wife was 20, so in wife years (i.e. maturity level), she was roughly twice my age.

I came into the marriage with a few thousand dollars in debt, and a dangerous spending habit. Growing up, I learned everything I knew about money from credit cards. I spent the first third of my childhood poor, on a farm, and the rest of it living rich on credit cards.

My mom is the most loving person I’ve ever known. She loved my brother and me as much as a person can love another person, if not more. She wanted the best for us, and that’s how credit cards came into the picture.

Smudged Financial Lenses

Once we escaped the poor farm life, and started living it up on credit, my brother and I got everything we wanted. Christmastime was a little overboard. Birthdays made us feel rich. We even got presents on Easter.

I started to take a liking to credit cards, but all I knew was that you could use them to pay for everything you wanted, and you even got the card back. As far as I could tell, credit cards made everything free.

I took this idea into my marriage. I had a credit card before we got married, but once I was officially “on my own” and not under my mom’s account anymore, there were no limits. Except for the fact that my wife handled the finances.

My spending was out of control, but it didn’t end with plastic. I made a few other finance fails, to include a stupidly-overpriced vehicle, a second drum set (who really needs two?), and a multi-thousand-dollar membership to a “wholesale” store called Direct Buy… followed up a couples years later with a timeshare, because, you know, everyone needs a vacation.

Taking “Control” of the Finances

Now, my wife was much more financially savvy than I was. She grew up on Dave Ramsey, having already completed Financial Peace University (FPU) before we got married. She brought a college degree, zero debt, and lots of grace to the marriage.

Maybe you’re thinking, “how did she let you be so stupid with your money?” And the short answer is, she didn’t “let me,” but she also didn’t physically stop me. She was there along every step, trying to guide my choices to be more along the lines of what any semi-responsible adult should do. I just didn’t listen. I got that from my dad.

I did what I wanted, when I wanted, with whatever money (Visa’s?) I wanted.

After a few years of my own stupidity, my wife was stressed to the max. She couldn’t handle it anymore. Fortunately for me, “it” was our finances, not our marriage. She made it clear that she wasn’t going to live like this anymore, and she handed me the finances. Literally. She handed me a book with all our bills and due dates.

That was the first time I really saw what stupid looked like on paper. I saw it play out even more a few months later at the military recruiter’s office. I was now in “control” of the family budget, but “control” probably wasn’t the best word for it.

Journey to Join the Military

Big dreams and ideas were a common part of who I was, but actually acting on them was far from common.

It was on the drive home from watching the movie, Eagle Eye, where I first mentioned the idea of joining the military. I had never mentioned it before, because I didn’t think wives let their husbands join the military; I thought it was only for single people. To my surprise, she was completely on board with the idea. I think the idea of discipline sounded nice.

Joining the military had always been a secret dream of mine, but again, I thought the dream was over when I got married. Apparently, it wasn’t. Until I got to the recruiter’s office.

We went to a recruiter the next day. I was excited. I was confident. And then I was crushed. After a 15-minute conversation, I left the recruiter’s office with some newfound information: I was approximately $24k to broke and 50lbs to fat to join the military.

It turns out, the military won’t take you if your debt/income ratio is too high, because you’re a security risk. Debt is something that bad people can buy, and you can sell it to them with government secrets apparently. Who knew? Oh yeah, and fat is something that hinders you from running. Ok, I did know that one.

I spent the next 18 months turning my life around.

The Turning Point

I knew something had to change. I actually knew exactly what that something was. On the surface, it was $24k in debt, and 50lbs of flab, but internally, it was me. I needed to change. I had gotten us here, and I was the only one who could fix it.

I read The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey. My wife had already read it, and like I said, she was a FPU graduate. She knew Dave’s philosophy, but to me, these concepts were revolutionary. Even something as simple as, “don’t buy everything on credit while keeping a revolving balance,” was a revolutionary idea to me.

This was the first book I read, without being told to, in my life. It led to the next book, Rapid Debt Reduction Strategies by John Avanzini – still the best book I know about getting out of debt. I was hooked. I learned that I loved to read, and even more so, I loved to learn.

I spent the next year of my life reading a couple hundred finance books. I was a pizza delivery driver, so the time I had available to listen to audiobooks was unreal.

We started the debt snowball, and I started a fitness plan.

Overworked and Out of Debt

When we first started digging our way out of debt, we had $24k in consumer debt, and a $130k mortgage. We realized immediately that we had to fix the mortgage problem, especially since it was more house than we should’ve bought in the first place. Buying the house was also my decision, but you probably guessed that.

We decided to turn the house into rental property. We moved out of our 2400 sq ft home, and into a 650 sq ft mobile home. We started paying $375/month in rent for the mobile home, and someone else was paying our mortgage. Then it was time to get rid of the consumer debt.

Our debt wasn’t as simple as selling a car, and cutting it in half. It was $24k in a consolidation loan, which was a summary of every bad decision I made until that point: an upside down car loan on a car we no longer owned, random credit card purchases, that Direct Buy membership, and a timeshare we couldn’t sell (because it was a timeshare).

At one point in our debt-dumping process, my wife worked full-time, and took care of our daughter (also full-time). I worked a little too much:

  • Full-time nights at Domino’s Pizza (45-50 hrs a week)
  • Full-time days at an auto body shop (35-40 hrs a week)
  • Weekend construction during the days (12 hrs a week)

My wife and I also ran a paper route from 1am to 3am every morning. We delivered phone books in the summer (when phonebooks were still a thing), and I worked part-time for a landscaping business… when I could find a few free hours.

My boss and mentor, at Domino’s, told me I was working too much. I told him about my dream to join the military. He thought it was respectable, and then he reiterated that I was working too much, and I needed to spend more time with my family.

After 18 months of rarely seeing my wife and daughter, we were completely debt-free. We still had the house, but it was now producing income instead of sucking savings.

If I could do it over again, I would’ve chosen a different timeline. 1.5 years of not seeing your family really isn’t worth it. But being debt-free felt amazing, and freeing.

We used the debt snowball. I’ve since learned that the debt avalanche makes more sense financially and mathematically, but it was all emotional for me. I was an emotional spender, so it made sense for me to be an emotional get-out-of-debter. And it worked.

Then and Now

I joined the military in 2013. Since then, our family has grown from a family of three to a family of seven. Long story short, we decided to adopt two children, started the process, and immediately got pregnant. A couple years later, we got a dream assignment to Italy, and figured out, upon arrival, that she was pregnant again.

Five kids? That would’ve never been possible on my previous income with my previous mindset. We are still debt-free, and growing wealth faster than I would’ve believed we could, if you would’ve told me this in my early 20s – especially on a “military income.”

I became a finance writer to help others and to show people how great it feels to be in control of your money. Now I equip parents to teach kids about money, and bring awareness to the lack of financial education in schools.

We are all capable of more than we think. Whichever step you’re on, or season of life you’re in, you can take the steps to get where you want to be. While I don’t recommend working yourself to death to do it, I do recommend getting out of debt. The sooner, the better. It’s an amazing feeling. It’s a freedom you can’t otherwise know.