Married and…Paying Off Debt

Editor’s Note: This is the first installment in our “Married and…” series where we will interview couples from all walks of life. It is our hope that you are encouraged by the stories of people who have similar journeys as you, who share the same dreams you have, who face the same obstacles you do, and who can remind you that your marriage isn’t the first one to experience the things you’re dealing with.

It’s one thing to rally your spouse to aggressively tackle credit card debt, but what about when a couple decides they want to be completely debt free and throw any and all excess money towards paying off a home mortgage early. It takes teamwork to make the dream work, right? (Sorry, we couldn’t resist…)

Married and...Paying Off Debt

That’s exactly what it took for Will and Elisabeth to attack their home mortgage. Of course, it wasn’t without moments of marital strife or disagreement. That would make things just a little too easy.

We recently caught up with the debt-free couple to see why, when mosts couples consider a home mortgage to be “allowable” debt, they decided to eliminate it. Here’s what they had to say:

Whose idea was it to pay off the mortgage early? Why did you want to?
Will: Like most great ideas in our marriage, I think I have to take credit for this one. Truthfully, this idea was a pretty big hurdle for me to get over because I had only been focused on how I could get better returns in the market than my mortgage interest payments. Interestingly enough, a good friend of mine was sort of on the same page as me (and I respected his opinion). Then, one day, he drops a bombshell on me about wanting to be financially free. His influence was actually a pretty big deal because I valued his opinion. As a side note, I don’t dispute the financial arguments. The math can work and they may be right. Even if I lost money doing it this way, I can’t replace the freedom I feel right now.

Elisabeth: Definitely Will’s. I wouldn’t have come up with such a crazy idea.

How quickly did your spouse get on board?
Will: Thinking back on this topic, I remember her conceptually getting on board pretty quickly. I think the dreaming piece of it is pretty simple and easy to wrap your mind around. However, I think the actual process of getting to the goal is definitely a challenge.

Elisabeth: Will was, of course, on board from the beginning since it was his “brilliant” idea. I was on board with the idea. However, I dug in my heels when it came to the actual implementation of the plan.

At the beginning, what was the biggest hurdle to get you both on the same page?
Will: The budget. Truthfully, we had only been really trying to budget for about 9 months. As such, we were struggling (still) figuring out how to budget for things that tended to vary each month (food, gas, clothing, etc.). On top of that, we (or maybe me) were naturally challenging each expenditure to see if it was truly needed. For example, it’s probably a bit impractical to expect your wife to only spend $300 per year on clothes. I realize that now. It took a lot of discussions (often heated) to land on a number for various budget categories.

Elisabeth: Really, it was a lot of me learning to live within a budget, being content with some sacrifices, and seeing the goal. “Where are you going to find that in the budget?” is a phrase which I heard often and really hated. Will was very persistent (stubborn!) in not expanding the budget in order to meet the goal. It was easy for him because he is a natural saver, but a stretch for me.

In practical terms, what was your plan?
Will: Essentially, every extra dollar we had went to the mortgage. We sold anything we didn’t use anymore from movies to old iPhones to the extra TV. If we got a little money from Christmas, it went to the mortgage. Our focus was such that even a gift card to a store effectively went to the mortgage as we simply used the gift card instead of that month’s funds.

Elisabeth: Basically, we cut out everything we could live without and lowered things to see if we could live on less. We cut out cable (except during football season), clothing budgets were reduced (really, $300!! per year!! Come to my defense, girls!), our individual “spend” money was reduced. Whatever we had left went towards the house budget. Every extra dime we brought in—gifts, bonuses, etc.—was tithed then went towards the house.

What did you use to track your progress?
Will: At some point along the way, we began writing the balance of the mortgage on our bathroom mirror. It was one of the first things I’d see each day and it would remind me many times every day.

Elisabeth: Will, of course, had his plethora of spreadsheets of how long and when we would pay off the mortgage. This was no motivation for me. So, along the way, we heard of someone posting magnetic numbers on their refrigerator with their debt. Since we didn’t want that dirty laundry for all to see, we wrote it on our bathroom mirror and updated it anytime it changed. Once the number finally dropped into five figures, the momentum really seemed to ramp up.

In the first few months, what was the biggest habit you had to change?
Will: Essentially, we put a line item in the budget for the extra principal towards the mortgage. It was not an option for the money to not be allocated for that. Obviously, in dire circumstances we would have moved off of that, but this forced us to work around that goal rather than just see if we had money at the end of the month.

Elisabeth: My spending and learning to stick to the budget, no matter how ridiculous it was.

Throughout the process, what were some of the sacrifices you had to make?
Will: I think Elisabeth sacrificed the most. She didn’t have the big budget for clothes. She went to thrift stores for the kids. We didn’t vacation. She was limited in the number of times she could go see her parents because the gas was so expensive (crazy, huh?). She really absorbed the brunt of figuring out how to manage all of that and stay focused on the goal. It was easy for me because I’m not a spender, so I just had to decide to do it and move on. Throw in some pregnancy hormones, buying generic ice cream instead of Blue Bell, and then eventually another little kiddo—it was a trying time.

Elisabeth: Looking back on it, the sacrifices we made don’t really seem to be that big of a deal now. They were completely worth it in the end. Along the way there was lots of frustration (and even tears), but we always figured it out and made it work. There were times when Will would give up his spend money to meet whatever desire was out there. I think part of it is because Will’s heart was really to bless his family, which I think the Lord multiplied.

How long did it take to fully pay it off?
Will: We were blessed by being able to pay it off in about 18 months.

What is life like post-mortgage?
Will: Complete freedom. It is hard to describe, but everything simply has a different feel to it now. I don’t feel like I sweat the small stuff which prevents disagreements. I have a new desire to work on my “giving muscle” which never really existed. We obviously have much more flexibility from a financial standpoint, but we are still very much focused on our next round of goals. As a side note, we have tried to not increase our budget and save as much as possible. For the record, Elisabeth now gets $88 per month for clothing which is a 250% increase from the mortgage days.

Elisabeth: Freedom and joy. The freedom to decide what to do with your money. The first budget meeting post-mortgage was a blast when you had no idea what to do with extra money. It was joyful. I feel like we can dream even more now and decide where we want to go from here. Giving has become a much bigger priority to our marriage now.

If you could tell other couples one thing about this process, what would it be?
Will: Be intentional and intense about getting out of debt. Work hard. Budget hard. Repeat. Our original projections were going to take us 7 years. The Lord blessed us, and we destroyed that goal.

Elisabeth: Set the goal and to stick with it. Stretch each other. Listen to each other. Find ways to celebrate along the way. Celebrate big when it’s done! We went on two big vacations last year, and Will still owes me a trip to Alaska!

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