"I've wined and dined with kings and queens, I've slept in alleys, eatin' pork and beans..." --WWE Hall of Famer "The American Dream" Dusty Rhodes
I have a tale to tell, a monetary tale of woe, sorrow, brokedness and redemption. I don’t mind sharing amounts, if only to stress where I was as compared to where I am. This... is my story.
I've been in debt since I was an 17 year old high school graduate. Right after I got my diploma, I signed up for some student loans. When I got to college, in Troy, I got a AT&T Universal Mastercard, with a big limit of $500.
Over the next year or two, I managed a Chase Visa, a Discover card and a Ft. Walton Beach 1st National Bank Visa. My rationale? "I'm a broadcast journalism major. And I'm good at newscasting. I'll get on with a news station in Nashville [where, in 1995, I planned on living after I graduated] or in Mobile [where, in 1996, I planned on living after I graduated, due in no small part to the fact I was dating Chrissy Bullock--Spain Park's Mrs. Roe--and she introduced me to the wonderful town] or in Atlanta [where, in 1998, I planned on living, since I had just graduated]"
Until that time, though, I would be able to pay the minimum payments. AT&T Universal, Chase and Discover was only $10 per month, while 1st National was only $15. Of course, this adds up to $45 in credit card payments... and who has that when you're a broke college student?
As the years went by, the student loan payments racked up, the minimum payments rose from $10 and $15 to $25, then $50, sometimes $75 or $100 per card, each, due to lack of payments, due to overlimit fees, or late fees. When a late fee of $35 took your balance over the $500 credit limit, suddenly you have a late fee AND a over-limit fee. Plus your already growning minimum balance. You read all about this in Rebecca Miller & the Divine Do-Over.
It was depressing. I moved to Birmingham, got into an apartment I couldn't afford, and then my car broke down, so I managed to somehow jig out a National Tire & Battery credit card, and put about $400 on it, and after that, I wrecked my car, so I got another one that I really couldn't afford.
My payments were late, my credit was shot, my stomach was empty, my account was constantly overdrawn, phone calls at work, phone calls at home, my Deucemates were getting calls from creditors, my paycheck got garnished once, when Dubya sent that $300 refund check to every American back in 2000 or 2001, I watched as Tom bought scuba gear, Shawn bought DJ equipment, Ty bought a new cell phone, Michael bought DVDs, and mine never came because I was defaulted on my student loan.
There is not a worse fear than waking up at 2am because you hear a rumble in the parking lot, and you look out the blinds, scared that you'll see a wrecker backing up to repo your car. Its a miserable feeling, one that no one should have to deal with.
To have one of your best friends, Mikey, agitated at you because your rent is late, is pretty crappy. Its also pretty crappy to watch all your friends go out to eat, have a good time together, see a movie together, and have to sit home, broke... or go out, use your debit card for such nights out, wincing because you know there's a good chance tomorrow, you'll see online that something just bounced.
Perhaps the worst was watching your friends head to Evanston, IL, to visit Tommy McLeod, see an incredible Northwestern game versus Michigan, and come home with lots and lots of pictures and memories... and you've got nothing.
I actually did a spreadsheet for the year 2002, looking through my SouthTrust Bank account online, figuring out where my money went. I don't remember what was #1, but I do remember #3 vividly... NSF. Insufficient Funds charges to the total of about $1100, money I had paid to the bank for not keeping my account above $0. I could have just as easily rolled my window down and thrown out $50 bills down Highway 31. This was ridiculous... I had to do something. God had to help me here...
And then two things happened. I discovered that I was going to marry Stephanie Campbell.
I was not desiring to bring all of this debt into my upcoming marriage... so I decided to do something about it... and that's when I met Starbucks. These two things couldn't be seperated, it was God's choosing to put both together to craft my life, even all these years later.
Suddenly, in addition to my day job of 40 hours a week at the radio station, I had a four nights, 25 hours per week job, pulling in an extra $400 or $500 per month... which goes a long, long way.
Working Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday nights (not Thursday... Thursday was Survivor!), every week, suddenly I had money in bank. My rent check was going up on the board 2 weeks early, my cable bill check was up 2 or 3 weeks early, and suddenly, conversations with credit card companies weren't so hard... because I could pay them, at least something.
Through God's guidance, and Stephanie's encouragement, first as my girlfriend, then my fiance, then my wife, little by little, some of the small debt went away. I managed to pay off the AT&T Universal Mastercard (in 2003... remember I opened it in 1993, but hadn't used it since about 1998).
We started working the Dave Ramsey plan, with the debt snowball. With bonuses here, extra money there, we paid close to $3K for my Chase Visa... the same Chase Visa that had a credit limit of $500, and had ballooned about 500% due to over limit, late fees, and anything else they decide to tack on.
Chase Visa... gone. Discover card, suddenly paid off. We started working on paying 50% more on my car payment, then two payments at a time. Lo and behold... the car gets paid off.
The Lovely Steph Leann and I have languished in The Casa de Pesos, watching our friends get houses, and we almost bit at one point... but the student loan was still looming. Like a three headed monster, it was still 5 digits large, and we knew we just had to wait.
All this time, we have been tithing. That's not a bragging statement, not a "look at us!", and I only mention it because I'm totally aware of God's blessing through obedience. Things just... well, they just started working out. We had our small emergency fund saved up, and when my engine blew, the bill was $7 more than our emergency fund. Writing the check didn't hurt because we didn't have it, it hurt because... well, anytime a bill that large is paid, it hurts, but the bottom line is, we had the money.
Sometime last year, The Lovely Steph Leann and I pulled our credit reports, and I noticed something odd... the Ft. Walton Beach 1st National Bank and Trust never got paid. So, I called them, and asked about it.
The guy was pretty surprised when he heard me say, "Okay, what do I owe, so I can pay this off?" The guy told me the bill was about 8 years old, and it was pretty much written off, and the $300 bill had ballooned to over $600 or $700 from... you guessed it, late fees and over limit fees. And interest. Lots and lots of interest. The guy knocked off several hundred dollars of the interest and fees, and after I paid it, he had it completely removed from my credit report.
I owed a friend of mine, from Troy State, some money too... I think it actually ruined the friendship... I told The Lovely Steph Leann about this, and I told her I wanted to pay it back. I owed it. Got in touch with the guy, via Facebook, and offered to pay... and he relieved me of the debt. Said it had been so long, he didn't miss it. Thanks man.
So, finally, the year comes to a close, we go to Disney World with money we'd been saving up, nary a credit card to be used. When we get home, we don't have hundreds of dollars following us back in bills--those Disney pins are mine!!
The student loan is all that is left, and though it seems large, it suddenly doesn't seem insurmountable anymore. Not since we're tossing everything extra we have at it every month. Truth be told, we probably could have paid it off a little faster, but hey, we want to have a little fun before we get married, right?
For me, the hardest part was when our friends flew to Los Angeles for Star Wars Celebration, the convention that happens every four or five years... we could have paid for it, but we just couldn't justify it, not when there were bills to pay off. So we stayed home... and it hurt me, but it was necessary.
When we saw our mortgage guy, it was assured to us that now that our debt was so minimal, we could afford the house we wanted, in the area we wanted... and so we got it!
What's funny is that I've been talking about doing a "Debt Free Party" for a few months now, one big blowout celebration to declare "We're Debt Free!"... but a week or two ago, in the middle of the night, I logged on to Direct Loans website, and made a payment. And after I hit "Make Payment", the orange button at the bottom, I closed the tab. The next day, I checked the website, and saw a beautiful thing...
Balance Owed: $0.00
Payment Due: $0.00
And as I sit here and type this, we are now debt free. Okay, okay, we just bought a house, but beyond the house payment, that's it. We've worked on it for four years, and paid just over $44,000.
For the first time in 14 years, I don't owe a credit card, a student loan company, a car company, a friend, a neighbor or anyone else.
And in the immortal words of William Wallace, in Braveheart:
I Am Debt Free.