It was a dream for a twenty-year-old.
I had received a job offer where I got to set my own salary. I hired a team of friends I would supervise. I was finally dating a girl I had a crush on for some time. I had sushi for the first time! The summer that followed these events felt like something out of a dream.
Making more money I was able to steward well and dating a girl I was trying to impress, I consequentially developed unsustainable spending habits. I wore my VISA card out that summer.
But the dream ended faster than I expected.
A few months later, I had broken up with my girlfriend. I had quit the job as it morphed from a dream into a nightmare. While I left the job and extravagant dates in the rearview mirror, I kept spending at levels I couldn’t afford.
One month, my mom discovered my credit card bill while checking the due dates on my bills for a care package. She asked me if I was having money problems and I reacted as if she had walked on me while I was changing. “Mom, don’t look at my stuff! I’m fine.”
Shame and Self-Medication
But the truth was I was far from fine. I was ashamed.
My parents never had much money (my dad was the pastor of a small church), but they managed it wisely. I couldn’t tell my parents or admit to others my failure in an area where my family had been so proficient. I felt like a failure.
During my final two years of college and my first two years of grad school, I used my credit cards to manage monthly expenses, racking up over $10,000 in debt. I paid cash for the bills which required checks, putting everything else on credit.
I’m still embarrassed to admit I stopped giving money to the church I was serving as a seminary intern. I just couldn’t find any money to give and I didn’t want to go into more debt by giving to the church. I found it crippling to teach others about tithing or stewardship because I couldn’t conceal the hypocrisy.
During this season, I met my wife and we fell for each other hard. After dating for over a year, I proposed and we got married.
But we began our marriage in a financial hole.
On our wedding day, we were $210,000 in debt, without a mortgage.
This huge hole included student loans, credit card debt, a car loan and a personal loan.
I’m forever grateful to a wise couple who led us through several premarital counseling sessions earlier. They identified finances as a place where we had unaddressed, unresolved tension.
While we needed to address our collective financial situation, my issues were not purely finance-related; they were heart issues. In the words of author Rob Bell, “This is about that.” This (money) was about that (my heart).
I spent money eating out, buying multiple coffees and energy drinks every day. These purchases were my efforts to self-medicate, avoiding unwanted feelings. I was overwhelmed with my class load and a job that took far more hours than what I was being paid. I fought cynicism working for a declining institutional church, which refused to embrace change. I needed to address those feelings and situations, instead of numbing them with a quick trip to Starbucks or a dinner out with friends.
A Wake-Up Call
While my spending decisions primarily affected me as a single, they were now affecting my soon-to-be wife. They were also holding us back from being generous and making a difference. We couldn’t be generous to our church or the people around us because of our tense financial position.
I can remember driving home from one of those counseling sessions with tears in my eyes and anger in my heart. Not only was I frustrated at my current predicament, I was uncertain where to start. I recognized my spending habits were no longer only affecting my life; the choices I made were now directly impacting my wife.
Where Did We Start?
While I wasn’t certain where to start, my wife developed a plan.
Our first goal was to eliminate credit card debt. We were experiencing the reality of the proverb, “The borrower is the slave to the lender.” The first year of any marriage is tough, but we were also learning to navigate what each of us believed about money and how we had been raised. Many tense conversations ensued.
We felt pinched by tight financial constraints as I finished my final year of seminary. I took a forced salary cut at my part-time church job (along with the rest of our staff) because of the Great Recession. I was glad to still be employed, but it felt like we couldn’t afford to do anything!
We made hard choices and adopted difficult habits. We gave up smartphones, canceled cable TV, eliminated 99 percent of eating out and latte stops, and downsized from two cars to one.
The second and third years of our marriage grew even tougher as I added a second and then a third job. We rarely had the same day off, but we were accomplishing amazing feats together. Paying off $25,000 in credit and personal debt in less than two years showed us how much we could do as a team. While I started the money conversation in counseling feeling defeated and inadequate, those two years made me feel powerful.
A driving question helped us simplify our spending and tackle debt. “Is this a want or a need?”
By focusing on what we needed, not simply what we wanted in the moment, we avoided derailing our efforts with impulsive purchases. We celebrated our milestones, but we didn’t stop.
The Payoff on the Other Side
The first step we took after getting out of credit card debt was to set up a Generosity Fund. During our engagement, my wife lost a sizable amount of money during an unfortunate set of circumstances. A friend got word of what happened and generously wrote an unsolicited check to cover the loss, offering it as an interest-free loan.
When we paid off that loan and our credit card debt, we decided to help others as we’d been helped. From that time until today, a set amount is automatically withdrawn from our checking account each month and deposited into a special savings account. This fund enables our family to be ready when an opportunity arises.
After starting this habit, we’ve been able to buy groceries for a coworker coming off medical leave. We helped a friend replace a broken computer and another start a foundation. The most meaningful accomplishment we’ve had involved helping two friends pay legal fees, in order to obtain green cards.
This kind of generosity has proved to be far more rewarding than the reckless spending which used to mark my daily life.
The Biggest Challenge for Me
While we did make great strides in being more generous, trusting God with money remains painfully difficult for me. Time and time again, I’ve freaked out when I didn’t know how we would pay a bill or navigate a financial crisis.
Whether our family was faced with seemingly unending medical bills, unexpected tax liabilities, or buying a home for the first time, I’ve battled anxiety and stress. I’ve professed belief in God’s provision but questioned it in my heart. I’ve battled fear, wondering if we’re going to end up back in debt and if we’ll be able to pay bills when they arrive.
Repeatedly, my wife and I have been brought to tears by the generosity of other people and the miraculous ways God has met our needs. Reading Paul’s words to Timothy convicted me: “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.”
I’m continuing to learn how to trust God to provide for my family. Even when we got married in a grave financial debt, we were rich compared to the rest of the world’s population. God provided for us and led us into the freedom we now currently enjoy.
The Lasting Lessons
Today, we’re far from where we want to be. Our kids may be in college by the time we’re debt-free from our student loans. We spent seven years as a one-car family. We have causes we still can’t financially support as we’d like to and we don’t make perfect financial decisions.
But today, nearly ten years after those tense premarital counseling sessions, we aren’t supporting our lifestyle with credit. God meets our needs through the money He has entrusted us. This is an incredible progress.
I don’t know what financial challenges you’re currently facing, but if we were sitting across from one another at a coffee shop discussing your relationship to money, I would encourage you to lean into scary conversations about money.
A conversation with wise friends about money (and the heart issues underneath) could change everything for you – and for people you don’t even know. There’s a lot of freedom on the other side of courage. Your past mistakes don’t have to leave you in permanent financial bondage.
We found freedom and you can too.