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Confession: Why I Gave up on My Debt-Free Dream

Gemma Hartley  |  June 4, 2019

After years of scrimping and saving, I've given up on living life according to this philosophy. I'm no longer debt-free, but I'm happy.

And it saved my marriage

At 22, I was drowning in debt from college expenses, a new baby, and a house my husband and I weren’t ready to buy. Our son spent the first week of his life in the hospital, and large hospital bills accrued. The mortgage loomed. Emergencies here and there, like our computer crashing or the car air conditioner breaking, were paid for on credit cards. We were staring down $140,000 in debt, and I felt completely hopeless.

One day, after ignoring another call from the hospital demanding payment, I took “The Total Money Makeover” by Dave Ramsey off my bookshelf in desperation. It was a neglected graduation gift from a frugal-minded relative, and it soon became the cornerstone of my life.

I was hooked, convinced that the debt payoff method was the answer to all our money woes: I began listening to the radio shows, reading the debt-free blogs, and using the envelope system. We eschewed dining out and went months between buying single items of clothing. No expense in our budget was overlooked, and slowly but surely, I was beating back against our debt.

Five years into the process, we had three children, whose births were paid for in cash. We had no car payments, no credit card payments, and no loans of any kind except our mortgage, and we paid double on it each month.

We also had no life, but that didn’t matter to me. I was laser focused. In five more years, we would own our house and live beholden to no one.

Not Living the American Dream

I began talking to my husband about the possibilities we would have before us once we were freed from our mortgage — the vacations, the investment opportunities, the grocery budget — but the fact that we had hit our halfway mark didn’t excite him. Instead, it pushed him to his breaking point.

He didn’t want to work tirelessly to own a house in a rundown neighborhood full of poorly maintained rentals. He didn’t want to wait another five years to take our first family vacation. He didn’t want to give up a decade of our lives in order to live my extreme version of the American dream. He wanted a house in a better neighborhood that was actually big enough for our family. He wanted to spend some of the money he had worked so hard for. He was done.

Reluctantly, I gave in to save our marriage. We bought a bigger house that would keep us in debt for decades to come, even though the thought made my stomach churn.

Now my goal to live without debt was replaced with a beautiful new home. In one fell swoop I doubled our original debt to $280,000 — a number I knew I would not be able to battle. I ran numbers for hours on end and kept coming to the same conclusion: My debt-free dream was over.

I finally gave up trying to pay off the mortgage as if it were a 15-year term and decided to live like a normal person at long last. And I braced myself for resentment to settle into my bones. Surely there was no way I would be content giving up my obsessive goal and my debt-free identity.

Living in Debt — and in Happiness

As time went on, however, I found I loved it. I was happy to have some cash on hand rather than tightening our purse strings. I enjoyed the spacious new home and living in a nicer neighborhood. I relished going to the grocery store and not counting out every last cent on a calculator as I went through the aisles. I felt a thrill at purchasing a TV for the first time in my adult life, and reveled in the luxury of buying furniture that wasn’t secondhand.

It was a strange happiness, though, tinged at the edges with guilt. I had adhered to the debt-free life ideals with the fervor of a devoted parishioner, and now I was turning my back on all the wisdom I had gained throughout those years. Even though I was now able to live more fully, the guilt of abandoning what amounted to a debt-free religion followed me.

A few months after the move, I deleted the Dave Ramsey podcast on my phone, closing that chapter of my life (at least for now). As I did so, I realized those years were not wasted. My frugality freed me from all of my debt except a home mortgage.

I can now live comfortably, still saving for the future, investing in my retirement, and even enjoying some money as well. Even though I may never reach the high echelon of Ramsey’s most successful devotees, I am glad for my half-finished journey. I am ready to live happily, with or without full freedom from debt.

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