We have paid off $23,031.00 of student loan debt in two years on an income less than the national average. It was our only debt and it is a relief like no other to have this gone.
Ethan graduated with his bachelors degree debt free – this was from a post graduate program. We regret having it, he would have done things differently if he’d known what he knows now… but that’s part of life. He did the best he could with what he knew at the time, and now the burden is in our rearview mirror!
I want to share how we did this using Dave Ramsay’s Financial Peace University, where we went off his exact plan, and my thoughts on his program from a Catholic perspective.
You can read all about Dave’s baby steps by getting a copy of his The Total Money Makeover found here on Amazon. You can listen to him answer calls for free on Youtube, check out his show on the radio, or look at his website and Financial Peace University (FPU) course.
We bought FPU on a sale a year and a half ago and jumped in. While I don’t agree with Dave on everything, his course really did give us the roadmap we needed.
What We Did
We set aside our emergency fund. For a while it was the bare minimum $1K but eventually we bumped it up to $3K. I know that isn’t Dave’s plan but $1K might not even cover a big auto repair these days. We weren’t comfortable with small children going that low, and we were so grateful for that buffer when Ethan lost his job in September last year!
We budgeted. People don’t like that word because the adjective has become synonymous with being tight or poor, but the verb “budget” just means to tell your money where to go. Trust me, money will leak out all over if you don’t tell it where to go. A millionaire should still have a written budget and tell their millions where to go. (They may not need to, but it’s wisest to have a plan for your money no matter how much of it you have!)
I worked some side hustles. I have a post all about my side jobs here, although I have since stopped babysitting.
Were we always as “gazelle intense” as Dave says to be? No. We always kept a small restaurant and fun money fund each month. Perhaps if we’d had a catastrophic amount of debt this would have been different and we would have followed his whole “you’re not seeing the inside of a restaurant unless you’re working in it” catchphrase. As it was, going to a restaurant once a month or so, and having the money to do something fun as a family about once a month kept us from burning out.
We sacrificed a lot. We bought necessary items new only if we absolutely couldn’t find it used. We made do without things that would have been nice or really helpful. Dates were incredibly rare. We used items and clothes until they were literally falling apart. I scoured for coupons and deals. We watched every last penny. We ate simpler food, made compromises on groceries that I hated doing, and constantly said no to ourselves for extras. Before Ethan’s student loans came due we took little weekend vacations to drivable locations pretty frequently. We were always grabbing a coffee to go or an appetizer on weekends. If we needed something bam, the Amazon fairy brought it! This all came to a screeching halt.
We humbly and gratefully accepted the generosity of our parents too, like when they would fly the girls and I out for visits to Georgia or Montana which we definitely couldn’t afford.
We almost always threw any extra windfalls of money at the debt. Birthday gifts, random side money earned… When a jerky guy tried to let me know how mad he was that I wouldn’t speed and swerved in front of me and hit the brakes, he was found at fault and the $2K insurance payout for his damage to Ethan’s car went right to the debt, as did my share of the generous Christmas money us grandchildren receive from some lingering income from my deceased grandparents.
Dave Ramsay from a Catholic Perspective
Contrary to popular belief, Dave does not preach a prosperity Gospel, rather he believes we should manage money as good stewards, grateful for what God has given us, and to be incredibly generous with what we have.
Here are some things about Dave that I love:
- Reality. A lot of what Dave does is simply running the numbers and seeing if the math checks out. He lives in reality with money. He wants you to assess your situation honestly and face the facts.
- Dave knows that the more of your income you keep, the better. When your paycheck is being chipped away at by a ton of seemingly small or insignificant payments, you lose SO much more money, and a lot of your spending, giving, and savings power. All of that interest adds up to make what you’re paying on far more expensive than it was initially. When you keep the money you earn, you can do more!
- He helps you dream about the future and plan to be more generous to others by wisely managing your money now. Something that helped Ethan and I keep going was this billboard which tracked progress and reminded us of two things we really want one day – a family to trip to the North Georgia mountains where Ethan vacationed as a child, and a home of our own.
- He encourages you to understand your money, your decisions, your investments, everything. He doesn’t want you just handing over the reigns to him or a financial professional – he wants you to learn how and why certain plans work better and follow through with that knowledge.
- The biggest things is that… the baby steps are proven to work – literally millions of people have used the plan since he first developed it. This same roadmap has worked for us – I know we wouldn’t be debt free right now with our loosey-goosey handling of money and savings before FPU!
Here are things about Dave’s teachings that I don’t agree with.
- He talks about people “retiring with dignity,” as if a couple that isn’t totally and completely financially self sufficient in their old age would not have dignity. Historically the old were cared for by their children or younger relatives. (Modern retirement and being totally financially independent in old age is a very new thing in the span of time.) As Catholics who have great respect for the dignity of our elderly, it shouldn’t be considered “undignified” for them to need help from the children whom they so greatly sacrificed for in order to raise them.
- Dave is a Protestant and cherry-picks which verses and interpretations of Holy Scripture best support his teachings with money. He neglects Scriptures that mention the spiritual challenges of the rich, as well as the reality that the greatest human father ever, St. Joseph, was a humble carpenter who didn’t have a fully-funded nest egg for Mary when he died. The Holy Family was very poor. This doesn’t mean a wealthy family can’t be holy, and we shouldn’t praise poverty because of irresponsibility with money. But we should know that if someone is wise with their money and never rich, that doesn’t mean they’re bad – God may be pruning their souls and leading them to Heaven because that is what is best for them personally. Some of the happiest, holiest families throughout history have been of very humble means, just as there have been great saints who were also royalty and very wealthy.
- He talks a a lot about and prizes “wealth building”. I don’t think we should seek to build wealth as our end goal – some people may work hard and become wealthy and I don’t think that’s bad, but I think you could easily fall into a trap of idolizing or glorifying money with the attitude of wealth building as a goal in and of itself. We are never ever encouraged to pursue wealth for the sake of it anywhere in Scripture, Sacred Tradition, the catechism… no where. Money is a tool from God to take care of our families, and massive amounts of it may come from hard work, but that being our end goal for money isn’t a Catholic teaching.
- Dave doesn’t believe you should ever take on any debt in any circumstance outside of a 15 year mortgage, and he uses Scripture to put a moral implication on borrowing money. I can’t find anything taught in Catholicism that says debt in and of itself is immoral. In my traditional Latin Mass missal, the examination of conscience before Confession lists “Did I enter into debt beyond my power of repayment?” (Emphasis added). There is no rule that if it takes a couple 20 or 30 years to pay off the mortgage that they have sinned, even if it wasn’t the smartest money decision. Something making the most financial sense doesn’t equal a moral implication.
Do I believe people take on stupid debt all of the time? Sure. The use of credit cards to fund a more lavish lifestyle than one can afford is ridiculous. But I don’t believe one is sinning if they take on a loan that they can repay. Once again, it may not make the most financial sense, but that doesn’t mean it’s morally wrong. He implies it is with a constant repeating of the Scripture of the borrower being slave to the lender.
A mother abandoned by her husband who takes out a student loan to start a career to support her children, a family with a cancer diagnosis who have to start putting bills on credit cards to afford treatments, people leaving abusive situations without sufficient funds etc. are not sinning by going in to debt, and I believe are even making the best decisions they can with very difficult cards dealt to them. The Church would never say those persons have sinned if they are entering into that debt with the intention and realistic possibility of paying it off.
Would I recommend Dave Ramsay’s program? Overall, yes.
I don’t know of another one that lays out getting out of debt, living within your means, budgeting, and managing money better. I just give the caveat of recognizing what I listed above and using it for the practical aspects of learning how to manage money, not for all of Dave’s philosophical beliefs regarding money and wealth.
We have greatly benefited from following the baby steps.
We learned so much about finances and money from Financial Peace University.
We are debt free and ready to finally build up a solid emergency fund for our family.