Why my husband calls me “Debt Dominatrix” (My Debt Story)

by liana on April 16, 2010

Last night we caught up on TiVo-ed episodes of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. I love what is happening with this – mainly it’s a movement to educate children and the general population on how food effects us, and how to eat to be healthy. I feel that the school systems in general fail us in so many ways, as evidenced on Jamie’s show.

Another area where I believe there is a lack of education is in the area of personal finance. We have math classes, history classes, and English classes – but no one teaches you how to balance a checkbook, why to avoid credit cards and debt, and how much you need to save for a rainy day. The school system focuses on teaching you to memorize facts and tests you on said facts. If you can win at passing tests, you win at school. Then you are pushed into society where all the WRONG messages are coming at you all the time, and we wonder why we are overweight, in debt, and living paycheck to paycheck?

I was in-debt and living paycheck to paycheck in 2004 when I moved to Atlanta from Tallahassee. I graduated college in 2003 and had a full time job starting in late 2002 where I made $22,000 salary running a photography business for a gentleman based in Indiana. I have two business degrees and also graduated from a separate photography school, so you think that someone along the line would have taught me something about managing personal finances, right!? Wrong!

$22,000 may seem peachy for a salary for someone still in college, but I was over $40,000 in debt and the salary didn’t cover my bills. While walking across campus, the young co-eds enticing you to open a credit card had sucked me in and proved to be the answer to how I would fund expensive photography equipment for school, a summer in Spain and another summer in NYC. Your parents agree “yes, a credit card is good for you to have so you can establish credit” but no one teaches you that you need to pay it off every month or you’ll end up in deep financial do-do (yes, I believe that’s the technical term!)

I was a slave to my debt, and my hatred for it grew steadily. I tended bar a few days a week and continued to take on independent photography assignments through my own photography business, to help make ends meet. I thought that things would be better when I got a job working for a big four accounting firm in Atlanta, that nearly doubled my salary. I hadn’t accounted for the higher cost of living and state income tax though, so I found myself still living paycheck to paycheck. I remember going to the pawn shop one day to try to sell a gold necklace my mom gave me in high school, I was that desperate (I didn’t end up selling it.) It was a wake-up call of sorts – I knew I had to start making some changes.

I met with a financial counselor and they told me it would take me over 8 years to pay off my debt. That was in mid-2004. At about the same time I had started attending a church down the street and served in their 9AM kindergarten class. I would stay for the 11AM service, so there was always that hour in-between when a group of us would sit in the auditorium waiting for services to begin. I always sat in the same spot with the other volunteers and my new friend Andy. Andy one day was sitting in front of me with engaged couple Mark and Leslie (who later would become one of my first destination wedding clients!) Leslie was talking about how she and Mark were working through the Crown Financial Ministries program to get their finances on track – how they were each working on an emergency fund and what they had to do to get there. I was intrigued. The next day I did some research and found the program online, and ordered it. My small group at the time had no interest in anything of the sorts, so I embarked on this journey somewhat alone, save the encouragement of my friend Andy’s small group who WERE studying the same materials at the same time. I did my best to increase my income – applied for a job within the same company that again increased my salary – and got it!! I was taking photography jobs every other weekend and on weeknights to bring money in that way too.

I got dramatic about making wise changes to my spending.
Cut the cable. Cut my mani/pedi trips out. Cut out the going out, eating out, shopping. I partook in free spaghetti dinners with my buddies every Friday night and we played cards and had recorded movie nights. We spent time volunteering, going to parties at friends houses, and Screen on the Green nights (all free!)

In August 2006, I was debt-free and had just quit my high-paying job at the accounting firm. I’d been running my photography business simultaneously for two years, and it was time to do it full time again. It’s amazing what can happen with your finances when you do things the right way. How that 8 years gets shortened to less than two quick years to becoming debt-free. It’s amazing what happens when you become passionate, focused, and intentional about dumping the debt. When you give first, save second, and spend last.

And this takes us to the second part of my story: debt round two.
By 2007 I’d saved up enough to fund my emergency fund most of the way. I also met my future husband. In the summer of 2008 he proposed and we started planning our 2009 wedding. My parents would give me the same amount they gave my sister for her wedding, so I still had to contribute much of my own money. In September 2008 my mother and I flew out to LA to plan the wedding and put contracts on most of the vendors. In October 2008 the economy crashed, and my dad lost his job. I now had contracts signed, deposits paid and guess where much of the wedding funds would have to come from now? Yes, my income and emergency fund. Needless to say, the fund dwindled to less than I’d like it to be by the time we got married.

While my husband “adopted” my kittens, I adopted his debt when we got married. Between the credit cards, a few remaining ring payments, and his new (used) car the debt totaled just over $24,000. My husband was an angel in that he’s endured my rants and repeated lessons about why we absolutely cannot live with a debt lifestyle, and how he must pay off his debt immediately. Hence the nickname “Debt Dominatrix” he so fondly coined for me.

We were married in April 2009 and returned from our honeymoon and working abroad in May 2009. We got passionate and focused then about paying off the debt and set a strict budget. By September 2009, a mere four months later, we’d managed to pay off ALL $24,000 of debt! $24k in 4 months! It’s amazing how God blesses you in such unexpected and wonderful ways. During this time money seemed to come in unexpected forms and extra sales and jobs sure did accelerate things. We had to be pretty drastic with things as well – strict on spending, finding ways to be frugal, lots of eating meals at home and having friends over for dinner and game night versus us going out to eat or trips to the mall.

Another thing that really helped this time around was having a game plan. In more recent years I’d become a fan of Dave Ramsey’s book “Total Money Makeover.” It’s principals are very similar to Crown Ministries’ but Dave actually gives a solid plan for what steps to take to become debt-free and what to do next. The “baby steps” is what he calls them.

Since September 2009 we have been working towards our next “baby step” goal of saving up 6 months of living expenses for our emergency fund. As soon as our tax return hits our bank account (any day now!!) our emergency fund will be complete! I drive a paid-off 2003 Honda Accord and he drives a paid-off 2006 Mazda Miata. We’re able to give to our church, a church overseas, and a support a handful of friends who are in missions. We are investing for retirement and working to pay our house off early. We are saving up for things like finishing the basement so we can pay for big purchases like this with cash.

I sleep better at night knowing that we can ride out this horrible economy with the padding of a 6 months living expenses in our emergency fund. We’d like to eventually grow this fund to 12 months living expenses for extra cushioning.

We’re still frugal in ways, but can splurge a little too at times.
I’m a big fan of Groupon for getting great deals on restaurants we love and some we haven’t tried before. I make our own laundry detergent which saves a LOT of money each year. Mike has dropped his one-or-two Starbucks a day habit to an occasional few-times a month run.

We are no longer slaves to debt. We live within our means and don’t try to keep up with the Jonses’ too much. We dream of a simpler life with less STUFF and less house sometimes, but with the economy and housing market as it is currently we will ride out the storm and sell off what clutters our life. I make a modest salary with my photography business that is by all standards right on track with what the “average” home-based photography studio should make. I’m okay with this because I have time to LIVE now too and not just work all the time. There has to be a balance.

This is why I teach. I’ve been in that really bad place where you’re not making money from your business and have a heap of debt. I see businesses ALL the time (even more than ever now) that are not charging enough to make a living, and are falling deep into debt because of it. Much of my story in paying off my own debt back in 2004-2006 has to do with getting my personal and business finances on track. I teach the same principals taught at PPA and in business schools like Harvard and the Entrepreneurship Small Business Management program I graduated from. I teach what Crown and Dave Ramsey say about finances, because it works. I’ve been through it twice. It’s the difference between living a life of stress on the edge and sleeping peacefully at night. It’s difficult to run a business when your personal finances are not on-track. Likewise, it’s difficult to have personal financial success if your business is making you loose money, not providing enough income, or taking up too much of your time.

Indeed, my sweet husband was right when he picked the nickname “Debt Dominatrix” for me. There are few things in this world that get me so worked up, so passionate, so determined to help others with.

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Update:
I wrote this entry a few days ago and am just getting around to posting it. Today I received a message that one of my Boot Camp hosts had paid off 6 of their 7 credit cards in the past few months, since we talked about becoming a “Debt Dominatrix” in class one day. She got Dave Ramsey’s book and with the encouragement of some of us in class, dove into it and go passionate about paying off her debt. This gives me such joy to hear how excited, happy, and passionate she is about changing her world. She’s no longer stressed and worried, just focused and happy to be dropping the debt!

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Stay tuned in the next few days for a chance to get a free copy of Total Money Makeover and our own Number Cruncher tool!

{ 3 trackbacks }

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Great post Liana! April 16, 2010 at 9:04 PM

Great post Liana!
Although we are not in debt,we never manage to get ahead either…we just stay the same. I so wish we had ‘extras’ to cut back on but we really live well under our means as it is. I need to take up smoking or something that I can give up!
I think I will order that Total Money Makeover and pretend we are in debt…maybe it will help us to actually save some money. Thanks for the food for thought!

elena April 20, 2010 at 2:55 PM

Awesome post. I am so glad you are talking about it. My and my husband’s story was somewhat similar to yours. I too married him and his debt, but now he knows how to budget, how to plan and how to have at least 6 months worth of expenses in our account.

Because of wisdom and God’s grace, after losing his job and moving we were still able to live off of one income for over a year and still save money! And we still were ablt to get out once in a while, but enjoyed a lot of days in with friends and family.

You are doing an amazing service, Liana! So awesome to read this post.

Christine Elizabeth August 26, 2010 at 10:53 AM

This is awesome. Thank you for sharing your own story, and for the inspiration! 🙂
God definitely knows what He’s doing – I definitely needed to read this!

Lori Smith October 13, 2010 at 2:58 PM

I knew I liked you!! I saw you in Rockville, MD at the Bringing Back the Value II workshop. (I was in the front row, LOL) We are Dave junkies and teach FPU. I LOVE the fact that I have built my business debt free. I rent lenses that I don’t use everyday but know I will need for a specific event (saves a TON of overhead), I evaluate every penny before spending it (almost too much), and I am able to offer my clients discounts when appropriate, AND I get to donate my services to fundraisers when I don’t have other events booked.

We are debt free, 6+ months emergency fund, and currently have less than 10 years on our mortgage on a house we bought just 4 years ago.

Oh…and I’m totally adding framing to products!!!

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