How we got out of debt and stopped living paycheck to paycheck

I’ve been thinking about writing this one for a long time. And I just listened to a Dave Ramsey video where he was talking about advice, and whether people are going to listen to you based on how you give that advice, and he said that hardly anyone is bothered by you just telling your story. So here we go: the story about how we stopped being ‘normal’ and paid off our debt, and built up our emergency fund.

Once upon a time, we spent all the money that came in to us. Whether it was Darrin’s pay, or the family tax benefit, or the tax at the end of the year, gifts, whatever – we spent it as soon as we had it, and it was gone. I could go shopping on payday or the day after payday, and spend everything without thinking, get home, put it all into my finance app on my computer, and go, ‘oh crap, how am I going to buy petrol this week?’

So what would I do? I’d shuffle bills around, so that the transfers I’d set up wouldn’t go through. I learned a long time ago that it’s better for me to make fortnightly installments on quarterly bills like gas, electricity, and water, so missing one of those payments wouldn’t be a big deal – I’d just make up for it when the bill came in.

If I couldn’t shuffle the bills around, I’d login to Centrelink and get an advance on my family tax benefit. Or if an advance wasn’t available, I’d transfer some money from my business account (back when I had it) and use that for the petrol or whatever I’d forgotten to account for when I spent all that money on too many groceries.

Elijah was born in November 2018, and so we got an increased Centrelink payment for about 13 weeks. And we needed a new fridge, as ours was on its last legs, so I started saving up some of that money to buy a new fridge. Boxing day 2018 (that’s the day after Christmas for you Americans who don’t observe it), it was stinking hot, and I knew the crowds would be insane, so I ordered our new fridge online. With saved money. I thought I was the coolest because I’d prepared for this. Our new fridge was AWESOME.

The very next day after it was delivered – I kid you not – our washing machine stopped mid-cycle. It was a front loader, so if I opened the door, water everywhere. I eventually worked out how to drain it so that it didn’t flood the laundry room, but I still had that half-washed load of nappies to deal with.

I started looking at washing machines online. A brand new one of the size we needed was around $1000. I desperately searched for an appliance store that would accept Afterpay. I had zero luck. So my next port of call was Radio Rentals. I don’t think they exist anymore (or if they do, in a different capacity), but they would let you ‘rent’ a product and pay it off over time. Their prices weren’t great, but we didn’t have another option – or so we thought.

Radio Rentals turned us down for a rental. So we said rude things about them and I started thinking, ok, NOW what can we do? We had learned years ago that credit cards were a bad idea for us, so we didn’t even have those anymore. We didn’t have any savings. We had a new baby and needed nappies, but I didn’t want to spend $27 a week on a box of nappies for him. And a toddler as well, who was still in nappies, at a pricetag of about $27 every two weeks. I needed to use my cloth nappy stash. But if it was going to cost me as much at the laundromat as it would for disposables, where did that leave us? We NEEDED a new washing machine.

So at some point, I looked at Gumtree. Prior to Facebook Marketplace, this was THE place to go if you wanted to buy or sell anything secondhand in Australia. I found the size washing machine we needed. It was in Craigmore, which is only about 20 minutes away (maybe 15 in good traffic). And it was a price we could afford. And he would deliver. So I arranged all that, and we still have that washing machine to this day.

March 2019. My car’s brakes were grinding BADLY so I booked it for a service. As expected, it needed a lot more than just a service and brakes. I was getting anxiety over not being able to sign up myself for the credit that the mechanic offered. So Darrin had to sign up for it with his income details. My mom arrived for a visit about a week later, and we didn’t have any money to do anything for the first few days. (And then we all got sick anyway, so the only thing we did during her visit was go to the last ever Brickalaide/Kidz Gigantic Day Out, which was actually pretty pathetic compared to the year before. But that’s another story.)

Somewhere in all this, I signed up for Audible. Because when you’re in debt and living paycheck to paycheck, of course you need to pay $16 a month for an audiobook! I had a list of books I wanted to listen to, because it was easier to listen to an audiobook than sit down and actually read one with four kids in the house. Dave Ramsey’s The Total Money Makeover was on my list since the beginning. It was just on there as ‘oh yeah, I should read that one sometime.’

July 2019. I’d done our tax, and we were expecting a refund, as usual. One night I was looking through my Audible list, because I had another credit to use, and saw Dave’s book there, and decided to get that one. So I started listening. And everything he said made sense. I didn’t want to live like this anymore. I wanted to be FREE from money stress.

Darrin & I sat down one night after the kids went to bed, and we came up with our new plan (or rather, I showed him the spreadsheet of the plan I’d made and he said ‘yeah, whatever you think is best’). And so we went to work.

(Yes, writing it that way sounds like Darrin doesn’t care about the financial situation, but that’s not true. He’s just not interested in managing the budget and where all the money goes. But he’s happy to discuss something when it’s relevant and come up with a solution we can live with. He’s good at coming up with alternate solutions that I may not have thought of.)

We were planning to sell our house and move to a bigger one after our tax came in and we paid off a few things. Sadly, but actually not sadly, because of this, I realised that if we tried to move house at that point, we would have been shooting ourselves in the foot. Because when you buy a new house, and the water heater dies the next week, and you don’t have any money because you just spent all your money on buying the new house, moving expenses, lots of takeaway while you get the kitchen in order – you can’t afford a new water heater! So painfully, we decided to wait. And I’m glad we did, even though this house SUCKS BEYOND BELIEF! (actually no – the other day when the rain was bucketing down, I realised that although this house sucks in a lot of ways, we’ve never had a problem with the roof leaking. So praise God for that!)

So…I cancelled my Audible subscription. And Prime. I started using cash in envelopes – yes, actual envelopes! – and when the money in an envelope was gone, that was it till the next pay. And that actually wasn’t as hard to handle as I thought it would be – because it was only ever 14 days till the next time I put money in the envelope.

I started delivering catalogues – you know, the store ads you get delivered to your house. The money wasn’t great, but it was money. And I could take the baby with me if Darrin wasn’t up yet in the morning. I’d listen to the Dave Ramsey Show while I walked. Still miss that part of it – I don’t miss the putting catalogues together every week and having them take over my house, but I did enjoy the walking.

I sold some stuff around the house that we didn’t need anymore. I realised at some point that those FTB advances were actually debt, so I added those to the debt snowball. I printed out a debt payoff chart from Debt Free Charts (all their debt payoff charts are free to download – if you have other goals such as savings, decluttering, even Bible reading, those cost).

We all enjoyed looking at the Debtris chart on the fridge. And whenever I’d colour in some blocks, I’d play the Tetris theme song on YouTube. We heard it so much, the kids were singing it to calm Elijah when he was crying in the car. I kid you not. ‘Bub bubbub bub bubbub bub bubbub bub bubbub bub bubbubbub bub bub bub.’ And it worked.

Before long, the only debt we had left was a loan from a friend who helped us buy flights to get overseas for my dad’s funeral in 2015. And one day when I was talking to the friend about it, they said not to worry about it anymore. So we were officially debt free.

So what did we actually DO? We followed Dave’s advice. We followed the Baby Steps. We built up $1000 in an emergency fund first, and didn’t touch it except for ACTUAL emergencies (like getting the kitchen light fixed after it tried to burn down the house one Sunday morning).

After we had our $1000 starter emergency fund, we threw ALL extra money at the debt. The smallest one first, then the next smallest, and the next, and so on until everything was gone.

The budget was key. Making a plan for our money BEFORE we spent it made a huge difference. I’d already been keeping pretty good records, but that’s only half of the equation. So when I was working out our budget for different categories, I looked at how much we had actually spent in the last year on each, and broke it down by month/pay cycle. I noticed some categories were INSANE, so we either cut those out, or cut them down significantly. If there wasn’t money in the budget for something we wanted to do, we either waited till we did have money in the budget, or came up with something different to do.

Once we had the debt paid off, every extra dollar went in our emergency fund. It slowly built up, not quickly enough for my liking, but it was growing. Our goal was three months worth of expenses. (Dave recommends three to six months. Three was fine in our case – he recommends six months if you’re self employed and in some other situations).

In the middle of this, Covid happened, and although Darrin still had work as a public transport driver, his work became uncertain. A new company was taking over the bus depot where he worked, and he’d heard unflattering things about them. So he wasn’t optimistic about being able to stay in the conditions that he’d heard about. But we were preparing for just this kind of situation.

In September 2020, he gave his notice and left. He got his payout from work with all his unused annual leave and long service leave, which more than finished our emergency fund. But we had to live off of that money till he got a new job, so it went down again.

In January 2021, we applied for (and had approved) payments from Centrelink while he job hunted. So I based our budget off of JUST what was coming in, and tried to leave the emergency fund alone unless something came up that we needed. It would still go down slowly, but much less than before.

July 2021, our tax came in, and it was TWICE what we’d been expecting (due to Darrin’s huge payout from his last job taking more tax than was actually relevant based on his end of year income). We spent some of the money on stuff we’d been waiting for, but the rest went to the emergency fund. And finished it a second time!

We just had to have our drains cleared, which used emergency funds, and now Darrin’s off work due to Covid, so it may go down again. BUT it’s there. It’s for us to use in exactly these circumstances. We’re ok. A few years ago, this would have ruined us. I shudder to think where we’d be if we’d actually moved house two years ago, and then all this happened. If we’d never changed our habits. It certainly wouldn’t be pretty.

If you’re in debt and struggling to get ahead, don’t panic. Just go find yourself a copy of The Total Money Makeover. Library, op shop, borrow from a friend, or even buy new if you can’t find it cheap. It’s totally worth it.

Edited to add: Sometimes I feel like our story isn’t that dramatic, because we only had a few thousand dollars of debt. No credit cards, no student loans, no car payments (we’d paid that off just before we started the Ramsey plan). But the big difference is the mindset. We won’t borrow money again. We’ll save up for big purchases. Debt is not an option anymore. And the peace I have just knowing that I won’t have bill collectors coming after me, late payment notices, debt that never seems to go away, that’s something you can’t put a price tag on. We still have a house payment (which is the only debt Dave doesn’t yell at you for), and whenever we have extra money to throw at that, we will.

Can you do this if you have more debt? Yep, it just might take you longer. But once you get going, and you see the progress, you’ll start wanting to push yourself harder to get it gone quicker. I’ve heard the same story from many other people who have done this.

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