So Mr. Blandings and I went about Business As Usual. Four months after we said "I do," we bought a brand new car. It was a 1996 Saturn. Manual transmission. Red. Very cool back in the day.
This was our very first taste of what it was like to purposefully choose to owe someone more money than we could easily pay off in say, a month.
Which is not to say that we weren't already swimming in debt. I had a single student loan that demanded to be paid each month, as well as credit cards that we were already in the process of loading up with really worthwhile things like Chinese take-out, new CDs ... you know, important stuff. But really, did any of it matter? After all, I was making good money, even if Mr. Blandings wasn't. We were able-bodied, highly educated, and upwardly mobile.
Then, of course, we found out that Jo was on the way. I've posted about my change of heart before, but suffice it to say that all of a sudden, I wasn't interested in having the option of buying anything. What I wanted was to stay home and stare at my sleeping baby.
It wasn't possible, everyone assured us. No one manages on one paycheck anymore--especially not a check as paltry as Mr. Blanding's. His $14,000 a year salary was barely enough to feed us and put a roof over our heads, let alone keep the bill collectors off our backs. We struggled, now charging things like our phone bill to a credit card in place of theater tickets. The days of buying frivolous stuff were in the past, and we were sinking fast. At one point, we went to one of those non-profit financial assistance places designed to help keep people afloat. Tails between our legs, we begged for help. Their advice? Declare bankruptcy. We simply can not help you.
But we didn't. Call it pride, call it stubbornness, call it an inability to see things for what they really were. Mr. Blandings and I felt strongly that we had gotten ourselves into this mess. We owed it to the people (and companies) who had trusted us to return in kind what we had taken. So we dug in, buckled down, and started to shovel.
That was eleven years ago. Eleven years, people. Today, I am happy to announce that we are debt-free except for our mortgage.
Nearly everyone who has heard this--especially those who know our struggle--have asked how we did it. The assumption is that we grabbed on to one of the popular plans, enrolled in a course, or found a financial guru to hold our hand. The answer, however, is not so simple, but even more amazing.
We did start out trying to conquer our debt by adhering to principles espoused by some of the prophets of financial freedom. We read some Dave Ramsey books, talked to people who were using the course, and figured that it made sense. We were already using cash for everything, had cut out all non-essential spending, and were whittling away at things quite nicely. It was working! We could taste success, and were enthralled.
But something wasn't quite right. While our bottom line was looking better and better, we noticed something about our hearts. It was summed up in this popular quote:
"If you will live like no one else, later you can live like no one else."
Something niggled in the back of my mind every time I heard this. Why? What was it? What was wrong?
And then God showed me: Mr. Blandings and I were not living like no one else. In truth, we had started to live just like everyone else. Our singular pursuit of being debt-free had over-ridden our desire to be a blessing to those around us. No, we weren't selfishly indulging in new cars, fabulous toys, expensive distractions for ourselves and our kids. Instead, we were hoarding our resources and keeping our eyes so firmly fixed on our goal, our plan, our desire that we had gotten out of the habit of looking up and taking in what was happening around us. Everything revolved around single-mindedly reaching the goal of being debt-free. Every penny, every resource, went into paying down what we owed.
How was this any different than the way most people lived? Just because our goal was to pay off debt, did that justify clenching our fists and holding tight to what God had put on loan to us?
We assumed that the "later" was worth the present. God showed us that we were wrong.
It was a huge, scary step of faith to let go of the mentality that had, in fact, brought so much peace and yes, freedom, to those around us whose goals we shared. But we knew in our hearts that God was urging us to take a different path. So we did, reluctantly.
We began making changes. We paid our monthly obligations, yes. But then we prayed and asked God how He would have us spend whatever was left in the pot. Some months He led us to make double payments on bills. Other months He laid it on our hearts to set some money aside and simply sit on it for a bit. Other months, He asked us to take the cash and buy food for a family in need, offer to pay for a child's fall wardrobe, off-set someone's car repair bill.
It was an up and down process. The dream of being debt-free seemed to be slipping from our fingers, but most days (most days, not all!) it felt worth it. We were living like no one else HERE, NOW.
Which brings us to the present:
Remember that $14,000 income that Mr. Blandings, Jo and I scraped by on back in the early days of our family? The tax year that just ended marks a banner one for our family. For the first time ever, we gave away more than we once lived on. I say this not to brag, but to give glory to God. By God's grace and through His provision, our family lives in one of the most expensive parts of the country on one middle-class income ... and gave others more than $14,000 last year. Going through our tax receipts and the little notes we jotted to ourselves over the course of 2010 was absolutely amazing. To see how God had used what we once held with clenched fists to give others hope, to provide for felt needs, to spread His gospel ... well, it makes you want to do more, if you know what I mean.
But how, you ask, did you ever pay off your student loans, your van, your credit cards? How did giving money away pay your bills?
Are you ready for this? Through the adoption tax credit--which this year is issued as a refund check--we are able to pay off everything ... and have some left over.
In other words, God gave us the desire to live with open hands and bless others financially. We followed Him, and He used our meager offerings. God gave us the desire to love more children. We followed Him, and He blessed us with Oli and Mani.
And then God said, "I know that you'd really like to be out from under the weight of these mistakes you made. Don't worry. I've got that covered, too."
How very like God and His seemingly upside down ways that we spent money to get money. That we gave to get. That we helped to be helped.
I can't say it any better than this:
Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart. --Psalm 37:4