The Random Writings of Rachel: How we Live Without Debt

How we Live Without Debt

I'll tell you one thing right off the bat: Angel and I had an extraordinarily good start in life. College debt is a key reason why many people our age start off their twenties in a very bad financial place, but though our circumstances were very different, we managed to get married at the ages of 26 and 19 with no debt whatsoever.

To give you a quick background, my college tuition  and books were covered by a variety of academic scholarships. I lived with my grandparents until I got married, in order to avoid paying for a dorm. I ate a breakfast of oatmeal, ate dinner with my grandparents, and carried a brown bag sandwich + apple + water bottle lunch to school everyday instead of eating in the dining halls or eating fast food. I worked as a tutor and as an 'ironing girl', and later, as a professor's assistant, which earned enough money to put gas in my car, which was pretty much all I needed to buy.

About 75% of Angel's college education was paid for by scholarships. He lived in a basement bedroom that had been offered to him by a lady who charged him low rent for the area, and he used her kitchen to cook meals at home. He worked on the cleaning crew and in the health center at college in order to pay for all of his living expenses, graduated with 25K in loans and a very marketable degree, immediately passed the NCLEX, moved to Texas which had a nursing shortage at the time, got hired as a nurse, moved in with his parents, worked overtime shifts (the nursing shortage helped with shift availability) and paid off all of the debt in a year and a half while also contributing to his parents' household. We got married weeks after he paid off his last loan.

That's the backstory on how we got married without debt--and with basically no material possessions, other than his car and my car. We moved into a rental house that had appliances and borrowed whatever of my parents' furniture that they'd left in storage in America, and bought the rest at thrift stores. Ever since, we have consistently lived on a percentage of our take-home income, which has allowed us to save the excess to fund occasional larger expenses that seemed worth it to us: a custom-made bed made of cherry wood; plane tickets for a trip to Malaysia; getting TEFL certificates and  moving to China to teach; buying a car after moving to Malaysia.

We live below our income level, and that habit has provided us with a sense of peace. True, we've never been faced with insurmountable expenses, but when surprising* things have some up (oh, like a car stopping and refusing to go any further on a country highway because the alternator is shot), we've always had more than enough to meet the costs (*side note: there's nothing surprising about unfortunate expenses, is there? Such is life.). Our income has gone down significantly since our most recent move last year, and adjustment to a job without health insurance or retirement benefits has been a growth experience. We're working with the smallest budget we've had in our marriage, but we're able to do so and have peace about our finances, and I'm grateful for that, because I know that financial problems have a special way of sucking the joy out of life when they get out of control.

I credit three factors with our ability to live well while spending much less that what we earn:

Cute young us on our Glasgow, KY honeymoon

1. We're happy whether or not we own awesome stuff.

Neither of us have the need to have the newest, brightest, and best. Between the two of us, I probably care slightly less about the quality of my worldly possessions. Angel has often said that he loves the fact that I didn't grow up "rich," because I'm easy to impress--I get giddy when he comes home with a Snickers bar, partially because I'm easily excited, and partially because it would never occur to me to buy myself a Snickers bar for no good reason.


The things I've purchased aren't very impressive. My sledding and snowboarding gear in Michigan were comprised of a 2-decade old set of coveralls that my mom wore when I was a baby, a pair of indestructible boots I got from the 2nd hand store for 50 cents, and a toboggan that had been handed down through a few generations of my family. Let me tell you, no one "oohs" and "aahs" when you tell them your honeymoon was a road trip in a '96 Chevy to tour caves in Kentucky. The most impressive thing I've ever owned was my beloved cherry wood bed, and seeing as that was stationed in my bedroom, few people saw it besides me. I drove that Chevy with a smashed up door right up until we left the country, because I didn't see the point in spending money just to make it pretty when the ugly door didn't affect the performance.


That bed though....

2. We're spoiled with family and friends who love generously--been given much more grace than we ought to have been given.

Oh man, guys, this is the thing. I can't even tell you all the ways that people have practically showed their care and love for us. We've never bought a TV--right when we got married, a relative of a relative was getting rid of an older 20'' box TV--they thought that we could use it, and we took it joyfully! A few years later, some relatives gave us a nearly-new, bigger TV as a belated wedding gift. My sister has given me plenty of dresses that she's decided are too short/not her style (being a few inches shorter than all of your sisters has an advantage...). Since moving to Malaysia we've hardly bought any of our furniture, since we were given so many nice 'hand-me-downs' from family and friends.

I mentioned in the intro that I lived with my grandparents for the first 5 semesters of college, from when I was 17-19, and Angel lived with his parents after graduation. There seems to be a big stigma in our American culture about living with family, but thankfully, our relatives welcomed us into their spare bedrooms, which ended up really helping us start out in life in a good financial situation. Our relatives have always looked out for us--offering us their own spare possessions, lending us tools for random home repairs, or even, on several occasions, rides, when one of our cars stranded us.

Some find it shameful to accept help from family members, but we've chosen not to. We're spoiled to have an extended family that makes a habit of looking out for each other--and we're happy to make that sort of generosity a part of our lifestyle. We're not doing life alone, we're doing it in the context of a bigger community. What a humbling and amazing truth that is. We hope to always be the kind of people who can, in return, help our families in whatever ways are available to us--that's why, when we made the big move, we chose to give most of what we owned away to our siblings/cousins who are also starting out in life instead of selling it all.


My darling Brother how I miss you...

3. We're comfortable without every comfort available...and also without some possessions others might consider 'normal.'

In Michigan, we heated our home to 60 degrees, and sealed off the top floor during the winter, resulting in a freakishly low gas bill. In China, we shared one Nokia phone between the two of us instead of having separate smart phones. When we go away for our anniversary, we rent oddball Airbnb apartments for a fraction of the price of hotel bedrooms. Since moving overseas, we go without a dryer or a microwave or oven or other little things that we've learned to live well without. I don't drink alcohol and Angel does only very rarely. Things like avocados or bubble tea drinks are luxurious treats, not something we think we 'deserve'. We don't have pets--and when we did, they were barn cats, not known for requiring large financial investment.

Angel's current favorite strategy for saving on groceries is: whenever he's hungry for a snack, he heads to my parents' place and eats some random leftovers...because they nearly always have leftovers. They've learned not to clean out the fridge of random stuff that no one wants to eat because Angel will eat it. We don't shop randomly, usually shopping expeditions are for birthdays or Christmas or to replace a worn-out item, or, in my case, to find a specific item of clothing that I've been dreaming about (i.e. perfect green skinnies, only I already own the perfect pair of green skinnies). Speaking of shopping, I recently noticed how frayed Angel's khaki shorts (he's had them as long as I've known him) are and decided I probably ought to get the man some new khaki shorts...

We also avoid expensive hobbies. Sewing is a favorite non-current hobby of mine that is pretty costly (considering buying a machine), but other than that, I stick to blogging, reading free books, and cross-stitch. Angel runs, which he assures me is the cheapest sport, requiring little equipment, although I admit I'm sometimes shocked by the cost of Asics Gel-Kayanos and the speed with which he runs through them...

Who needs a taqueria when you can eat like this at home?

4. We learn new skills, and proceed to DIY instead of hiring work out whenever possible.

 When you have old cars, they tend to break down often. Angel's knowledge of how to fix cars--gleaned from his dad and from watching Youtube tutorials, saved us thousands of dollars, as he was able to fix whatever was wrong with our vehicles for just the cost of parts from either the junkyard or Autozone.

When there was a hole in the wall of our house, Angel figured out how to fix it with a chunk of drywall, and I repainted the room--a fix far less expensive than it would have been if we'd had to call in professionals. When we had a pile of wood in the backyard that no one was planning on using, Angel made a picnic table out of it--a very ugly picnic table, that's something everyone will admit, but one we've sat on at plenty a family barbecue.

I cut Angel's hair (which wasn't a cheap skill to learn, in my case)...and the hair of everyone else in my family, and I color my own hair. I recklessly hand-wash the vast majority of "dry clean only" clothing, since I tend to view that tag as more of a guideline than actual rule (don't follow my advice). I can cook anything and everything I've ever attempted to cook, even when my only cooking implement is a small gas stove--I'm able to make large Easter or Thanksgiving feasts. When my parents sold the house we lived in, we packed and moved with a U-Haul instead of hiring movers. I've done my share of roofing and painting projects (and one time, I even painted a roof! That was fun.). We usually figure our own labor is always cheaper than everyone else's labor, so if it's a job we can do, we do it. Both of us, however, are not very good at plumbing. We call in my mom when the shower stops working...

5. Debt isn't an option.

Kind of like that whole old "divorce" principle, right? We won't put anything on a credit card unless we have the cash for it right now--in fact, we haven't bought anything with a credit card, other than airplane tickets, in a couple years, because all of our cards have international purchase fees...haha!

Like the 'divorce' rule...this is applying to normal circumstances. Abnormal circumstances can occur that would require abnormal behavior, but as far as everyday normal life goes--we don't consider spending money that we don't have a viable alternative. If we don't have the money for that trip or that dress or that lunch or that Master's Degree, we won't buy it.
........................................................................

We've had a very easy hand dealt to us. Having a place to sleep, food to eat, and a way to get to work has never been a question for us--instead, questions like, "Should we invest in a used Xbox 360 for Christmas?" or "Look, a two-story sample dollhouse is on clearance on Hobby Lobby! Don't you think we should buy it? How often is there going to be a deal like this?" have been the kind of questions we've asked. Angel has always been employed. We don't worry ourselves about retirement and long-term investing (that is to say....we don't 'do' either, haha..) and don't know anything at all about the stock market and don't own a home, but we have always had what we need. But we don't use our wages to the fullest extent by spending all that we earn right away--and thus far, that habit has served us well.

33 comments:

  1. Great post, Rachel! Enjoyed reading about how you do it!

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  2. I LOVE this, Rachel. Being debt-free is a passion of ours as well. We've had a lot of financial ups and downs in our marriage, but we don't have debt (aside from my car which is just about paid off) and we're committed to staying that way. Our lifestyle has drastically changed since I quit my job. There are days I struggle with wanting something I don't need, but overall I've found so much freedom in it, because when buying something isn't an option there's no use even thinking about it. Our family has been extremely generous with us, and I've learned how to get really creative in the kitchen and shop on a budget. I constantly challenge myself to spend the least amount possible, and I've been able to make us healthy meals while staying below our already small budget. It's been the best learning experience.

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  3. Amazing post. It gave me some new ideas on a few things Joe and I can even cut down on, and we're debt free too, hehe!

    I think being debt free at a young age is partially a privilege of a certain type of upbringing and family (which you acknowledge). A lot of my peers didn't really consider a different perspective on college until it was "too late" and they have student loan debt. Heck, even I reflect on my four years as an undergrad, in which I lived at home and was gifted tuition by my parents (provided I sought scholarships, worked, and didn't go out and act like a typical college animal), I still could have saved them money had I started out in community college for a year or two. I was given so much flack by classmates in my freshman year just for opting not to live in the dorms! What a load. I lived locally, for free!

    All this being said I do feel for people who have sort of been enchanted and trapped into massive student loans by the idea of the "perfect college experience." :/

    There's other kinds of debt, too, of course, I'm just speaking to the major category of it for people my age.

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  4. Amazing post. It gave me some new ideas on a few things Joe and I can even cut down on, and we're debt free too, hehe!

    I think being debt free at a young age is partially a privilege of a certain type of upbringing and family (which you acknowledge). A lot of my peers didn't really consider a different perspective on college until it was "too late" and they have student loan debt. Heck, even I reflect on my four years as an undergrad, in which I lived at home and was gifted tuition by my parents (provided I sought scholarships, worked, and didn't go out and act like a typical college animal), I still could have saved them money had I started out in community college for a year or two. I was given so much flack by classmates in my freshman year just for opting not to live in the dorms! What a load. I lived locally, for free!

    All this being said I do feel for people who have sort of been enchanted and trapped into massive student loans by the idea of the "perfect college experience." :/

    There's other kinds of debt, too, of course, I'm just speaking to the major category of it for people my age.

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  5. That's so awesome! I can't wait until I can get to a point in my life where I am debt-free! It's going to be amazing!

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  6. this is amazing! I love the creativity and commitment "debt isn't an option" - It's so true. Developing skills and living comfortable but not lavishly are such great points and totally worth the reward of living debt free. Plus when you develop the skills your bank account and self worth will totally thank you! Keep it up!

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  7. Love this post. Having an amazing family certainly makes me feel wealthy and avoid the need to splash out when I can't afford it.

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  8. Awesome post! Experiences are so much more important than material items. Also, I had to laugh at the comment on the snickers bar. I'm the same way! I never buy stuff like that for myself, but when my husband surprises me with something like a bag of reeses pieces it makes my day. It's the little things :)

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  9. Great post! You hit the nail on the head...you don't need awesome stuff to be happy! Figuring that out made me feel free and truly happy for the first time.

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  10. That is truly awesome - living without debt must give you such a peace of mind. We did have debt and worked hard on paying it off - we now both work full time again and earn so much more than we spend, so there is a great amount going into savings and into our retirement savings

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  11. Great post! My husband-to-be and I will be starting out our marriage with some debt, but we plan to pay it off in the first year of marriage.

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  12. Love your tips and mindset! We share the same ideals... experiences and relationships are so much more important than possessions and going into dept to possess the latter makes no sense. Way to go! :D

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  13. Fantastic post! Love how you guys are saving. And I have the same sewing machine!

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  14. Great, great post! Living below your means is something I really, really wish was taught in school these days. I grew up new an army base, and also saw an insane amount of new privates with brand new cars wit payments worth as much as they're paychecks.

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  15. "Debt isn't an option" <<- wow! I've heard it before and it's hitting me harder every single time as I pull myself out of an unfortunate debt situation. I'm reminding myself to be kind to myself though and know that I will make it out and arrive back on top better for the lesson learned.

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  16. The only debt we have is our mortgage, and it is the best feeling. I agree that debt isn't an option for us, and we only buy things we can afford to pay full price for now. We live without things that some of our friends think are essentials like cable, which is obviously not essential at all! But some people think we are nuts for not paying for TV service. I try to budget our food well and not buy things we don't need!

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  17. Oh gosh you are so lucky!! I wish my husband school could have worked that way. But that said the debt we've accumulated rewarded us highly and will be paid of within three years, so no regrets!! I am happy with the fact that we can live within our means!

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  18. Great post! I wish I didn't have debt coming out of college, but I have quite a hefty amount. I like how you both are on the same page. I hope one day to be debt free as well :)

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  19. Awesome post! I am debt free and it is an amazing feeling. I went away to a four year college for my nursing degree but I did not live on campus. I lived in off campus housing which saved me so much money. I was lucky enough to get financial aid and an on-campus job throughout college. I did have to take out loans but I am so happy to say they are paid off and I've been out a year. I am so grateful for my parents for letting me move back home after college to save some money - that has really helped in paying off loans. I had a wonderful college experience without getting into massive debt and I believe this will really help me in my future. I do enjoy sewing quite a bit, but I like to think I am pretty thrifty with supplies and only buy what I need and make sure it is within my budget.

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  20. That does sound different, sounds like you guys are super on the ball for finances though. My husband would not be on board on that though. He likes to eat out at least once a week.

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  21. I think this line: We live below our income level, and that habit has provided us with a sense of peace.
    and knowing that debt isn't an option is HUGE! That is our mindset as we attack our school debt. People keep saying it's not a big deal, but to us, we want it gone as fast as possible!
    Way to go on making wise decisions! And praise God for the blessings you've received to keep you from it :)

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  22. Lovely post! We pay off our credit cards every single month and the only debt I currently have is my grad school loans but I have already started paying them off and I don't graduate until at least next year. I definitely want to be debt free as soon as possible.

    xoxo, Jenny

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  23. This is so inspiring! We have some debt, small college loans and now a mortgage, but it's manageable for sure. We don't have credit card or any consumer debt. Just today I was buying a gift for my niece, and the cashier asked me if I wanted to open a credit card. I said no, and she was SO PUSHY. Telling me how much I could save and with the amount I was saving that day I could pay off the balance. I said no about five times and finally I had to tell her that we do not use credit cards!! We use coupons and don't have cable and shop on sale or at thrift stores and the sacrifices we make are worth it to us! Love this post!!

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  24. #1 with the Snickers bar made me smile, because that totally sounds like me! I'm actually really bad about not wanting to ever spend money (to the point where it's bad), so my husband has been teaching me how to occasionally buy unnecessary but fun things like that. This is a great post, and parts of it definitely make me think of Jacob & I! We try to live pretty frugally even though we're out of college and my husband has a full-time job now, so that when "unexpected expenses" come up (like car problems) or when we want to do an occasional splurge (like restaurant sushi!), we have the money for it. It's also helpful that, like you, my hobbies (writing, knitting with yarn I already have, reading library books) are essentially free. My husband, as a competitive gamer, has more expense involved with his hobby (tournament entry fees), but he trains hard and usually ends up winning money at most tournaments, which then covers the cost of entry fees and helps him pay for new video games! It's pretty nifty how it works out :)

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  25. I'm with you -- debt and divorce should be avoided at all costs. Except for one thing -- How do you view home debt? Will you an Angel not purchase a home until you can buy it outright? Or perhaps do you not really care to own a home so it's not really an issue? That's currently our only debt, and I, personally, am fine with home debt, but I was wondering about your take on it :)

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  26. first of you, this post just inspires me more to stay focused to become debt free, so thank you!!! I love hearing you share on freeing it is to not be tied to the "stuff", especially when materialism is such a big thing in the West.
    You two rock rachel!!! I'm so looking forward to the day I will be debt-free too:)

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  27. My husband and I carry some small debt (comparatively), but by and large we follow a lot of these principles. Nothing would be possible for us without the help of our families - I don't understand why some people find that shameful - it takes a village to not only raise kids, but to live life.

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  28. These are all really great factors/tips--I've definitely learned to live without a number of things in order to save money, and am also super glad that I'm perfectly happy with or without "stuff." I've also been super blessed in the realms of amazing friends/family, and managed to get out of college with no debt (yay for scholarships and pinching pennies!). Medical school debt was unfortunately unavoidable--I hope to climb out of that eventually though!

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  30. This is an awesome post, Rachel! I think that you and I have similar views on things, especially when it comes to not buying things that people consider normal or necessary. I think that life is pretty comfortable without crazy indulgences and that definitely helps keep us content and debt-free, because we don't have a desire to buy the latest and the greatest gadgets. In Hawaii, we hardly ever used air conditioning, didn't have cable, and lived in a tiny apartment. We were comfortable; we had more than we needed. People thought we were nuts, that we needed cable, needed more space, needed so many things that we didn't need. I think that a simple life is a happier one, although we do like to spend our money on traveling when we can afford it. I also get so much satisfaction from learning how to do things myself instead of paying people to do them. Have you ever read a blog called Mr. Money Mustache? He writes a lot about living a simple, low-cost, DIY lifestyle.

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  31. AAAAMEN! Justin and I both graduated college without debt and we were very spoiled with furniture by Justin's older siblings. When we realized we couldn't afford living where we were, we moved in with my parents. Yes, we do have "debt" on a used car we bought from a dealership, but it's ok to be in "debt" for a house and a car....I mean, who has tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands to pay in cash for a car or a house?!?

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  32. Great post! Me and my partner don't also have debt and live very modestly. Okay, around here universities work a bit differently, so I didn't have to get debt for my studies. But we also don't have debt for an apartment (we rent) or other stuff (we use public transportation etc.). We have some "nice" things too, but our apartment is small and we don't spend in parties and stuff. Works for us!

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  33. Like you and Angel, my husband and I have been very blessed by our families. I had scholarships, and my parents paid for most of my student loans. Dan's parents had saved for his college, so he was able to pay off his few loans within a few months of graduating. I've lived at home in-between my "travel jobs." My parents bought me my first car, which I first shared with my twin brother, and I later drove until it died.

    We do use credit cards, but we never carry a balance. Our only debt is the car loan on the new car Dan bought a year or two before we got married. But the interest rate is lower than the rate of inflation, so it's a really good deal.

    We've furnished our townhouse with a hand-me-down couch and chair, a secondhand table and chairs I bought as a birthday present for myself many years ago, headboards, desks, tables, and an entertainment center built by Dan, and a handful of IKEA finds.

    But Dan also has a really good job as an engineer for an oil company, and I would be lying if I didn't admit that makes a huge difference. A large chunk of our costs is my health expenses. A chronic illness with multiple expensive prescriptions, regular doctor's visits, and side effects that cause more illnesses is not cheap.

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