About a year ago, as I was preparing for the next year, I found myself wrestling with and questioning where I was, what I was doing, and how to get to where I believed (and still believe) God ultimately wants me. I began feeling a deep conviction over an ugly four-letter word in my life: DEBT. See, as I had been praying about all of the questions that were plaguing my heart, I felt the Lord tenderly say to me, "Gennean, while I need you to stay faithful to where you are now, the truth is that I cannot take you to where I've planned for you go until you take care of this."
For some backstory, you should know that I put myself through college, which was especially tough since I decided to attend a private, Christian university (a.k.a. expensive, but I have no regrets; my experience there was key to my spiritual growth). I was beyond blessed to have received multiple scholarships while in school, but still graduated with around $20,000 in student loan debt. Rough. And just a few months after graduation, I needed to get a new car and chose to invest in a more reliable vehicle than my previous one, walking away from that purchase with a $12,000 car loan. Okay, let's do that math... I had racked up $32,000 of debt only six months out of college. Yikes.
While I had been responsibly making my minimum payments each month, with the occasional extra cash thrown at a payment here or there, at this time last year I was still walking around with $27,000 of debt. I hadn't fully realized it until that point, but my debt was doing more than just taking money from my paychecks each month; it was keeping me captive. It was a chain that was tying me down, crippling my ability to give, and holding me back from the abundantly more that I knew God had for me.
The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender.
In February of this year, just a few months after the initial conviction, I started hustling to begin aggressively paying off my debt. On top of my full-time day job, I made it my mission to find other ways to make money, including babysitting, petsitting, tutoring, custom art projects, and home organization (many of these things I continue to do today). Additionally, I have had to make sacrifices in how I spend my money, buying less clothing, taking less trips, and generally not having as much "fun" as most of my twenty-something counterparts. I have worked my tail off for the last eleven months, and am beginning to see the fruit of my perseverance. In October I paid off my car, and y'all, it felt so freaking good to not only be able to call it fully mine, but to see that my hard work really had paid off. I won't lie, it was and is extremely challenging and exhausting and sometimes even ugly... and yet it's still so worth it.
I am pretty embarrassed by how long it took me to get to this point, but I am also so thankful that God took me aside and, as only He could, convicted me to get my crap together and take responsibility for the financial choices I had made. And along with that, I have learned that money is a blessing, and that God always, always, always provides for our needs (and usually then some!) when we are obedient to Him.
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As a result of being candid with friends about my "debt-free journey," I find myself often get asked about budgeting, namely how to make a budget, keep a budget, and work toward being free of debt. What's funny is that I never learned smart ways of handling money, not until I was out of school, in-debt, and wading my way through adult life, and I have come to find that many are in the same boat. Maybe your parents didn't teach you wise principles and you've had to try to figure it out on your own, or maybe you've made mistakes with money in the past. Regardless, I want you to know that you're not alone and that there is hope. While I am no professional on these matters, I am very fortunate to work with/for someone who is, and I have learned SO much from him and others around me about how to steward money in a way that glorifies God - the ultimate Giver - and sets me up to be way more generous with His resources.
So, whether you are single (holla!) or married, and whether or not you have consumer debt, here are some of my tips and tricks for budgeting:
- Pray. Seriously, do it. Take the time to pray about this journey you are going to embark on, and ask God to give you direction, discernment, and intense perseverance (you'll probably definitely need it).
- Do not cease your tithing, no matter what your financial situation looks like at any given time. I think that it is extremely important to give back to God what is rightfully His before ever using it for yourself. Consider setting up automatic payments if you have a hard time tithing regularly.
- Have at least $1,000+ in your savings account at ALL times for emergencies that pop up (because they always pop up). Note: that amount should be more if you are debt-free.
- Create a zero-based budget. My favorite budgeting tool EVER, without a doubt, is EveryDollar. Sure, I may be slightly biased, but the truth is that I have used other budgeting techniques/tools, both on paper and digitally, and EveryDollar slays the competition.
- If, like me, you have accrued consumer debt (a.k.a. non-mortgage debt), make it a priority to get rid of your debt as soon as possible. Do this by: changing jobs, taking on more jobs or extra income-earning work, selling stuff you don't need, freezing some frivolous spending habits, etc... basically doing whatever the heck you can to take more money each month to pay off your debt using the debt snowball method!
- If you are in this boat, I highly recommend giving yourself a new "minimum monthly payment" to keep in mind and that, hopefully, you can exceed each month (i.e. if you car loan's minimum payment is $200/month, tell yourself it's $700+/month, this way you always pay off more than the minimum).
- With that, still leave room for fun. I have given myself little incentives along the way of my debt-free journey, choosing to treat myself to one special thing after each debt that is paid off. After my car, I got a new laptop; after my first of two student loans, it will be a new camera; and after the second (my last debt), I am hoping to take a trip to Europe. These "treat yoself" incentives help me to stay even more focused and intense.
- If you are married, you and your spouse have to be on the same page. Sit down together each month to plan your budget, and hold one another accountable to your plan throughout the month.
- If you are single, ask a trusted friend or mentor to be your accountability partner. My "budget buddy" and I meet at the end of each month to look at where my money went that month and to plan for the following (this has been absolutely crucial to my debt-payoff success, and I cannot recommend it enough).
- Stick to your budget. Every month. Discipline isn't supposed to be easy, yo.
- Seek to learn the art of contentment (Hebrews 13:5-6) and remember that money is just a thing. It comes and it goes, and it will always leave us wanting more. Guard your heart against the love of it (because, hello, that's called idolatry - 1 Timothy 6:10) and always, always, always acknowledge the Giver.
- Continue in prayer. Trust God throughout the process. Believe that He will meet all of your needs (Philippians 4:19).
Again, I am not an expert, but I have seen first-hand just how much lives can be changed (including my own) when people remember that money is a gift from God, not an idol to be worshiped or a master to be enslaved to.
So here's to budgeting like a freaking boss, and stewarding well all that God has given us!
And remember: we're all in this together.