Track your spending to get out of debt

What We Did to go from $44k in Debt to Worth Nearly $485k in 6½ years without a Budget

Between June of 2013 and December of 2019, my husband and I went from $44 thousand in debt to having nearly $485 thousand in monetary assets (yes, this excludes the value of our physical properties) without following a budget.

As senior enlisted members of the Army Reserve (working full time) and active Army, we earned respectable wages and benefits, had automatic investments, several months’ worth of expenses in savings, lived below our means, and balanced our checkbooks. But, despite knowing better *and* years of counsel to the contrary, we didn’t actively manage our finances.

When we moved overseas and I was temporarily without a job, everything changed. We were living on a foreign continent we wanted to explore, I wasn’t earning nearly the income I had before, we had a new apartment to set up, and I had lots of free time on my hands.

We were spending more than usual.

To top it off, our tenants walked out of our house in Minnesota. Three months into a new 12-month lease they literally left the front door open on their way out, leaving us with thousands in damages and lost rent.

Our life had gotten complicated, and so too, did our finances.

What We Did

The bottom line up front is that it took us years and consistency to achieve our change. None of this happened all at once and none of it happened passively. We took steps.

While there are several things that we consciously did, there are also several things that contributed to our current situation that were merely circumstantial. For instance, we were in our 30s and 40s when we married and had kids, we were both senior enlisted military (me in the Army Reserve, him in Active Army), and we were both combat veterans. These may not seem like advantages but they contributed to multiple and higher income streams as well as lower expenses than our peers.

Tracked Expenses

The first and probably the most influential thing we did was start tracking our expenses. I created an Excel workbook which morphed over the years from a check register with a summary sheet into our entire financial picture.

Track your Spending

We still use this today, though it is far more sophisticated today than when we first started. We still have register worksheets for each account, a dashboard summary sheet, and balance sheets for liquid, debt, retirement and grand total. These days though, each balance sheet tracks changes from month to month as well as a year-end change. Our retirement sheet calculates year-end returns, and we track our year-end balances on the grand total worksheet.

While we didn’t actively budget, this really made us aware of our spending: we became intentional with our money. This also let us know where we stood financially as far as the value of our investments versus how much debt we carried.

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A free copy of this workbook is available in my resource library to my subscribers. To access it, enter your email here to receive the password. You’ll also receive periodic updates about my content and other offers.

Planned Meals

As well as becoming intentional about our spending, I also started meal planning. This cut our grocery bill considerably. To this day, it’s still the single most effective method to keeping our household expenses down.

But I didn’t just meal plan – I tracked the inventory of all our household necessaries down to cleaning and hygiene supplies. This meant we (almost!) never ran out, nor did we ever have more than we could reasonably use or store.

Teal Plate Meal Plan Scrabble Tiles

If you’re looking for help here, check out The Beginner’s Complete Guide to Meal Planning. In this post, I cover different grocery reward and rebate apps, buying in bulk, food preservation methods, weekly and monthly meal planning tips, offer a free printable menu planning kit (also in the free resource library), and so much more.

Maximized Retirement Contributions

Once we figured out how much we were earning and how much we could live on, both my husband and I contributed the maximum to our retirement accounts – both IRAs and 401(k)s.

This wasn’t something we did all at once. We tested the waters to see what we could sustain, gradually increasing our contributions over the course of several months.

While we made too much as a dual-income family to deduct IRA contributions from our income, we knew it was still money that would earn compound interest in a tax-advantaged account until we were ready to use it.

Paid Off Debt

When we started out we had two mortgages. Coming in at $233 thousand, they outweighed our retirement accounts by $100 thousand at the end of 2013.

Sheesh!

One of the properties was a condo rented at a loss located in Washington State. The other property, a house in Minnesota, earned enough to pay the mortgage each month. Since we decided to live in Minnesota when my husband retired, we opted to keep the house and sell the condo.

Selling the condo probably had the biggest impact on us and our overall numbers. Seeing that amount of debt vanish as quickly as it did made me feel lighter. It also motivated us to do more.

I added a worksheet to the workbook to calculate mortgage payoff. I entered our mortgage information and we got to work paying off the house, too.

While the renters walked out of the lease and left us with approximately $3,000 of their costs, the new management company was able to get a couple hundred dollars more in monthly rent. Those additional funds were put toward the house payment.

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Paid Cash in Lieu of Debt

When our first child came, we felt we needed a second car. We wanted to buy a certified used American specifications car but it wasn’t possible overseas. After lots of research and discussion, we chose to purchase a car through the military overseas cars program. It meant we wouldn’t have to pay sales tax on the purchase (though this is not the case for everyone – Do.Your.Research!) and we would get bottom line pricing.

Instead of taking out a loan, we paid cash.

While this wasn’t the best choice as interest rates were lower than our mortgage rates at the time, I put a freeze on our credit reports before we moved. I was having *much* difficulty getting them removed so our bank could do the necessary credit check. Paying cash was literally the easiest way to buy the car (and even that was not easy). #ByeeeeeeeeeeeWellsFargo

Both of us Worked

When we first moved overseas, I had Reserve duty and my husband was active Army.

While I didn’t earn a full-time salary, as a senior enlisted noncommissioned officer I did earn a respectable pay check for two days’ (+) work. I also had rental income from what we considered “my” Minnesota house as well as VA disability. About seven months after we arrived, I also found a full-time civilian job.

Once our first child was born, I seriously considered staying home. However, the prevailing reason I found a job while we lived overseas was 100% so that I could contribute as much as possible to my 401(k), the Thrift Savings Plan.

At first, working two jobs, being a wife, and managing a household nearly crushed me. But, again over time, we made some adjustments and, while it was still very difficult, things got a little easier.

When our daughter was born 20 months later, we were moving to our next duty station (where rumor had it, it was even harder to find a job), and daycare for a toddler and infant was going to be expensive (maybe a third of my earnings). My heart wasn’t into it either, so we opted for me to stay home with the kids.

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My husband was active duty Army. His paycheck was consistent, with the exception of government shutdowns. He was also senior enlisted with over 20 years. Additionally, we received various stipends and entitlements while living overseas such as cost of living adjustment, housing and subsistence.

We made a good living.

Planned Ahead

Having kids is expensive, but so too is birthing them. While we prayed for the best health and easy deliveries, we could not predict the future. In the event that we struggled with fertility or our kids were born with high-needs, we wanted to ensure we had the best possible insurance. We made the conscious decision to have our kids before we were no longer covered by my husband’s primo insurance.

Also, despite tracking our expenses and attending retirement workshops, we couldn’t make heads or tails of how things would look upon retirement.

What would his pension look like? How much would they deduct for the Survivor Benefits Plan? What about VA disability (he was definitely going to be eligible but what percent?)

What about our expenses? How much was our first grocery bill going to be having disposed of all our food stuffs? How much were utilities? How would our vehicle insurance change? What about the cost of food? What was the state of the house after all these years as a rental? How much was it going to be to establish our household (curtains, beds, the like)? What about the kids? What was the cost of childcare or preschool? How much was a family membership at the YMCA?

What if the position my husband wanted wasn’t vacant? How hard would it be to find jobs? If not both of us, which of us would be going back to work?

We had so many questions without clear answers, so we decided to pretend his pension didn’t exist.

My husband wanted a particular job in Minnesota upon retirement. I had worked at a similar salary. While I had a mortgage at the time, I was single. I knew that living at that salary for a family of four would be a hardship.

After some discussion, we both agreed it would be possible to live off of his salary if we didn’t have any debt. We needed more income to do that than we were going to earn by the time he reached 20 years.

As the primary household manager and caregiver, I kept our finances on track, ran the house, and took care of the kids, as well as everything else these tasks imply. I was simultaneously working to reach 20 years in the Army Reserve so I could retire and eventually collect a pension. I couldn’t do all that and go back to working full-time. I had tried to in the past and it made me a scribbly maniacal ball of stress.

I wasn’t earning income but what I was doing was just as valuable.

My husband decided, instead of retiring at 20 years as he initially wanted, to stay in for as long as possible. At the time we made this plan, this was 27 years. Due to policy changes and force reductions, this was later changed to 25 years.

American Soldiers Saluting US Flag. US Army

Using the mortgage worksheet in my workbook, we calculated how much we would need to pay each month to pay off the mortgage by the time my husband retired. Once we reached four figures, we made even larger payments.

Wrote a 5-Year Plan

Encompassing some of our discussions above, we literally wrote out a 5-year plan. I’m not talking a Jerry McGuire mission statement. I’m talking a bullet point list by year. Columns for each of us. Major tasks/accomplishments and goals.

We discussed where we saw ourselves in five years and then posted this sucker in a prominent place where we would see it. We reached some of our goals and had a reality check on others. But we stuck with it and updated it annually.

Lived Small

This is both true and not true. We traveled a lot while we were overseas. We didn’t fly first class and stay in 5-star hotels, but we went somewhere at least once a month and flew somewhere at least once a quarter, more or less. We traveled frugally but we still did it frequently.

But also, because I bought my house as a single person, the mortgage on our house was what I could afford – a/k/a not huge. Because we knew our expenses in that house would be small, we ultimately chose to move back into it when we got home. This was in lieu of keeping it as a rental, purchasing another home, and possibly taking out a mortgage or even selling the house all together.

Designated Savings

Since we earned good livings and had already been living below our means, we were in a pretty good spot before we started tracking our finances but out money was spread between several different accounts. We consolidated our accounts and opened a high-yield account with Ally. This made contributing our maximums a little easier because we always had something to fall back on if we overdid it.

Also, with retirement looming and not being certain of what the job market looked like, we socked away a year’s worth of expenses by my husband’s retirement.

Consulted a Professional

Being service members we had resources at our disposal that others don’t (#NotARecruiter). One of the services that we availed ourselves of was a Certified Financial Planner. While these consults can cost a flat fee, our meetings were free. Now that we are retired, we aren’t able to use these services for free, but it’s definitely worth the cost.

In any case, his counsel was both reassuring and enlightening. While we were fully capable of putting away funds, he was able to reorganize it in a way that gave us a better tax advantage.

Made Lots of Mistakes

Nothing about how we did this went perfectly. At one point when I was consolidating our finances, I shorted an account that resulted in an overdraft. It wasn’t that we didn’t have have the money. We just didn’t have the money right there. We also could have managed our balances better, keeping higher balances in our high-yield savings/money market accounts and maintaining lower balances in our checking and savings. You live and you learn.

I know there are other people who would have handled our situation differently and earned more than we have now (and others, less). We didn’t completely deprive ourselves but we did make important sacrifices – just as much with our time as with our finances.

The main point, though, is that we didn’t throw in the towel after any one of our hundreds of mistakes. We did what we could to correct it and moved forward.

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Present Day

When we first got home, my husband had three months of vacation before he would be officially retired. We took that time and money to put in new windows, flooring, paint, appliances, and general updates. It was deeply satisfying to see our house become ours again.

Over time, we determined we earned sufficient income and had savings enough for both of us to stay home with the kids – something my husband wanted badly. We used some of our savings to take vacations and still more to make further changes to our house. The remainder is and has been in a managed account that we tally under our retirement account balance.

Between his pension and both our VA disability ratings, as well as not having debt, we live comfortably.

Because we want to keep contributing to our retirement accounts though, we are both considering going back to work for the federal government. The kids will be starting school soon as well so the house is going to clear out.

Future

As of December 2019, we had $468,764.54 in our retirement accounts. Based on Bankrate’s retirement calculator, just that investment is forecasted to reach $1,813,973 when I reach 60 in 21 years – with no further contributions. We also have both of our pensions (of which mine will be active when I reach 58, or in 19 years), our VA disability (which will decrease as our kids age-out or our spouse dies but increase with inflation), Social Security, as well as free healthcare through the VA (when accessible), or low-cost healthcare through Tricare.

Though we should be well taken care of in our retired years, we are leaving nothing to chance. Our current plan is to continue to contribute to our retirement accounts for as long as and as much as we possibly can. As we speak, I’m looking into a self-directed 401(k). I am hopeful to contribute the maximum to it someday, but it won’t be anytime soon.

We would not be where we are today, though, if we didn’t start tracking our spending.

If you’re interested in my workbook, subscribe to receive updates to obtain the password for my free resource library below. There are two copies in the library:

  • Simple: for novice Excel users; includes a dashboard worksheet, accounts worksheets, and liquid, debt, retirement and grand total worksheets; *does not* include formulas or mandatory fields to automatically sum your expenses and display that value in a corresponding cell on the dashboard; requires you to manually sum your monthly expenses.
  • Advanced: for skilled Excel users; includes a dashboard worksheet, accounts worksheets, and liquid, debt, retirement and grand total worksheets; *does*include formulas and mandatory fields to automatically sum your expenses and display that value in a corresponding cell on the dashboard; automatically sums your expenses.

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