Debt-Free Party? On 2nd Thought, Maybe Not

Pop the balloons! No debt-free party for us.

  • DH = dear husband
  • DD1 – dear first daughter
  • DD2 – dear second daughter
  • DD3 – dear third dauther

“have a barefoot mortgage-burning party”

We began our journey out of all debt in June of 2012. In September of 2018 – less than 2 months from now – we will make our last payment against the mortgage. It’s a weird reality that is only gradually catching up with me!

To unload our grand total of $257,000 in debt over the last 6+ years, DH and I have followed Dave Ramsey’s plan as detailed in The Total Money Makeover. I remember when I first heard (via the book-CD) Ramsey talk about paying off the mortgage. It seemed like such an impossible goal!  “When you pay off the mortgage,” he said, “have a barefoot mortgage-burning party and invite all your friends, relatives, and neighbors.”

“Yes!” I thought. “We’ll do that!” And I had visions of barefoot dancing in the back yard.

But now I don’t.

Parties

When I think of the best parties we’ve had in this house, I think of birthday parties. I’d say we averaged 15 guests per birthday per daughter (we have 3) when they were young children. DH would twist balloons into different animal shapes and we’d put on a balloon-animal puppet show for a gaggle of little girls. We’d play musical chairs, sing songs with actions, eat pizza and cake … Those were great times! And then there were the surprise birthday parties: DH’s 40th; my 40th; DD1’s 21st; DD2’s 21st. (How will we ever be able to make DD3’s a surprise?) So much fun!

And what makes a party fun? A big part of it is that all guests are on board with the cause of the celebration. Who doesn’t genuinely wish the birthday girl or boy the best for their big day? Hopefully no one who has been invited! Same goes for weddings – which are the best parties ever! Who among the guests does not wish the newly-weds a bright future together?

“I don’t think we should have a party to celebrate our debt-freedom,” DH said a few months ago. “It’s not something that other people want to celebrate.”

Strange reactions to debt-freedom

I remember about 4 years ago, there was a commercial for a bank that featured the mortgage pay-off of a good-looking, fit, well-dressed, 40-something couple. The wife,  presumably driving from work, approached their big suburban house when much to her surprise, a marching band came out of the garage. Friends and family emerged to cheer her home, and her husband, who had arranged the surprise, smiled and hugged her.

At work one day, a fellow teacher made reference to the commercial. “How selfish can you get?!” he said, full of uncharacteristic spite. I must have asked for clarification. “Paying off their half-million dollar home!” Words failed him, and he just waved his hand in a gesture of disgusted dismissal. I figured I was missing something obvious, so I didn’t pursue it and we changed the subject. This man, by the way, is one of the most approachable, accommodating, accepting, friendly people you’ll ever meet. He is exactly the high school teacher you want your children to have.

A few weeks ago, I was speaking with an equally pleasant person, and since he knew that I blogged about debt-reduction I let him know about our approaching $0 mortgage. I could see him absorb the information and struggle a bit to find the words before he said, “I know that’s important to you.” Again, I felt I was missing something. Normally, this man is quick to smile and encourage, with goodwill to spare – but there was none of the above in his response. I think he was striving for neutral.

Evolution of responses to our journey out of debt

There was a shift in people’s responses to our journey out of debt 3 years ago – when we had paid off everything but the mortgage. “I’ve already noticed little changes,” I wrote at the time. “Someone asked me yesterday why I had chosen to teach summer school, and I said, ‘We want to pay off the mortgage before we retire.’ Her response was, ‘Yep. That’s the smart thing to do. Get rid of that mortgage.’ I always used to say something like, ‘We’re trying to get out of debt. My husband lost his job in the high-tech bust and we got ourselves into quite a debt hole.’ The response would usually be a respectful and somewhat sympathetic nod of the head. So there’s been a shift. I’m no longer the object of sympathy. I’m ‘smart’.”

From “object of sympathy” to “smart” to … ? I’m not sure. All I know is that for a reason I can’t figure out, it isn’t necessarily positive.

“Am I talking about this too much?” I have wondered. I know I had a tendency towards too much debt-talk for a while in some situations, but I’ve intentionally kept that tendency in check for the last few years. (If you know me IRL, correct me if I’m wrong!) So what’s with these lukewarm to cold responses? A few possibilities that come to mind are that some people:

  • think mortgage pay-off is a private matter that shouldn’t be talked of.
  • believe that anyone who talks of paying off their mortgage is boasting.
  • think that debt-freedom is a weird goal and nothing to get excited about.
  • see prioritizing debt-repayment as shallow.
  • feel defensive about their own debts.

No party

So many of us who read and write blogs about personal finances find an open freedom online that’s often stifled IRL. I know that when the day comes and I write of our debt-freedom, a virtual cheer will be sent up by the online community I’ve been a part of for the last 6 years. And while there will also be several face-to-face congratulations, I think it’s wisest not to throw a party to celebrate. So I’m agreeing with DH on this.

Does this take away from anything? I don’t think so. It’s just a matter of accepting things the way they are. We’ll still celebrate – just not with a party. And we’ll still walk barefoot in our back yard:)


Would you throw a debt-freedom party? Can you relate to the evolution of responses I mentioned? Your comments are welcome.


Image courtesy of flickr.

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39 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I have to admit, I would have a hard time not asking more about why these people are responding this way. Would you have any interest in bringing it up again? Something like, “When I mentioned we would be done paying off our mortgage, you didn’t seem enthused. I was curious why. Is that something you want to share?” The guessing about people’s motives would drive me nuts, especially if it meant I could not adequately celebrate irl!

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Ms. Steward! I’ve tried to navigate the fine line between saying nothing about personal finances IRL – which is considered proper, normal, polite (an unfortunate thing for a debt-ridden society that needs to open up about money matters) – and saying just the right amount. The online community is so much more open! I’m OK just accepting these responses and not dwelling on guessing about the motives. And don’t worry. We will celebrate “adequately” 🙂

  • It’s entirely defensive. Think of it like weight loss. When you say “oh, I have 100 lbs to lose” people marvel, but think you can’t do it. They’re supportive but not credulous. When you say “I have 20 lbs to lose, and I’ve lost 80 already” people are delighted for you. You’re likely in the same boat, and the fact you’ve lost more than they have to lose means that their smaller goal seems feasible. You’re striving for the same thing. When you say “I just have 5 lbs left”, you’re a role model. You’re so very close to where your listener sees themself that they’re rooting for you. However, when you look at someone who looks perfect, and they say they’re a bit unsatisfied, they’re human. When you look at someone who looks perfect and says “I lost 100 lbs, kept it off, haven’t been higher than my goal weight, and now I have to figure out what to do with this ice cream cake.” then they switch from being just like you to, snap, being yet another person who Just Doesn’t Understand.

    The difference, the strain you see in friends’ faces, is the conflict between the knowledge of :”I have watched this process, listened to it, rooted for this person, and am glad she is in a good place” with “and I’m not.” Your statement about defensiveness is close.

    Don’t let yourself get debt-survivor-guilt. Keep tossing those financial life buoys of advice and support. You’ve made it to the shore, and, while I know your friends are happy to see it, it may also remind them that they don’t yet have sand beneath their feet to dance barefoot on.

    • Beautifully said, Diana. Thank you. Your weight analogy reminds me of someone at work who did exactly that – only she lost 60 pounds instead of 100. I felt nothing but delight for her until she started to weigh less than I did – at which point my delight was mixed with a reminder of the pounds I’ve been keeping on lately. Not a feeling I’m proud to admit to, but it’s the truth.
      I really don’t want the fact that we’ve “made it to the shore” to make anyone else feel discouraged. My hope is that it will do the opposite and encourage people who want to reach the same shore. I will certainly move forward with an extra dose of sensitivity thanks to your comment Diana – not a guilt-ridden sensitivity, but one that I believe will allow for the encouragement I hope for.

    • Excellent comment Diana!

      And I think it’s just quite arbitrary what is considered acceptable to celebrate in our society.
      Getting engaged, getting married, getting pregnant, having a baby, buying a house and graduating are acceptable reasons to celebrate. Even though for many people who want one or more of these things but haven’t gotten them, the reminder can be a source of pain. But for some strange reason, paying off your mortgage or looking great after losing and keeping off excess weight is not ok.

      Weird.

      • That is true, Maria! Even as I was writing about people celebrating marriages wishing “the newly-weds a bright future together”, I realized that some people – because they’ve been disappointed in love or marriage – don’t feel so great at these events. You’re right in saying that what is generally thought to be acceptable to celebrate in our society is arbitrary. Guests for the debt-freedom party and the weight-loss party have to be chosen with special care – if there’s going to be a party at all. Thanks for your comment.

  • Prudence Debt-Free, to achieve your 6 year goal and to overcome all the obstacles that lead you to this goal is a celebration not only in discipline but in the human spirit. This goal took incredible sacrifice and commitment, something I dare say most people can’t achieve and probably never will achieve. For what it’s worth I think you should dance barefoot in your backyard because those people who care about you understand how much this means to you. There is a book that is written and it says…”owe no debt to no man” And you did it. Your future is yours! Congratulations, Mitch

    • Mitch, I am so moved to read your comment! You really do get how much this means to us – and even though you aren’t in complete agreement with everything Ramsey says, you haven’t had a disparaging attitude towards our commitment to his plan at all. Thank you! And I’ll take your advice about dancing on that grass instead of just walking. As a side-note, I would love to get you and Ramsey together to argue it out! I think you’d both enjoy it 🙂

  • While I am disappointed for you both in adjusting your celebratory plans, THANKFULLY this was decided before the party was planned. Your mortgage payoff party with only people who are genuine in their happiness for you will be priceless and oh so memorable.

    My best friend just celebrated her mortgage payoff party with an intimate group of which she is the first to be mortgage free. It was an awesome bbq potluck party at the house of honor! Our mortgage payoff celebration will be a small Christmas 2021 party at our home. If the date moves up we will change to the closest commercial holiday..lol.

    Too many times parties (of all types) are planned that include those with attitudes/possibly agendas to undercut the celebration. These guests are NOT good actors & it shows. Their better-left-unsaid-comments usually make it back to the guests of honor somehow, someday…but always. It’s just cruel & has so many little helpers along the way carrying it back to the person/people it’ll hurt most.

    Are you still planning a Dave Ramsey debt free scream & 25th Wedding Anniversary trip?

    • It’s cool that you have a group of friends who are celebrating each others’ mortgage payoff. You were obviously completely supportive of your friend – the first to reach the goal – and she will no doubt be there for you in 2021. That is actually amazing! I’d like to see that concept catch on. I wouldn’t say I’ve been hurt by “better-left-unsaid-comments” so much as I’ve been puzzled by some people’s responses. And there’s no disappointment in the change of plans. We’ll do something really small (as in possibly only immediate family) and really nice 🙂 I am still waiting to hear from the people at the Dave Ramsey show about a possible debt-free scream. I think I’ll send another message to them. Thanks for the comment, Linda!

  • We thought about throwing a party, too, but ultimately decided we didn’t want to advertise the news too much. We told a couple of like-minded, close friends who knew we’d been working toward the goal, but we chose not to publish the news on the blog since we’re not anonymous. Many of our friends were still trying to pay off student loans and save a down payment for their first home, so it seemed in poor taste to announce being debt-free. Since then the word slowly got out to a few more people who have asked, and it’s been well-received, but we still aren’t ready to shout it from the rooftops. We celebrated with a nice dinner out, just us.

    • At such a young age, I can see that you would have to be even more sensitive to the responses of others than we’re having to be. What a difference between paying off student loans & saving for a down-payment vs. your mortgage pay-off! It says a lot for your circle of acquaintance that they have received the news well as they’ve found out. Your example is particularly note-worthy since you have been managing on one income for some time. Even more impressive to me is the fact that you’ve tithed throughout. My guess is that you and your husband will be sought out , officially or otherwise, to offer leadership/ministry in this area. At least I hope that is what will happen 🙂

  • Well done for achieving what you set out to do, you had a plan and you stuck with it, you went without and made do with what you had. That said I don’t think I would have a party with anyone other than those who live under the roof. I purchased my home in 2011 hope to be mortgage free in 2021 I don’t expect anyone to care other than my wife but I wouldn’t want to celebrate it with anyone other than her (unless we have a child by then). In the back if my mind I always promised myself something special once it was gone, (www.thefatduck.co.uk) once you have no debt you are free to enjoy your life. So instead of a party do something extravagant for you and your family.

    • Tom, thank you so much for reading and commenting. What you say makes a lot of sense. A small, family affair will be more meaningful for all involved (5 of us), and the money we would have spent on a party for many could go very far if applied to just a few of us 🙂 The fact that you’re considering starting a family tells me that you and your wife are very young to be reaching this milestone in 3 years. Well done!

  • I am so excited for you and your family!!! Perseverance, hard work and faith do bear fruit!

    My DH and I are on track to be mortgage free/100% debt free by the end of 2019 (it will have taken us 4.5 years of a 30 yr mortgage we started in July 2015 that we refinanced to an 8 yr term this spring). We have told only a couple of close friends who are supportive but otherwise we will not be announcing our 100% debt free status.

    As you have experienced, people react in a myriad of ways for whatever their reasons. At the end of the day, you made the decision to become 100% debt free and no one’s reactions will change the outcome that you have made it to the “other” side. Savour your accomplishment as it was hard earned. As well, opportunities have and will present themselves for you to share your experiences and nuggets of wisdom to those who are ready to listen 🙂

    • SO good to hear from you, Kassandra! Thank you for your comment, and thanks for confirming what I’m becoming more and more confident of: our small, family celebration will be exactly the right way to go about it. Congratulations on your own approaching total debt freedom! So much for “a 30 yr mortgage”! All the best to you and your DH. The end of 2019 will be here before you know it!

  • I think it’s marvelous! You know I have always been a big supporter. We need to go out and celebrate, the four of us!

  • We celebrated our consumer debt payoff with a family dinner. Your journey should be celebrated! It’s an amazing accomplishment! I believe the mixed feelings you are receiving now are others kicking themselves because of their own lost opportunities. Keep putting it out there, those who are ready to listen need to hear it!

    • Our journey will be celebrated, Brian. That’s for sure! It’s hard to know who is “ready to listen”. I’ve made the mistake of assuming everyone is (as well as the mistake of thinking everyone needs to hear it – which isn’t true), and I’ve backed off a lot. I don’t want to go into complete silence though, since the silence in our society about the “taboo” topics of debt and personal finances leads to people navigating without a compass and landing in bad financial situations. At least that was part of our story. You are a role model for speaking with people who are ready to listen with all of your public speaking engagements. People who are ready to listen attend – and those who aren’t don’t.

  • Paying off your mortgage after all the rest of your debt is definitely cause for celebration, so please don’t let a few unenthusiastic people dampen your plans too much. If I had to guess, I’d say their responses are more about their own situations than yours. Even if you keep your party to immediate family only, please be sure to make it a big deal, because it really is one!

    • Thank you Gary. I agree with you completely. The few unenthusiastic responses that have puzzled me have led to our change of plans, but they haven’t dampened our own enthusiasm. We know this is a big deal! Will spend just as much time, effort, and money on our little celebration as we were planning to for a party – so it should be great!

  • The German word “Schuld” has 2 meanings in the Bavarian Lexicon, it can mean “Debt” or “Guilt”.
    Probably why people aren’t as happy for you, people don’t talk about debt because of the guilt associated with their own guilt/debt.
    When they have their lightning moment they will come a knocking and you will feel the gratitude then.

    • Cool! It reminds me of the way the Lord’s Prayer was recited up until about a century ago: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” It has long since been more common to say, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Both terms refer to sin. Interesting how the old use of “debts” and “debtors” in the prayer fits in perfectly with the 2 meanings of German “schuld”. Thank you for that insight, Tom!

  • I think it’s entirely personal. For me it would be a private party. I just don’t like to boast about myself or accomplishments that much. But that’s totally just me. I have friends who practically throw themselves weekend-long birthday parties, but I hate to even ask friends to go out to dinner. In fact, I even debated about a going away party! I think people are going to react with your news from many emotions including happy, sad, and maybe jealous, but it’s based on their own circumstances and frame of reference. You can’t please everyone! 🙂

    • Ouch! When I read, “I just don’t like to boast about myself” I thought, “No! There’s a difference between boasting and celebrating!” But your words do shed light on the way others would perceive such a party. There are people in my IRL life who are absolutely delighted for us and who would love to celebrate with us. I had that type of response in mind when I imagined throwing a party. Then when I realized that some would or might have different feelings, I thought it would be too hard to decide who would genuinely like to share the moment with us and who might find it less-than-cause-for-celebration, so I agreed with DH – no party. I was never aiming to “please everyone”. My aim was to celebrate.

  • And celebrate you should, Ruth!! I came to realise with our own debt freedom moment that it means the most to the people who actually did the time to pay off the debt, not the onlookers who did not “feel” the pain of self-denial that we experienced. But that doesn’t dim the radiance of a HUGE goal well met and it is all the more special to savour it with your immediate family, who shared in that pain alongside you.

    • And here’s the thing: there was not as much “pain” as I anticipated. There is the pain of change, but once that change has been new made, the new normal is fine! Board games at home instead of an outing for movies. Potluck with friends instead of meeting at a restaurant. Anniversary weekend camping instead of at a resort. I expect we’ll keep a lot of this not-so-new-anymore normal going in the years ahead – though not all of it. Did you have a small debt-free party, Nancy? (Or a big one for that matter?)

  • Just Joe and I went out for an expensive dinner – but it was wonderful! The real celebration came when we could go on trips again and do major remodelling of our house – so the celebration continues lol!

    • That’s what Kalie and her husband did too. Not one person who has commented has had or plans to have a big party. So it seems people generally don’t follow through on Ramsey’s “barefoot mortgage-burning party” idea. Who knew? And I love your attitude about the celebration continuing 🙂

  • I assume that first guy is upset about privilege– he assumes if someone can pay off a mortgage then that means that they have a lot of assets. In a way he’s not wrong, though he’s probably wrong about the level and the sacrifice entailed. Yes, there are other places that the money could be going, from charitable causes to completely frivolous spending. We all have to find our balance.

    Re: our mortgage (which was only a quarter of a million dollars, not half), we were at my in-laws when we got the payoff statement via email and showed them. We might have mentioned it in passing to other people IRL, but never made a big deal out of it. (Though we did blog the process!) Near the end we’d stopped prepaying because we weren’t saving that much money from pre-payment and it made more sense to direct the money to other things. So it was kind of a predictable end and not that exciting. Plus our property tax started taking up a bigger and bigger chunk of each payment, so we’re still paying over a third of what we had been paying on the mortgage in taxes and insurance. But it is nice to not be paying the other 2/3. Our charitable giving has gone up considerably since we stopped paying even though not having a mortgage means we no longer itemize.

    • Thank you for your comment, Nicole/Maggie. The fact that you didn’t make a big deal of, or feel much excitement about your mortgage pay-off suggests to me that you have generally managed your money very well and that the paid mortgage is just a side-plot to the larger plot of financial independence. Is that right? (If I’m totally wrong, tell me.) In our case, my husband and I were very flawed in our money management, and it took a prolonged period of financial stress to make us receptive to the need to change, and this was well into middle-age. For us, paying off ALL the debt is not a mere side-plot – it’s the main event, and it signals a real victory for us. Savings, investments, and giving are happening – and will all become more substantial from the platform of $0 debt in the years to come – but ours was a journey from indebtedness to debt-freedom. So the mortgage pay-off is a huge deal. I’m sorry to hear your property tax increased so much, but how great that you can well afford it with your $0 mortgage! And I’m sure it feels very satisfying to follow through with more generous giving now that you’re debt-free. Thanks again.

      • The payoff itself wasn’t a big deal. Being able to pay it off was a big deal but it made more sense to keep an emergency fund and to invest in retirement because of the way mortgages are amortized. Early payments were worth sacrificing for but near the end an early payoff doesn’t save much money. At some point prepaying thousands of dollars would save a couple hundred dollars over the life of the loan. It was safer to keep that money in cash as an emergency fund. The payoff itself wasn’t that exciting for us while the getting to the point where we could payoff was.

        I certainly wasn’t trying to attack you by sharing my personal experience. I hope you didn’t take it that way. I sort of feel like your comment parallels the guy whose comment you didn’t understand—underlying is the idea we must have privilege because we behave differently, and maybe we do and maybe you do too from the perspective of many people.

        Paying off DH’s student loans (at over 8% interest) was a huge deal. The other half of our blog rents an apartment so even having a mortgage is a step up from her perspective. No we are not a financial independence blog, nor do we track any sort of financial freedom date. We are middle aged and only recently debt free, but like most of America we weren’t brought up to believe that low interest mortgage debt is bad debt.

        • Yikes! First of all, let me assure you I didn’t feel remotely attacked. I appreciated your comment and was interested in what I thought was the phenomenon of someone paying off their mortgage and not thinking it was a big deal. (As it turns out, your experience wasn’t an example of that phenomenon.) I was trying to figure out why that might be, and I made another error in surmising that you must be of the FIRE variety. No resentment of perceived privilege – just going down a rabbit hole of trying to figure out a different experience.
          I get what you mean when you say, “The payoff itself wasn’t that exciting for us while the getting to the point where we could payoff was.” For us, there has been a relatively short time span between “getting to the point where we could payoff” and actually doing so. Being middle aged and debt-free is something that used to be common, but now you’re an exception to the rule – and I will be pretty soon too. I’d like to see a swinging back of that pendulum. Perhaps we’re helping to make that happen. Thanks again, Nicole & Maggie 🙂

  • I send you congratulations! We are on plan to ditch the mortgage in a few years as well. I am excited. We will tell family and a friend who also has finished her mortgage. To most others, I would feel like I was bragging. I work with many who struggle financially and I wouldn’t want them to feel bad about their own situation.

    • Thank you so much for adding your comment, Betsy – and for offering your congratulations 🙂 All the best of encouragement to you over the next few years as you focus on eliminating your mortgage! These words hit home for me: “I work with many who struggle financially and I wouldn’t want them to feel bad …” What strikes me is that it is often impossible to know who struggles financially. It’s never directly co-related with income or even lifestyle. I am now completely in agreement with you and others who have expressed the same idea. Just a few people will know when our big moment has come.

  • I will be debt free in September too! I’m renting, but it was still a huge accomplishment for me, and the stress that has been crumbling off my shoulders bit by bit over the years feels so good. I’ll be saving for a larger emergency fund, some retirement and for some land to build a small house on, hopefully debt-free.

    I believe a huge part of that “simpler time” that I remember so fondly as a child in the 70’s was that people weren’t living in debt the way they are now, not like this.

    Personally, I’d like to celebrate somehow, even if it’s having a good time with some friends, guilt-free. I’ll be cheering for you too…! I say, have the party! Open a bottle of champagne, if you wish. No one needs to know you actually needed a reason to party.

    • Thank you so much for your comment, Gertrude, and congratulations on your upcoming debt-freedom! It sounds like we have a lot in common. Like you, I’ve experienced the release of “stress that has been crumbling off my shoulders bit by bit over the years” as debt has gradually been eliminated. I was also a child in the 70s, and debt-stress was not a part of my family experience either – my parents were super-frugal. I think that debt levels really started to climb in the 80s with yuppy culture (and ever more accessible credit via credit cards).
      I hope that you will celebrate the day as you imagine. We will celebrate within the immediate family, and we’ll also celebrate with a few friends who have truly encouraged us in this journey.
      I wish you all the best in meeting your goals from here on in, Gertrude. Thanks again, and here’s to September and debt-freedom!!

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