2011: a sense that we needed to change

In 2011, it was clear that our circumstances had changed for the better. After a destabilizing decade of career upheaval and financial distress, DH had started a business, and two years in, it was succeeding! What a profound and welcome relief! We could go back to normal. Better days were ahead!

But something didn’t feel right. “Normal” felt hazardous – like being in a building without a foundation – always bracing for the tip-over and crash. We didn’t ever again want to experience the financial vulnerability we so recently had lived through, and there was a chaos to our money management that we knew could lead to it.

Something other than our circumstances needed to change. We needed to change our money-management. From June of 2011-June of 2012, we paid off $16,000 in debt. Not bad. Probably our best to that point. (We weren’t tracking our debt repayment then. It was later that we looked at our numbers for that year.) 

In May of 2012, we listened to (and then read) Dave Ramsey’s The Total Money Makeover. The next month, we started our journey out of debt with dramatically increased doses of clarity, focus, and hope. From June of 2012-June of 2013, we paid off $50,000 in debt – with the same income and expenses as we’d had the previous year,

What if …

In 3 months from now – in September of 2018 – we will pay off our house and be completely debt-free. The $257,400 of consumer debt, business debt, and mortgage debt that we carried 6 years ago will be gone!

If we had just continued with our correct but vague understanding that we needed to change the way we handled money, where would we be now? Of course, it’s impossible to say, but I’m going to give it a try.

In the year after June 2012, we paid off 312% more debt than we had the year before. If I apply that percentage to the years that followed, this is what I get:

  • From June 2012 – December of 2017 we brought our debt down to a $60,000 mortgage after paying off $197,000 – including all of our consumer and business debts and most our mortgage debt. We also saved up a full emergency fund (to see us through 3-6 months of income loss).
  • $197,000 is 312% of $63,000.
  • So I would estimate that if we hadn’t read Ramsey’s book, we would have brought our debt down by $63,000 to $194,000 by December of 2017.

I can only guess that it would have been made up of approximately $15,000 in consumer debt (because we wouldn’t still be driving our ’99 Dodge Caravan) + $65,000 in business debt + a $115,000 mortgage. We would certainly not have saved up an emergency fund.


Before the end of 2017, I received the first part of an inheritance that allowed us to put down the maximum annual lump sum against our mortgage. This brought our total debt down to $42,000.

I believe we would have done the same if we hadn’t been following Ramsey’s plan for debt freedom. In our alternate reality, this would have brought our mortgage down to about $97,000 and our estimated total debt down to $177,000.

Since the beginning of 2018, we’ve used the inheritance to max out on our mortgage payments – meaning that we’ve doubled up every month. This, combined with our 2nd  lump sum means a debt-free date of September 2018. We will invest almost all of the rest of the inheritance, so that for our outlook, we’ll have the freedom to retire by July of 2019.

I believe that in our alternate reality scenario, we would also have maxed out on mortgage payments, and that by September of 2018, it would have been down to around $63,000 (interest taken into account).

Would we have paid off the business debt, and our remaining consumer debt? I can’t be sure, but I doubt it. Here, my guesses are less certain. I’m basing them on the way we used to think. Ramsey’s plan involves focused intensity: knock off one debt at a time; then save up the emergency fund; followed by a split focus on investments and ramping up mortgage payments. Our own efforts to change our finances were less focused – more scattered.

I believe we would have paid off the consumer debt but not the business debt. We would have invested, and we would have spent. “Use a bit of your inheritance travel and have some fun,” a colleague said to me. “Your mom would want that.” We would have followed that advice in our alternate scenario. A family vacation. Some home improvements. But we’re not doing that (and I’m pretty sure my mom would be relieved).

Alternate reality: September 2018

Instead of being debt-free and within a year of financial freedom, this is where I think things would be in September of 2018 if we hadn’t started following Ramsey’s debt-reduction plan:

  • debts by September 2018: $120,000 (business debt & mortgage)
  •  investments from inheritance – about 50% of what we actually are investing.
  • outlook: debt-freedom / freedom to retire still several years away.

The “ether” effect

After our first 6 months of debt-reduction, I was truly baffled by our progress. It made no sense to me that we’d been able to pay off as much as we had.  “I can’t wrap my head around it.  I don’t get how it all adds up.  But it does,” I wrote at the time. DH – also incredulous – said: “It’s a thing that happens … When you go at something with passion and purpose, it becomes greater than the sum of its parts.”

In the same way, I find myself baffled by my estimated numbers – which are reasonable, and possibly too generous to our alternate selves. It is reasonable to estimate that we would have spent $200,000 more than we actually did over the last 6 years if we hadn’t read The Total Money Makeover (considering higher debt numbers, less in savings, and less in investments).

What would we have done with all of that money?

After our first 6 months of debt-reduction, when we had put all extra income against debt, I tried to figure out what we had done with the same extra income from the year before. “Did it all float into the ether?”‘ I asked DH at the time. It had.

Of what would that ether have consisted over the last 6 years? Again, I can only guess:

  • a new vehicle (~$25,000)
  • 10 trips (~$25,000)
  • more expensive grocery bills (~$10,000)
  • extra home improvements (~$25,000)
  • regular house-cleaning service (~$10,000)
  • higher discretionary spending on clothing, restaurants, entertainment (~$10,000)
  • more gifts and money for our children (~$15,000)
  • outsourcing repairs and other jobs that we (DH) DIY’d ($20,000)

That doesn’t add up to enough, but it’s a sampling of the many ways our money would have “floated into the ether” if we hadn’t become intentional and focused. Bottom line: Ramsey’s plan has made a staggering, life-changing difference. DH and I are so grateful for that pivotal moment in time when we chose to change direction and go a better way.

Do you have a “What if …” scenario? Are you ever baffled by the changes that focus and intention bring about? Your comments are welcome.


Join the Conversation


  1. I try never to think about what if scenarios because if it’s something from the past, it’s done and it was the only reality I knew. I guess that’s where I look to something outside of myself and think, “that was how it was supposed to be.” It is trippy to think though that tiny decisions can profoundly change our life in certain ways. For instance, NOT getting on that one flight because you were running late and it crashed. Or not wanting to go out with your friends one night but you muster up just enough energy to go and you end up meeting your future husband/wife.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Tonya. I don’t always think “that was how it was supposed to be” – especially if greater wisdom on my end would have made it go better. The decision we made to start Ramsay’s plan was followed by many decisions to follow through with it. I think that’s often the way it goes. One tiny decision sets a great thing in motion, but future decisions will determine whether or not it succeeds to its potential. (Where did your photo go?)

  2. An interesting exercise, not one I’d like to run my numbers on. I don’t like to think of our outcome either if I hadn’t found Dave’s “Total Money Makeover” back in 2010 and commit to his Baby Step plan. My 2015 job loss would have certainly sent our family into panic mode, which I’m not sure we would have recovered from. I’m so impressed and proud of your full commitment to this plan. It’s one of those real life, highly motivating stories that hooked me the minute I read Dave’s book. Its one someone reads and says I want that kind of success for me too.

    1. Thank you, Brian! I remember reading those true-life stories in Ramsay’s book too. Like you, I found them very inspiring. I think that your story is equally motivating. $109,000 in credit card debt paid off! Enduring job loss and several months (8?) of unemployment with such an admirable attitude. Getting employed again and recovering financially … It’s all there in your experience.

  3. That’s really interesting to look back and see what was on the “road not taken”. While I don’t agree with every bit of Dave’s advice, I do know he’s helped a lot of people and your “what if” scenario really proves that.

    My “what if” scenarios usually involve what if I had done more to take care of my health, but I hadn’t really considered what if I had done less (not sure I’d be around right now).

    1. Oh, I certainly wonder about “what if” we had been better with money 10 or 15 or 25 years earlier! That can be frustrating though. Perhaps you should give yourself some credit for what you have done for your health in the last while, Gary. I you’re not sure you’d be around right now if you had done less, you’ve clearly taken some very wise steps.

  4. I love your story, blog and your honesty. It’s always inspiring!

    My “what if’s” are two primarily in two things. In the early 2000s I read “The Two Income Trap” by Elizabeth Warren & daughter. Incredibly insightful how not to trap a household into necessary two incomes. We were able to focus & save more than a year of my income in a year. I quit my awful job accomplishing our goal of at home mom.

    Unfortunately we had an unexpected 3rd child about a year later, who at 3 years old diagnosed severely autistic with all the bells & whistles-a worst case even with all interventions. Luckily I was already at home so no financial impact of my intense caregiving reality.

    My second “what if” is learning through a death in my childhood how not to destroy my own kids through that devastating news of a child’s handicap. Parents need to still parent the living.. the kids that are ok…with love, patience, guidance because they need that desperately.

    At diagnosis time of 3rd child our priority was also to focus on not losing our then 15 yr old son & then 12yr old daughter to the household’s chaos. They were good kids, students and good siblings so we financially focused on getting them successfully through college and socially-not stunted by our new harsh reality.

    Fast forward 8 years we cash flowed everything-brand new cars for both older kids (pre Dave Ramsey), small stipends and community college/state university. Both have their bachelors degrees & good career jobs.(Yes, daughter finished very early in 2.5 years with multiple 30 unit semesters-her choice.)

    The 3rd kid, now 11yr old autistic son, is still non-verbal, bipolar w/severe behavioral problems. He is at his best possible given his severe intellectual handicap (at a 2yr old level at best). Caregiving is incredibly challenging…

    Our reading Total Money Makeover just last year gave us the reason to continue our financial struggle living like the poor college parents we have been to become debt free in late 2021…universe willing.

    I wish my “what if’s” didn’t cost such high personal sacrifice. Our parenting motto for years has been “ breaking the cycle for our kids” so we feel it has been worth it. We are already starting a “when we’re debt free” dream list.

    Sorry this was so long. Just wanted to let you know the inspiration & cheerleading your blog has given me/us to carry on the fight against debt…through all life throws at us.

    1. Linda, when I learn of the strife some people face in life – and face so well – I’m just very moved. I can’t help but wonder how your autistic son will be cared for in the years to come. Are there group homes or other programs that will lighten the load for you once he’s an adult? Or is it expected that you will provide care for as long as you can? This is the sort of situation that screams for good social programs. Most people can’t afford the help that is necessary with very high-needs children, and most people don’t have a strong enough support network of family and friends to take on the really tough work involved. I hope that you have some of the above – support from programs, friends and/or family, and the finances to help you obtain the support that is not at hand. I don’t know if you have faith, but I hope you do – to know that you are not alone.
      I really admire the way you were so sure to give your older children a freedom from the heavy-heartedness that can result from such struggles. You must be so proud of them. I hope that they are also proud of you.
      All the best to you in reaching your goals! God bless you.

  5. Ruth, thank you for your kind and meaningful response and caring questions about our son. You have your pulse on the hidden crises these special needs kids and their families endure. Thank you, thank you! This means so much since it’s such an isolating handicap with nearly no social programs for the severest realm of the spectrum.

    We explored care homes a couple of years ago when he was in a very bad way,( he has since greatly improved due to new school placement via IEP) and came very close to a permanent housing placement. I discovered then I could never sign for him to leave me-I’d rather live this life with him hard as it is-than without him. Giving him up would break me more than this intensive caregiver life. I KNOW his best life is here with me/us at home. He’s literally just a big, strong baby and so vulnerable. Husband completely disagrees but as of now we are still married. [Side note-until son is 18 yrs old all his benefits are based on parents income. Our monthly copay for housing would be a crushing 10-20% of our gross income. We couldn’t afford that!! At 18yrs old son qualifies for his benefits on HIS income. ]

    The plan for our son is to continue with his federally guaranteed right for school until his 22nd birthday. At 22, enroll him in a local day program for adults that hopefully will still exist that his government benefits will pay for. He will live at home until my death and then enter a care home paid for by his earned benefits. We are in our 40s so statistically we have a lot of life left. We also need to officially legalize & organize our estate and likely form a special needs trust.

    We’ve told our older kids that their lives are their own with no burden of caregiving for their brother. Their level of involvement is at their discretion.

    Help from extended family help is non-existent. We have a very home based awkward lifestyle. I’ve accepted that it is what it is. Respite care with strangers in our home is something we aren’t pursuing. My time is my own when he’s in year round school 5 hours per day (yeah right but it could be 🙂 )

    Our oldest kids are grateful for the good start in life we gave them. I think they are proud of us in knowing we believed in them & fought for their futures. Each fiercely love their little brother. They have remarkable patience & kindness for the handicapped & a maturity advanced beyond their years. We are so proud of them & are so lucky they chose to become good people.

    Your encouragement and blessing touches my heart. Words cannot express just how much.

    1. Wow. How wonderful that your older children love their younger brother, and that the experience of having him in their lives has given them a heart for people with disabilities. I don’t know what a parent could wish for more than kind, mature young adult children.
      I get a sense of the struggle you have gone through to navigate the best course for your youngest son. “I discovered then I could never sign for him to leave me-I’d rather live this life with him hard as it is-than without him. Giving him up would break me more than this intensive caregiver life. I KNOW his best life is here with me/us at home.” A few things come to mind here, and I can only hope I’m not overstepping boundaries. Could “never” be replaced with “in no way at this time”? And is it possible that at some point – perhaps at 18 or 22 – his best life would be lived away from home? I worked with a woman who, like you, had lived her life for her severely disabled son until a point in his teens when he moved into a home. She visited him often, and he was happy there. Perhaps it gave him a sense of dignity to feel “grown up”, living “on his own.” Her life, of course, opened up with work and a social life – including romance. (She and her husband had split up.) I wonder if your recognition of the need to “parent the living” can be extended to nurturing yourself and your husband as well – as you both are also included among “the living”.
      Of course I don’t know the details as you do. What is clear is that your children were very wise in their choice of mother:) And your youngest is so blessed to be at a point of stability upheld by devoted love and a carefully selected (and fought for?) school program.
      I hope that the isolation you have experienced in this can be lessened, and that with a stronger presence of community, your burden can be lightened, and your son can experience the joy of connection with more people who are good, kind, accepting, and loving – like his mom.

      1. Wow, your heart is so attuned to my struggles. Your insight & feedback is so appreciated. I can see my stated resolve to “never give him up” wasn’t explained well. It was my answer to my husband’s ultimatum to place son in a home now or he’s leaving me. Amazingly 3 months later son’s dangerous school incidents led to districts offer of current fabulous non-public school placement with 1:1 full time aide. Our son is so much calmer and mellow now, husband is too. Yet husband wants him placed out of home as an adult. Financially we can’t supplement his housing costs as an adult.

        I needed your red flags & reminders of exploring options. I do need to rethink that vow of mine of “ never ever.” It’s unbalanced & unhealthy. Hopefully CA will meet the challenge of housing these special needs people after it’s massive reorganization of developmentally delayed housing services. Fingers crossed they’ll have it figured out so our regional center could truly inform us of our options for him as we move closer to his adulthood.

        Thanks for the life coaching. I’ve had some tunnel vision….

        1. I’m relieved to hear you welcome the feedback! So much depends upon the programs for the developmentally delayed that will be offered in your state – either through the government or other providers (like the church). What will be available is out of your hands. What is in your hands is how you access what will be available. And my hope is that you and your husband will navigate as a team. I understand those moments of marital impasse. They seem impossible, but they’re not. I will pray for you and your family. You are dealing with far more than most of us ever have to.

  6. This is a really interesting way to look at your decisions and the impact they’ve had, versus what you might have done. And very inspiring! We’ve always been fairly frugal but without goals I think at the very least we would’ve stayed in debt longer and I would have felt more stressed out about money. As in, being uptight about spending. Now I can relax knowing we are meeting our goals and when expenses come up or we just choose to spend, it’s not a source of worry about whether it’s a good decision. You’re right that focus makes a huge difference.

    1. Thank you, Kalie. I’m so glad that you are comfortable enjoying the strong financial health you and your husband have built for yourselves. I can only hope that we manage to enjoy our growing financial health without stepping back into our old ways. A new focus will be necessary for us. We’ve already proven that we don’t do well without it.

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