This is it! The day we’ve been working toward for 4 years. Our student loans are paid in full!
It will take more than one post to even get close to encompassing all that we’ve learned from our debt repayment process. But as I sit here today looking at the picture of our happy faces holding up a sheet of paper with $48,000 filled in on our tracking sheet, I’m brought back to college when this whole process started.
During my sophomore year, it hit me that if I stayed at the private Christian school I attended, I’d owe $80,000 by the end of my four years. For some reason this didn’t hit me before enrolling in school. I agonized for months over whether I should stay at that school or give it all up for a less expensive option. I knew that leaving would affect the life I’d grown accustomed to: a tight-knit group of Jesus-loving friends, shared experiences and inside jokes with classmates, a top-notch education and brilliant professors, and the chance to live with some of my closest friends in a cute old house on campus.
But as I pondered my future, reality set in. Ultimately, I was going to end up married to Brenin and living on a ministry salary. To drag $80k of loans behind me down the aisle felt unfair.
So I quit. I transferred to public school. I begged God to help me financially. I was already over $40k in the hole, and the possibility of seeing that number go down by much in the next 10 years felt slim.
Many of you have heard my story about a large chunk of my debt being forgiven. When it happened, I was completely in awe and over the moon. Guys, fifty-five thousand dollars of my debt was forgiven when I was a junior in college. I’ll never forget the morning I opened that email in my parent’s spare room. I fell to my knees and sobbed. A debt I’d never be able to repay, completely wiped clean.
Before that happened, I prayed and prayed and promised God that if He worked a miracle with my finances, I’d never stop telling the story!
But for the last couple years, I’ve stopped telling the story.
It’s so much more complicated than it sounds. I was blinded by my own joy and relief and celebration, but I failed to see the nuance of such an experience.
First of all, those loans were cosigned by my parents. The debt was forgiven because my dad’s disease had gotten so bad that he couldn’t work anymore. When he went on disability, he was eligible for loan forgiveness.
Do you feel my tension?
Yes, I felt so free and in awe of God’s answer to my prayer. But why did it have to happen that way? Why did my dad have to get sick?
It’s easy to ask those painful questions—the ones you never voice but still wonder. Did my dad get sick so that my debt could get paid?
I shake my head quickly, knowing that’s not the character of God.
But how is it fair for me to celebrate? For me to be set free from my back-breaking bondage while watching my dad enter into the worst suffering of his life?
So that’s partly why I’ve stopped sharing the story. It doesn’t feel fair. Not to mention how insensitive it feels to share about such a miracle when I still have friends who are in that same back-breaking situation—$80k of student loans and working on a ministry salary—but still have decades of repayment looming over them.
And yet, somehow, I have to believe that God really did give me this story to share. I spend a lot of my life worrying about what’s fair and trying not to offend people. Injustice floors me and I never want to be the creator of it. I don’t want to be the object of someone else’s envy, so maybe I should just put my nice little lamp under a bushel basket, just to be safe.
But here’s the thing: the world is full of plenty of disappointment, hurt, injustice, anger, and cynicism. When a miracle unfolds in our midst, of course the enemy would want to squelch its beauty and power. Keep it hidden, rationalize it, give it a negative bend and try to dim the glory of God.
So, as painful and messy as it is, I have to keep sharing how God paid that debt in full. It’s possible to experience deep confusion and hurt at the same time as great joy and celebration. It’s not either/or, it’s both/and.
That was the beginning of our debt repayment: God paid over half of it for us.
In response, we vowed to live frugally in order to be disciplined and intense about meeting him halfway and doing our part. Not because we needed to earn God’s gift to us. Not because He lorded it over us and demanded us to step it up. But because His generosity to us compelled us to respond. We wanted to eventually be able to be generous to others the way He has been to us. But step one meant paying the rest back first.
So, we looked $48,000 in the face and said, “We’re coming for you!”
For the last four years, I have picked up habits that my 21 year-old self wouldn’t have believed.
I washed my Ziploc bags instead of buying new ones. I paid for my coffee using nickels and dimes I found under the couch and at the bottom of my purse. I packed my own lunch for outings with friends. Almost every garment I’ve worn in the past 5 years has been second-hand, mostly because of the generosity of good friends (and the swallowing of my own pride and vanity!). I cut old sheets and used them as curtains. Instead of buying two $15 curtain rods for two windows, I took apart one free curtain rod and used it over 4 windows (many of you are familiar with my infamous bowed curtain rod—one of my many motivational tactics for getting out of debt). I ate frozen pizza till my pores smelled like pepperoni (ew. I hope that didn’t actually happen). I spent hours each week figuring out how to stay within my grocery budget ($150/month if you were wondering. Yes, it really is possible).
I tell you this not to brag—though I am proud of myself!—but to encourage anyone who feels like they must bow down to the debt they’re in. It’s not true. If you really want to get out of debt, you can. You will likely have to sacrifice some earthly comforts and confront some parts of yourself that have depended on image or material possession for your worth. That’s what I had to do, and it’s been painful.
But it’s also been so freeing! As much as I’ve learned about wise financial stewardship, I’ve learned more about what I truly put my hope and confidence in. And—surprise!—it usually wasn’t Jesus. It was (and often still is, much to my dismay) my own image, my ability to keep up with others, the amount of stuff I had, and what others thought of me.
And as I sit here now, looking at the excited faces of my husband and I, it feels funny. Today is the day we’ve talked about, dreamed about, and worked for. Our loans are paid in full. We owe nothing for our education. We have a mortgage, yes, but other than that, we’re in the red. (That’s always confusing to me about money. Red is a good thing?)
I’m sure the weight of it will hit me next month when I’m not watching half our income get pulled out from under us. But for now, I feel the same.
I don’t feel like the love for money has lost its grip on me. I don’t feel like I’ve overcome greed or envy. I still feel pretty materialistic and image-obsessed, if I’m being completely honest. As refining and freeing as this process has been, I know I still have to be on guard against the love of money and the world. I’ll still have to battle the decision between being generous or greedy with the money God has entrusted to me. I’ll still have to seek His wisdom between what to give away and what to spend.
God hasn’t designed our lives for one big defining moment.
This process really hasn’t had anything to do with this one day of culmination. It’s had to do with the 1,460 days of depending on Him to provide for us. And it’s about each day that lies before us, and the small decisions we’ll continue to make with His glory in mind.
We’re still asking the same questions today as we have all those other days: What do You want me to do with what You’ve given me today? How can I be faithful to You today?
Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts as we have also forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.