Why I Gave up on My Debt-Free Dream

And how it saved my marriage.

At 22, I was drowning in debt from college expenses, a new baby, and a house my husband and I weren’t ready to buy. Our son spent the first week of his life in the hospital, and large hospital bills accrued. The mortgage loomed. Emergencies here and there, like our computer crashing or the car air conditioner breaking, were paid for on credit cards. We were staring down $140,000 in debt, and I felt completely hopeless.

One day, after ignoring another call from the hospital demanding payment, I took The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey off my bookshelf in desperation. It was a neglected graduation gift from a frugal-minded relative, and it soon became the cornerstone of my life.

I was hooked, convinced that Ramsey’s debt payoff method was the answer to all our money woes. I began listening to the Dave Ramsey radio show, reading the Dave Ramsey blog, and using the Dave Ramsey envelope system. We eschewed dining out and went months between buying single items of clothing. No expense in our budget was overlooked, and slowly but surely, I was beating back against our debt.

Five years into the process, we had three children, whose births were paid for in cash. We had no car payments, no credit card payments, and no loans of any kind except our mortgage, and we paid double on it each month.

We also had no life, but that didn’t matter to me. I was laser focused. In five more years, we would own our house and live beholden to no one.

I began talking to my husband about the possibilities we would have before us once we were freed from our mortgage — the vacations, the investment opportunities, the grocery budget — but the fact that we had hit our halfway mark didn’t excite him. Instead, it pushed him to his breaking point.

He didn’t want to work tirelessly to own a house in a rundown neighborhood full of poorly maintained rentals. He didn’t want to wait another five years to take our first family vacation. He didn’t want to give up a decade of our lives in order to live my extreme version of the American dream. He wanted a house in a better neighborhood that was actually big enough for our family. He wanted to spend some of the money he had worked so hard for. He was done.

Reluctantly, I gave in to save our marriage. We bought a bigger house that would keep us in debt for decades to come, even though the thought made my stomach churn.

Now my goal to live without debt was replaced with a beautiful new home. In one fell swoop I doubled our original debt to $280,000 — a number I knew I would not be able to battle. I ran numbers for hours on end and kept coming to the same conclusion: My debt-free dream was over.

I finally gave up trying to pay off the mortgage as if it were a 15-year term and decided to live like a normal person at long last. And I braced myself for resentment to settle into my bones. Surely there was no way I would be content giving up my obsessive goal and my debt-free identity.

As time went on, however, I found I loved it. I was happy to have some cash on hand rather than tightening our purse strings. I enjoyed the spacious new home and living in a nicer neighborhood. I relished going to the grocery store and not counting out every last cent on a calculator as I went through the aisles. I felt a thrill at purchasing a TV for the first time in my adult life, and reveled in the luxury of buying furniture that wasn’t secondhand.

It was a strange happiness, though, tinged at the edges with guilt. I had adhered to Dave Ramsey’s plan with the fervor of a devoted parishioner, and now I was turning my back on all the wisdom I had gained throughout those years. Even though I was now able to live more fully, the guilt of abandoning what amounted to a debt-free religion followed me.

A few months after the move, I deleted the Dave Ramsey podcast on my phone, closing that chapter of my life (at least for now). As I did so, I realized those years were not wasted. My frugality freed me from all of my debt except a home mortgage.

I can now live comfortably, still saving for the future, investing in my retirement, and even enjoying some money as well. Even though I may never reach the high echelon of Ramsey’s most successful devotees, I am glad for my half-finished journey. I am ready to live happily, with or without full freedom from debt.

Join the Discussion

19 Responses to “Why I Gave up on My Debt-Free Dream”

  1. Deborah G

    I too have followed Dave Ramsey for years but it got to the point where I worried about EVERY penny.

  2. Chellie

    Terrific article and I totally agree. Being a financial coach, people often expect me to recommend this kind of zeal about being debt free or a similar zeal that comes after zero debt – madly saving for retirement. The first is focused on the past and the second on the future – but where is enjoyment of life’s blessings in the present? I’d rather focus on that, because, although Socrates may have said “The unexamined life isn’t worth living” I say “The unlived life isn’t worth examining.” No one is going to laud you at your funeral for being debt-free, and you may not even get to retirement age, let alone have the ability to spend the money you’ve been saving so ferociously. The middle path of balance is the ticket: Earn some, spend some, save some.

    • Boonie

      Sadly once you are ready to take those trips you can get struck with a sickness or declining health that may not allow you to. So sometimes you have to live in the moment within your means and develop a plan.

    • Heather

      And share some!

  3. Patricia Garcia

    I’m a Dave Ramsey listener and follower. I think he does a tremendous job guiding people about their money, but I believe in balance, I don’t use credit cards but I still have a mortgage and a car payment because I can afford it. Feels great not worry about emergencies when you have the emergency fund, we can take the principles and apply them to your life, gives you peace of mind.

  4. Ray

    I don’t know Dave Ramsey but at 60 we were debt free.We paid ourselves first which makes for a great retirement,double up on mortages payments when we could .The most important thing is live below your means. Food shop instead of going out,pack your lunch.We didn’t drive new cars or take great vacations .Today we take 6 weeks somewhere in the world together and we both take 2 weeks by our self..Life is good when you follow a plan .

  5. Jacki Bennett

    We used the Dave Ramsey method and were able to pay off our mortgage in our early 50’s. Since then, I have started up a business with a store front. We didn’t take a loan, but the first 3 years were spent paying off our credit card. Hopefully we have hit the plateau and the incline to finally making $$ and putting some away again. Use what you have learned and pay off your loans and debt quicker.

  6. Margaret Bell

    The most important part of your story to me was that you remembered that you are not living individually. You heard your husband, and although you didn’t say it in as many words, I suspect there was a lot of discussion and teamwork to move you to this different lifestyle. I applaud your ability to find the life affirming aspects of the larger ( though mortgaged) home.

  7. Emma

    I love this article. I also took his class. I was determined not to live as my parents did and make a life on debt, pay off all my student loans, and really reach solid financial ground. I saved up about $20k by the time I was 25. I worked 2 jobs (sometimes 3 during the time) for about 3 years prior to accomplish this. However, I ended up giving about 4K to help my mom out with expenses, and unfortunately got into some trouble of my own doing- which quickly ate up the cash I had left. Equally I realize, if I had not been as disciplined, I would not have been in a position to help my mom or resolve my own problems. I also believe if I reached that point once, I can get there again. If I can get to the point of having an emergency fund, actively being able to save for retirement on top of what I commit through work, and have my only debt be a mortgage- then I would be okay with that!

  8. Tasha Black

    I enjoyed reading this article. I want to be debt free as well, but I also want to live and enjoy my life. Thank you for keeping it real. I feel that we will always have some sort of debt in our lives, whether it be mortgage or credit card. But the key is to pay it, save some and live some. Don’t spend all your life trying to be debt free and then forget to live a little. Use coupons when grocery shopping to save; use Groupon or Living Social when going on vacations, or explore your city or state to save money.

  9. kerry cale

    Dave talks endlessly about couples being on the same page, your’s wasn’t and that was the issue. He wasn’t on board with the program, he wanted instant gratification.

  10. Wendy Bell Evans

    My husband and I have followed Dave Ramsey’s principals for the past 6 years. We found our dream home during this time and didn’t hesitate to upgrade, we just took out a 15 year loan instead of a 30 year loan. We do pay extra which will allow us pay it off in half the time saving thousands in interest. He teaches people to be deliberate with their money, to have a plan. He teaches we are more likely to build wealth if we’re not paying interest to someone else. He teaches great fundamentals and thanks to him we have a full emergency fund and have saved enough additional cash to pay for a new car when the time comes to upgrade. We invest in our retirement savings and will be in a position to live and give like no one else prior to retirement. We don’t live like misers or kings, we’ve simply incorporated budgeting into our lives, which allow us to go on vacation, go out to eat and buy clothes or items we would like to have, we just put aside cash for these items in a monthly budget so we’re not paying interest to a credit card company at the end of each month. Using his principals (albeit less dogmatically than he teaches) has put us in a position to thrive. It does mean delaying our wants from time to time, but delaying is different than saying no. Our life has changed for the better thanks to Dave Ramsey and we only wish we would have discovered him earlier in the game.

  11. Patrice Mc Cormack

    Really great post. I couldn’t agree more. I went through the strage of completely obsessing about every cent and complaining to everyone that I couldn’t do this and that because of money. One day I realized the miserable person I became. I hope to make balance my new obsession 😊

  12. Lisa Gorum

    We’ve been working Dave Ramsey’s plan for 7 1/2 years, but were only as intense as the author for the 1 st 2 years. After paying off consumer debt, a student loan, a new vehicle, a 2nd mortgage then we put together a 6 month emergency fund for expenses, started putting 15% of our gross income to retirement and paying extra to the house. There is room for extras and it is not so intense. If we had small children we would also save for their college. Doing a budget starts to give great freedom & purpose as we share our resources with others in need also

  13. llr

    For the vast majority of average Americans, if the only debt they had is a mortgage, they’d be in wonderful shape. I applaud Dave Ramsey’s philosophy only to a point – as the author found out, there is a balance between no debt and too much debt. Taking on a mortgage for a reasonable house (not a 3000 sq ft monstrosity) can be a good thing. The good part of any budgeting philosophy is to spend mindfully, with prioritization, and below your means. With the exception of medical debt, a lot of other debt/expenditures can actually be planned for, and should be. Kudos to the author for the current spot she’s in – this is doable in the long term, and she and her husband will be able to raise their family well as they keep this up.

    • Suzi Q 38

      I am curious as to how large their new house is…..

  14. John Davis

    Wow…..this is somewhat tragic. The actual preference of debt slavery over financial freedom.

  15. Suzi Q 38

    We have been debt free for two years and it feels great. We are now both 61. We are not going to file for Social Security for the next few years. Our health will determine when we do file.

    During those two years, since we had no debt, my husband was able to retire, we saved an additional $75k in our savings account, help our daughter and son-in-law with a partial down payment on their first house, and go on a dream cruise with 2 other couples to Alaska. It helped that our house is paid off, and our two adult children are grown and on their own. We have paid off cars.

    I told my husband that if my car is not functioning, I will not buy a new one. It will be paid for with cash and used, or we will share his car.

    Our next goal is to save enough to buy another income property. We will not do this until we have about 30-40% downpayment and qualify for a 15 year loan. We would like to retire with added rental income.

    We eat out twice a week, and eat light meals at home the rest of the time. I try not to buy too much food, as some of it goes to waste. If I have left over chicken or beef, I make small burritos and freeze them for future lunches. I make four salads every Sunday for my lunches at my job.

    We tried the Dave Ramsey thing, and we admire him greatly. We too, had to find a “middle ground.”We just need to go on vacation several times a year if possible, as I have had spine issues and don’t know how long I will be still walking. We have had so many friends and family members die young and old that we no longer carry the mental list of their names. Some deaths were very unexpected. Our health is our “wild card.”

    The article is good, but I think that buying a bigger dream house is just not necessary. How big do you truly need?
    When the kids graduate from high school, so many of them move to the college of their choice anyway. Do they have the money saved for their tuition? Do they have a plan? If not, I hope that more parents encourage their kids to go to college frugally and not take out too many arduous student loans. Conceivably, the parents could be still paying on their college loans, while having to take out more for their children’s college. Save while they are young, so it is not so bad when they are older. Our children were debt-free when they graduated from UC Berkeley. They thanked us for not taking out loans that they had to pay for after they graduated.

    Our friends had three children and they paid off their house in their late forties. By the time their children had to go to college, they used the money usually earmarked for the house on the tuition. They had to utilize savings as well, and it helped that their children were a couple of years apart.

  16. Kelsey

    I did/doing something similar. I gave up my mid twenties to pay off the $50k of student loan debt in my name by working 4 jobs around the clock (2 of them full-time).

    Once I paid that off though, I still had another $60k in a ParentPlus loan that my parents and I pay together on monthly.

    I could have easily done the same as I did for the $50k, but I was approaching 26. I wanted out of our shitty 500 sqft house that was driving me nuts. I wanted to get married. I wanted babies soon. I wanted to travel a little.

    So I currently pay $310/mo on the $60k and my fiance and I finally purchased 6 acres of land last summer to build our first and forever home on. We’re getting married this September, going to New Zealand for our honeymoon, and will be planning on babies within the next 1-2 years. We’re 28.

    I realized we needed to live a little and that we were running out of time. After our house is built and we’re settled in, I plan to tackle the $60k like I did the $50k, but for now we’re enjoying the life we finally started.