Mr. Vega and I became debt-free a couple of years ago. It happened quietly, and without fanfare. He’d been working hard to negotiate some old, unpaid credit card bills that had gone to collection, and ended up settling about $10,000 worth of debt for around $4,000, one bill, one phone call, at a time. The only thing left was my car payment, which for some reason, I had been stalling on paying off even as we amassed a healthy savings account. Then one day, on a break from work, I called the loan company and did the payoff over the phone. Just like that, we were free from debt.
And nothing changed.
Not having monthly payments outside of rent and utilities is nice, but we have continued to save so aggressively that our lifestyle hasn’t changed: we cook at home, search out free and inexpensive entertainment, consider even the smallest purchases carefully, and do our best to negotiate the best rate for everything we spend money on. This year, I volunteered to be a support person for our bocce league in exchange for free registration ($45), and a $25 weekly credit, which I share with Mr. Vega, at the team’s sponsoring pub. We exchanged both our juicer and our vacuum cleaner several times because we kept finding lower prices. And on our last Date Night, we hustled over to a local bar right after work because the first sixteen customers that ordered cheese plates (normally $16) got them for free. We chase bargains because it’s fun for us: we like getting a good deal nearly as much as we enjoy whatever it is we’re buying or consuming. Living frugally helps us live a little more lightly on our ailing planet, as well: growing and cooking as much food as we can for ourselves eliminates a lot of packaging, as does buying in bulk. Every article of clothing that we buy used or trade with friends is one less thing that has to be shipped from overseas and then driven by truck to our local store. Our habits and practices are right in line with those of our friends who earn less than we do, or who are busy paying off debt themselves. We also socialize with people whom we suspect make and have much more money than we do, but our friendships revolve around time spent together enjoying activities that don’t cost much, so the subject of money rarely comes up.
This week, I made a long-overdue phone call to roll a 401(k) from a previous employer into a personal IRA. I spent quite a bit of time speaking to a customer service agent at the investment firm, who was gathering our personal financial information in order to ensure I was getting into a product that met our needs (and presumably the company’s need for profit, as well). Part of our conversation went like this:
CUSTOMER SERVICE GUY: Okay now, so, if we were to take all your debts, your car loans, personal loans, credit cards, home equity lines of credit, and student loans… how much money would it take to pay all of that off today, hypothetically speaking?
ME: Three hundred and forty dollars. We use an airline miles credit card that we pay off each month.
CUSTOMER SERVICE GUY: WOW. Well, um… Congratulations!
I really enjoyed the feeling of hearing someone who is privy to the innermost financial workings of thousands of families so taken aback. We are not wealthy, earn a modest income, and in fact, are woefully “behind” in our retirement savings, but simply being debt-free is so unusual, it seems, that it rendered this guy momentarily speechless.
So, nothing about how we live our daily lives changed when we paid off our debt. We didn’t buy fancy new wardrobes, take a vacation, or start upgrading our electronics. But there is an indescribable lightness about us now that we go to work every day because we want to be of service and earn money to save for our house instead of showing up just because we couldn’t make the rent if we didn’t. Car troubles for us these days are inconveniences and not crises. And we moved halfway across the country to pursue our dreams knowing that if an emergency should arise for any of our family members, we could afford to be at their side within a day’s time.
Nothing really changed when we paid off our debt… but somehow, everything is different.