Have you wondered whether taking a class to work on your finances is worth it? I did, and here is what my husband and I discovered. Our experience was with Financial Peace University, based on the teachings of Dave Ramsey.
If you have run across Dave Ramsey, you probably have at least a vague idea of what the financial guru’s teachings about money are. The opening of his podcast proclaims, “debt is dumb, and cash is king.” You might have heard Dave Ramsey giving advice on the radio in his typical plain-talk style.
While I had read a Ramsey book before and my husband had heard Dave’s radio show, it wasn’t until recently that we stumbled on his Financial Peace University offering in the church bulletin. We thought taking a class instead of just reading and listening to financial advice on our own might help us make the changes we wanted. We were finally sick and tired of feeling like we were on a financial treadmill that wasn’t getting us to our financial dreams.
In our family, I always have been the financial leader. With my MBA and business experience, I was the natural fit for this role. My husband never really liked paying bills or tracking expenses while I thrive on those kinds of details. My spouse is a police officer who enjoys hands-on work more than pushing paper or worrying about deadlines like due dates. Our spending habits and family roles had been in place for years, and we didn’t question them.
After 25 years of marriage, we began our 50s in a pretty typical place. Our children were in or about to start college. We had a house with a mortgage and a home equity loan that went from temporary to hanging around semi-permanently, a car payment, some credit cards, and an underfunded retirement account. With retirement on the horizon, I became nervous, picturing us living in poverty.
We had saved up for and had just taken a celebratory 25th anniversary trip to Punta Cana, then we came home and wished we could take a trip like that every year. Yes, we take occasional trips, but it had been more than a decade since we had a week-long, tropical, just us, all-inclusive, sit-on-the-beach-with-butler-service kind of adventure. It just wasn’t something our annual budget could handle. It was depressing to think we might not be able to afford another vacation like that until another decade passed.
Looking at our money in the spring of 2020, we realized that we weren’t handling it correctly. Why were we not getting ahead? How the heck were we going survive once we stopped working IF we could ever stop working? Sure, my husband has a little pension coming, and we had half-heartedly contributed to a retirement arrangement through his work, but we had nothing extra. We were paying thousands of dollars a year in interest payments. We never got behind, never missed payments, and had high credit scores. We weren’t broke, but we didn’t feel like we would ever be wealthy. It didn’t feel right.
We needed help making some changes, and I was ready to admit it. I felt a lot of personal guilt, even though we had gotten into our predicament together. We had also just received an unexpectedly large tax refund. I really thought the time was right to use that money to get rid of some debt but didn’t know where to start.
We signed up for the in-person nine-week Financial Peace University course offered at a local church to begin in mid-March 2020. The class included access to online resources, which proved very important since COVID reared its ugly head right then, and our in-person class was postponed. Not attending in person was pretty disappointing since I had just gotten the courage to “go public” in a group class, and my husband was surprisingly on board. We had also paid $129 to take the course, which upped our commitment to following through. So, we watched the first two videos at home and got started with a hard-bound workbook that arrived by mail.
In retrospect, I am glad we got started when we did instead of waiting for the postponed class to be held (it was rescheduled for September). Life suddenly got more challenging. Our everyday routines were disrupted. Life was shut down in Michigan. Aside from actual necessities and bills, we couldn’t spend money on things we usually would have, like entertainment and eating out. Surprisingly, it got easier to spend less money.
At the same time, I had to go on unemployment temporarily. Our seasonal family business struggled to find the cash to start up, so my long-term employment outlook was in question. My first responder spouse still had to go out and work, and we worried about what would happen if he got sick. We were nervous. That nice chunk of cash we were planning on paying our debts with became something we might need to pay the bills. Ironically, staring at income disruption gave us even more motivation to take serious steps toward financial freedom.
We got to work on those early lessons. We read that most couples have one partner who is a “nerd” and one who is a “free spirit” when it comes to money. Oh! That’s why we have different ideas about how to spend our money. We realized that credit scores measured our ability to accumulate more debt and were not something to be proud of unless you plan to stay in debt forever. Wow! That one was a game-changer. Debt forever? Hell no! We practiced talking about money instead of avoiding the topic. Like most things, money is not such a scary topic once you drag it out into the light of day. We learned that money is a tool and that it was not too late to change how we used that tool. It’s not a measure of our personal value. It’s just an instrument.
We discussed our dreams for the future. What the heck are we working for? Picturing our future helped us make better choices in the present. We jointly decided that some things we spent money on could be eliminated or reduced while we focused on the debt. We are looking at you, monthly subscriptions. After all, if we didn’t like how things were going, we could stop at any time and go right back to undisciplined spending. Um, no, thank you! We got on the same page when it came to our finances, and I didn’t feel like it all fell on my shoulders anymore. It is much easier to be a better partner when your load has lightened.
By the time the in-person class took place six months later, we had already paid off over 20% of our debt. We weren’t sure how helpful meetings would be when we had already been successful. Did we want to discuss our finances out loud with two other couples and a coordinator we had never met?
The first class was a little nerve-wracking, but I jumped in the discussion while my husband looked like he would rather be anywhere else. Hearing real families share their reasons for joining Financial Peace University made us feel better about where we had been and where we were going financially. We were sharing a difficult and long journey and started to believe we could get off the treadmill.
Throughout the sessions, our coordinator was kind and welcoming. There was no pressure to share detailed information. Nobody shamed us for decisions we made in the past. The class celebrated small wins and looked ahead to the future. We were grateful to be getting smarter about money and did not dwell on regrettable actions. Personal stories were only shared voluntarily. My husband stopped looking like he would rather be anywhere else.
The class reinforced the idea that we could live on considerably less than we had, even when I returned to unemployment in the fall. We found new ways to bring in money by picking up extra work and selling things we no longer truly needed. We were encouraged by the other couples who were willing to work hard and be “weird” by living like no one else at this time in our lives. The small amount we budgeted for “fun money” made us more intentional in our choices and made outings much more exciting.
We ended the year paying off almost 30% of our non-mortgage debt (including the home equity loan). There is hope that we can get our retirement funds in shape before we need them. We carefully planned how to spend the savings we had while still keeping a lean emergency fund. That is not something we would have accomplished on our own without Financial Peace University. After we get out of debt, we know how to fund our retirement and buy our next vehicle, what to do about insurance and why giving is important.
Making financial changes opened the door to new thinking in other areas of our lives. I am inspired to explore new career options (like writing!). My spouse is thinking about what life looks like post-law enforcement. We are trying to teach our children the financial lessons we missed at their age. We were always budget-conscious, but now budgeting feels like giving ourselves freedom and not restricting it. Our budgeting attitude is a refreshing change, and it works because we plan together.
Money is no longer a big worry, even though we are not making any more than we did before. Oddly enough, in a year filled with so much uncertainty and a significantly reduced income, having more control over our money gave us tremendous peace of mind. It will be many months before we debt-free, but we are already winning this battle. Having our income cut was not the disaster it could have been. Instead, our net worth grew tremendously. Sharing our story in class was not scary, embarrassing, or a sign of failure. It was liberating.
It is not easy in your 50s to look back and see several decades worth of questionable decisions. But it’s a lot easier than looking ahead and having no hope of improving your situation. Our advice to you would be to swallow your pride and get the financial education you need to make the next 50 years the best they can be. If you can’t find a group, find another couple, a financial coach, or an accountability partner who will help you through the process. For us, outside feedback and support helped validate that our journey is worthwhile and something to be proud of. Someday soon, we will be doing the debt-free scream and “living and giving like no one else.”