The lightbulb moment: negative net worth

About four years ago, my husband and I went to see a financial planner. It seems we had finally been making enough money to cover all our debt and start accumulating savings. We had a nice little nest egg of about $20,000 and thought that we needed to go speak with someone about how invest this money. And I have to tell you, we felt that we had real wealth and that this wealth would only grow.

A funny thing happened though when we met with the financial planner. He pointed out all of our debt. Now, he didn’t necessarily have an issue with debt, but he highlighted a loan we had taken out for my husband’s big boy toy that was higher than the others at around 8%. If I recall, his advice was to try to refinance or roll this into a home equity loan to get a lower rate. On top of this debt both my husband and I had car loans, student loans and together we had a mortgage.

Going into this meeting we thought we were being conservative because we were living below our means and didn’t carry over credit card debt. I just took for granted that my twenties and thirties were about acquiring “stuff” and that naturally meant taking on debt. It’s what everyone else did, and we thought that because we didn’t buy the biggest house or the fanciest cars that we were being fiscally responsible.

My husband’s light bulb moment at that meeting was the realization that he not only had no wealth, he had substantial negative net worth. My lightbulb was that there was really no point in saving this money when we had debt we were paying interest on.

While we both arrived there a little differently, the conclusion was the same: we needed to get rid of our debt before we could even start thinking about saving for our future. We joked that we had more actual wealth the day we graduated from high school with a minimum wage job but debt free.

At the time of this meeting with the financial planner, about mid 2009, we owed over $100,000 in student loans between the two of us and had a mortgage of around $190,000. My car had a five year loan that was a half year from getting paid and my husband’s car was leased. We had also that unfortunate loan for my husband’s little hobby for about $50,000.

It was daunting. While we both made really good salaries, we had never considered paying much beyond the monthly amounts. We never thought we could do what we did, especially not as fast as we did it.

We went with the good ol’ snowball method: tackling your smallest debt first and then progressively attacking each subsequently sized debt. However, first, my husband sold his toy. We then took our savings and paid off my car early. This all happened fairly quickly and immediately freed up several hundred dollars a month.

The feeling was immediately empowering. We tackled my student loan, then dealt with my husband’s car, then his student loan. I have to admit it was frustrating at times to throw big chunks from bonuses and such at these loans. There were still things I wanted. Nice things. Expensive things. And throwing it at the loans didn’t actually result in any tangible returns.

As we were nearing having only the mortgage remaining we made a strategic move to change our loan from a 30 year fixed to a 15 year fixed. With interest rates so low, the new payments were roughly the same as before, but soooo much more money was applied to principal every month. Unfortunately with the real estate market being what it was in 2010, our house didn’t appraise high enough to get rid of PMI. Nonetheless, while we were paying about $115 before on PMI, the amount on the 15 year loan was only about $40 a month. And even though it was only $40, we made ourselves familiar with the rules regarding getting rid of PMI as soon as we could.

This strategy often meant living paycheck to paycheck because any money left over at the end of the month was thrown at the mortgage. It was a delicate balancing act to calculate how much we needed to have in checking to pay any bills before the next paycheck. Sometimes we would have only $1000 to our name.

When we had paid down about $80,000 after refinancing, we changed our strategy a bit. We decided to keep paying our normal monthly payments but to keep the money we would use to pay off the house set aside in a separate account. This would accomplish a couple of different objectives: We would have a savings account in case of emergencies and we would have a stash of cash in case we wanted to move, which was always on the back of our minds.

So this account grew and grew. When we got close, we threw everything we had into it. And requested our payoff amount. When I went into the bank to send the wire transfer, I wanted to tell everyone that we were paying off our house.

It took a little while longer than I thought it would at the bank, but all in all, around half an hour to send off the money. Just over $100,000. That hurt a little bit. Spending that money. All at once.

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Those were the texts we sent to each other that day and the next. It started to feel good. Knowing that next month we would not have to pay the house bill! It was like getting a $1500 raise a month !

So that was the first part of our story. I truly believe that any one can do it. I will admit that my husband and I, as attorneys, made really nice salaries. Really nice. But along with that, came the student loans, debt that a lot of people do not carry to the extent we did. Or, you may not own a home and have less to pay off. Everyone’s story and situation is different. But the first thing you have to do is stop. Just STOP. Figure out everything you own and owe. Make sacrifices and start tackling those loans. One at a time. As you pay one off, you will have more to throw at the next one. You may get there faster or slower than we did, but you’ll get there. Start now.

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