Giving Up the Debt Lifestyle

Growing up a tomboy, I hated the pointy-toed sneakers my mom forced me to wear. I ached for Keds high-tops.

Years later, when as a college junior I giddily found myself holding my very first credit card, I knew exactly what my first purchase would be -- and rightly reckoned this was a momentous adult milestone.

But as I signed the credit slip and laced up those high-tops, I had no idea that I'd actually just bought a painful -- and costly -- learning opportunity: I'd entered the debt lifestyle.

At first, it seemed harmless to pay an item's purchase price, plus a bit of interest. But as the years clicked by and I settled down with my spouse, Joyce, I came to feel like a frustrated gerbil -- always running but getting nowhere financially. What had us spinning was the amount of our income being diverted to interest payments -- on credit cards, cars, our mortgage and home equity loans (taken out to pay off credit cards that we ran right back up).

But, now nearly three decades -- and a lot of peanut butter sandwiches -- after my Keds purchase, Joyce and I owe not one cent. And we don't pay interest. Money, rather than being a crowbar, has become a sweet glue that helps bond us to each other and our shared dreams.

Money tears many couples apart. MONEY magazine surveyed 500 married couples last year and found money caused more fights than sex or in-laws. Most -- 84 percent -- said money creates tension in their marriage, and they said the main reason was because they don't agree on financial priorities.

Having been taught by our goof-ups that we were money dummies, Joyce and I sat down eight years ago and designed a roadmap out of debt. We started by creating a very specific picture of our ideal future with the help of Michael Gelb's timeless book, "How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci."

Once we came up with a shared, detailed dream of retiring in Hawaii, we found it easier to make the smart choices required to get us off the awful gerbil wheel.

We set a date -- February 2008 -- to be debt-free and made all money decisions based on that shared goal. Quick examples: Joyce loves to travel, so we took up tent camping -- and found ourselves happily cooking lobsters over an open fire and walking the beach alongside wild Assateague ponies. We swapped golf for tennis, a far cheaper sport.

Most importantly, we prioritized debts, putting every extra nickel toward erasing first one car loan, then the other. Once they were gone, we immediately doubled up on house payments. Each time one loan was wiped out, the pace of our progress picked up. Why? Less was being lost to interest.

Along the way, we received three small inheritances, which we used to pay off the last of our SUV, my piano and, just this summer, the final six months of mortgage payments. Pinch me: We actually own our home.

Financially free at last, we don't need a newer car or a house in a ritzier neighborhood. We've matured faster than our savings bonds.

Shared dreams help build strong couples. And shared financial game plans help make dreams come true. So sit down, and start dreaming -- together.

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