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Habits are powerful. They take time and diligence to create, but once the habit cycle is rolling, they’re pretty hard to get out of – whether they’re good or bad. It took awhile for my husband and I to become Budget Ninjas, but now that it’s become such a consistent part of our lives, I can’t imagine quitting cold turkey. There was a time that money wasn’t exactly in abundance in my husband and I’s life, and we had to learn to live on a tight budget out of necessity. What we found, however, is that during that time, we created a habit. And why break a good habit!?

To keep a long story short, it was only about three years ago that we found ourselves so broke that we had to have one of our parents co-sign the lease for an apartment so we had a place to live, we made payments to another parent to buy their used car at the trade-in value so we had something to drive, and shortly thereafter, we had to ask another parent to loan us a few hundred bucks until my next paycheck came so we could pay our rent on time. We had also deferred our student loan payments for awhile because paying those was simply not an option at the time. That season of life was a wake-up call, to say the least. We had to restrict our spending to the absolute bare minimum and were truly living paycheck to paycheck. We struggled and scraped by and passed up on invitations to go out with friends, but we learned how to live on a tight budget like nobody’s business. We worked hard to get back on our feet, and a few job changes and several months later, we managed to become self-sufficient. #adulting

We both eventually landed part-time, temporary jobs because that was the best we could get at the time. We were fresh out of college, had little work experience, and we had the special treat of graduating during the tail-end of the recession. I was a Title 1 paraprofessional assisting in a 4th grade classroom in a public elementary school working 28.75 hours a week (and not getting paid for any snow days or school breaks) while my husband was an interim youth pastor at a church working about 30 hours a week. We were making a middle-class income, which put us in a much better place than we were just months before, but the $50,000 of student debt looming over our heads made us feel like we’d never be able to dig ourselves out of that hole. We continued using our Budget Ninja skills, however, stretching our budget only slightly after our increase in income, and with the little bit of extra money my husband started making on the side after teaching himself to code, we were able to not only start making student loan payments again but we were even paying a little more than the minimums. We didn’t have much extra money laying around, but with our Budget Ninja skills, we were able to live comfortably.

As I mentioned, those jobs were temporary by nature, so after several months, I was able to lock in a full-time job at the nonprofit I currently work at, and my husband was hired on full-time for the youth pastor job he was filling in for. Our income made quite a jump. Then, as my husband continued to refine his web development skills and found a groove with his side-hustle, he started to consistently bring in about as much as I was making from my full-time job (but I’m not bitter about it or anything…). Without throwing out too many specifics, our take-home income more than doubled. It would have been really easy to stop caring about our budget and start spending. But we decided to keep our budget and spending habits exactly the same so that all of that extra income could go straight to our student loan payments.

That’s right: our income doubled, and our spending habits didn’t change. That’s how we paid off $50k in student loans before my 25th birthday.

We had already established the habit of tracking our expenditures, limiting our spending to what was available in our budget, and living off of very little. We had gotten past the hardest part of building the habit, and now it wasn’t so bad. Why break a good habit!? Once our income increased, we started to build a new habit of putting as much money as possible toward debt. So once the debt was paid off, it was easy to keep riding the two habits we’d already developed of (a) living on a tight budget and (b) putting as much money away as possible. Now, all of the money that was going towards student loans goes into savings – emergency fund, travel fund, house fund. We are able to accumulate savings a lot quicker than most because we have already built those habits.

It’s really easy to live into the money you make, and to say that we haven’t fallen into that would be an utter lie! For example, around the time of our financial rock-bottom, as described above, we bought a very used vehicle for $2,600 in cash. Sure, it didn’t last very long before dying in the middle of the road, but it was what we could afford at the time, and it got us from point A to point B. When the aforementioned death occurred two and a half years later, we were making more money but rather than replacing that vehicle with something similar with the cash that we had at the time, we decided to take out a loan for a car that cost four times that amount, putting us into more debt. We have since paid it off but now realize that it wasn’t our best financial decision, considering the circumstances. But that’s just one example of a battle we fight almost every day. Have more, want more. That is a dangerous way to live, and it’s far too easy to let that mantra sneak right into your mindset – and that kind of ninja-like stealth is not the good kind! Setting a budget and building a habit of sticking to it won’t prevent wanting more, but it can help combat buying more.

Another great benefit of living below your means is that you can take a pay cut without skipping a beat. Since paying off our loans and building a solid financial foundation, my husband and I have been able to make career choices that have decreased our income and financial security but greatly increased our happiness! Because our spending habits are designed for us to live well below our means and save a lot, we didn’t have to change our spending habits when we took a little bit of a pay cut. We simply save a little less now. And the freedom to make those kinds of choices is priceless!

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  • Jeremy

    Student loans are definitely a bear, I had over 65k after my masters and my jobs were not paying well enough to count at first. Glad to see you guys were able to dig out from under it. It can be most difficult to keep the belt tightened when you have a little extra in a month. Especially with kids who are often sick, cars that always have something breaking, home repairs, etc.