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How We’ve Found Contentment without All the “Stuff”

In my recent post about controlling our money, I discussed the impact that following a budget has had on my family. Little did I know the deep, personal impact budgeting would have on me. Attending Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University (FPU) opened my eyes to so many things inside myself and to the world around me.

Artwork made of cut up credit cards. Photo taken at Financial Peace Plaza in Nashville, TN

Artwork made of cut up credit cards. Photo taken at Financial Peace Plaza in Nashville, TN

One of the biggest things that stuck out to me in the class was the power of advertising in our lives. It’s everywhere – on billboards, commercials, in our TV shows (including our kids’), our workplaces, and in our schools. We are constantly inundated with messages telling us to buy this…upgrade to that…treat ourselves…give ourselves a well-deserved reward. Retailers want to give us the best products to enhance our lives, right?

It would be nice if that were always the case. Yes, I want to believe that most companies are run by genuinely caring, compassionate individuals who are concerned about enhancing their customers’ lives. At the end of the day though, it’s a money-making game. Almost every store we go to, we’re invited to “open a credit card to save an additional 20% on your purchase!” At many retailers, the employees are evaluated based on how many customers they get to open credit accounts. We’re encouraged to purchase upgraded protection plans and additional accessories that we don’t really need (or want, but somehow we’re convinced we do, right?).

Up until going through FPU, I hadn’t much considered the manipulative nature of the retail industry. I was all in. I had several credit cards, a bit of credit card debt, and I loved having the latest and greatest. During the class, Jeremy and I cut up any credit cards we had, closed all our credit accounts, and paid down a decent amount of the principal on a loan.

And that was the easy part. What was difficult was wrapping my mind around the feeling I had inside that I “needed this” or “have earned that.” When I would think of a purchase I wanted to make, I had to stop and consider if it was something I truly needed and if I needed it right now. Most of the time the answer was “no” or “not yet.” Many times my “not yet” turned into a no after sleeping on it.

So on we went on our Financial Peace journey. We experience our ups and downs like anyone does when starting a budget. I found myself in stores less frequently as I came to appreciate what I already had and found new uses for household items or clothing. I realized all those great gadgets out there for kids were unnecessary. The less Jeremy and I focused on improving our stuff, the more we could focus on improving ourselves.

Slowly my desires to have the latest and greatest were subsiding. I used to see a cute purse or pair of shoes and immediately think, “I want that!!” Not anymore. I’m welcoming this newfound sense of contentment I feel in my life.

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A few weeks back something strange happened. I had some extra time after errands before meeting a friend for lunch. I stopped in a department store to browse for a bit. I hated every minute of it. As I entered the shoe section, I immediately felt the eyes on me. I felt like a piece of meat. One employee approached me and asked if he could help me find anything. I politely said, “No thanks, I’m just looking around.” In my mind I pleaded the others to leave me alone as I avoided eye contact.

Then I started noticing other things. The smells of the shoes and the nearby perfume vendors. The bright colors and flashy signs. The loud music and conversation. It all overwhelmed my senses. I couldn’t believe that I used to find outings like this enjoyable. I texted a friend, “I’m such a retail Scrooge!”

I’m not saying I hate shopping. What I’ve found is that the things that used to appeal to me simply don’t anymore. In a way, I enjoy shopping more because I walk in knowing exactly what I want and how much I’m going to spend, so I don’t feel pressured or overwhelmed by the other enticing items. I can enjoy the simplicity of the experience now.

I’m so grateful that I got to this point while my daughter is young. Not only do I rarely have Margaret out in a retail store (and therefore can avoid the pointing and crying out for things), but also I have learned how to handle her requests appropriately and redirect her. Just as I’ll likely forget about that pair of shoes 10 minutes after we leave the store, so will she likely forget about the princess dress she so deeply desired. I don’t feel the need to make purchases to appease her. I don’t feel the need to provide her with the latest and greatest because I know it’s not what’s necessarily best for her.

Take some time to think about the impact consumerism may have on you. Do you turn to “retail therapy” when you’re stressed? Do you feel the need to have the latest and greatest? Do you feel like you’ve earned a pretty new item because of all your hard work?

There’s nothing wrong with purchasing things we want. The issue arises when our spending is out of control or we’re spending on things we want and not leaving money for the things we need. Begin to challenge your mindset around spending and having “stuff.” I know, it’s hard. It’s also life-changing. It’s a (free) gift to yourself and your family that will keep on giving for years to come.

How We’ve Come to Control our Money Instead of Letting our Money Control Us

In the fall of 2014, Jeremy and I were looking over the different Community Groups that Crossroads Church hosts. Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University (FPU) caught our eyes. We had sort of followed a budget here and there in the past. While we had utilized some of the approaches to money management that Ramsey teaches, we had never learned his system or fully utilized it. We decided to enroll in the class and go for it.

Financial Peace

I was nervous at first, not sure how I would feel about discussing my finances with a bunch of strangers. Our small group was awesome. We felt safe and comfortable from the beginning. The atmosphere was welcoming and the people were so engaging and encouraging.

Just like Ramsey mentions, it took Jeremy and me a little while to get the hang of things. We had to do some digging to find out exactly what we were paying for what and how to budget to save for larger expenses over time.

The envelope system was a little tricky at first too, but it wasn’t long before we absolutely loved it. Paying for certain expenses with cash helps us to be aware of exactly where our money is going and holds us accountable. When the money is gone from the envelope, we’re finished spending in that category that month. Period.

Following Ramsey’s plan for managing our finances in a Biblical manner has had a profound impact on how Jeremy and I view money individually and as a couple. While finances can be a strong point of tension in a relationship, and certainly have been in ours, FPU brought Jeremy and me closer together and unified our approach to managing our finances. We have much more fun with our money now, even though we are spending significantly less than we had been.

While we had not used a credit card for several months, we actually closed every one of our credit card accounts. We set aside our $1,000 starter emergency fund, paid off a few smaller debts, and paid down a substantial amount of the principal on a larger debt. It was scary and it was awesome. We’re currently on Baby Step 2, paying off our non-mortgage debt.

In December 2014, we hit a bit of a bump in our journey. We received a high consumption notice from the water company, which directed us to check for leaks. We found a leak in the main service line to our house. The repairs were estimated to be between $500-$1,000. Jeremy and I took a breath and figured ok, we have our $1,000 emergency fund for things like this. Then, just a few days later, Jeremy was headed out to get gas and came back inside, stating the low brake fluid light had come on and there was a puddle of brake fluid beneath his car. I thought, well, a majority of our emergency fund is going to go towards the water line repairs, but I do have a profit sharing bonus coming in from my company (which we had planned to use to pay down some principal on our debt that month). Estimate for car repairs ranged from $500-$1,200. Oh gosh. When all was said and done, we had a total of $1,265 in repairs ($765 water leak, $500 new brake system) two weeks before Christmas. We managed to pay for it with my profit sharing bonus and part of our emergency fund. We then used money we received as Christmas gifts to fully re-fund our starter emergency fund in that same month. It felt so awesome to know the entire time that we were going to be okay. We also ended up giving a year-end gift to our church. Through that experience we saw just how faithful God is.

If you are looking to learn some excellent strategies for managing your money, I highly recommend Financial Peace University. Classes are offered all over the place, and can be found here. There is also the option of online or home study. I prefer in-person classes. Jeremy and I feel we really benefited from the community atmosphere at Crossroads.

Wherever you are in your financial journey, I pray that God may guide you and bless you abundantly with His grace and His peace.