John Fuller: Here’s Brian Lowe, describing what being in debt felt like.
Brian Lowe: It was scary. There’s no doubt about that. It was like an albatross around your neck and you’re… I- it really prevented the feeling of freedom. There were things that we were not going to be able to do in the future if we kept in debt, and really, I couldn’t foresee it without even going deeper in debt.
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John: You’ll be hearing more from Brian and his wife, Cherie, as they talk about how they paid off more than $127,000 in consumer debt. And that’s our program today for Focus on The Family with Focus president and author, Jim Daly. Thanks for joining us, I’m John Fuller.
Jim Daly: John, that is a big number, $127,000 of unsecured debt. And that’s not even counting their car, even their home. For the Lowe’s, it was credit cards and other things like that. That’s amazing and probably stifling for most people. You might be in that place right now and you’re thinking, “What do we do?” We have hope for you today here at Focus on the Family. Our goal is to help you thrive in your family, and one of the top things people contact Focus on the Family for is their finances. According to Ramsey Solutions, the average American family with credit card debt owes over $14,000. But in addition to that, student loan debts average another $38,000. And for those households with a car loan, that’s another $31,000. And that doesn’t include any medical debt or home mortgage payments or rent. So I hope our conversation here will inspire you to take control of your finances no matter what your situation is. And it’s true that with hard work and determination and I would say, a plan, you can begin making better financial choices as you’ll learn from our guest today.
John: Yeah, Brian and Cherie Lowe have two daughters, and Cherie is the host of a very popular blog called Queen of Free. And she’s written a book called Slaying the Debt Dragon: How One Family Conquered Their Money Monster and Found an Inspired Happily Ever After. We’ve got copies of that here. Stop by the website or give us a call. They recorded with us here in the studio a few years ago, and there was a terrific response to the program. So we’re coming back to it to help you, uh, with your finances. And here now is how Jim began the conversation on today’s episode of Focus on the Family.
Jim: Brian and Cherie, welcome to Focus on the Family.
Cherie Lowe: Thank you so much for having us.
Brian: Thank very much.
Jim: Well, let’s get started. Um, take us back before, uh, that day and describe the early days of your marriage and, uh, what were your attitudes, um, toward finances going into marriage. It sounds like, like most of us, maybe there wasn’t much attitude (laughs) about your finances.
Cherie: You know, I think we just never really paid attention and we took everybody else’s advice. So if someone said you need to have a car payment, or you… That’s just the way life is.
Jim: And who told you, you need to have a car payment (laughs)?
Cherie: You know, I don’t know if anybody said-
Jim: Maybe you need to have a car (laughs).
Cherie: Yeah, you need to have a car, or you know, the idea that you would have a car payment attached to it was just part of life.
Cherie: It wasn’t anything or anybody said, “Oh, you can save up and pay cash for a car.” It just never really dawned on me at least.
Jim: And how ’bout… how ’bout you, did you?
Brian: Um, I was right there along with her together in that is that, you know, I went to school and then I went on the grad school, and there were some of the smartest people that I still know in the room and loan documents were being passed around this-
Brian: … huge u-shaped conference room. And everybody else was signing it, so I went ahead and did too.
Jim: As a student loan?
Brian: Student loan.
Jim: Yeah, I mean, so many kids, young people are coming out of college with deep student loans. I mean, that’s one of the big problems, isn’t it?
Brian: It is.
Jim: So you woke up one day and how much debt did you have, uh, before you realize maybe this isn’t the right way to live?
Brian: We had over $127,000 in consumer debt. So debt that’s not attached to a major asset.
Brian: And we, uh, kind of went over it, and it was this moment where I have been trying to cast the vision with Cherie that we needed to take steps to get out of debt. But debt was such an ambiguous term, and so we put it all on a legal pad and I remember Cherie and I standing together and going through each total together and just the overwhelming feeling that, uh, this seems insurmountable.
Jim: Well, h- help us in the beginning, um, when you’re married, both of your coming into marriage without, uh, you know, kind of a budget education, I guess I would say it that way. How many years or months did it take before one of you or both of you kind of went, “Wow! What are we up to?” Was it a year later or four years into your marriage?
Cherie: We had been married nine years-
Jim: Nine years?
Cherie: … believe or not, and just kind of functioning on that day to day. And I was handling paying the bills, making sure that we had groceries in the refrigerator, and kind of the day-to-day short-term operations. And Brian had sat down and really began to crunch the numbers and realize how much we had in total. So I was making those minimum payments thinking, “Wow! We are so stretched right now. We can barely make it.” And when he first came to me and said, “I really think we need to pay off all our debt.” I thought, “That’s impossible.” Like, we have no extra money to spare.
Jim: Well, and you know, uh, the… we’re saying as if it’s unique, but you guys are… at that point, you’re living pretty much like most people in the U.S. live, and that’s from paycheck to paycheck and without a lot of savings. It’s… people aren’t surprised hearing this, that, you know, nine years into your marriage, you begin to think maybe the debt we’ve accumulated has been too much. Um, so what did you do? How did you… didn’t you try to like lay the pillow? Wasn’t it a Dave Ramsey book or something you were trying to get Cherie to read, but it was taking some time?
Brian: Yes. Uh, you know, and, you know, it started back, actually our, our journey started in 2008. But two years prior to that on, on a date night, believe it or not, we had gone to a bookstore. We’re both bibliophiles. We’re big readers.
Jim: (laughs) You e- even met at the library.
Brian: Yeah, we even had… have run into each other at a library. It’s part of our story. So we both love books. And I sat and read Dave Ramsey’s book a- at the library. And I put it back on the shelf. I’ve since bought other copies-
Brian: … so we have absolution. Uh, but, but when I read it, I thought, yeah, this is something that I want to do, but I learned a very valuable marriage lesson in that moment, is that, uh, you can have a great steak dinner, you know, with all of the fixings, but if you present it on a trash can lid, nobody wants to eat that.
Brian: And, and that’s what I did with the journey is basically I said, “Here’s what we are going to do.” That is not how you present something.
Brian: And you should present something with love. And I, I would challenge and admonish listeners out there that anytime that you’re trying to take a big step or make a big change, it needs to be presented with love. I didn’t present it very well. I didn’t cast the vision well enough.
Jim: Did you know that at the time, or, or how long did it take you to re-present it to Ch- Cherie in a way that, um, she thought it was kind and good hearted?
Brian: Well, I think what happened is that I changed myself, uh, because that’s the one thing that, that we do have some modicum of control over is, is how we act. And I had stopped using the credit card. I had, uh, taken more steps personally to, uh, change my own actions and my own relationship with debt. And then I started, uh, basically sending destination postcards, you know, dreaming and saying, “What would it look like if we were out of debt? How could we be more generous if we were out of debt? Where could we go? What would our kids future look like? What could our future look like together?” And begin dreaming together again as a couple was a very important first step as opposed to just dictating.
Jim: Uh, Cherie, let me ask you this. Um, you talked about the debt being boring debt. I thought that was really funny. Uh, what is boring debt versus exciting debt?
Cherie: Well, I think I was interviewed by a magazine a long time ago, and they wanted this sensational story, you know?
Cherie: That we had gone on some crazy vacation, where I had boots in every color or…
Cherie: We had nothing fun to show for it. There were no photos from a high-flying skydiving experience. There were no clothes in the closet that were name brand. We literally nickeled and dimed our way into that much debt. We obviously had loans that were car related and school related, but we also had no plan for our money. So if one of the kids got sick and we didn’t have cash in the bank, well, we were gonna pay with plastic. Or, you know, we ran out of grocery budget money, well, we needed food, so we had to pay somehow. And so it was all very day to day sort of debt. Nothing fun.
Jim: Ah. And, and, you know, you talked a little bit about this, but does that feel like to carry that much load? Uh, you talked about thinking about the future, um, so wonderfully there, but ho- how does it feel in the moment when you’re not thinking about the future, you’re actually, uh, thinking about the burden and oh my goodness, what has happened and where do we go? What emotions did you have?
Brian: Well, it was scary. There’s no doubt about that. It was like an albatross around your neck and you’re… I- it really prevented the feeling of freedom. There were things that we were not going to be able to do in the future if we kept in debt. And really, I couldn’t foresee it without even going deeper in debt. Once the interest rates took over, it could have went in a very bad direction. Uh, and being forced to, uh, work just to pay off your bills as opposed to, um, achieve those things that you want to do and live kind of fun life in all honestly and free from the control of this dragon.
Jim: W- what was the spiritual component in this? I mean, this sounds like an awareness, a, a good young couple who comes to their senses, but what was God speaking to your heart in all of this?
Cherie: You know, um, God definitely spoke to us prior to him stepping into the story and kind of leading us out of this. I definitely felt alone, and it felt very suffocating in a lot of ways. And I would look around on a Sunday morning and I would see everybody else in the pew and I would think, everybody else has their act together, they must love Jesus more than I do. I should have known better. I should have done better. I grew up in the church. I went to-
Jim: So guilt?
Cherie: Yeah, a lot of guilt and shame. A lot of guilt and shame. And what I found that was when I began to share our story on my blog, Queen a Free, that I would tell people, you know, “Hey, this is where we’re at and what we’re trying to do.” The very best thing that came out of that was that it was freeing, and we pulled that darkness out into the light, and it began to lose its power over us.
Jim: Did you talk with your parents about this? Were they aware, or did you hold back with them?
Brian: In the beginning, I believe we just started to get going, but we had to have conversations with family members about what we were doing and what we were trying to do because there’s a chapter in the book about relationships, uh, especially familial relationships and gift giving at Christmas time-
Brian: or birthdays or, or things like that. Those things had to change, uh, because, uh, we’ve always had a generous heart, we just didn’t have the money to be as generous as we were being.
Jim: Were they supportive?
Brian: Very supportive.
Brian: And that was, um, something was more of a feeling of relief. Uh, when you mentioned to someone, “Look, we need to back off wh- what it is that we’re doing and here’s why and here are our goals.” What we were… we were met with gratitude in all honesty because that meant that well, they could back off too. Uh, and, and it was more about spending time with each other as opposed to spending money on one another.
Jim: Huh! Cherie, let me ask you this question. Uh, you talked about that sense of guilt and shame and feeling like sitting in church, you were the only one carrying this kind of burden and load. But in reality, many more people are, right?
Cherie: They are. And you know, the more I share my story, the more that people come to me and say, “Oh, thank goodness, I’m not alone.” And I think that’s the number one thing that I’ve been grateful for that God has allowed our story to be a source of hope for other people too, that there is a way out, that God does care about your finances, and you don’t have to live trapped like that.
Jim: I mean, let’s talk about that ’cause it’s important. Now, we’ve painted that picture of carrying the, the weight of that, um, kind of living undisciplined.
Jim: Um, that meant, you know, many people are, and that’s just reality. How did you wake up to that and say, “Okay, we’ve got to change”? We talked about how you served it up in a loving way. What did you do day one to say this is gonna to be different together?
Brian: Together, we began communicating. You know, one of the things that I always stress to folks is that the death of communication is the birth of resentment. And we had to begin communicating about money, which meant that we were communicating which made our marriage stronger. And we had this common foe, this enemy. One of the things that we did very early on was to personalize it or personify it. We named it the dragon.
Brian: You know, Cherie had been blogging for a long time and she’s the Queen of Free, and we sort of live in this fairytale. And so the dragon was a natural, logical outgrowth of that fairytale.
Jim: It’s very creative.
Brian: And, and so we were fighting against a common enemy, we were fighting for something instead of and against, something instead of with each other.
Jim: And, and in that context, you, you would talk about it as the dragon, right?
Cherie: Yes, we did. You know, and I think there are power at names, and we see that throughout scripture that God will give someone a new name, or we will learn the meaning of someone’s name or even the meaning… the different names of God. And if I said to you, you know, debt wants to destroy your marriage, debt wants to tell you whether or not you can send your kids to college, debt wants to tell you when you can retire, or if you can or can’t be generous. You would say, “Yeah, that’s probably not a very good thing.” But if you went back through and I replace the word debt with Fred Johnson and I said, “Fred Johnson wants to destroy your marriage, and Fred Johnson wants to tell you whether or not you can send your kids to college or retire or be generous when you feel called to give.” You would think, “I do not like Fred Johnson.”
Jim: (laughs) Right.
Cherie: And so that simple act of personifying the debt give us enough motivation and just kind of a little bit of a fire in our belly to take off after it together. And like Brian said, it prevented us from fighting with one another because we had a common enemy that we were called to vanquish and eliminate.
Jim: I think it’s a brilliant idea to do that, um, so that you’re not on each other’s case. I mean, when you talked a moment ago, Brian, about, uh, how to enhance your communication, I was thinking, “Yeah, don’t buy that, honey. Don’t spend money on that (laughs), honey.”
Jim: That’s e- enhance communication I guess, but that’s not what you’re talking about.
Brian: Mm-hmm. Not the same thing, no.
Brian: Totally different thing, yeah. I-
Jim: Did you get some rules though, if you’re gonna spend more than-
Brian: We did.
Jim: $50, you got to call me-
Jim: or I got to call you, and…
Cherie: We are actually a little bit more tight than that.
Cherie: While we were paying off debt, it was actually $10,
Cherie: So certainly not if I’m at the grocery store thinking about buying, you know, lettuce or whatever. I wasn’t calling him on the phone saying, “Is it okay if I buy this?”
Cherie: But if it was $10 or more, we spoke to each other. And that meant we talk to each other frequently. And it’s interesting because I can’t even remember a time where Brian said, “No, you can’t buy that.” He wouldn’t usually say, “Please buy new tennis shoes, yours have holes in them.” You know?
Cherie: So it was not about controlling each other in that moment, it was about just staying aware as to where the money was flowing on a regular basis. And that’s so awkward at first. If you’ve never talked about money in your marriage before, it feels clumsy and out of sorts.
Jim: Well, there is a distinction there, and I think it’s important to identify the difference between control and accountability.
Jim: Is that’s what you’re saying?
Jim: Accountability is a good thing.
Cherie: Well, I get so many questions from people who say, “How can I get my spouse on the same page financially?” And my response is always, you can’t, only God can do that.
Cherie: And you know, if we are seeking to control each other’s behavior, it’s not going to end well. And like Brian said, he did so many things that spoke volumes to me that were not words. Things like leaving the credit card in the desk drawer, or he chose while we were paying off debt, to go two and a half years without eating at a restaurant. That was his choice. He didn’t inflict it on the rest of the family thankfully. But it was this great, shining example of if he was that intentional, I could do something else, and it pulled me into the adventure and captured my heart.
Jim: Mm. You’re listening to Focus on the Family. Today, we’re talking with, uh, Brian and Cherie Lowe and their book, Slaying the Debt Dragon. And this is a great conversation. And if you’re in that situation where you don’t know what to do and you’re feeling that guilt and you are at a loss as to how to get started, call us today at Focus on the Family and, uh, talk to one of our counselors, talk to one of our folks about how you can get started, and we’ll have more details about that. Um, let me ask you this question. So many people do live paycheck to paycheck. You did something that was really counterintuitive as I read in the book, where, uh, Cherie, you actually quit your job in the midst of wanting to pay down the debt. And, you know, a lot of couples, they’re both working hard, they’re paying for, uh, daycare, they’re paying for clothing, they’re doing all the thing. But what, um, what made you come to that conclusion that you could ac- could actually reduce your income and still pay your way out of debt?
Cherie: It’s so counterintuitive, right? That you would quit a job and be able to pay off debt. But I truly began to see my calling within the home to be the CEO, or the co-CEO, basically the managing operator to make sure that we were spending as little as possible, and that meant being more intentional with everything from reading the fine print on our bills to see if we could reduce what we were spending there. But also, you know, planning meals well and making sure that we weren’t ending up in the drive-through. And everything from household cleaners to, you know, the things that our children were doing was on the table, and I was looking for ways that I could actively reduce what we were spending it. So I treated that like a job and got up every morning like it was my job to make sure that we saved as much as possible.
Jim: That’s a great attitude. It really is. Um, okay, the, the dirty, little word, “budget”, that most couples flare-up over, um, because they’re not quite ready for that (laughs) discussion. Um, talk about the need for it, um, uh, how committed do you have to be to that budget?
Brian: You have to be committed to communicate with one another about how you were going to spend and, and we played around with even calling it something different. We called it forecasting, uh, at home. It doesn’t change what it is, you know. And in anything in life, you have to trade one freedom for another. Uh, and we have all kinds of freedoms as, as citizens of the United States, where we can go out and buy whatever it is that we want to buy, but that prevents you sometimes from doing the things that you really want to do. So the budget is a way to just predetermined what we’re going to say no to and what we’re going to say yes to. It’s money in and money out. And it is a freeing, freeing tool, um, so that we can have kind of a hedge or a fence around us, so that we don’t get out of control and off track for our goals.
Jim: Cherie, you in fact, you had a story in the book, Slaying the Debt Dragon, about place mats, and that it was part of your eureka moment.
Jim: What was that?
Cherie: S- so it’s so funny because before we started paying off debt, I don’t think I would ever had said, I struggle with contentment, or I struggle with greed. I don’t think any of us usually identify that in ourselves very easily, and yet as the journey wore on, I realize that that was a battle in my soul, and I needed to be more intentional. I’m a bargainista, I love a clearance deal.
Jim: A bargainista (laughs).
Cherie: Yes. And so I was actually shopping Christmas clearance, which is one of the best things of the year in January, and things were 90% off. And I looked down and I found these place mats that were $0.19, and I thought, “Wow! They’re red, they match my kitchen, they’re easy to clean so that the girls won’t mess them up.”
Cherie: And then I began to really kind of think about the place mats I already had at home, which a friend had made for me, and they were adorable. And I already had place mats, and I didn’t need new placemats. And then it dawned on me that we had paid off $127,482.30, $0.19 at a time because we had learned to say no to $0.19. And if we could say no to $0.19, we could say no to $1.90, we could say to no to $190, we could say no to $1,900. Because learning to say no is really the most effective way to pay off debt.
Jim: It’s- That’s so important to hear because I think a lot of people would say, “Oh, that’s ridiculous.”
Jim: You know, “Buy the place mats. Come on, lady.”
Jim: But it’s true, you’re learning to say no to things, you’re depriving yourself in the right way, and you’re not trying to fulfill that… whatever that is in your heart to, um, you know, meet that need.
Cherie: I would say it’s a void that only Jesus could fill-
Cherie: number one. But you know, number two, I heard he had really great place mats.
Cherie: And I think just realizing, you know what? I don’t need this. It’s just gonna mean more stuff in the way at home, and it’s gonna be more stuff in the way of our budget.
Jim: L- let’s get practical with groceries and food. This is one for Jean and I. I mean (laughs), we have two teenage boys. So I mean I’m always looking at that going, “Can we reduce that by a few thousand a month?” (laughs)
Jim: But it is, it just… like the grocery budget seems to just go crazy sometimes. How do you approach grocery and food? Because that, that’s obviously something we all need.
Cherie: Yes, so it can be a beast, right?
Cherie: And especially if you have dogs, teenage boys, or babies.
Cherie: It’s really difficult. But one of the things that we did, um, especially in our marriage as that Brian would actually come grocery shopping with me sometimes.
Jim: Why was that a benefit?
Cherie: This is huge. Why do you think it was a benefit?
Brian: It’s easy to try to set the grocery budget. But if you’ve never shopped for groceries, you shouldn’t be setting the grocery budget.
Jim: (laughs) Well, why is that? What’s the disconnect?
Brian: Well, the disconnect is I don’t know how much things cost. Uh, and if you don’t know how much things cost, you shouldn’t dictate how much you were supposed to spend.
Brian: And so it was clear when we, when we went shopping that I was moderately out of touch with how much we spent on certain items. And so things that we wanted or, or things that I assumed what they would cost, it’s hard to have a sum total if you don’t know what those individual cost are. Uh, and, uh, it’s also helpful because we just spent time together. Uh, and we spent time together, you know, with a shared vision and shared goals. It seems silly, but if you’re at the grocery store, then that’s another time set apart where you can spend time together as a couple.
Jim: Well, that and you’re slaying your dragon together.
Jim: But what would be some cost-effective ways, cost-cutting measures in the grocery store? ‘Cause it seems, that, the, you know, that whole industry moves to convenience with a cost.
Jim: So you get bagged lettuce, you get, you know, things are done for, pre-made goodies, pizzas in the box.
Jim: Um, all that good stuff that I don’t have to work too hard. Is it, um, that simple that you got to put a little more effort into your cooking?
Cherie: You might have to put a little more effort into it, but I wanted to pack Slaying the Debt Dragon with practical strategies. So not just that you should be paying off debt, but here’s what it looks like when you’re in the kitchen. One of the things that I talk about in the book are my own personal grocery store 10 commandments. And I feel like everybody should have these, and these are just boundaries that you put on yourself. They’re not hard and fast so if you have to break one, it’s not that big of a deal, but they’ll help you, you know, keep from overspending. One of those is I try not to shop after 9:00 PM, and that’s because that’s a weak time for me. I know I will put all the breakfast items in the cart, and I will just wander around the store aimlessly.
Jim: Maybe a little ice cream (laughs).
Cherie: Yeah, right? Your resolve is down. For other people, it might be early in the morning. That’s a more difficult time, but just identifying when is it most difficult. One of the other things I do is try to look high and look low in the grocery store, because marketers are brilliant, and they will place the most expensive things at your eye level. And if you’ve ever shopped with a toddler, they also place them at their eye level-
Cherie: … so that they… you’ll want those more expensive items. And then finally, my favorite grocery store 10 commandment and shopping tip in general is that right before I check out, I look down in my cart and I identify three to five items that I need to put back. Because something has jumped into the cart that we do not need or we can wait until next week, and that simple practice will save 5 to $10 every time you’re at the grocery store, you don’t have to clip a single coupon. It’s a very easy thing to do, but it’s just a pause-
Cherie: that will help you be more intentional.
Jim: Well, we’ve run out of time today to talk about the other grocery store 10 commandments, but, uh, Cherie and Brian with your permission, let’s post those for the listeners to see. And, uh, there’s still more to your story and we wanna cover that. And I wanna start off next time by hearing about how your two daughters responded to this debt-slaying journey. Uh, some crazy choices I think you made to pay off your debt, but very instructive. And how you celebrated that when you finally paid it off. Um, let me see thanks for being with us today.
Cherie: Thank you.
Brian: Thank you.
John: Well, you can read more about the Lowe’s inspiring story and get lots of ideas, dozens of ideas about, uh, saving money in pretty much every area of your budget when you pick up their book, Slaying the Debt Dragon. You’ll find a copy of that and a CD or instant download of this two-part conversation with the Lowe’s, those are at focusonthefamily.com/broadcast.
Jim: John, throughout the conversation, we talked about the need for strong marital communication on this issue of finances. It’s a powder keg for so many couples. It might be you’re struggling with finances. And if you need someone to talk to, we have caring Christian counselors right here on our staff and they’re available to talk with you, or they can refer you to someone in your area. So call us to schedule an appointment today. And let me just say that Focus on the Family is helping hundreds of thousands of couples each year to build stronger marriages, offering resources, trusted advice, and we can only do this because of your generous support. Every dollar you give today will help us minister to others. So please join our team with a generous donation and we’ll send you a copy of Cherie’s book, Slaying the Debt Dragon, as our way of saying thank you.
John: Donate as you can when you call 1-800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY, or when you visit focusonthefamily.com/broadcast. Plan to join us again tomorrow. We’ll hear more from Brian and Cherie as they talk about the need to have a perspective of gratitude.
Cherie Lowe: If you can fill your heart up with gratitude and you begin looking around your house and think, wow, “We have so much stuff that we make a trip to Goodwill to get rid of our stuff.” You know, we have so much already.
John: On be behalf Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for joining us today for Focus on the Family. I’m John Fuller, inviting you back as we once again help you and your family thrive in Christ.