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Conquering Debt (Part 1 of 2)

Air Date 01/05/2016

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Brian and Cherie Lowe offer encouragement and advice for living with financial freedom in a discussion based on Cherie's book, Slaying the Debt Dragon: How One Family Conquered Their Money Monster and Found an Inspired Happily Ever After. (Part 1 of 2)

Episode Transcript


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John: 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 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.

End of Excerpt

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 on today's "Focus on the Family" with our president and author, Jim Daly. Thanks for joining us today. I'm John Fuller.

Jim Daly: John, that is a big number, $127,000 of unsecured debt. That's not your home or even a car. It's just credit cards and other things like that. That is amazing and probably stifling for many people. You might be in that place and you know what? We have hope for you today and here at Focus on the Family, our goal is to help you thrive in your family and one of the top things that people contact us for is help in their finances. That is a key to having a strong marriage and a strong family.

In fact, the average American family has over $16,000 in credit card debt and additionally, student loan debts over $25,000. That's on average and of course, there's medical debt and the car payments like I mentioned and the home mortgage payments or rent.

And here at the start of the year, we want to inspire you, if I could be that bold, to take control of your finances, no matter what your financial situation may be. And it's true, with hard work that you're gonna hear about today and determination, you can begin making better financial choices today.

John: And as I said, our guests are Brian Lowe and his wife, Cherie and they live in Greenwood, Indiana, along with their two daughters. Cherie hosts 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.


Jim: Brian and Cherie, welcome to "Focus on the Family."

Cherie Lowe: Thank you so much for having us.

Brian: Thank you very much.

Jim: Well, let's get started. Take us back before that day and describe the early days of your marriage and what were your attitudes toward finances going into marriage? It sounds like, like most of us, maybe there wasn't much attitude 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 that's just the way life is.

Jim: And who told you need to have a car payment? (Laughter)

Cherie: You know, I don't know if anybody said--

Jim: Maybe you need to have a car.

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. It wasn't anything where 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 about you?

Brian: I was right there along with her together in that, is that, you know, I went to school and then I went on to 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 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.

Cherie: The biggest chunk of our debt was student loan debt. We had over $80,000 in student loan debt by the time—

Jim: Wow.

Cherie: --it was all said and done.

Jim: So, you woke up one day and how much debt did you have before you realized, 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. And we kind of went over it and it was this moment where I had been trying to cast a 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 this seems insurmountable.

Jim: Well, help us in the beginning. When you're married, both of you are coming into marriage without, 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 kinda 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 it 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 realized 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, we're saying it 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. 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.

So, what did you do? Wasn't it a Dave Ramsey book or something you were trying to get Cherie to read, but it was taking—

Brian: Yes.

Jim: --some time?

Brian: You know, and do you know, it started back actually, our journey started in 2008, but two years prior to that on a date night, believe it or not, we had gone to a bookstore. We're both bibliophiles. We're big readers and—

Jim: You even met in the library in university.

Brian: Yeah, yeah, we even had ran [sic] 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 at the library. And I put it back on the shelf. I've since bought other copies, so we have absolution. (Laughter)

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, you can have a great steak dinner with all of the fixings, but if you present it on a trash can lid, nobody wants to eat that. 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.

Jim: Right.

Brian: And you should present something with love and 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 how long did it take you to re-present it to Cherie in a way that she thought it was kind and—

Brian: Well—

Jim: --goodhearted?

Brian: --I think what happened is, that I changed myself, because that's the one thing that we do have some modicum of control over, is how we act. And I stopped using the credit card. I had taken more steps personally to change my own actions and my own relationship with debt. And then I started basically sending destination postcards, you know, dreaming and saying, "What would it look like if we were out of debt?

Jim: Cherie, let me ask you this. You talked about the debt being boring debt. I thought that was really funny. 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, that we had gone on some crazy vacation or I had boots in every color. (Laughter) We had nothing fun to show for it. There were no photos from a high-flying, sky-diving 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: And you know, you talked a little bit about this, but what does that feel like, to carry that much load? You talked about thinking about the future. What emotions did you have?

Brian: It was scary. There's no doubt about that. It was like an albatross around your neck and 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've gone in a very bad direction.

Jim: What was the spiritual component in this? I mean, this sounds like an awareness, a good young couple who comes to their senses. But what was God speaking to your heart in all of this?

Cherie: You know, 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've known better. I should've done better, grew up in the church.

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 of 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, that it was freeing and we pulled that darkness out into the light and it began to lose its power over us.

Jim: And let's talk about that, 'cause it's important. Now we've painted that picture of carrying the weight of that, kind of living undisciplined, that you know, many people are and that's just reality. How did you wake up to that and say, okay, we've gotta change. We've talked about how you served it up in a loving way, what did you do day one to say, this is gonna 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 personify it. We named it "the dragon." (Laughter) 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: Very creative.

Brian: 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 in that context, you would talk about it as the dragon, right?

Cherie: Yes, we did. You know, and I think there are power 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 [of] 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 replaced the word "debt" with "Fred Johnson" and I said, Fred Johnson wants to destroy your marriage and Fred Johnson want 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. And so—

Jim: (Chuckling) Right.

Cherie: --that simple act of personifying the debt gave us enough motivation and just kind of a little bit of a fire in our bellies 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, so that you're not on each other's case. I mean, when you talked a moment ago, Brian about how it enhanced your communication, I was thinking, yeah, don't buy that, honey. Don't spend money on that, honey. That's enhanced communication, I guess, but that's not what you're talkin' about.

Brian: Not the same thing, no. (Laughter) It's a totally different thing.

Jim: Did you get some rules though? If you're gonna spend more than $50—

Brian: We did.

Jim: --you gotta call me or I gotta call you.

Cherie: We're actually a little bit more tight than that.

Jim: Yeah.

Cherie: While we were paying off debt, it was actually $10 if it wasn't budgeted already.

Jim: Right.

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?" But if it was $10 or more, we spoke to each other and that meant we talked 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 would usually say, "Please buy new tennis shoes. Yours have holes in them," you know.

Jim: Right.

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 I think it's important to identify it, the difference between control and accountability. Is that what you're saying?

Cherie: Yeah.

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."

Jim: Wow.

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 2½ 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 and 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: You're listening to "Focus on the Family." Today we're talking with 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 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.

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 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 daycare. They're paying for clothing. They're doin' all the thing[s]. But what made you come to that conclusion that you 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-thru 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. So, I treated it 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. Okay, the dirty little word "budget" that most couples flare up over, because they're not quite ready for that discussion, talk about the need for it. How committed do you have to be to that budget?

Brian: You have to be committed to communicate with one another about how you are going to spend and we've played around with even calling it something different. We call it "forecasting" at home. It doesn't change what it is.

And in anything in life, you have to trade one freedom for another. And we have all kinds of freedoms 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 predetermine 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, 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: So, when we're talking about the creation of a budget, back to your earlier illustration of doing this in a loving way together, how do you go about that process? What's the environment like? How do you sit down, a kitchen table, you know, sitting with pens and paper and calculators? Or you know, what's the right kind of way to do the budget, to start the process?

Cherie: Certainly, so you definitely need to lean into your gifts. So, I would say if you have, you know, anti-computer vibes, don't use a piece of software. Of if you've found a certain method has failed in the past, don't return to it again. That's not wise.

But as far as setting it up together as a couple, you need some time of isolation. So, that means that there shouldn't be a game on in the background. You should probably turn your phone off completely, maybe wait until the kids are in bed, so that they don't need something from you and you're distracted.

We always tell people to have a snack, because it's never good to be hungry. It will make you "hangry," and so, that will not be good for either one of you. And you kinda lead into it as a time of enjoyment. Instead of it being this kind of drudgery of "we have to do this," it's more of "we get to do this." And it can become a pleasure.

It's still awkward at first and it may be a little bit uncomfortable, but in time, it becomes more and more fluid, more and more organic. The more you practice, the better you get.

Jim: Do you think generally we're afraid of this?

Cherie: I think definitely and I think it goes back to that idea of control. You know, I think deep within us, we fight that battle when we're married of, nobody's gonna tell me what to do. And I think that usually there's one spouse that is, you know, more of a spender and another that's a saver, but also someone who's focused on short-term goals versus long-term goals and that can clash sometimes. So …

Jim: Cherie, you in fact, you had a story in the book, Slaying the Debt Dragon about placemats and that it was part of your eureka moment. What was that?

Cherie: Yeah, so it's so funny, because before we started paying off debt, I don't think I would ever have 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 realized 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." (Laughing)

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 percent off, and I looked down and I found these placemats that were 19 cents. 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."

And then I began to really kind of think about the placemats I already had at home, which a friend had made for me and they were adorable and I already had placemats and I didn't need new placemats. And then it dawned on me that we had paid off $127,482 and 30 cents, 19 cents at a time, because we had learned to say no to 19 cents. And if we could say no to 19 cents, we could say no to a dollar ninety. We could say 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: That's so important to hear, because I think a lot of people would say, "Oh, that's ridiculous."

Cherie: Uh-hm.

Jim: "You know, buy the placemats. Come on, lady." But it's true. You're learning to say no to things. You're depriving yourself in the right way and you're not tryin' to fulfill that, whatever that is in your heart to, you know, meet that need.

Cherie: I would say it's a void that only Jesus could fill, No. 1, but you know, No. 2, I already had really great placemats and I think (Laughter) just realizing, you know, 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: Let's get practical with groceries and food. This is one for Jean and I (Laughing). I mean, we have two teenage boys, so I mean, I'm always lookin' at that goin', can we reduce that by a few thousand a month? (Laughter) But it is; it's just like the grocery budget seems to just go crazy sometimes. How do you approach grocery and food? Because that's obviously something we all need.

Cherie: Yeah, so it can be a beast, right and especially if you have dogs, teenage boys or babies. (Laughter) It's really difficult. But one of the things that we did, especially in our marriage was, that Brian would actually come grocery shopping with me sometimes.

Jim: Why was that a benefit?

Cherie: Just a few. 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: (Laughing) Well, why is that? What's the—

Brian: Well—

Jim: --disconnect?

Brian: --the disconnect is, I don't know how much things cost and if you don't know how much things cost, you shouldn't dictate how much you're supposed to spend. And so, it was clear 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 things that I assumed what they would cost, it's hard to have a sum total if you don't know what those individual costs are.

And it's also helpful, because we just spent time together 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, than 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.

Brian: Together.

Cherie: Exactly.

Jim: But what would be some cost-effective ways, cost-cutting measures in the grocery store, 'cause it seems that, you know, that whole industry moves to convenience with a cost.

Cherie: Right.

Jim: Is it that simple, that you've gotta 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 p.m. 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.

Cherie: Yeah, right (Laughter). 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 so that they will 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 five 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 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 Cherie and Brian, with your permission, let's post those for the listeners to see and there's still more to your story and we want to cover that. And I want to start off next time by hearing about how your two daughters responded to this debt-slaying journey, 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. Let me say, thanks for bein' with us today.

Cherie: Thank you.

Brian: Thank you.


John: And you can read more about the Lowe's inspiring story and get dozens of ideas about saving money in pretty much every area of your budget when you pick up their book, Slaying the Debt Dragon. Now you'll find a copy and a CD or instant download of this two-part conversation at .

And while you're on our site, we have a special offer for you from our partners at Finicity. It's a new custom financial program specially designed to give you the tools and accountability you need to help build up an emergency fund and pay off your debt and develop cash savings and really lay the groundwork for your retirement. Learn more at the website or when you call 800-A-FAMILY.

And throughout the program we've talked about the need for strong marital communication on this issue of finances. It is a powder keg for so many couples. It might be you are struggling in this and you need someone to talk to. As Jim mentioned, we have caring Christian counselors on staff. They're available to talk with you during normal business hours or they can refer you to someone in your area for ongoing dialogue.

And let me just say that in the past 12 months, we've helped over 790,000 couples build stronger marriages, with help of resources and trusted advice and we can only do this because of your generous support. We're a not-for-profit ministry and every dollar you gift today will help us help others. So, please join our team with a generous donation today and we'll send a copy of Slaying the Debt Dragon as our way of saying thank you. Donate when you call 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY.

Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Jim Daly, I'm John Fuller, inviting you back tomorrow. We'll hear more from Brian and Cherie Lowe, as they talk about the need to have a perspective of gratitude.


Cherie: So, you know, I began to just count those blessings and I will say that gratitude fights off those "give me" feelings, that temptation of greed. It is the opposite and 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. And that's been a central part of the journal, too. It's not as glamorous. Everybody loves when you pay off the debt. Nobody thinks about those days in between necessarily, but we know that, you know, that ending will be a blessing, because we started.

End of Excerpt

John: That's next time, as we once again, help your family thrive.

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Cherie Lowe

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Through her blog Queen of Free, Cherie Lowe offers practical strategies for saving money and pursuing a debt-free life. She encourages her readers with her inspirational story of how her family managed to pay off a debt of more than $127,000. Cherie's story has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, and she makes a weekly appearance as a savings expert on an NBC Television news affiliate in Indianapolis. Cherie is author of the book Slaying the Debt Dragon. She and her husband, Brian, have two daughters.


Brian Lowe

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Brian Lowe is a public speaker and blogger who offers practical advice for breaking free of debt and staying debt-free. He and his wife, Cherie, offer encouragement with their inspirational story of how they managed to pay off a debt of over $127,000. Brian and Cherie reside in Indiana with their two daughters. Learn more about Brian and find financial wisdom at his blog, King of Free.