The journey you’ve embarked on isn’t like anything you’ve ever done before. This isn’t a New Year’s Resolution or a fad diet. This is a lifestyle change that requires work, dedication, and commitment. Without a clear vision and a clear goal, you will never be able to muster the focus and determination to get there. You can’t set abstract goals like “Be more responsible with my money” or “Save more for retirement”. If you did, you could easily cut $50 in spending every month and meet the first goal or add an extra 1% to your 401k contribution and move on. Think about how the military operates. The military isn’t given flaky goals like “Go protect the population from bad guys”, they are told “Use all the forces at your disposal to take that hill”. That is a clear statement and a clear goal. Now is the time for you to create that clarity of vision and clarity in goal-setting. Where do you want to be, financially, in five, ten, or twenty-five years? Be specific. Do you want to be out of debt? Do you want to own your house outright? Do you want to pay off your student loans early? Do you want to increase your retirement savings by 50%? Whatever it is, have clear goals. For Heather and I, the goal was to pay off our consumer debt and car loans, leaving our student loans as our only debt. This is terribly important to your success, so make sure you are having a conversation with your spouse or significant other about goals and vision. If you’re single, have a serious conversation with yourself, because the process isn’t much easier for a single person. So, what are your specific goals? Grab a piece of paper and write them down. Now, let’s talk about timeline. This entire process is an exercise in realism. You have to be realistic about your current situation, the work you have ahead of you, the sacrifices you have to make to get there, and the amount of time it will take you. Don’t lie to yourself. Don’t tell yourself that you can make a bunch of drastic changes and get out of debt in 6 months. It’s not realistic to change your life in one year or even three years, so don’t think it is. Instead, think about what you can reasonably manage while maintaining a decent and enjoyable lifestyle. Sure, you could decide to eat only beans and rice for two years, walk everywhere, never travel or eat out, and you might be able to do it, but that’s not a sustainable lifestyle. The key to your financial success is slow and sustainable change. With Heather and I, we decided that 5 years was a reasonable timeframe to conquer our consumer debt. At this point, it was hovering around $50,000, so that meant we needed to come up with about $10,000 per year, or about $833 per month, to put towards our debt problems. That was in addition to the minimum payments we were making on some credit cards and our student loan payments. This isn’t something you can take lightly, so think about how much you can stand to spend every month to accomplish your goal. What’s your timeline for your goal? Now, you have a clear goal and a clear timeline, but you still need a clear vision. Of course you can imagine your goal, let’s say it’s to be out of debt, you can imagine not making those payments every month, not worrying about the interest rates or what happens if you miss a payment, you might even have an idea of what you would do with the money you will save when you don’t have credit card bills anymore. But those are abstract ideas and as we discussed earlier, abstract ideas don’t help you achieve goals. Instead, paint a picture in your mind about what you want to do when you’re out of debt. Imagine being able to take that vacation you’ve always wanted and pay cash for it. Imagine being able to buy a newer car, for cash of course, that’s safer and more fuel efficient. Imagine being able to quit your job and start that business you’ve always wanted. Whatever it is, imagine the details. Imagine how you would feel showing up at the airport for your vacation. Paint a picture of the airport, the ticket agent checking you in. Imagine the smell of the airplane and the taste of the food. Ok, maybe not the food, but imagine the journey to your dream vacation. Feel the heat of the tarmac when you step off the plane in your tropical paradise. Imagine the friendly faces and the amazing food. That’s the kind of vision that’s going to get you through the hard parts. Imagine, instead, the looks of relief and comfort when you family finds out that you were financially well prepared for your life, retirement, and death. Imagine the feel of your new car, and the peace that comes from knowing that your kids or spouse are safer. For Heather and I, the vision was going moving from the comfort of our apartment in the DC suburbs to a distant village or town and living with people from different backgrounds as Mission Coworkers. We didn’t know exactly what country or what village we were imagining, but we knew it would be a much different life than the one we had. We knew that without the discipline and commitment to our goals, that vision would never materialize.
When we got married, Heather was interested in living overseas and serving as a Mission Coworker for the Presbyterian Church (USA). With $90,000 of debt, we both knew this would be impossible. So, we made a commitment to take control of our debt and change our financial situation within five years. Our original goal was to pay off most of our consumer debt within that timeframe, leaving just the student loans, which would be manageable, even on the salary of a missionary. So, we took a step back and started analyzing our finances.