Written by Brandi Koskie, Pledgettes Member

I only know debt. I grew up with it, so when I started accumulating debt in my teens it seemed almost like a rite of passage. I’ve given far more thought to it as an adult than I ever did then. It was that normal.

My family moved to Tulsa from Wichita when I was eight. Even though my dad had a bit of a relocation package, we still couldn’t afford the move. My parents sold everything, save for our clothes, dishes, dining room table, and one half of a sectional loveseat. I slept on blanket pads for most of third and fourth grade because we sold our beds. Mind you, I don’t think I knew we were poor. I never missed a meal, I had a closet full of clothes, I just didn’t have a bed.

That summer, my dad got a bonus. I’m sure he thought it was huge. He came home and posed this question to his children, aged 8, 4, and 2 years: We can use this to buy beds…or a pool. What should we get? We were swimming after dinner the next night, and crashed on our blanket pallets at least another year.

That is my first money memory…something we talk about in The Pledgettes.

The first time I had to answer it was probably the first time I’d ever really flipped through the Rolodex in my brain of money memories and suddenly realized, this is a mess! 

I “received” a car for my 16th birthday… ‘89 Toyota Camry in baby blue with a big red bow. They handed me the keys…and a bill for $125 a month. 

Discover called on my 18th birthday and I signed up for the first of three credit cards that I’d have maxed out by the end of my freshman year at the University of Oklahoma. I figured out you could get a cash advance and that would cover gas to get home or a Saturday night out with friends. It wasn’t all frivolous…I used them to survive between the $4 an hour I made working less than 20 hours a week at Old Navy.

I broke my hand during my sophomore year. With no insurance, I bought myself a little more debt. I was in debt consolidation before I graduated college. And then I left OU with $45,000 in student loans.

I’ve been married going on 19 years. As a couple, we’ve only ever had one credit card, and it’s ebbed from $0 to max over the past 20 years. Car loans, medical bills, etc. Debt was a completely foreign concept to my husband, who hails from a line of accountants and savers. 

One morning this past December, I woke up and paid off the only credit card we’ve ever had and a tax bill that felt like it was going to swallow us whole. We paid off our car last summer and my student loans the year before.

For the first time since I was 16, I’m debt-free (save for the mortgage). In the week that followed those payoffs, I kept whispering to myself, “We don’t have any debt” because I couldn’t believe it. It’s been three months and it still doesn’t feel real. That first week, I had several episodes of heaving sobs celebrating the fact that we made it here. It’s incredibly overwhelming.

I had no idea how much the background noise of debt had weighed on me -on us- until we hit the release valve. All of the air is now out of that particular tire. 

The path to debt-free started about a year ago when the money and numbers didn’t add up. Nothing made sense to me. I failed remedial math classes in college. So when I say this isn’t my area, it’s really not my area. I started staying up late and pouring over bank statements, credit card statements, income statements (we work for ourselves) trying to figure out the puzzle. 

I knew how much money I was invoicing every month. So why was I holding my breath at the grocery check-out? Why couldn’t I buy concert tickets on a whim? Why did I feel like I couldn’t justify spending money to replace two-year-old bras?! It was madness.

In my late-night sleuthing I discovered that we made more than enough money to get by. More than enough to take care of everything we needed. Too much of it was being allocated to the debt. That was really frustrating. 

For the first time in years, I made a budget for us to live within. I discovered subscriptions and payments that were long overdue from canceling and removed those from our “books.” With the guidance of our financial advisor, we started the process to refinance our house. With the best rates in years, we could reduce our house payment and take out cash. That cash paid off the last of our debt, including the IRS, and left us with a healthy savings to sort of “start over” that emergency reserve we’d long lost…while also stashing away a bit for the first real vacation in a long, long time. 

For the first time in years, I don’t check my bank balance every single day. Sometimes…I go a whole week…or even two! Do you know how liberating that is? 

We’ve freed up enough money that we’re finally investing in life insurance, our 401K, and even additional savings. We’re investing more in stocks and crypto. We even explored the purchase of a second investment property, but our financial advisor asked us to wait one more year to improve our liquidity. 

“Debt-free” feels incredibly foreign. I don’t understand it. How does anyone not have debt? This has changed so much about the way we talk about money. The way we spend and save. There’s a lot more intention than ever before. I don’t regret spending it because there is a purpose behind it, and I don’t have to worry about those dollars sacrificing something else.

Debt consumed, and even led, most of our conversations about money, it was hard to talk about the other aspects. How can you talk about a budget if you have no idea how far this month’s dollars are going to stretch? How can you talk about savings if there’s nothing left to save? How can you plan for future expenses, “fun” or “responsible” as we like to call them, if there’s not enough money to cover the basics?

Part of our money reset was being able to talk about it in healthy, productive ways. Every month we have our SOTU – state of the union. Some people call these “money dates.” We get out of the house (in the safest way we can given COVID), our daughter goes to a friend’s. It’s just us and our spreadsheets. We review the past month’s spending, which has helped us identify patterns that we can fix and anomalies that may or may not need to be addressed. We review upcoming costs that are outside of the norm, reorganize our budget as needed (last month included adding line items for donations, gifts, and contributing more to our cash-value life insurance policy), and future cast against goals. SOTU started as our “safe” place to talk about money and it makes it a lot easier for casual, everyday conversations about money to occur. 

For the first time in 20 years, we’re on the same page with our finances. We don’t fight about it and we don’t argue about it. We certainly have moments that heat up more than others, the difference is that now we have the space and the tools to work through it in a far less emotional way.

What I now know is debt is normal because we’ve normalized it. Debt doesn’t have to be a way of life or any kind of comfort zone. Like most things that weigh us down, it took having my own “enough is enough” moment to come up for air and find my own way out of it.