Guest blogger Nancy French and her husband, Army Reserve Capt. David French, are recognized bloggers and book authors.
By Nancy French
July 6, 2011
When my husband, David, was deployed with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment to Iraq, I’d never balanced my checkbook. I was what you might call a bystander to our financial lives after embarrassing David enough — the last straw was when I bounced our tithe check — to start handling our money exclusively. If adults had superlatives, I’d be voted, “Most Likely to Get My Electricity Turned Off,”
When David left for the war, however, it seemed less frivolous and more dire. Women would say, in hushed tones, “You should know more about your finances,” they would say, “in case something happens.”
Something happening was meant to induce fearful visions of the bank seizing my car because I couldn’t figure out where to send our monthly check if David couldn’t assist me. Before deployment, I felt invincible and full of life, not bothering to plan for the worst or, to be honest, even think of it. But before David left, we filled out some basic Army forms that ridded me of any of this false security.
In case something happened, David made a box of important documents that would guide me through our finances. In case something happened, he created a will and taught me about our insurance policies. In case something happened, our friends in Boston agreed to travel with me out of the country, and my neighbors agreed to watch the kids.
It sobered me. When David drove off that Saturday morning to begin his journey to Iraq, I feared for his safety and he feared he’d return home to a house with a yellow ribbon on the porch and a foreclosed sign in the yard — an all-too-common occurrence.
Soldiers give power of attorney to their parents or girlfriends and return to realize their “loved ones” have bought new satellite televisions, pick-up trucks, and — in one case I heard of — plastic surgery. Wives, who already feel deserted, feel entitled to live it up while their husband is gone, or, in my case, lack the know-how to keep things afloat.
One day, I was driving in my car and came across Nashville financial guru Dave Ramsey’s talk show.
“I give you the same advice your grandmother would’ve given you, except I keep my teeth in,” he said, describing his old-fashioned money advice. It got my attention.
To get started, he advised something called a debt-snowball. This is when you list all your debts from the smallest to the largest and pay the little debts first. Theoretically, if you can get over the shock of seeing all our debts in a list, it’ll give you immediate emotional gratification of getting rid of one naggingly small debt at a time. Then, you take the money you would’ve paid on it the next month and pay on your second debt. By the time the final debts are reached, the extra amount of cash you have to pay them off will grow quickly, just as a snowball rolls downhill and gathers momentum.
It sounded good, simple and understandable. So, I sat down and decided to look at our numbers for the first time. I felt like a child who had scraped her knee, afraid to assess the damage.
“Complete Lists of Debts” I wrote on a page of a notebook I’d ambitiously titled “A New Leaf.” David had given me carte blanche and power of attorney, realizing he couldn’t monitor both al-Qaida and my checking account, so I decided to keep this whole adventure a secret. I wrote down each item of debt, which represented anywhere from just a few to several thousand dollars. Revealing the wound was painful, each item causing me to physically wince — Sallie Mae (David’s Harvard loans); Plato (I-didn’t-even-get-a-degree loan); Land Rover (overpriced, gas-guzzling loan); Saab (car that might or might not have a gear shift loan), American Express (new laptop); and Visa (too many dinners out).
To start the snowball rolling, Dave Ramsey suggested having a yard sale or selling something of value. In seeing it all laid bare like that, I got a lump in my throat, took a deep breath, and did what any red-blooded American girl would do. I put David’s Land Rover up for sale.
After all, he was in Iraq. He wasn’t using it.
The next night, I was standing in my driveway accepting payment in cash from some guys in Nashville. When they drove away, they took my garage door opener, my Prince CD, and an enormous financial headache with them.
I hadn’t thought this all through. David would eventually return and need a vehicle, but I planned on being filthy rich by that time. Now? I got out a marker and wrote down the amount of my monthly Land Rover payment and designated it for next month’s American Express bill.
And so it began, a snowflake of an idea turning into a snowball of momentum. Over the course of the year, I got two extra jobs, planted trees in our otherwise pretty dull front yard, asked my neighbor to help me plant flowers, and generally tried to make our home a better place upon his return. (I did have extra time, since I didn’t have to shave my legs for the whole year.)
Whether I would succeed in my effort was yet to be seen. But there was something intoxicating about making something happen, rather than sitting around and fearing that somewhere, across the world in some sandy wasteland, something might.