When my husband and I got married, I had just finished grad school and he was finishing his 1st Master’s degree. After we got married, I moved from the Midwest to the east coast (DC Area), where he had moved the year prior to teach at a private Christian school. If you know anything about DC, it’s a super high cost of living, and my Midwestern self had some sticker shock. As we began to add up our bills, including school loans, I realized that with the increased cost of living, and because I didn’t have a job yet, we couldn’t pay all our bills and debt on my husband’s Christian school teacher salary. I began to be very uncomfortable with the idea of debt and that is when I heard about Dave Ramsey’s debt snowball principle.
As I got temp work and then moved to a full-time position, we got serious about paying off our debt. We lived very simply to do this, used our wedding gift cards at Target for things like toilet paper or buying Christmas gifts for people, didn’t have home internet for about 4 years, and kept flip phones while most people around us were upgrading. This led us to become debt free as well as build up our 3-5 month emergency fund.
After my husband finished his Master’s, he decided soon after that he wanted to move into ministry or teaching in seminary. We realized that to do this, he’d need to go back to school again. As we started thinking about the costs associated with a 106-credit seminary degree, as well as the limited salary potential as a pastor afterward, we knew we wanted to commit to going through seminary and start ministry life debt free. (Side note: see here for a great article on considerations of seminary debt and infographics/stats on seminary debt here)
We ended up being able to pay in full as he went through seminary, and here are some of the ways we were able to do this (Note: I was originally planning to submit this to Money Saving Mom’s “We paid cash” feature, but we technically didn’t pay cash so we don’t meet the submission guidelines. But after reading the above articles on seminary debt, I wanted to share our story about going through seminary debt free as encouragement/ideas for others who are trying to do the same) :
- Continued simple living even when income went up.
Chris went through seminary in a non-traditional way, meaning he worked while doing it. I was also working. It took a little longer that way, but it was key for us to go through debt free. As our income went up with both of us getting salary increases and my husband sometimes working extra as an adjunct instructor, we chose to keep most of our simple lifestyle that led us to get out of debt. We continued to live in an apartment complex that didn’t offer amenities (like no washer & dryer in the building, no dishwasher, and older building). Although with our joint income we could have afforded an upgrade, we decided the savings was worth it to try to live as close to one income as possible. We also continued to drive older cars that had been paid off. We did make some decisions that cost us some more – we got internet after he started seminary because he was needing to use internet so much, and we moved from our tiny first apartment into a 2-bedroom in our same complex so there would be an extra bedroom/office for study. But we weighed the other costs (and sanity) we would be saving – the extra space cost more but, it also saved my husband having to regularly leave the house to find a place to study (which would usually cost money in the form of buying something at a coffee shop when the library was closed).
- Employer tuition benefits and applying for scholarships.
First, we were very fortunate to get the benefit of some tuition costs paid for from my husband’s job when he started at a local church. Tuition benefits from employers are a fantastic way to save money. Also, when I was working at a college, I once heard some scholarships are not super competitive simply because not very many people apply for them. I know that rumor doesn’t apply to all scholarships, but it is what motivated us to apply for a scholarship we thought my husband would have NO chance at getting. Rather than not applying because we thought we had no chance, we gave it a shot. And guess what, much to our surprise, he got it! We felt so blessed when we found out he got it because it was so unexpected. And over the course of seminary, the nature of the scholarship, which was matched with the church tuition assistance we received, it saved us thousands of dollars. Of course some scholarships are highly competitive and take a lot of effort to apply for, so there is a cost/benefit to it (and there are some scholarship scams out there, too), but overall, looking at possible scholarships and applying for the right ones could end up saving you hundreds of dollars.
- Thought through effective class schedules & academic planning.
I used to teach a college success class and we’d talk about things like planning a class schedule. A lot of times people pick their schedule without a strategy, not thinking about the extra time and costs involved in driving to class 3-4 times a week verses thinking about structuring your classes on 1-2 days. People also forget to think about the long-term planning of degrees and maximizing things like electives and class order to reduce over all time and costs. Because I had experience with academic planning and have planning in my bones, I would help my husband map out his schedule each semester and for the long-term to maximize his time and our costs. He saved time and money some semesters by choosing classes right after each other to save driving costs. You don’t want to overload yourself in a day unrealistically just to save a buck, but it is a good thing to think through. Another great aspect of his program was some classes could be taken online. With careful planning, we made it possible for him to finish the last semester of his degree online. This was especially helpful because we moved back to the Midwest rather unexpectedly before his degree was completed. With online courses, you can save money because you aren’t driving to class, but sometimes you have to pay extra fees for the online classes. So we looked into all of that, when considering costs.
- Saved on Book Costs.
Using the seminary library or school library exchange programs can save you money on books. My husband is a book lover, and so I know his default would be to buy the book. When writing papers in seminary he may need quite a few new books for each paper, so I was always encouraging him to use the school library if possible unless he really needed (or wanted) the book. Kindle also saved us hundreds of dollars on books, and He got the kindle as a gift. We would always look for book comparisons to see if the book could be purchased used, but many times with shipping costs added, the kindle would still be cheaper. There are so many options with buying books these days, shopping around will help you save.
So, I’m happy to say that my husband graduated this past May with a Masters in Divinity debt free. I am so proud of my husband for how hard he worked the past four years in school, and I’m also proud of us that we can say that we worked together for him to go to school debt free. We are planting a church, Lord willing, in the next year. And it feels so good that we can take that risk without the weight of school debt.