Debt Free: A Journey To Financial Freedom from Ethan Brouwer, Associate Wealth Advisor

Ethan Brouwer and his wife smiling

This is a celebratory blog post… Lauren and I are officially debt free!

For us this is a big deal. Since we have been married, this has been our biggest financial goal which our lifestyle and budget portrayed.

I believe sharing our personal debt-payoff journey can benefit others so I’ve always been very transparent with our financial situation in hopes of helping others on their own journey. So let’s get into it…

My wife, Lauren, and I graduated from Dordt University in 2020 and 2021. Both of our families left the responsibility of funding our tuition to us – which I am extremely thankful for. It gave us “skin in the game” and forced us to plan, save and take responsibility. It made us work hard during the summers throughout our college years and, personally, motivated me to graduate a semester early.

However, it left us with our fair share of student loans to pay back after graduation. $52,384 to be exact.

Student loan interest has been in deferment since the start of COVID-19 pandemic, but only $10,884 of our student loans actually were in deferment. I had $7,500 in private loans which started accruing interest after my 6 months grace period. Lauren had $34,000 that we owed her parents through a Line of Credit because she didn’t qualify for student loans as she is a Canadian Citizen. That Line of Credit (LOC) from her parents was also accruing interest.

Our debt payoff story has a lot of twists and turns… so buckle up:

We got married in April of 2021 and we were living on a whopping $30,000/year income. We lived very tight and watched expenses closely as we were navigating all of our wedding and honeymoon expenses to start our marriage.

Lauren graduated from her undergrad program in May of ’21 but just 10 days after our graduation ceremony, she started her Master’s in Social Work program through Dordt. Since she didn’t qualify for student loans in the United States, we had to cash flow the entire program which was $26,950 over 13 months.

After paying that first tuition check, we quickly realized we were going to need more income to make this work so Lauren started working two part time jobs while getting her Master’s. I also worked for DoorDash a few nights a week and on weekends. Even despite taking on these additional income streams, we realized that if we weren’t extremely careful, we wouldn’t be able to pay the tuition bill each semester.

So, we got intentional. We knew that every month we had to pay rent, utilities, make our student loan payment, save for the next tuition bill, and have food to eat. For quite a while, that is about all we spent money on. We said “no” to going out to eat with friends, were disciplined in non-essential shopping and limited travel.

Looking back, I am extremely thankful for that time. It taught us contentment, discipline and we got creative on things to do with friends and family that didn’t cost money. Yes, there were sacrifices made and things we missed out on but in retrospect, life was good and we had everything we needed and so much more.

Over time, we built more of a savings account and we were able to loosen up. We were able to spend money to do more things that brought joy to our lives while still remaining intentional with our budget.

Throughout this time, we maintained an emergency fund of at least $5,000. If we had anything over at the end of each month, it went towards debt. After a while and getting a handle on what monthly income we could plan on, we started paying $900/month towards Lauren’s LOC even though her minimal payment was only $150. This helped keep us accountable to our goal of paying off our loans instead of being tempted to spend that margin in our budget on non-essentials.

In May of 2022, Lauren was in a car accident and her car was totaled. Thankfully, no one was hurt! This fell in the same month that we made our final $6,940 payment for her Master’s program – which left our accounts low. We still had our $5,000 emergency fund – so now we had a choice: 1) Buy another “junker” with our emergency fund, or 2) purchase a nicer car with a car loan.

Our goal was to pay down debt and not add to it! Knowing how this would set us back on reaching our goal, lock down more of our monthly income in debt payments, and have compound interest working against us – we decided to go with another “junker.”

Fast forward to October of 2022 and Lauren completed her Master’s program, passed her licensure exam, and started her full-time position as a Mental Health Therapist. This nearly doubled our income! However, we stayed disciplined. All of Lauren’s income went towards debt payments, as well as the

$900/month we were paying toward her LOC. That may seem a little ridiculous but we are very thankful we did that because we soon faced another challenge.

In April of 2023, we received a letter from USCIS (US Immigration), stating that Lauren’s Green Card application – which we submitted in September 2021 – was denied. This meant her work permit was revoked and she was being deported. Obviously, this was an emotionally devastating letter. Thankfully, two days later, we were able to work with our lawyer to re-apply for her Green Card and work permit which allowed her to remain in the US, but she still couldn’t work.

After that emotional rollercoaster, financial reality started to set in. Our income would now be cut in half and we owe over $12,000 in legal and immigration fees.

At this point we are very thankful for two things: 1) We didn’t let our lifestyle creep in with our increased income and 2) We paid $2,500 to pay off Lauren’s LOC a few hours before we received the letter from USCIS.

Because of those two things, this major drop in monthly income didn’t affect our lifestyle and we were able to rebuild our emergency fund rapidly without having those student loan payments anymore.

Over the past five months in which Lauren hasn’t been able to work, we have continued to save and were able pay off my remaining $10,284 of student loans before interest started accruing again in September 2023.

Making that final payment was extremely satisfying. Paying off over $53,500 in 28 months definitely required a lot of sacrifice and discipline but that made the reward even more gratifying.

Looking back over the last 28 months, it is hard not to be anything but thankful. Despite the twists and turns, God provided over and over again.

I hope you found Lauren & my debt free story insightful, encouraging, and motivational. Working in the financial industry will allow me to help others design their own journey and be a part of so many more success stories.

If you’re feeling weighted by debt, our team at Pinnacle Wealth is here to help you build a life confidently enjoyed.

Meeting with us is the first step in your journey to find True Wealth and creating a financial foundation you’ll be thankful you prioritized today in preparation for tomorrow.

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