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How I Broke Free of Debt is an interview with Natalie Sebula-Belin, which explains her journey to debt freedom using the Financial Peace University Program. She was a coworker from my time at the University of Pittsburgh.

Tell me a little about yourself, Natalie, before I knew you.

Natalie:  After high school, I went to the Culinary Art Institute in Pittsburgh, and after graduating, I worked at The Greenbriar Resort, for a little over 6 months, and after a serious car accident, in which my car was totaled, I was nearly killed.
It was a life-changing event that caused me to rethink my goals, and well, everything. I ended up leaving Greenbriar because I felt it wasn’t for me, and I wanted to be closer to home and get my life back on track, and also to further my education since I only had an Associate’s Degree.
Well, not only an Associate’s degree but also $30,000 of school loan debt. And I had to buy another car, so I also had a $10,000 car loan. I ended moving back home to start over.
I kept working in the culinary field for about 5 years, and then I took a job at the University of Pittsburgh, and applied to the College of General Studies and started to study nutrition.
That first summer of working at Pitt, I took Financial Peace University which was offered by my co-worker Bonnie Lynch. She was debt-free and encouraged me to learn more about managing my finances.

What were your finances like before doing the Financial Peace Program?

Natalie: Besides car and school debt, I had a credit card.  I was paying my debt on time, but I was not tackling it like a gazelle.

Do you remember roughly what your wage was then?

Natalie: Wow, well let me think about it for a minute, that was 8 years ago. Yeah, I’m pretty sure it was under $10 per hour, but Pitt offered free tuition and I wanted to go in a new direction and it was more of an adventure, and self-growth for me. Their health benefits were so much better than I had at my previous job too.

Do you know how much debt you had then?

Natalie: About $27,000 for school. I cannot really remember how much debt I had on my car, but I feel it was around $9,000. No debt was accumulated on my credit card, but I had one.

What were your expenses like?

Natalie: I was not making a ton of money. So I was living at home. Paying off school, and car debt, saving, spending, and preparing to go back to school. With more than 1 credit card open.

Was the program difficult to understand?

Natalie: No, that is why I liked the program so much! I knew I could trust Bonnie. She wasn’t taking my money and making promises to me to grow it. She was giving me advice to help me make my money work harder for me.

Did you dislike anything about the program?

Natalie: I didn’t like the budgeting sheet because it was hard to break the categories down to zero. My income was inconsistent so I had to start over every two weeks.

What motivated you to follow the program?

Natalie: I was in my mid 20’s and was teetering on the fence of financial disaster or really making smart choices with my finances. I wanted financial reassurance.

For example, what kept you going when it was tough?

Natalie: When I saw my debt decreasing and my savings growing. I used the Debt Snowball and each time I paid off debt, I got more excited to pay off more. I would even say that I started to enjoy saving money as much as I used to enjoy spending money.

What was most difficult to implement?

Natalie: Cutting up my credit cards. Also, I found it frustrating paying my school debt off because I felt like I was never going to get that paid off. I had 2 different school loans.

What was most rewarding for you?

Natalie: Paying off my school debt.
That’s fantastic, Natalie because a lot of people don’t know that school loans cannot be wiped out with bankruptcy, which means you cannot default on them. If you can’t find a job to pay them off the interest and principal continues to grow.

How long were you on the program by the time you paid off your debt?

Natalie: 4 years not counting my mortgage on my house.

How much have you increased your savings since you started your program?

Natalie: I was able to increase my IRA savings substantially because Dave Ramsey taught me the steps. I have increased it over $40,000!
Bonnie: Natalie, that’s fantastic! Your $40,000 today will grow to almost $300,000 in 25 years at 8 percent if invested in a stock market index fund.
Check it out at Calculators.org. 
Now obviously, past results are not an indicator of future results, but it is exciting to see what’s possible!

How were you able to get your husband on board with you?

We worked together to break free of debt

When you’re both on the same page financially you can crush your debt!

Natalie: When we were engaged and looking for a house I gave Chris the Dave Ramsey CDS to listen to. I wanted to be on the same page financially as him. I wanted to have conversations with him about money without having arguments. I told him, “I would like you to listen to these and hear your thoughts about them.”

Who writes up your budget?

Natalie: Chris and I have separate budgets, but we have mutual savings. He has his own business so he handles the mortgage, utilities, the bills, I pay for groceries, parties, presents, and my school expenses. I don’t have a car payment so that pretty much covers it.

In our savings, we put our wedding gift money, tax refunds, and if I do any extra jobs, I throw the money in the savings.

How do you two resolve money issues?

Natalie: Because Chris listened to the Financial Peace University CD’s in the car while he travels for music lessons, he learned from them and agreed with what Dave Ramsey says, so we don’t have money issues very often.

Bonnie: That was so smart of you, Natalie, because you gave him time to listen and process them, instead of it turning into nagging him about money.

In what ways are you now blessed because you have no debt, and can save?

Natalie: Having no debt but my mortgage is a burden lifted. I see the importance of a dollar now.
We are able to take nice vacations each year now with no debt to follow us home. Some of the places we’ve visited are:
  • Hilton Head
  • Chicago
  • Nashville
  • Seattle
  • New York City
  • Philadelphia
  • Los Angeles
  • San Diego
  • San Francisco
  • Savannah
  • Boston
  • Washington, D.C.
  • Austin, TX
  • Key West

And this year we are headed to New Orleans!

Debt-free living allows us to travel

Vacations are much better when there are no payments to follow you home!

What is the best advice you can give to someone wanting to get out of debt?

Natalie: Make smart choices, and tackle your debt. Like A GAZELLE! Just. Follow. The. Baby. Steps.  Be a minimalist because material items are not important.

Before I met Chris, I had the typical relationship casualties, and I noticed that I tried to fill the void with stuff. But the stuff never made me happy. It just brought clutter to my life and depletion of the money that I could use elsewhere.

See what Natalie said there?

She said “Follow the Baby Steps. She didn’t try clever strategies to get ahead. She didn’t rush ahead and skip steps. She made a commitment, and she stuck with it! 

Success with your finances is more tied to behavior than you think. Have clear goals, and a plan to accomplish them. Then walk it out.

How will you pay off your debt?

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