Finding Hope

Scott Martin

I GOT MARRIED IN 1980 at age 22. After 29 years of marriage, my wife and I went through a contentious divorce in 2009 and 2010. We’d grown apart and, during our last few years of marriage, discussed parting ways.

I moved out of our marital home of 16 years into an apartment. It was strange to be living by myself again. I was 51 at the time.

While adjusting to my new reality, I quickly realized I knew little of our household finances. I was working four jobs to try and help pay down the debt that I’d accumulated when I decided to go back to school in 2003 to become a physician assistant.

Even though I had some vague sense of our debt, I didn’t know how bad our financial situation was. I trusted my wife with all of our finances. I’d grown apathetic after every money conversation turned into an argument. In retrospect, this should have been a warning sign.

Since I wasn’t sleeping well in the months following our separation, I developed a knack for forensic accounting. I quickly learned that my wife had been hiding accounts, credit cards and a post office box from me. In addition, she had forged my signature on checks associated with a maxed-out credit card that I never used.

I discovered that we had a combined debt of $200,000, not including our mortgage. I was embarrassed that I was so out of touch and let things get so out of control. The person in the mirror was to blame—me.

I was struggling both emotionally and financially, and I didn’t know where to turn for financial help. I didn’t have the money to hire someone. Even though I have two graduate degrees, I was never taught anything about personal finance in school or by my parents. This seems to be common in our society. Unfortunately, I also failed to teach my kids the basic principles of personal finance.

Still, my oldest son offered a great suggestion—that I read The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey. The book cost less than $20, it’s a simple and practical read, and it changed my life forever. I finally had a plan to address my debt.

The principles that Ramsey has been teaching for more than three decades are common sense. They’re things that we should all be taught at an early age. But unfortunately, I wasn’t—and it appears neither were many Americans. Household debt by 2022’s fourth quarter totaled $16.9 trillion, equal to almost $129,000 per household.

Since I’m a task-oriented person, Ramsey’s seven baby steps worked well for me. There’s nothing sophisticated about these baby steps:

  • Save $1,000 for a starter emergency fund.
  • Pay off all debts except the mortgage using the “debt snowball”—pay off the smallest debt first, then double down on the next smallest, all the while paying the minimum on the rest.
  • Save three to six months of expenses in an emergency fund.
  • Invest 15% of your total household income for retirement.
  • Save for your children’s college in a 529 or similar account.
  • Pay off your mortgage early.
  • Build wealth and give.

From 2009 to 2012, I paid off my part of the marital debt, which came to $75,000 after mediation. Both my attorney and the mediator were amazed at how much debt I’d paid off even before the mediation. I did it by working multiple jobs while living as inexpensively as possible. I also continued to give money to my daughter every month while she was in college, and to pay my attorney fees. I moved back into my house in the fall of 2010 and sold it in 2014.

I did my debt-free scream on the The Ramsey Show in 2012 to celebrate my debt freedom and to thank Ramsey in person for changing my life. Some people criticize Ramsey for making money on his debt freedom plan and the products that he sells. I disagree.

My total cost for his help in 2009 was less than $20. His podcasts are free. It seems that this criticism could be directed at any small business owner who took a simple idea and profited from it. But isn’t that part of the American dream?

My current wife of more than 10 years and I remain debt-free. She was raised with much more financial common sense than me. We continue to follow the same financial and investing principles that I started following in 2009. I don’t recall us ever arguing about money or bills. We don’t owe anybody any money, we can be generous with our giving and we travel around the world.

I debated for a long time whether or not to share my story. After much thought, I decided to write about my experience in the hope that it’ll give someone facing similar circumstances the chance for a better future. When I was 51, my net worth was a negative $400,000 between the mortgage and other debts. My situation felt so hopeless. Now, at 65, I’m no longer hopeless and haven’t felt that way in years.

Scott Martin is a semi-retired family medicine physician associate (previously known as a physician assistant) and has been practicing medicine for the past 18 years. His previous career was in academia doing research and teaching at the University of Georgia. He and his wife enjoy traveling and spending time with family. Check out Scott’s earlier articles.

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