Reader Testimonial: When life doesn’t go like you plan or hope

Amy from Joel & Amy emailed in the following testimonial which I thought many of you would enjoy reading:

My husband and I were born frugal and worked hard during high school and college to graduate debt-free. We scraped together our pennies and put a 20% down payment on a condo in the Chicago area at the age of 22. Our monthly mortgage payment was a little cheaper than our rent would have been and we were excited at the prospect of selling our condo in three to five years as the property value increased.

We continued paying every bill in cash while my husband attended grad school and I worked as a nanny. We kept a strict budget: $18 a month on dates, $5 a week on clothing and decorating. We couponed like crazy. We were known as Craigslist fanatics!

People were incredibly generous to us. Our 1986 Dodge broke and a lady who hardly knew us handed us a $5,000 check to replace our car. A family offered to pay for all of Joel’s school books. Joel’s parents graciously handed us a check every semester to help pay for school and paid our cell phone bills. We didn’t pay for everything on our own, but, if we hadn’t budgeted our money, it would have been easy to make poor financial decisions

Joel graduated from grad school last summer, debt-free. Because we take our budget spreadsheets very seriously, we were able to save $10,000 while he was in school.

A few years ago, we thought we’d be reaping the benefits of our hard work right now. We thought we’d have at least a $40,000 down payment for our next home and be completely debt free at the age of 25.

We needed to move across the country last summer because of my husband’s job. Our condo association recently changed their rules to not allow renters into the building, so anyone who must move was forced to sell. This drove the prices of condo’s in our neighborhood extremely low.

After 8 months on the market, our condo sold for 60% less than what we paid three years ago. We lost our down payment and a few thousand dollars in renovations. No one planned for the housing market to take a turn like it did, but because of our strict budget, we are still much farther ahead financially than most 25-year-olds today.

We know how to enjoy life without a daily trip to Starbucks, new cars and cable. We save a small portion of each pay check for retirement and enjoy our free date nights. We make a hobby of couponing and shopping clearance racks and thrift stores. We never buy anything we cannot afford and always give a portion of our money away.

Because of the economy, we get to practice a few more years of frugal living while we save up for another down payment for a house. When I say a few more years of frugal living, I mean a lifetime as I really don’t think you can take frugality out of us.

Joel and Amy currently reside in Pittsburgh, PA where they are foster parents to an adorable baby boy. Currently, Joel works for a non-profit organization and Amy is a business owner of East Wind Nannies . Amy blogs about their life of frugality at Joel & Amy.

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    • Janet says

      I love that they both acknowledge that they did not do it entirely on their own.
      Yet, the folks who helped them might have done so because they were trying so hard, maybe they felt they deserved it more because they were trying so hard.

      I hope more Americans dig deep and try to help others as they are able to .50 here 1.00 there even if it is just sharing a coupon or a tip.
      No one gets to be debt free entirely on their own and hats of to those who acknowledge this!

      America will survive if we all help each other.

      • Disna says

        I will have to disagree. My husband and I are debtfree without any help at all, except for God’s grace. Why? Because we didn’t have debt in the first place! We worked hard and completed our PhD degrees in engineering on scholarships. Believe me, then are way too many scholarships out there, you just need to work hard on your GRE and other exams. We had no credit card debt or any other debt ever in our lives, we were born frugal. Now we are planning to buy a house debt free. It is possible not to have debt without anyone’s help, you just need to work hard and you will definitely need a lot of grace from God.

  1. Melissa says

    awesome outlook. it is easy to get down and frustrated when things don’t go as you think they should/will.

    thanks for posting this.

    • Kelly says

      I agree. Amazing, inspiring story.
      I know when I was in college my parents helped some so her story seems more typical.
      I think the part about a stranger giving them the needed money is just another example of God’s grace and how He provides for us when we need it. What a blessing. You may never pay that person back but based on your attitude, you will pay it forward.
      Congratulations on your financial success. It is hard to be disciplined as a young person.

  2. Sara says

    You are lucky that your parents helped you out, most people don’t get that. I hope you appreciate it!

    • Kathy says

      Well, being that she wrote, “People were incredibly generous to us,” it does sound like she appreciates it very much.

      • crystal b.and not says

        Typing on Android with 2 kids near-not a great idea. Anyway like most people we don’t have random people paying huge expenses for us. So we are frugal but we have to use our own savings for school and living expenses, vehicle repairs, etc. It sounds like that was a huge blessing from God to allow you to be in a place of security when the financial burden hit…so neat to see how He works things out even before we know we need it.

      • Jenni says

        I don’t know – I think that it’s nice to hear someone share that they didn’t do it all by themselves. I tend to want to do it all on my own, and in the financial position my husband and I are in (living in a high cost of living area, on a teacher’s salary, with three little children), we have tried to do as much on our own as possible. There have been times when a vehicle repair has come up that my in-laws would like to pay for, or when they’d like for us to travel and visit them even when it’s not in our budget. Most of the time we say no, but I’ve also come to realize that some people really do get joy out of giving money to others. So sometimes I let them pay. I would love to say that we have paid for everything ourselves, but the truth is, we haven’t, and if that means we can’t take 100% credit for staying out of debt, so be it.

  3. Dee says

    Congratulations , Joel and Amy, for being so disciplined financially… and on your baby boy.

    Sorry you had such a difficult lesson in finance and real estate. The same thing happened to condos when the real estate market crashed in the 1980’s. I had several friends in the same situation you found yourselves.

    If you’ve landed in Pittsburgh, at least you are in a very affordable city with great amenities. If you don’t have real estate cold feet, you might want to check if the city still has a program that sells houses for $1 (or some very low price) and offers very low interest loans for renovations. My son’s friend bought a house in a great neighborhood. With renovations, the total cost was $50,000. Quite a bargain, but a LOT of work and headaches.

  4. BethB says

    I’m so encouraged by your attitude! How fortunate you were wise with your finances in other ways so the crash in the real estate market didn’t destroy you.

    This post got me thinking about how many people approach real estate. Please don’t think I’m saying you did anything wrong but this really highlights how dangerous it can be to think of buying a house/condo as “An Investment”. We fight my Father-in-law on this all the time because he frequently delivers lectures on how great it is to own a house due to the tax write offs and equity you build, etc. etc.. The tax write off thing is ridiculous, especially in states where you can deduct a portion of your rent. We have done the math and with what we were paying in rent we would have been financially better off in the short term had we not bought our house. We don’t regret it at all (especially since two kids in a 650 SF apartment would not have worked, ha ha!) and we did buy wisely for our lifestyle and our LONG TERM finances. I think during the housing bubble a lot of people got sucked into thinking a real estate purchase was a good short term investment and the crash changed that big time.

    Again, I’m not criticizing you! I find your attitude inspiring. I’m just pointing out this might be a great topic for this blog to explore further. :)

    • Heather says

      For those of us who live in states were you can not make the deduction, buying is a wiser choice in many ways. My husband and I rented the first two years of our marriage and saved enough money for a decent down payment on our first house. Fortunately, through wise advice and a lot of reading, we knew enough to go way below the “rock bottom” of what we were told we could “afford” for a mortgage. We wound up paying less money a month for a three bedroom two bathroom house (only five years old when we purchased it) then what we paid for a tiny one bedroom apartment plus we were able to write off a portion of the mortgage on our taxes. The money we saved each month on rent went back into the principal on the mortgage.

      • BethB says

        I’m not saying buying isn’t a wise option. There’s really no argument that over the long term it’s a far better than renting (for most people). My point is that if you are counting on your house to yield a profit in the short term that thinking is dangerous. I also think the tax deduction alone is a poor reason to buy or not pay off a house. I’m glad I can take it, of course, but personally I’d rather not be paying the interest in the first place! :)

        And isn’t it crazy what we’re often told we can afford? Looking back I’m shocked and appalled at the financing we were approved for and offered. A full $100K more than what we took! We were conservative in our choice of house but not *that* much. Insanity!

        • BethB says

          I should also mention that I have a lot of friends and family members who talk about the equity they have in their house as if it’s money in their pocket. Many took loans against the equity and are now upside down. What I love about the original post is they were not foolish enough to do this. As far as I understand, equity in a house is only on paper and susceptible to real estate values which I have to admit completely flumox me. Based on my neighborhood. :) It seems foolish to put all your eggs in that basket for short term financial goals.

          • BethB says

            I also live in an area where property taxes are quite high. Our actual mortgage payment is very close to what our rent was (and won’t increase, unlike rent) but the property taxes add an additional 50%. Until we had the house I had no idea how much taxes eat up!

  5. Autumn says

    Thank you for sharing your story. I love these stories of inspiration and discipline. Keep going forward with your head up when those unexpected speed bumps come our way. :)

  6. B says

    Thank you for sharing! I can somewhat relate, though I wasn’t blessed to have a family to help me…any for school or anything. I was totally on my own. Despite a lot of hard work and saving, things still didn’t turn out as planned. Sometimes, things like that happen.

  7. says

    So inspiring. I’m glad they were able to make it through the financial crisis. I know too many people which weren’t prepared and unfortunately had their homes taken away from them. Frugality is the way to go.

  8. Caroline says

    I do so appreciate this story… We are still trapped by the Chicago housing mess… our home has been on the market for 3 years.. we have dropped the price and dropped the price… we purchased 8 years ago, before the incredible housing boom and rise in prices, but it doesn’t really matter.. we still owe far more than we will ever sell it for.

    We did move 3 years ago for a job relocation, and trying to juggle a family of 9 kids with a smaller income and 2 houses has been a huge stress… we coupon, shop only at resale stores and have refrained from most of the house updating and repairs we would love to do while we wait for things to get resolved. Savings for college, retirement, a new car, medical expenses, travel? Well, not happening…

    It is encouraging in a small strange way to know that other “responsible” people have lost out as well.. not that I am happy to hear this, but I am glad to see that they have the correct perspective… it is important to think about things long range, look to the Lord for provision, and take one day at a a time.

    • Danielle says

      Can you rent your house in Chicago out or are you already doing that? My husband and I are really interested in the real estate business and have been reading constantly on the market. Apparently renting is projected to be a number one market as so many hundreds of thousands of people are finally kicked out of their homes due to foreclosure. They won’t have the credit to purchase anything else for quite a while and will turn to renting. Also, higher percentages of younger couples who may have originally jumped into a mortgage are going to be saving for larger down payments on homes and researching their options more thoroughly due to real estate fears caused by the housing bubble.
      I don’t know anything about Chicago or the real details of your situation, so I definitely don’t want to come off as though I do! Just curious!

      • Meg says

        Just thought I’d chime in here and give my experience…for what its worth. :) We bought our first house, then when the housing market slumped we decided that it was the time to buy a house in a better school district. We planned on renting our first house. We did everything ‘right,’ credit checks, called previous landlords, etc.. Everything checked out great. We even had known them long ago from church. Well, long story short, they DESTROYED the house, leaving us with thousands and thousands of dollars worth of damage. It was so bad that potential new renters would walk in, turn around and walk out. It took us 6 months and hundreds of hours to get the house back into shape. All the while, we paid two mortgages. It was a trial for sure. Renting can work out well, but it can also go terribly wrong and leave you with a huge amount of expenses. Townships can also have costly requirements for rentals, like all new paint with each tenet, cleaning rugs, etc. which add up. We ended up selling our house and would never do it again. If you are able to get property CHEAP and are renting for much more than your mortgage, and don’t mind spending lots of time potentially, it can work out. Its just a lot more complicated than it seems on the surface. (You may already know all this…I just don’t want to see anyone go through the same things we did, fortunately we had a $$ cushion.)

        • Courtney says

          We had the same experience owning rental property – it was a nightmare! Like Meg, we made sure to do a thorough check on renters beforehand. Despite this, we still ended up having to chase after the rent checks every month, with some renters falling several months behind (although they had good jobs and income). Not to mention all the damage that was done to our property. Being a landlord was a huge headache and it was such a relief to get rid of our rental property.

          If you are thinking of buying rental property, be sure to research local laws first. Where we live, it is very difficult to evict someone, even if they are way behind on rent.

      • Caroline says

        =) Thank you for your kind words… We had renters… they moved out on the 1st… We were renting to them for half of our mortgage.. they were friends… they were doing us a favor and we were giving them low (comparable to an apartment) rent. We are now wading through rental applications… people with credit scores of 200 are applying! eeks. We cannot get a high enough rent to cover the mortgage… and we really cannot afford to fix up anything that renters destroy… it seems so silly for us to be losing money every month so someone else can rent! ah well…

        So, yes, the rental market is huge in Chicago right now… SO many people who lost houses and have dreadful financial histories are looking for homes… but with us living out of state with no financial means to pay for that house if renters don’t pay the rent… well, renters are less than ideal…

        waiting on the Lord…

        • says

          I am in the same boat! We were supposed to be in our house for 5 years minimum, but life didn’t work out that way, and we had to move 15 months after moving in. We were lucky with our first renters, but their plans didn’t work out either, and they had to move unexpectedly as well. Now, we’re renting to friends for 2/3 of our mortgage payment, short term, while they wait to get into their own house after their tenants move out. Then we have to roll the dice with renters again, because we just can’t afford to sell in this market. I just want to unload that house, but not to the tune of wiping out all of our savings, at least, not yet.

        • Danielle says

          Thanks for answering! God will answer, He always does. Be encouraged, there’s nothing about your situation that has caught Him by surprise. And don’t forget the three most powerful tools in being able to clearly hear His answers- Prayer, Fasting, and Thanksgiving! I can’t imagine the stress of being in your current situation, but Christ’s grace is sufficient (2 Corinthians 12:9)- you will make it through this time!

  9. Megan says

    What fun to read that you and your husband grew up in Lancaster County. I’m from there too (now living about 2 hrs from Pittsburgh) and my husband and I follow a similarly tight budget while we’re in graduate school. Thanks for the encouraging post. It’s wonderful that you’ve both kept a positive attitude despite these setbacks!

  10. cat says

    Thank you for sharing such an inspiring story. Joel and Amy have such a great attitude about life. God Bless.

  11. Kelly says

    Thanks for sharing Joel and Amy. I had to post because we are from the same neck of the woods (my maiden name is Halteman). Best wishes to keep up your frugal ways and keep the Lord first in all you do : ) Thanks for the encouragement.

  12. says

    Thanks for sharing! It is encouraging hearing your story. Life doesn’t go exactly how we plan but we still have so much to be thankful for in our lives. It is such a blessing to have the opportunity to share with others along the way. I wish you many more awesome years together budgeting.

  13. Megan says

    What a great attitude you both have! Sometimes (many times!) it is so easy to be angry at the world or at God because we think, “Hey! I did everything right! I sacrificed when it was really hard, where is my reward?” But you two seem to have really pulled through! I’m sure you have been strengthened by God’s grace and peace which is so encouraging in hard times. Thanks for your story and reminding me to find joy in the little things as my husband and I save for our first home!

  14. says

    I’m in Pittsburgh now, but we’re moving to Indianapolis next week. Pittsburgh is a great city! I just wish property taxes weren’t so insane.

    But anyway, I love their attitude. I think I’d be really upset if we had to take a big financial loss like that.

    We have scraped together 20% down for a house in Indy and part of me worries that if we need to sell it ever, we might lose our money. I guess that’s a risk you take no matter how you purchase.

    • Megan says

      Have fun in Indianapolis! I just moved from there last summer and I LOVED it. The Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) is just wonderful (and set on beautiful grounds) – admission is free. It’s a neat city with lots of free stuff to do. Enjoy!

  15. says

    I think this is a good example of how things can go wrong even when you carefully plan. It’s quite frightful how many young adults (and us older ones too!) live up to their current income with all the ‘extras’ thinking that there aren’t any rainy days ahead of them.

    Hang in there, I’m sure there will be many more hills and valley’s on your journey but it sounds like you have the right idea about your financial goals. Now if I can just get you to talk to my 20 year old about planning ahead :)

  16. Laurie Villotta says

    Loved your story. Being so young and motivated is awesome. The housing slump is just one sad story. I was just out to visit my dad in Az and they are giving away these quater to half a million dollar homes for nothing. I bought my house 11yrs ago for 99,000 with interest rate 5 3/4. I have 75,000 left 30yr fixed and I am 39 with 2 girls. It is a frugal home with few ammeneties,but I will pay it off and die there.

  17. says

    Thanks for sharing your story. My husband and I are in a similar situation where our house is now worth much less than what we purchased it for. We bought four years ago, literally just right before the market and everything crashed! There’s often times where I wish we would’ve just waited a little longer to buy and just kept renting, if only we had known then what we know know. We bought a really small starter home thinking we would be able to sell it when we were ready to move into something with a little more space and ready to start a family. Since we are now stuck with it I feel like our only options are to rent it out or sell it and lose money, which I don’t want to lose money of course. We’re thinking about renting it out soon and looking for a newer house that is a little bigger so we can start a family and have more storage space.

  18. Katie says

    Wow. This is like a carbon copy of our life only we haven’t been able to sell yet- we are 25, we are going to have to sell at at least 25% less than we bought for, our condo assoc. won’t allow for renters, etc… but we’ve managed to save through it all! :) And I know God has a plan and someday it will sell.

  19. says

    Thanks for sharing your story! It’s good motivation to keep saving, even when you think you’ve got it all worked out – a message we can all stand to hear again and again. :)

  20. says

    Amen! I love your statement that “I really don’t think you can take frugality out of us.” I completely agree. Even if I become a millionaire one day, I’ll still use Walmart sacks for my garbage can and use rags instead of paper towels. It’s just part of who I am. :-)

  21. says

    What an inspiring story! I think it is amazing that individuals so young have such a fiscal consciousness. I wish that I had realized the importance of saving and planning for the future when I was younger. I am now playing catch-up as I realize that I need to get a lot of things in order if I want to retire in 30 years! Good luck to you!

  22. says

    There are many people (Christians included) who do everything “right” and still end up in dire financial situations. I was glad to see this story shared because I think too many people have the idea that if a Christian seeks God when making decisions, gives faithfully, and wants to do what is best/godly that it will always work out. Sometimes it doesn’t. There are many Christians who seek to walk faithfully with God who end up losing everything. Seeking God faithfully does not guarantee financial success.

    It is easy to look at the financial bottom line and make that of paramount importance and see anything else as failure. God sometimes has other plans and that includes allowing some of His children to experience financial loss in order to accomplish greater spiritual objectives. A lack of financial success does not necessarily mean God has withdrawn His favor in a person’s life.

    In this day and age, it only takes one health problem to wipe out years of financial prudence. Even having several months or a year’s worth of income in savings won’t make much of a difference when faced with huge medical bills (even if you have insurance). Yes, it will buy you some time and make the disaster not as bad, but it can quickly undo all of your hard work.

    I hope this doesn’t sound like sour grapes because I don’t mean it that way. My concern is that too often I see financial success and being debt free written and spoken about in such a way that makes anything else seem like failure. I don’t believe for a minute that is Crystal’s objective here at all. But the reality is that many people will never achieve that goal and it doesn’t mean God is any less active in their lives or failing to accomplish great things for them spiritually.

    Re: selling a house at a loss… We just did that recently and it was a hard decision. But we believed the market would continue to deteriorate and if we wanted out of our house we had to do it NOW. Although it can be really disappointing to walk away with a loss, it is important to put that dollar amount in the perspective of an entire life. For us, it was worth it to lose that money knowing that moving to a different house would be better for my health. We believed that benefit alone would quickly “repay” us for whatever financial loss we suffered. So, yes, it was disappointing to lose that money, the money we put into renovations, etc. but in the grand scheme of life it was a good move for us. All that to say, don’t be afraid to suffer some loss for the sake of the greater good and bigger objectives. Staying in a house that is inadequate for your needs for the sake of not losing several thousand dollars might be a poor decision if moving on and being in something more adequate greatly improves your quality of life.

    My two cents. Your mileage may vary. :-)

    • says

      So great to see you here!!

      And I wholeheartedly agree that your financial position has nothing to do with your spiritual condition. I believe God wants us to be wise stewards of the resources He has entrusted to us, but it is all ultimately in His hands. I want to be faithful in lean times and in plenty, because no matter what, God is still a sovereign and good God!

      We’ve grown and matured so much during times of financial difficulty and unemployment and, even though it was hard to have a grateful, thankful attitude in the midst of it, we look back and see how God used it for great good in our hearts and lives and marriage.

  23. Lynn says

    I think this is a great reminder of the reason why it is important to create a solid financial foundation. In my opinion, part of being frugal isn’t just to amass a big bank account so we can say we have it – it is so when life happens, because no matter how carefully you plan stuff does happen, you have the means to handle it. No one ever really wants to spend the money they have worked so hard to save, but truly it is there so when you find you may be upside on a house and unable to rent it you have something to fall back on!

  24. says

    I love this story because it not only acknowledges the importance of frugality, but also the reality that it can’t be where we place our security. It’s wise and important, but that doesn’t mean life won’t still happen. Hats off to you guys for your great attitudes!

  25. Pat says

    Nice to hear about a young couple thinking ahead and saving for the future. I feel for the people who bought during the real estate upswing but I know many people who used the increased value of their home to take out ‘home equity’ loans. I guess that sounds so much better than a ‘second mortgage’ which used to be a horrible thing when my parents were raising a family. Many did this to pay for college tuition for their children. My poor daughter was told she had to go to a junior college for her first two years because we are not willing to touch the equity in our house. In our area the majority of parents foot the entire college bill just to say they can, in my opinion. Now she is proud of the fact she’s receiving her Associates degree, has worked 20 plus hours a week while going to school and has saved up enough to pay for school next year at a state university. Just like the young couple in the article, I think it’s important for young people to know the value of a dollar and how to work for what they want in their world.

  26. says

    I know your disappointment when it seems that even though you’re doing everything right and making wise choices, you’re still behind your peers. I just keep hoping that when everything is said and done all the hard work during the early lean years will be worth it!

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