Lessons From the Debt-Free Community on Financial Freedom

Would you open up your bank’s app and display your account balance for all to see?  Whether you’re financially stable or not, you probably wouldn’t feel comfortable giving strangers an all-access pass to your financial situation.  Yet that’s exactly what the members of the debt-free community are doing—to the great benefit of all of us.

The #debtfreecommunity is a network of bloggers and Instagrammers who have taken one for the team by opening up about their journeys toward a positive net worth. Through graphs, infographics, and drawings, they use Dave Ramsey’s Baby Steps, a money management plan designed to help you get out of debt, to track their spending and saving. They also tell their own stories of successes and setbacks.

You don’t have to be dead broke or making minimum loan payments to learn from them, either.  Here’s what the debt-free community can teach almost anyone about finances:

Money is never just about money

As Jen Sincero wrote in “You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life,” “making money isn’t only about money, just as losing weight isn’t only about losing weight and finding your soul mate isn’t only about finding your soul mate.

stressed young asian woman trying to find money to pay credit card debt. Rewire PBS Work Debt-Free
No one likes facing a credit card statement with sweaty palms and a racing heart.

“It’s about who you become and what you believe is possible for yourself.”

For Elyse Lyons of The Savvy Sagittarius, who started with $34,000 in debt and paid off $23,000 in the past 18 months working as a bartender, the drive to get her payments up and her debt down comes from the idea that money is really buying her freedom.

“I had one of my mentors tell me, ‘Money doesn’t buy happiness, but it does buy choices,’ and that stayed with me,” she said.

Similarly, the Instagrammer Debt-Kickin’ Mom—who has paid off $50,000 since the beginning of her journey—told me people branch out from the debt-free community toward other intentional living challenges, such as following a zero-food waste lifestyle.

Eliminating debt with purpose means establishing clear priorities and knowing what matters most to you.  It’s a path toward an intentional life.

First you have to ask yourself what money represents for you in the bigger picture, which does not always have an immediate answer.

Don’t get caught up in comparing

Always tempting in Social Medialand is the desire to compare. While working to become debt-free, you might see people who are enjoying the life you enjoyed while living above your means. It can be easy to fall out of your good financial habits, if you take your eyes off your goal.

If you are truly a competitive type, you might even feel you’re not saving enough or paying off debt fast enough.

“My income doesn’t always match some of the more settled people in the (debt-free) community,” Lyons said. “Sometimes I find myself looking at the people who have paid off $5,000 in one month and I get a little down about it.”

Saving gets as addicting as spending, and even while the community is boosting each other up, there’s a natural tendency to compare.

“Instead of comparing nice houses and nice cars like most people, we are comparing debt numbers and debt-free dates,” she said.

There are worse things than being motivated to pay off more debt and faster—but you don’t want to burn out.

Celebrate your successes

One of the mantras of the debt-free community is to “live like no one else,” which means ditching a car payment (and a fancy car) in order to be able to give back when you have finally built wealth.

In the day-to-day, it can be hard to turn down invitations to events outside your budget, to push yourself to cook when you’d rather order in, or to put money toward debt when you’d rather take a vacation.

But every little success gives you something to share with people who want you to succeed.

“The world tells us we will always have a car payment and student loans,” Debt-Kickin’ Mom told me. “But the debt-free community celebrates with you when you go against that culture and make sacrifices to achieve financial freedom.”

Celebrating the details can be a great way to keep the big picture from getting too overwhelming.

“Money seems like such a taboo thing to talk about,” Lyons said. “Especially if you are successful with money.  Having an outlet to celebrate successes and ponder over next steps can be such a blessing.”

…And own your mistakes

Within the debt-free community, mistakes are part of learning, and everyone can benefit from sharing information. Honesty is one of the most admirable things about the online community, which never shies away from sharing the difficulties of going against the financial grain.

Young happy man holding money after withdrawing money from the atm. Rewire PBS Work Debt-Free
Managing your debt means you can open your wallet with a smile.

“The thing about lying to yourself is that it doesn’t make the problem go away; it just prevents you from fixing it,” the money blog The Financial Diet recently posted to Instagram. “Learning to practice radical honesty with yourself—whether about money or anything else in your life—is the most important step you can take.”

And this is a journey laden with difficulties: to overhaul your financial life, you have to start working with a budget, start counting your pennies, start saying no to things.  But with a little momentum, the bloggers at Debt-Free in Sunny California paid off $129,000 in just a little under four years years.

Get people you trust to hold you accountable

In the debt-free community, “community” is the operative word: accountability is the way to stay on track.

“I feel like even if I wanted to give up, I couldn’t because of all the people,” said Lyons, who has 13,200 followers as of June 2018. “Having an outlet to ponder over next steps can be such a blessing,” and users can reach out to each other with questions big or small.

Debt-Kickin’ Mom, who has 28,000 followers, agreed. “If I have a question about money or budgeting, I can start an immediate dialogue,” and she is met with lots of feedback, from personal anecdotes to professional opinions, to help her reach the next step.

Find people you trust to help you start making good decisions.  Maybe it isn’t an audience of tens of thousands of people, but someone to text you a thumbs up when you make coffee at home instead of stopping for Starbucks is already a good place to start.

Positivity is one of the reasons to follow along with the inspirational debt-free community, who put their financial lives on the internet so you can learn from their mistakes. And, of course, their successes.

A headshot of Jamie Lynne Burgess. PBS Rewire. Jamie Lynne Burgess

Jamie Lynne Burgess is a freelance writer and editor from New England who recently swapped goat dairy farming in Northwest Colorado for goat cheese eating in Blois, France. She loves personal essays, public libraries and the life of Louisa May Alcott. Get in touch on Twitter at @jamburgess or follow her on Instagram at @jamielynneburgess