Shifting from debt to prosperity

Published: Monday, March 25 2013 4:45 p.m. MDT

Rusty Jensen plays with his son, Rush, at their home in Draper.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Rusty Jensen hit financial rock bottom just shy of his 23rd birthday, with more than $110,800 in non-mortgage debt.

He had been married for six months,and his first push into the business world failed. But in less than five years, he changed his financial future. His net worth went from negative six figures to positive six figures.

In his early 20s, he borrowed money to make purchases with the idea that he was building his credit score. Debt piled up: student loans, car loans, wedding expenses, credit cards and debt incurred to start a business. He ultimately lost $70,000 through his business, and woke up one morning buried in debt and in need of a plan to pay it off.

His was a familiar problem. In 2012, household debt measured at $11.3 trillion according to the Federal Reserve. Non-housing debt reached an all-time high of $2.75 trillion.

As Jensen and his wife considered options, they realized they could declare bankruptcy but said they didn't want to hurt the institutions they owed money.

"It's not their fault that we messed up. Enough people are losing their jobs right now, and we don't need to add to it," he said.

Jensen and his wife started living "well within our means," paying off about $2,660 per month. They sold a car and reduced their grocery budget to $120 every two weeks. Once their first child came along, they stretched that $120 to include diapers, adjusting their needs to match their budget.

The regular eating out expenses were eliminated.

They changed their cellphone plan and went from paying about $150 to around $70 monthly, and with their neighbors' permission borrowed their wireless Internet rather than paying for Internet on their own.

In six months, they reduced their monthly bills from $3,200 per month to $1,600.

They didn't go on vacation for three years. Free and cheap activities became their entertainment. They rented movies, enjoyed the occasional dollar flick or streamed episodes of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" online. They also enjoyed free rentals from the library, went on hikes and played in parks.

"No stone was left unturned. We squeezed every dime we could out of our budget during that time," Jensen said.

He was self-employed, working as a business development consultant. After realizing he would not be able to earn back his losses in his current line of work, he became an independent consultant. His income was inconsistent, but he managed to bring in around $25,000 per year, dedicating all the funds he earned to paying down debt. At nights he began washing windows, and made an additional $1,200 to $1,300 per month, which he applied to monthly bills.

His wife, Laura, was a data entry and implementation specialist for Qqest Payroll and brought in an additional $30,000 annually, which paid for their living expenses. She stopped working when they had their first son, Rush.

They were paying off their debt with an average combined income of around $50,000 a year.

"Now we're in a position of a lot more comfort than a lot of people have," Jensen said.

They began following principles of financial guru and get-out-of-debt author Dave Ramsey, first working to get $1,000 in the bank to use instead of a credit card for emergencies, then paying off debts from smallest to largest, creating three to six months' emergency savings (the Jensens have one year because of his high-risk job in sales), investing next in retirement, then in children's education, paying off their mortgage and eventually building wealth.

It is important to realize what is possible in terms of building wealth, Jensen said, and to be willing to act differently than normal people act.

Changing habits

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