Nancy French, Davi...
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"I want to join the Army."
Those were the words that David French spoke to his wife Nancy in their Philadelphia apartment in September 2005. After that, it took some time, thought and prayer on both their parts before David, a 37-year-old Harvard-educated lawyer, made the call to leave his job as president of a free speech organization to become a JAG officer in the Army.
"It was a thoughtful, prayerful decision that we both came to, so when you have that unified sense of purpose, you can use that as a marker and say this is something we are led to do as a family," David says. "That helps get you through."
At Christmas that year, they relocated from Pennsylvania to Columbia, Tennessee, in a pre-emptive move. They wanted to get settled and be near a good school and church community in case he was deployed, which happened less than two years later.
David eventually would be sent to Diyala Province, Iraq, with the 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment for a 12-month deployment from October 2007 to October 2008. Staying at home would be Nancy and their two kids, Austin and Camille.
Nancy, a published author and editor of a pop-culture magazine, was understandably anxious, for several reasons. Having your spouse leave for a year is bad. Off to a dangerous country (even for a noble purpose)—worse. With two kids—sirens are going off.
Adding to all that, the couple had $70,000 in various debts. Up until that point, David had done the money handling. Nancy, who had never learned how to balance a checkbook and at one point in their marriage bounced a tithe check, knew that her back would be against the wall once he left.
But when someone is cornered, that's when the fight-or-flight instinct kicks in. Guess which one Nancy showed?
"Rather than just hang in there while he was gone ... I'd try to make our lives better," she said. "I wanted David to return not just to an intact family, but to a better family."
Home And Away: A Story of Family in a Time of War, the book they co-authored, "When David drove off that Saturday morning to begin his journey to Iraq, I feared for his safety, and he feared he’d return home to a house with a yellow ribbon on the door and a foreclosed sign on the yard ... an all-too-common occurrence."
Standing in their way? Student loans, car notes and credit card debt. Nancy had exactly one year to not only get mad, but get even. She didn't go into pity mode or do grief spending. She said having that October-to-October period to just focus on getting out of debt helped her to do it. It was a definitive 12 months. Work hard for this long and be out of debt. Any person can sit down with their spouse, run the numbers and come up with their target debt-free date, then focus on it for that long. Anyone.
Speaking with each other was tough while David was away. They texted often and did the best they could with in-and-out cell phone reception. While the lines of communication might have been unsure, the same couldn't be said of the couple. They focused on their respective tasks and worked together for a common good—their family's well-being.
"Having a purpose is just a generally beneficial thing in life as everyone knows," said David, now a captain in the Reserves. "We have goals; we have a purpose. That helps the time pass and prevents too much mind wandering. It gives you something to put your mind to."
The focus was so strong that David and Nancy said if he hadn't gone into the Reserves, they probably wouldn't be out of debt today.
After selling David's Land Rover (which freed up $400 a month) and withdrawing money from savings to take out the credit card debt and Saab loan, Nancy was rolling. She got two extra jobs, joined My Total Money Makeover, and went to town on the budgeting.
"What are you going to do when your spouse isn't there? Some people do scrapbooking. I did the total money makeover," she said, adding that merely being active in pursuit of a goal gives you power. "When you put all (your debts) down on the screen, it's sobering. When you acknowledge it, there's power in that. There is something about not being idle."
Fast-forward 12 months. Exhausted and saddened by the news that a friend in Iraq had died, David arrived in Tennessee "incredibly impressed" at Nancy's accomplishments, but said it really didn't sink in at first because he had so much other stuff on his mind.
"The thing that was amazing was how much easier my financial life was. You don't realize how stressful (having bills) is until they're gone," he said.
David added that the most ironic thing about the whole deal is that, while they carried a bunch of debt, they didn't have a lot of stuff.
"When you are in a consumer mindset, you cycle through things. It's not like you accumulate things; you typically cycle through them. You are having new stuff frequently, but you're not having more stuff," he said.
That kind of thinking, and the spending that goes with it, are surefire ways to keep you tied to payments your entire life, all the while wondering where your money is going. Many people who incur debt don't have anything to show for it but receipts from eating out and vacations.
Now David and Nancy are prospering, but Nancy is quick to point out that if the extra money had happened before, "we would have blown through it with nothing to show for it."
These people had money and life problems just like the rest of us. In that regard, they were no different than anyone else. Where they were different was in how they handled it. They could have just resigned themselves and said they'll always have a car payment.
But they took a different approach. Nancy took extra jobs. They got on the same page to get their money under control. All it took was 12 months, which passes faster than you think. A year ago the big news headlines were the trapped miners in Chile, BP finally plugging that hole in the Gulf of Mexico, and Michael Douglas and his throat cancer. Doesn't seem so long ago now, does it?
So, in summary, David and Nancy French were 8,000 miles apart during a war with $70,000 in debt, and they came out of it free and clear (and stronger as a couple) on the other side
Odds are you don't have obstacles that big in your life or marriage. So don't make excuses. Do make a budget. Dump your debt. Your life is waiting for you.
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