Four Years Later

Hello, my frugal friends. It’s been four years and one month since I paid off my loans after getting my MBA from Harvard. I destroyed $90k of student debt in seven months by living below my means and finding additional revenue sources.

And it has been two years and three months since I wrote to you. I’m sorry I’ve been gone for so long.

This is going to be a quick post. I’m stopping by just to reassure you that paying off your debt and living below your means is so completely worth it.

Let me cut to the chase: by continuing to live below my means, I’ve accumulated enough cash outside of my 401k to pay off my mortgage and be 100% debt-free, even while maxing out my 401k every year.

I apply Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle framework to many things I do in my life. The Golden Circle is comprised of three concentric rings: the inner ring asks “why”, the middle ring ask “how”, and the outer ring asks “what”. Every successful person and company starts with why they do something, then they figure out how they’re going to do it and what they’re going to do.

For example, Martin Luther King, Jr. believed that there are laws made by a higher authority and laws made by man, and not until all the laws that are made by man are consistent with the laws made by a higher authority will we live in a just world.

This is a fierce belief that MLK held–it was his why–and nobody could make him change his mind. And he took this belief and he organized marches and protests (how) until his what was accomplished: equal rights.

Messages Image(1585205887)


People and companies that fail, on the other hand, often start with what they’re going to to do and then figure out how and why they’re going to do it. To be successful at anything, figure out what your core beliefs are first. Then execute.

Definitely take 18 minutes to watch this video. It’s brilliant. It’ll provide an incredible amount of structure to the way you think, and it’s really handy for those strategic and/or existential questions that you’re encountering in your life and struggling to frame clearly in your mind.

Without further ado, here’s the financial Golden Circle that I use to guide my spending decisions.

I believe financial freedom is a critical enabler to the pursuit of my goals and life dreams and to realizing my full potential.

I’ve sought financial freedom primarily by living below my means. Ever since I paid off my student debt, I’ve continued to live frugally. Here are just a few examples:

  • I shop at Goodwill to supplement my wardrobe. There are bargains galore.
  • I wear holes in the bottom of my work shoes before buying a new pair.
  • I still don’t have collision insurance coverage on my car.
  • When accommodations at my friend’s house fell apart when I traveled to LA last summer, I slept in my car overnight in a marina parking lot in Marina Del Ray. Seriously, I have the pics:
Car sleeping 3.jpg

Seats folded down + backpack as a pillow = comfy accommodations

Car sleeping 4.jpg

The next morning. That’s what a $200 smile looks like.

By living frugally, I now have enough cash outside of my 401k to pay off my mortgage and be 100% debt-free. Or start a business. Or invest. And leveraging any and all of these options will enable me to pursue my life dreams and realize my full potential.

Stepping Back
I think it’s important to step back at this point and point out that none of this would have been possible if I hadn’t figured out the “why”, the reason for paying off my debt. Lying in bed that one night back in August 2011 and realizing I wasn’t on the right path, that I wasn’t living my dream and wasn’t realizing my potential–and that my spending was largely to blame–helped me understand why I wanted to destroy my student debt. From there, it was a simple (and admittedly, sometimes not-so-simple) matter of executing the how and the what to become debt-free.

If you had told me in July 2011 that I’d be able to pay off my student debt and mortgage in fewer than five years, I would have laughed. However, if you figure out why it is that you want to do something, the how and the what fall into place.

I’m now working at a company I truly love, at a job that challenges me, and I’m making big plans for the future, all without the hassle of student debt (or credit card debt). I’m doing a much better of pursuing my life dreams and realizing my full potential than I was five years ago.

What is your financial Golden Circle? Why do you financially live the way you do? How do you do it, and what does it create for you?

Imagine if you determined a reason to pay off your debt and believed in it as fiercely as MLK did about the necessary consistency of laws created by man and those created by a higher authority. Imagine how powerful you could be in your own life.

Here’s an example: Do you believe that spending quality time with your children as they grow up is important? Is this a belief that you fiercely hold in your own heart? Is your lifestyle of consumption making you work around the clock to keep up with your bills? Is it taking you away from your children?

What if you adopted the following Golden Circle:

Why: I believe financial freedom is a critical enabler to spending more time with my children. These years are precious and I’ll never get them back if I miss out on them now.

How: I’ll stop living a lifestyle of consumption. I’ll start living below my means and I’ll pay off my debt.

What: By changing my lifestyle and paying off my debt, I’ll be able to work fewer hours and spend more time with my children.

No more excuses. Be real. Deep down in your heart, what do you fundamentally and fiercely believe in? Why is destroying your debt important to you?

Other Benefits to Being Debt-Free
While you’re figuring our your fierce belief, let me provide you with a few other personal benefits I’m experiencing to being debt free.

By living below my means, I can open my heart even more. In 2015, I donated my time and/or money to the following non-profits:

  • Angel House Soup Kitchen
  • Capital Area Food Bank
  • CASA kids
  • Shoal Creek Conservancy
  • National MS Society
  • Fundraiser for a memorial for my friend’s deceased brother
  • Michigan Rowing team

By living below my means, I can give some pretty good gifts. For example, in October, I’m flying my dad  down to Austin (he’s a serious car and racing enthusiast) to attend the F1 race, and in a couple years, my sister and I are sending my parents on a cruise for their 40th wedding anniversary. If I were living above my means and doing it just for me, this isn’t something that would have been possible. The saying “giving is better than receiving” is very true.

By living below my means, I’m doing more. As I look around my condo, it’s impossible for me to identify anything new that’s been purchased within the past couple of years. The other saying that’s gaining more and more traction in everyday vernacular—that “memories are more valuable than things”—is also very true. Almost all of my spending beyond standard bills goes to experiences like meals out, events, and travels with friends. I have thousands of pictures and memories that still make me smile today and will supply me with smiles for years to come.

Living below your means to pay off your debt will be challenging at first and take you outside of your comfort zone. But eventually, as long as you’ve  clearly defined why you’re paying off your debt, you’ll adapt, frugality will become your comfort zone, you’ll pay off your debts, and you’ll be well on your way to realizing the “what” of your Golden Circle.

This blog is light on content because I feel that I’ve already given you the tools to succeed. Shameless plug: read my book.  It’s still as relevant today as it was when I wrote it four years ago. It’s only 100 pages, so give it a quick skim.

Read my last blog post. It, too, is still as relevant today as it was when I wrote it over two years ago. The five rules of a “level five” perspective still provide solid guidance:

  1. Love yourself. Don’t measure your self-worth based on what you own.
  2. Create your own happiness. Don’t expect stuff to make you happy.
  3. Say no to IOUs. Live within your means. Don’t borrow money to buy cool stuff.
  4. Be free. Save money for an emergency fund and retirement.
  5. Have an impact. Define success on your own terms.

In Closing
I really am sorry I haven’t written recently. I didn’t think I had anything new to share. I went through a dramatic transformation when I went from living above my means in 2009 and 2010 to living below my means in 2011 and 2012. That was incredibly fun to write about, and based on readership numbers, it must have been an interesting read, too.

I’ve maintained this “new” mentality of frugality ever since I paid off the student debt four years ago. Transformations are interesting and fun to write and read about. Frugality, for me, however, has become status quo. And the status quo isn’t very fun to read and write about. So really, think of my hiatus as a favor to you! You’re welcome!

Anyway, you have the resources. Now figure out your beliefs. Figure out why destroying your debt is important to you. Once you figure out why, you’ll be able to more clearly see the path you should be on to make it your reality.

To freedom!


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36 responses to “Four Years Later

  1. marge201

    Great to hear from you, Joe! Yes, that’s a fantastic $200 smile. Going to share your most interesting missive! Continued good luck and great health always.

  2. J

    Good for you! You helped inspire my own student loan repayment in full–paid off the balance of what was once $174k in JD/MBA loans a couple months ago. Thanks for the virtual kick in the pants.

  3. Jason Pelker

    It’s good to hear from you again! And I’m glad your debt-free life continues.

    I’m also happy that a lot of your realizations validate my own lifestyle–which mostly resulted from just never really having/wanted much.

    It’s easy to get caught up in the rat-race, so it’s important to see others living happily and frugally. Thank you!

  4. Heidi

    How wonderful to hear from you again Joe! When i opened the mail with this post i was about to order new shoes which i don’t need. I realised you are so right. ‘Love yourself’. You are a true inspiration and i personally wouldn’t mind an update every now and then, for a few reasons: i genuinely love to read how you live your life and it puts me back in my place (and hopefully others too).Thanks!

    P.S. I didn’t buy the shoes of course!

  5. Joel Hooper

    So great to hear you are doing so well!

  6. Andrea Lacianca

    Hi Joe- So good to see your post in my inbox this AM.   I don’t know if you’ll remember me…but I found your blog through either Yahoo or CNN a few years back and traded emails with you several times.  I read your whole blog, got my hubby on board, and we decided to pay off our mortgage.  We wanted to be debt free, too.  You were the person who started us on the path.  From your blog, I found MMM and JLCollinsnh.   I like to think of you as a “thought provoking gentle nudge;” while Mr. MMM was like a “freight train coming at us full speed”. I’m excited to tell you that we’re now 100% debt-free!

  7. Josh

    Congrats on the mortgage pay off! You were my wife’s and my inspiration to pay off our student loans as well, something I really didn’t believe possible given that I’m a public school teacher and she teaches private music lessons. 4 years later the $90,000 in loans is gone. Thanks for the push!

  8. David

    Hit me up if you ever make it out to Denver! Where are you working now? Same company? If not, have you found the financial freedom allowed you to take a pay cut to do something you liked more perhaps? I’m about your age, making less than you were in previous posts, but living the same way. Good to see the post and know things are moving along.

    • Will do, David. I’m at a tech company that I think would prefer to remain anonymous. I did leave Dell over three years ago and at first it was a pay cut, but now I’m making more than I did at Dell and having a better time doing it, so I’m really glad I paid off my debt which allowed me me to take the leap.

  9. Stacy Brunner

    Thanks for the update! I was inspired by your mission.

  10. From your inspiration I also am debt free. Im selling my house this summer but have been otherwise debt free for a couple of years. Thanks for blogging and inspiring people!

  11. Lisa

    You never fail to inspire me Joe. So good to hear your update and thank you once again for motivating and challenging me in many different ways.

  12. Natasha

    Thanks for the reminder, glad to hear you are still on the track of awesomeness!!

  13. AndrewOC

    I first heard about your blog from a friend at school 4 years ago, but to be honest, while I was in school I never had time to read it. Darn! (Luckily I bookmarked it!)
    I graduated a month ago and will soon be taking on my own student loans. I’m very happy to have read your blog, I look forward to using some of the tools and perspectives you had on your journey, and hope that my personal journey is just as rewarding as your own.
    I’m thinking of taking a “Destroyer” approach to my student loans. 🙂
    Thanks again!

  14. Great to see another post from you! To piggy back on all of the comments above, you inspired me to pay off my debt as well! I just paid off the full $58k last week. So THANK YOU for the freedom and philosophy!

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  18. MJO

    had this blog bookmarked for 4/5 years now!! nice to hear from you!!!

  19. Coming up on 5 years now Joe! Would love to see another update. 😀

  20. Michelle

    Joe, I just wanted to thank you! I paid off my 95K grad school loan in 3 years. It was your blog and book that totally inspired me as I was feeling so overwhelmed with the debt at 45 years of age, my husband and I wanted to save more for retirement and just be able to live debt free,we knew if we kept going at the pace were going to pay it off it would be there into our retirement. It was so hard to get out from under the loan due to the high interest rate. Well we did it!!! We called it our Austerity program and made it a game, we fell in love again with backpacking and enjoying the free and simple things in life. Now we are in process of building our savings account back up, I am so thankful we paid that huge loan off, thank you for your inspiration!!!

  21. What a great story. So inspiring. I am currently in heavy student loan debt but am working on a plan to pay off most of them in 5 years (and probably less than that). Thanks for this uplifting story.

  22. Very glad i stopped by after 7 years. Congratulations on all your success thus far, and thanks for the pointer on the Golden Circle. Positivity++

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  24. I had been following your blog a few years ago and just stopped by to see what you had been up to. I’m a harvard grad too way back when from undergrad and med school. Anyway, I love how you talk about living your dreams by living below your means. I started a personal environmental action blog at Its super fun.

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