When Steven Donovan was brainstorming names for his blog, “Even Steven” had more than just a catchy, rhyming ring to it. In fact, it described him and his financial situation perfectly.
To become even-steven is to reach a point of zero debt. For Steven, that’s exactly what he managed to do between 2010 and 2015, eliminating more than $100,000 in combined debt — more than half of it student loans.
Focus, determination, control, and financial awareness all played a part for Steven, but one thing really made most of the difference: He learned to place value in money.
The big “aha!” moment
A Wisconsin native, Steven attended college in Miami on an exchange program that afforded him tuition rates from his home state. But by 2010, it still resulted in federal and private student loans totaling nearly $60,000, a $40,000 auto loan on a Mercedes-Benz C-Class, and a personal loan owed to his parents around $38,000.
Steven has admitted that he wasn’t sure at the time how much his debt actually was, since he placed no value in money. As he describes it, he was “working part time and spending full-time money.”
He says that part of his financial troubles had to do less with the dollar amount of the debt, but the assumption that it would resolve itself on its own.
“I always had the vision that I was going to get a big-time job out of college,” he explains. “I didn’t put it all together that if you want to get ahead, you have to make more payments. You have to get a focus, or it’s just going to stay there.”
Things finally began to click when Steven obtained full-time employment and became engaged to his now-wife, “Mrs. Even Steven.”
“You need to grow up and become responsible. You need to put yourself in a position where both of you succeed,” Steven says. “That was the big ‘aha!’ moment. I needed to prove to myself that we’d be in a good financial position together.”
Making a turnaround
To get in a good financial position the Donovans relocated to Chicago, where Steven works as a business operations analyst for a major bank. He also sold his car, freeing up $500 per month.
Shedding the trappings of a luxury car, according to Steven, was a liberating move that compelled him to look for more ways to pay down his debt and gain more financial leverage. “Cutting out [the car] was a big step,” he says. “I was able to take other steps along the way. ‘What else can I do?’” he asked himself.
Other sacrifices soon followed. In what Steven coins “little challenges,” the couple began making small changes, like cooking at home more and altering their revolving expenses.
They switched wireless carriers to reduce their monthly cellphone bill, which, according to Steven, went from $80 a month to just $25 on a special plan. He also took other steps, like consolidating a few of his loans and garnering some extra cash by selling items on eBay and auction websites.
But one big asset was found when the couple began renting out their Florida residence to pay off the mortgage loan on the property. This allowed Steven to free up more of his budget and pay off his student and personal loans.
The couple also acted wisely when they purchased property in Chicago. In the three-unit building, the Donovans rent out two units and live in the third. The rental income also goes towards paying down debt.
Part of what kept Steven motivated through these years was listening to podcasts on train rides to and from work, absorbing some financial inspiration from debt experts like Dave Ramsey. “[Ramsey] just repeated the same thing about debt, and that really helped me,” Steven says.
Like learning a new language, Steven says it’s all about “challenging yourself and immersing yourself. It works the same with debt and finances. If you’re always listening to a podcast on the train ride to work and you’re thinking of paying off debt, you’re putting yourself in that mindset. It’s almost hard not to be.”
By mid-2015, some of these smart financial choices began to finally pay themselves off, and between 2013 and last year, Steven finished off the remaining $46,500 in student loan debt, along with his personal debt.
The road to financial independence
Steven may be even on his debts, but that’s only the start of becoming more financially prudent and savvy. His “financial independence,” as he calls it, has a tentative start date of 2020, when the Donovans hope to completely pay off their mortgage properties and relocate back to Florida.
Today, Steven shares his experiences, insights, and advice with others on his blog to help others struggling with debt find the same motivation — personally and financially. He believes that achieving one’s own financial independence from debt or another money problem is all about setting goals and sticking with them to the end.
Motivate yourself, he says, by listening to podcasts. Find inspiration in books by financial experts. Keep a basic spreadsheet of your income and your expenses. Map out your 401(k), or make a resolution to contribute more to your IRA — anything to increase your capital. Take a side hustle for some extra cash, if possible.
Or, take the old-school route. Steven even drew a money thermometer graph on his bedroom door, marking financial milestones as he reached them along the way.
“One of the biggest things I recommend is tracking all your expenses,” he says. “At the very least, know where all your money is going. This way, you have an idea if you’re spending $1,000 on groceries, then you can decide if that’s what you want to do.”
It doesn’t even require having a specific, detailed budget. According to Steven, “Just knowing is half the battle.”
His advice to others? When setting a financial goal, make it a challenge. Establish a deadline and endeavor yourself to meet it on time (earlier, if possible) by finding new ways to garner more money and make payments more quickly.
“Set goals,” Steven advises. “You’ve got to jump, and you’ve got to run as fast as you can.”
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