Finances tend to be on our minds at the beginning of the year.  We want to start the year off right, and we have noble hopes of being financially responsible for the next 12 months.  But where to begin?

If we’ve got great intentions but no concrete plan, we won’t go far.

Dave Ramsey‘s “total money makeover” plan works really well for my family because it’s easy to understand.  The steps are clearly explained, and there’s lots of support for sticking to the plan via his daily podcast, radio show, and online forums.

But before we go into this series, it must be said that Dave Ramsey’s plan isn’t the only plan.  He’s the first to admit that nothing he teaches is new (God’s and Grandma’s advice, he calls it), so while I explore his plan on this blog for the next few weeks, please keep in mind that the most important thing here is fiscal responsibility — not bowing down and worshipping Dave.

The Baby Steps

Dave breaks down his total money makeover plan into “baby steps.”  You follow them in order, and you do them completely.  In simple terms, the baby steps are:

1.  Quickly save $1,000 as your beginning Emergency Fund.
2.  Pay off all your non-mortgage debt using the Debt Snowball method.
3.  Save 3 to 6 months of expenses, completing the Emergency Fund from step 1.
4.  Invest 15% of your regular household income for retirement.
5.  Create a college fund for your children.
6.  Pay off your house.
7.  Build wealth and give.

Today, we’re looking at steps 1 and 2.

Baby Step 1

Photo by Miemo Penttinen

The most important thing in the total money makeover is to be debt-free, but you can’t do that without a safety net.  So the first step is to quickly save $1,000 as the beginning of your Emergency Fund.

If you’ve already got more than $1,000 saved up, you’ve done this step.  Proceed to step 2.

If you don’t have $1,000 yet, do whatever you can to get it as fast as you can.  Sell stuff on eBay.  Have a yard sale.  Don’t eat out for a month or two.  Spend no extra money anywhere — put it all towards the Emergency Fund and live on beans and rice.

The safety net is purposely small.  It’s just large enough to cover minor setbacks, such as heating repairs, car maintenance, or sudden medical issues.  If it’s too large, you won’t be as “gazelle intense” during step 2 — a healthy fear is a good motivator, in other words.

Baby Step 2

Photo by kamshots

Once you’ve set aside $1,000, your next step is to pay off all your non-mortgage debt.  This includes credit cards, home equity loans, vehicles, student loans, medical bills, and bank lines of credit — everything.

If you originally had more than $1,000 in savings, use the remainder for your debt.  It’s a scary feeling, yes, but if you’re saving it while still holding on to debt, you’re basically “borrowing” that money to stay in debt.  It’s not yours — you need to pay it to your creditors.

(The only exception to this is when you see “storm clouds” on the horizon — the main income earner in your household is laid off, there’s a baby on the way, things like that.


storm clouds, not things like Christmas or vacation.  If you see storm clouds, then continue beefing up your Emergency Fund, and just pay the minimums on your debt.  When the clouds pass, use all but $1,000 in your Emergency Fund on your debt.)

Prioritize your debt payments using the Debt Snowball method.

Keeping a Budget

It’s essential to stick to a written budget each month, no matter what baby step you’re on.  Our family prefers to use a zero-based budget, based on Dave’s recommendation.  Create a new budget each month; don’t make some lofty “master” budget in hopes of each month matching your plan. We tried that for a long time, and it never worked.

Use pen and paper, Excel, or budgeting software.  Our family’s preference is Pear Budget because of its simplicity, support, and clean interface (and it’s created and run by a family who happens to be loyal Simple Mom readers).  It’s well worth the $3 monthly fee.

Use cash with a basic envelope system so that you don’t accidentally spend more than you intend.

If you have more expenses than income, that either means you need to increase your income or decrease your expenses.  The most important expenses are food, shelter, and lights, so make those your priorities. If you don’t have enough money, don’t pay Visa before you pay your mortgage note.  The credit cards will scream and insult you, but that’s all.  Ignore their calls.  Essential living takes priority.

For More Inspiration

I highly recommend tuning in to Dave’s daily radio showcheck for local times.  If you don’t have access to it live, like me, then you can listen to the first hour for free on his podcast.

If you’d like more one-on-one accountability and support, the Total Money Makeover forums are a great place.  I was on there during baby steps 1 through 3, and it was very helpful.  Worth the monthly (or annual) fee.

Take Financial Peace University. If there’s not one near you, you can take it online.  My husband and I did it online, and it was great.

Read blogs who advocate debt-free living. Some of my favorites are Money Saving Mom, Being Frugal, and Gather Little By Little.  There are a lot.

Next Monday, we’ll explore baby steps 3, 4, and 5.

What are your thoughts about being debt-free?  Do you have any questions?  Any words of wisdom to share?