Adam Baker is a brave soul who places his financial reality out there for people to gawk at. Along the way he’s created a really nice blog at ManVsDebt.com and has a lot of good advice to share regarding doing better financially.
Recently I had an opportunity to interview him via video link and got a chance to discuss how he managed to break free from his debt, find happiness in having less, discovered he could dream hos way to a better financial future and we talked about how to unautomate your financial life.
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Steve: With me today is Adam Baker from the Web site Manvsdebt.com. Adam, who goes by Baker, lives an adventurous, insightful and somewhat torturous financial life. He’s laid it all out there for readers to see in the past, and he’s gone so far as to list his income and expenses each month to allow readers to poke internally inside his financial life. Welcome, Baker.
Adam Baker: Thank you. What an amazing introduction. I will try to live up to that. That was a good one.
Steve: You know, your Web site is Man vs. Debt, but I wanna make sure that everyone understands that the URL is manvsdebt.com.
Adam Baker: That’s correct, that’s correct. Man vs. Debt, man-v-s-debt.com.
Steve: You know, it’s amazing how many people can’t spell debt.
Adam Baker: [Laughter] This is – some people have asked me before when I’ve told them, they said, “Your site is what? Man vs. Death?” I was like no.
Steve: [Laughter] I know. I get debit, dept, death, everything.
Adam Baker: Yeah.
Steve: Well, your financial journey has been an interesting one, and I’ve enjoyed being along for the ride. I think we first met on Twitter through maybe our mutual friend Matt Jabbs.
Adam Baker: Yeah, very early on.
Steve: Yeah, who does a lot of stuff. And you’ve not always been so self-aware about your debt in your life. When did that switch flip in your head that getting out of debt became a priority?
Adam Baker: Well, I always would like to say that one day I looked in the mirror and I just realized I needed to get serious, but it really wasn’t me. It didn’t come from inside me. It came from the birth of our daughter, and so we had an external source, which so many of us need to make different changes in our lives. Sometimes we need a kick in the butt from outside ourselves, and for Courtney and I that was definitely the birth of our daughter. And when we brought her home from the hospital, we had knew we needed to get our personal finances, I guess I could say, we knew we needed to be more conscious about our personal finances, but we just didn’t have the kick in the butt. And so that was for us the birth of her and we looked at our life and said we’re willing to be risky. We’re willing to be unsustainable when it was just Courtney and I, but we’re not willing to leverage the future of Milligan, the future of our daughter to live an unsustainable lifestyle anymore, and so that was really the big change.
Steve: Did you ever have – since you’ve been so open and sharing, I’m gonna ask you a very personal question.
Adam Baker: Go ahead. Yeah, hit me.
Steve: Have you ever had a moment when you’ve had past-due bills or in collections and that created an “oh, shit” moment for you?
Adam Baker: I always like to tell people we were not in desperate financial situations. As you know on your site and a lot of your readers that there are some people that are in very, very desperate situations. We never had a problem putting food on the table. We have had paid late bills before but not where things were in collections and debtors were calling us. Just the normal like, oh my gosh, I didn’t realize we didn’t pay this this month, that kind of thing where it would go one or two months. But we weren’t being haggled or hassled. We weren’t in desperate fire situations. But I think without the birth of Milligan, we may have just unconsciously found ourselves in that situation not too much longer. So we turned it around at about the right time.
Steve: Not that long ago you were living in New Zealand and I was tracking your travels all around the world. Now you’re back in the US. What’s your life like now?
Adam Baker: Well, we did. We took a year after we paid off our consumer debt and decided to spend the year traveling abroad, and that was a really interesting time for us from both the personal finance standpoint, from a consumerism standpoint while we were mobile.
When we came back to the US, we decided that we were gonna take a little break from traveling. We had been fairly mobile during our travel and we had – Milligan was one at the time – and so we had a lot of ups and downs on the road and we said you know what? We’re gonna take a break. We’re gonna take a six-month break, move back and visit with family. That was probably a good decision. The bad because we had our guard down.
And when we came back, we rented a three-bedroom house, which was way more than we needed. And we immediately had seven rooms that we needed to fill with stuff and we had two backpacks of stuff, so we had nothing and so we started back into that kind of consumerism unconscious lifestyle. Not a whole lot but for us we had done so well at getting momentum in our life that we kind of had a little bit of a relapse.
And I’m not blaming that on the American society, although our consumerist society definitely makes it easy to relapse. So now we’re sort of realized, hey, let’s not fall back into that trap we were, and we’re sort of taken that dip and we’re trying to head in the right direction moving forward.
Steve: What was that process like for you when you realized all of the sudden that you were spending and accumulating to fill a physical void?
Adam Baker: I rejected it at first, right? You know, I run a financial Web site. [Laughter]
Steve: Oh, yeah. Not you. [Laughter]
Adam Baker: No one can know, especially. So we rejected it at first thinking that it wasn’t – things weren’t out of control. We still knew where things were going. We still knew where money was going. And then it was just fed up because it was one of those things like you know better. Okay, not only for the site, ’cause that’s never our motivation, but in some respect the site did help with the accountability. I’m like I’m writing about this. I have a community of people who like think my story’s inspiring. What am I doing to myself here?
And so I never do anything for the site, but this was one instance where the site kind of kicked me in the butt again. You know, some of that external influence said, hey, not only do this for yourself, but you built this community of people that are kind of counting on you to not slack off here. And these are our own goals anyway so that was kind of the though process when we went through it. [Laughter]
Steve: Was Man vs. Debt your fulltime gig?
Adam Baker: It is and actually Man vs. Debt has been my fulltime gig the entire time. Now, I say that and I’ve gone through periods of creative burnout like I’m sure you’re very familiar with. [Laughter] Steve: Don’t we all?
Adam Baker: Yeah but I sold my property management business, which was what I was into before Milligan was born. I sold that when she was born, and I was a stay-at-home dad for six months, and then I was a stay-at-home dad/blogger/traveler, almost fulltime traveler, for the next 6 to 12 months. So I’ve been freelance writing as well, but between freelance writing and Man vs. Debt and Courtney teaching here and there, that’s been our fulltime income so…
Steve: Your focus is on how to do better financially while mine is all about helping people dig themselves out of the immediate. I feel like I’m the emergency room and you’re the general practitioner.
Adam Baker: [Laughter] That’s very good, very good.
Steve: I thought it’d be interesting for me to read a reader question from the Getoutofdebt.org site and then put both of our brains into the fire.
Adam Baker: Sure.
Steve: Okay so Rebecca writes, “A year ago, my pay was cut 40%. I spiraled into debt and now I’m $23,000.00 in credit card debt. I’ve kept my rent, car, phone current but was unable to make the minimal payments on the credit cards. I’m in a situation where I can start to pay them back, but I don’t know where to start. Please help.”
Adam Baker: That’s a tough situation. It sounds like at the beginning of that question I thought she was gonna blame external influences. Like I thought she was gonna blame the income and start to project that away, but then she finished up by really taking accountability for it. She paid what she could when she could and she let the things – the non-necessities slip. And so I think that’s a really empowering example of kind of how to take that hit and keep going.
So my advice to her on where to start would be to, first of all, she has to know who she owes and how much. She has to understand the problem before she can decide how to tackle it. So I would go to Annualcreditreport.com, and I would pull a free report if she hasn’t already used that up from all three bureaus. Hopefully, she has that available to her. If not, I would pay for a credit report because she needs to look at that and get into it.
I would sit down if it’s just her, hopefully, with a friend or with someone that she trusts and that is a good financial influence and that will donate a couple hours of time to really help her plan out how much she owes, where’s the interest rates and how to get in contact with those people.
Steve: So accountability, that’s always good.
Adam Baker: Yeah, have somebody else ’cause she didn’t mention being married. She didn’t mention any of that stuff, so I have a feeling that she’s overwhelmed from going at it alone, but that’s an assumption. But if she didn’t have anyone there, get a friend. Get somebody else that’s gonna kind of help her through and maybe even provide some advice.
And how I suggest that she pays off debt is that she sends at least a little bit of it. It depends on how long she hasn’t been paying, I should say. If she hasn’t paid them in a long time, I would not wake them all up at the same time. I would choose the one that she was most emotionally attached to. That’s just my option for paying off debt, so if there was a small debt that she knew she could knock out or there was a certain debt that she just hated herself for getting into – maybe she owed a family member or something like that – I would suggest she start there.
By default, then, if she doesn’t have any emotional attachment, I would suggest she started with the smallest debt and that’s how we proceeded, and that’s what I would suggest to her, and then pick two or three and wake those up at a time and start sending them the minimum payments, get those caught up. When she can afford to wake up another one, wake up another one. But through this all, make sure she has an emergency fund so it doesn’t all blow up in her face. So that’s a lot but that would be where I would start.
Steve: You come at it from a good point and that is I think that you realize that debt is not about the credit card. It’s about the underlying issues that got you into debt. And one of the things that concerned me in her question was that she said, “I spiraled into debt, and I’m now $23,000.00 in credit card debt.” And one of the things I’m gonna talk about coming up is budgeting, but in a situation like this, I think an awareness about how you got into debt, kind of that financial autopsy about what led you into that situation is important so that you don’t repeat that situation again.
Adam Baker: Absolutely, absolutely. That’s a great point because $23,000.00 in credit card debt is a lot. And that’s what I said at the beginning when she said, “I lost my income and I spiraled into debt.” I thought take responsibility, but it seems like she was taking responsibility towards the end. So I think breaking that down and seeing where it came from will help her take responsibility, will help her say, “You know what? I lost my income, true, but a lot of this was because of choices I made.” And like you said, breaking that down is a great way to do that.
Steve: Recently you released a book that people could buy on your site and they could download. You were kind enough to send me a copy of it. It looks great. I read through it all. In the interest of total disclosure, I want people to know that if they go to manvsdebt.com, I get nothing. [Laughter] There’s no commission from that, but I’m plugging the book. I’m plugging the download because I really like it.
Adam Baker: Thank you.
Steve: And I’ve read through the book, but I thought it would be meaningful for you to describe the benefits of how to unautomate your financial life.
Adam Baker: Unautomating your financial life is sort of a fun term. I don’t know if anyone used that automate, but that’s the term that Courtney and I applied when we really sat down and started to break into our financial life. And there were two big components of unautomation for Courtney and I. The first was the actual tangible simplifying of our financial life. That involved simplifying our financial accounts. That involved cutting up our credit cards so that we did not have those accounts and those avenues in our life. That involved a lot of just paring down the possessions even, a lot of just simplifying how we approached our finances, budgeting by hand, that kind of thing.
The other aspect of it was just making sure that we were much more conscious of our choices in our spending, and these went hand-in-hand. The more simple we made the tangible aspects about dealing with our finances, we found the more conscious we were of our spending choices. And so those two elements – an increase in consciousness, which we could talk about this for however long you wanted, but there’s a lot that went into that increased consciousness. And then there was a lot of things that we chose to do to actually simplify our tangible accounts.
But doing those two things hand-in-hand is what we call unautomating our finances. Getting more in touch with your finances is sort of a fufu way of saying it, and that’s what the guid is about. It’s our process, our journey, our exploration and all of the juicy tips and strategies that we found that came out of it, sort of like a personal finance thesis, if you will, of…
Steve: There’s a lot of value. There’s a lot of tactile value in not paying that bill online but actually using an envelope method, where you’re stuffing the cash in the envelope.
Adam Baker: Yup, yup. I tell a story in the book about being in the grocery store, and when we used to swipe the credit card, we used to think can we pay this at the end of the month? And then, of course, the answer was always yes like, oh yeah, we’ll come up with it ’cause it was unconscious. There was multiple layers. When we used our debit card, we said do we have enough money in the bank because we didn’t wanna bounce it.
Adam Baker: And so that was still a layer but a little bit less. We more consciously had to think do we actually have the money for this. But when you actually sit with an envelope in cash, it sounds elementary. It sounds like I don’t need this. I’m an adult. But when you actually look at it and you’re like the bill is $80.00 and I have $60.00 in my envelope, there’s no better slap in the face than, hey, you aren’t budgeting. You need to put something back. And when you’re a 26-year-old with a kid and you run a financial Web site and you’re putting stuff back at the grocery store, then all the sudden it kind of hits you that, okay, this is for real. I’m doing this because I want to because I want to budget my money so I can spend it in better ways. So I’m the one leading this, but this is the most tangible way to do it. And so it’s those kind of things that helped us unautomate or simplify our financial life.
Steve: In your book you talk about dreaming, dreaming being important. I always think that in getting out of debt you need to know what the goal is. You need to know where you’re going so you can plan the journey. What’s the benefit of dreaming for you?
Adam Baker: I think that we found out that the bigger we dream, the more quickly and the more easy it is to get out of any problems that we get into or to just accomplish our general goals. When we decided to sell everything we owned, pay off $18,000.00 in debt and spend a year traveling abroad, that was very, very ambitious for us. We had – that required us to live on about a third of our income, which we would’ve never – if we just wanted to say you know what? Getting out of debt is good. It’s good for you. That’s why I can’t lose weight ’cause I keep thinking that losing weight is good for me. That doesn’t work for people or for most people, I should say.
Steve: That doesn’t work for me. [Laughter]
Adam Baker: Yeah, people don’t get wealthy because it’s good. It’s because they attach extreme emotional value to something. Sometimes it’s bad, and that’s obviously not what we wanna do. And other times you can set positive goals for your life and then attach those emotionally. So to make it really tangible, we did things like put pictures of Milligan on our credit cards when we were trying to pay them off so that every time we went to use our credit card, bam, there’s our daughter. She was the impetus for our turnaround. She’s the reason why everything we do. She’s the reason for everything we do, but this was very motivating for us and –
Steve: Did it stop you?
Adam Baker: Sometimes, sometimes. I can’t say we never made an impulse purchase, but at times it did where we looked and thought about that. Other people do dream boards or they change their background or they change their passwords to “debt free.” Don’t put all your passwords to debt free, but you know what I mean? Their passwords, their desktop, their poster on the wall were all pushing them to accomplish their financial goals, their immediate financial goals. And that’s what we did, and we surrounded ourselves with sites like your own when you’ve been going way before I got started. Gurus like Dave Ramsey, which I like most of what Dave has to say, another personal finance influences and authors and we surrounded ourselves and we pushed ourselves to help us meet that emotional goal that we set.
Steve: Your site and your messages resonate with me because they seem to be where the endgame is about happiness, achieving happiness. Now, you’ve had a lot in your life and you’ve had very little. You’ve had a backpackful in your life. When have you been happiest?
Adam Baker: Well, that is, first of all, a great question and a great setup that I find it very hard to gauge happiness itself, but I can tell you for sure when I felt the most in line with my purpose, in line with my passion and most secure in my element and that is when we had less stuff. And I guess the thing was we thought it was gonna make us more vulnerable. We thought that not having things was gonna make us weak, was gonna be a hurdle we had to overcome like how are we ever gonna live without these things? We can figure it out. That was our approach.
And what we realized was the far, far majority of things when we got rid of them actually made us more secure, actually made us less vulnerable because we no longer relied on, oh, I need to have this gadget or I need to have this thing. We tapped into ourselves. We were more resourceful. We had forced flexibility, as I like to call it, where we didn’t have a choice but to learn how to be patient. And that was a big, big thing for me traveling with very little things is that I learned to be flexible and patient, and I feel like I’m a much better husband, father, teacher, student. I feel like I’m a much more well-rounded person because of that experience.
Steve: Yeah, it’s interesting. People don’t realize that you don’t own stuff. Your stuff owns you.
Adam Baker: Exactly. One of my favorite quotes on the topic.
Steve: And when I did an article awhile ago, but it was about self-storage facilities and the explosion in America in self-storage facilities ’cause people have to buy stuff they don’t use and pay to put it in a place they don’t go to.
Adam Baker: Yup, yup, I saw when I was researching for a different project I was doing, I saw a statistic that now, as of last year or something, that every person in America could stand side-by-side under the roof of self-storage in America and fit. And so we have enough self-storage for all of us to fit under roofed storage in America, and so that was pretty fun statistic that I came across, eye-opening how big of an industry that is.
Steve: About four years ago, I moved to England. And in doing that – we lived there for a couple of years. But in doing that, we probably got rid of 95 percent of our stuff, so my journey was a little bit like yours. And at one point in the beginning it was hard parting with it. I put the stuff on Craig’s List and people would come and we’d barter and stuff. And then we got to the point where people would come and I would just say, okay, whatever, take it. And then we got to the point where we just gave it away.
Adam Baker: Yup.
Steve: [Laughter] Because it was amazing how freeing that was to get rid of your stuff and to live with a lot less. And now I probably don’t do as good a job at watching the accumulation of all that small stuff. But you’re absolutely right: Your life doesn’t become worse when you have less. It becomes better.
Adam Baker: Sure and I think it’s important – what you described is exactly what happened to us. We went in layers, in surges. Like the first layer was sort of a little bit tougher, and then once we got rid of that stuff, there was like a new level of stuff and we’re like, oh, here’s more stuff that we can sell. We thought we got everything the first time, and then we just kept going in waves and we kept selling stuff.
But I think that it’s important to always inject in this conversation that different people are gonna have different items in their life that are important and that are valuable and that are worth keeping, and I call it stuff versus crap. Everyone has stuff and everyone has crap. And the key is to be able to honestly tell the difference between the two and that’s very hard. But something that’s stuff in my life may be absolute crap in your life. It would just be wasteful. It would take your time and energy away from you instead of helping you get more of that and vice versa. You probably have several things in your life that I would be, oh, this is crap. Let’s sell it. And you’d be like, “No, no, no, this brings joy and value into my life. I wanna keep it.”
And for each person, you don’t have to sell everything you own and travel to Australia. That’s not the message. The message is that there is – most of us have crap in our life, and we don’t know how to find that line. And when we do, our life is much more beneficial when we can purge that excess layer.
Steve: You know, it’s funny in my journey in doing that, a lot of stuff we ended up giving away to friends: furniture and stuff around the kitchen and things like that. What’s now odd is that when I go visit them and I go to their house and I see my old stuff there…
Adam Baker: [Laughter] Okay.
Steve: How did I miss that? [Laughter]
Adam Baker: The sentimental attachment creeps back in. You haven’t missed it for three years, but as soon as you see it again, you want to have it. I mean, it’s just weird how that phenomena works, how we attach that emotional value to our things where when they’re gone we don’t need them. We never missed them. But once we start to see them again, we’re like hey. And that’s how advertising works, right? [Laughter] That’s how we find ourselves buying things and in debt is we’re bombarded with that kind of thing every day.
Steve: So let’s talk about saving for a minute. When people are trying to dig their way out of debt, they’re dealing with that. They’re living hand to mouth. They’re living month to month. People don’t think that saving is important at that stage in their life. They’re just trying to meet all the minimum payments.
Adam Baker: Yup.
Steve: But tell me what priority saving has when you think about getting out of debt.
Adam Baker: I don’t know about you, but I honestly feel that the most important thing that somebody could do – and I kind of threw it in at the end of that reader question that you tossed up to me – that the most important financial tool or technique in anybody’s situation is an emergency fund, is a liquid emergency fund. And it’s A) the process of actually building it. For most people it’s eye-opening and game-changing if they could actually save up $1,000.00, if they can actually save up $5,000.00 cash and not touch it. So that process of learning how to do that is important and just the having it there for emergencies.
That key aspect of it is insane because most people do “spiral” into debt because of some sort of illness, because they were already living unsustainable, so let’s not give them full credit, but then they did lose a job or they were already living unsustainable and they did have a medical bill. And they feel that it’s just the medical bill that put them over the edge, but it’s really that they were building up this unsustainable.
And for me, for Courtney and I, the building of our first emergency fund radically changed how we approached and how we psychologically thought about the process of paying off debt and saving, so we did $1,000.00. That was influenced by Dave Ramsey. We did $1,000.00 and having that in the bank where we needed it – we “needed it” – we needed it but we weren’t touching it and weren’t going to touch it. That was game-changing for us.
And so I am not – we are right now in a big saving mode. We do not save for retirement right now, and I have no qualms about telling people that. But the liquid savings, the emergency fund, is a core part of our financial strategy right now and I think is one of the biggest tools people can use at the start of their journey.
Steve: Yeah, if you don’t have the emergency fund and anything happens – car goes, tire blows – it goes right back on credit. You’ve eroded all the progress.
Adam Baker: Yup, yup and you’re right back into that cycle.
Steve: All right, Baker, it’s been a real joy. I’ve taken up quite too much of your time.
Adam Baker: [Laughter] Not at all, not at all.
Steve: I’m a real fan of your site, and I just can’t wait to see where you’ll go next.
Adam Baker: Well, thank you, Steve. As you know, early on, like I said, you’ve been doing it a lot longer than I have, and your site was a big influence on me in getting started. So it’s awesome to finally get the time to talk face-to-face, and I appreciate you having me on for the interview.
Steve: All right, thanks.
Adam Baker: Thanks.
Steve: All right.