Book Review – “Debt-Proof Living: How to Get Out of Debt & Stay That Way” by Mary Hunt

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Have you ever picked up a book and before you even finish the first chapter, you’ve become the author’s biggest cheerleader?  The words on the page just come to life, booming as if they were being spoken by the most charismatic leader you’ve ever heard rallying the troops before a battle.  That’s how I felt reading the beginning to “Debt-Proof Living: How to Get Out of Debt & Stay That Way” by Mary Hunt.  She started off hitting all the right notes and getting me fired up about living a debt-free life.  Unfortunately, those notes started to sour as soon as I got to the outline of her plan, and I finished the book feeling overwhelmed, confused, and frustrated.

Mary Hunt is a best-selling author whose books have sold over a million copies.  She’s maybe better known for her newspaper column, “Everyday Cheapskate,” which started out as a subscription newsletter full of tips and tricks for living a more frugal life.  The first time I had heard of Mary was when she shared her story on the Focus on the Family radio broadcast.  She talked about being trapped underneath six figures (!!) of credit card debt in the early nineties, and how she fought her way out of the red using a plan she had developed.  Obviously, I was intrigued, and went to the library to pick up a copy of her book.

Right off the bat, Hunt’s warm personality shines through as she writes with the tone of a mother who longs to see her children live a life free of debt.  Her heart for her audience is undeniable, and her first-hand experience paying off that enormous sum definitely comes into play.  She’s not just in this book-writing business for the money.  She wants to see you pay off your debt so that you can live better.

Maybe best described as a softer, less in-your-face version of Dave Ramsey, Hunt also advises that the best way to live financially is to be completely free of debt.  But she starts to cut her own path in chapter two, where she describes the difference between what she calls “toxic debt” (credit cards and the like) and “intelligent borrowing.”  Where Ramsey would call something like a mortgage “tolerable, but still inadvisable if it can be avoided,” Hunt calls it intelligent borrowing.  There is more room in Hunt’s universe for the “normal” types of debt that we Americans typically have.  She’s more forgiving of car loans and home equity loans, essentially giving them the wink (as long as they’re used responsibly) despite claiming that she refuses to pull punches or take the soft approach.

From there, she takes some wild turns on her path toward financial freedom.  Her plan consists of five elements, though they aren’t sequential steps; they’re all to be done concurrently as much as possible.  They are:

  1. 10-10-80 Formula – With every bit of income you receive, no matter what your financial situation, you’re to give 10%, save 10%, and spend the other 80%.
  2. Spending Plan – Convinced that “budget” is a four-letter word, Hunt has her readers create a spending plan instead.  After reading this chapter over and over again, I don’t see how her “spending plan” is anything but a zero-based budget.
  3. Contingency Fund – Referred to elsewhere in the financial world as an “Emergency Fund,” Hunt advises to set aside $10,000.  She claims that the prevailing wisdom of three to six months’ worth of expenses is too abstract, and therefore recommends setting aside the $10k, adjusting for your personal expenses.
  4. Rapid Dept-Repayment Plan (RDRP) – A somewhat modified version of the snowball method, the RDRP has five rules:
    1. No new debt
    2. Pay the same amount every month
    3. Line up your debts according to the number of months left to pay off
    4. Ignore the declining minimum monthly payments you will see on your statements
    5. As one debt is paid, add its payment to the regular payment of the debt next in line
  5. Freedom Account – A separate checking account only to be used for irregular, unexpected, or intermittent expenses, such as car maintenance, life insurance, vacation, property taxes, and clothing.

 

As I went through the book, I tried to imagine my wife and I not knowing a single thing about personal finance, stumbling upon this book, and using it as the guideline for our debt paydown strategy.  I didn’t take issue with the first element at all; I think taking a 20% hit in our pay would have hurt, but I agree with Hunt that giving and saving needs to be a part of everyone’s life.

I also didn’t mind the second element.  Without squabbling over the name, the spending plan is a very doable, very simple way of managing monthly (or in her case, weekly) finances.  Hunt’s spending plan has families create a weekly spreadsheet of expenses, along with how they are to be paid.  Money that comes out of a paycheck has to go into a category of some kind, whether it’s bills, debt repayment, or some other goal.  The point is that it needs to go somewhere before you spend it, rather than leak out of your wallet throughout the month.

Where I started to feel my throat close in was when she recommended the $10,000 Contingency Fund.  My wife and I are young and we don’t have any kids, but we have a LOT of debt.  Like, to the point where I needed to take a second job if we wanted to live in our apartment for more than a month.  If I’m following the 10-10-80 rule, I’m already trying to live on 80% of my pay, and now I’m expected to save $9,000 more than I’ve ever seen in my life on top of trying to juggle all these minimums?  I understand the thought process behind it, and I can imagine it would feel amazing once (if) it’s completed, but I don’t know of many families that are able to afford this extra savings while they’re drowning in debt.  Ironically, Hunt uses the analogy of a kitchen being on fire at one point in the book.  She claims that when the kitchen is on fire, you don’t care about getting the kitchen fireproofed, you care about putting the fire out.  I feel that this Contingency Fund and the Freedom Account are two layers of fireproofing that should wait until after the debt fire has been extinguished.

The RDRP, which in my mind should have been the focus of a book named “Debt-Proof Living,” gets one chapter towards the middle.  In it, Hunt modifies the debt snowball approach a little.  The normal debt snowball has you listing your debts smallest to largest, making minimum payments on everything but that smallest debt, and going crazy on the smallest one until it’s gone, including every spare penny you can find.  Then, you go to town on the second-smallest, and so on.  In Hunt’s version, instead of paying off your debts smallest to largest, you pay them in chronological order, according to when the soonest will be paid off.  She also doesn’t require you pay more than the minimum payments when you start the RDRP, just that you continue making the same payment amount for the life of the plan.  For example, let’s say you owe $5,000 on a credit card with a minimum payment of $100.  You only need to pay $100, but as the balance begins to decline, you must always pay at least $100.  Only paying the minimums might appeal to those who are truly in over their heads, but perhaps if she didn’t require the fully-funded Contingency Fund and the Freedom Account at the same time as the RDRP, her readers might be able to pay extra, and get rid of their debts sooner.

Hunt turns up the stress factor more when she starts talking about the Freedom Account.  Part of the reason we got so far into debt was because our finances were a big ugly mess.  I personally had two checking accounts, one savings account, five credit cards, and an online credit account that I was trying to juggle, and that’s before we added even a single penny of Rachel’s finances into the mix.  Simplifying and cutting out excess has been crucial to the progress we’ve made, and opening a separate account for things like clothing just seems so counter-intuitive.  Why aren’t those categories just worked into the budget– sorry, spending plan– in the first place?

As I continued through the book, Hunt became increasingly inconsistent in her advice.  In one of the last few chapters, after calling credit cards “toxic debt” and blasting them for their ability to ruin people who convince themselves they’ll just use one “for emergencies,” Hunt recommends that every family have one credit card… for emergencies.  In fact, she says debit cards are her least favorite type of plastic, and that “[she] would rather see you use a credit card or charge card as outlined above than to choose a debit card.” (p. 214)  I had to read that sentence three times before it sunk in that a woman who was at one time over $100,000 in credit card debt was telling her readers that “toxic” credit cards were a wise choice.  To top it all off, while recounting a meeting Hunt had with a young student during a speaking engagement, the student had told Hunt that she was $30,000 in debt with no real plan for repayment.  Hunt’s advice?  Buckle down to a frugal lifestyle (good so far), work at least two jobs (mmhmm), have a goal to pay them back in three years (right), and “whatever you do, don’t get married until it is paid.”  Ouch.  Don’t get married until you have a plan, or at least have discussed it with your spouse-to-be?  Sure, I’m right there with you.  Don’t get married until you’re debt-free?  Mrs. Hunt, I respectfully disagree.  Again, I understand the thought process, but telling people to put off marriage or having a baby until they’re “ready” is only going to result in a lot of single, childless people in our generation.

As I finished reading about the Debt-Proof Living plan, I felt overwhelmed.  I think if I was truly looking to this book for guidance, I’d give up and continue trying to chip away at my debt however I could.  The DPL plan seems overly complicated and hard to stick with, especially for a young married couple just starting to figure their financial lives out.  I have no doubt that it’s worked for many people, because books that don’t work don’t sell.  But her everything-all-at-once approach coupled with her inconsistent advice surrounding credit cards and debt in general is confusing and exhausting.

Buy/Borrow/Pass

Pass.  Based on the principles taught in “Debt-Proof Living,” I can’t in good conscience recommend it to any of you reading this.  If you’d like a simpler, cleaner, more methodical way to sort out your finances, check out the book that Rachel and I are following: Dave Ramsey’s The Total Money Makeover, and read my review of it here.

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