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The dark side of a million dollars: A story of debt

The dark side of a million dollars: A story of debt

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SALT LAKE CITY — Forget Pink Floyd's enigmatic exploration of "The Dark Side of the Moon" — those who have traveled into the recesses of the dark side of a million dollars will never forget their time as a negative millionaire.

For me, it started with borrowing enough money to pay tuition and keep my growing family alive as I waded through the rigors of dental school. Innocent enough borrowing, I suppose, and lacking other resources it's a common practice to get through a demanding professional school these days. We started dental school when our oldest child was 10 months old and added two more to our clan by the time the four years was up. But even with my wife's piano teaching and careful budgeting, our student loans easily passed six figures before I received my degree.

Next came purchasing a modest home, and a practice — virtually a necessary expense if you want to be your own boss in the dental field. We paid close attention to our outlay, but these expenses combined still tacked on roughly $600,000. Within a few years it became apparent, due to a number of reasons beyond our control, that we needed to move our business to a new location. While an accountant or an attorney could pick up and move to a new office space overnight, the same can definitely not be said for a dentist (who knew it was even possible to spend $60,000 on plumbing?). After building out a new space and purchasing some badly-needed new equipment, we had added another cool half-million to the tally.


So there you have it: Within a few years we were $1.3 million in personally-secured debt. We had no consumer debt and no auto loan debt. While you may argue that most of it was business debt and therefore not the same as personal debt, those familiar with small business startups know all too well that such small business debt is secured personally. My signature alone was on that line, our family's economic well-being completely dependent on my ability to make things happen. Stressful? You bet. Think "wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat" stressful. Motivating? Absolutely. I'd never been so compelled to action in my life.

During my days as a negative millionaire, I toyed with the idea of calling up Dave Ramsey and explaining our financial situation, but not for advice; I just wanted to hear his reaction. The reality was, we already knew what we had to do. We dug the hole and we would get out of it. It wasn't going to happen overnight, but with great effort and faith, we knew we would succeed.

We already knew what we had to do. We dug the hole and we would get out of it. It wasn't going to happen overnight, but with great effort and faith, we knew we would succeed.

Fortunately, my wife and I had long ago adopted a very frugal lifestyle and knew that personally we could live on next to nothing, without government aid. We worked hard to build the dental practice by treating people right, advertising regularly and examining every expense. Early on I moonlighted at a couple of other practices on my day off. We started a dental assisting school that would utilize the facility during the evening hours. My amazingly-patient wife learned how to keep the books and do payroll, all while adding three more little ones to our family.

I recognize that my experience may not seem universally applicable, as a relatively small percentage of the population are business owners, but many of the principles are the same: Work your tail off in your chosen profession and never stop learning, live on much less than you earn, avoid unnecessary expenses, look for guidance in your financial decisions, carry appropriate insurances to help offset a medical or legal catastrophe, invest in yourself by obtaining valuable education and acquiring empowering knowledge, shun credit card debt, prepare meals at home instead of eating out (which will help your wallet and your waistline), and buy your vehicles with cash only — in my mind, there's nothing worse than borrowing money to purchase a depreciating asset.

Keeping focused on this task over the course of seven years has been challenging, to say the least. However, persistence pays. As my wife would say, quoting from a family favorite movie "Finding Nemo": "Just keep swimming."

We're not completely out of it yet, but we have paid off over $1 million over the last seven years. We've got a bit left, but the major players in our debt situation are now kicked to the curb. It feels good, really good — like the approaching dawn after a long, dark night.

One thing is for certain: We're not going back. No longer on the smothering dark side of a million dollars, we are just starting to feel the light on the other side.

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Andy Mohlman


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