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The way I rescued my family from debt sounds cheesy, but it worked

Gemma Hartley is a freelance writer with a BA in writing from The University of Nevada, Reno. She lives in Reno with her husband, three young kids, an awesome dog and a terrible cat.

The money saving advice no financial adviser is going to give you

When my husband and I were first married, we fell into a financial pit in a hurry. We bought a house that was a strain for us to afford, then the roof gave out. We brought home a new puppy that soon ran into the street and broke his leg. My job started cutting back hours, and before long we were broke. Suddenly we had to live on rice and beans and ramen noodles. We were constantly scraping by, and our budget was devastatingly tight. I tried to stay positive, but the persistent struggle to buy food and keep the lights on made it hard to focus on gratitude.

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The summer after we bought our money-pit home, about seven years ago, I went on a trip with my grandmother to a women’s spiritual retreat. Yes, it was a bit weird, but there was a peace in being away from my normal life, away from the struggle of being a poor, newlywed college student. We journaled about God and took long walks in the redwoods, pondering faith. Then one day, we went through an exercise in which we had to make a list of things for which we were grateful.

I had been feeling less than grateful in my real life, so my list started with the luxuries of the retreat, like food I didn’t have to buy and prepare and the chance to spend some time with my nana. However, as time went on, the list started to flow. There was nothing too small or off-limits for our gratitude list. I could write down anything at all: sunshine, puppies (in general), family, a roof over my head. I realized that the list was probably endless, and I left the retreat feeling energized and ready to take on the challenge presented there to start a gratitude journal.

From then on I wrote three items in my journal, every day. Sometimes it was big, sweeping subjects, like loved ones and my First World comforts, while other times it was small things, like seeing a particularly beautiful flower while walking to work or having a stranger open a door for me. I knew the habit of keeping a gratitude journal was good for me, but I quickly realized it was also vital in surviving this financially difficult time in my life.

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My friends would invite me out for drinks or dinner or any number of activities I would have loved to participate in, and I always had to decline. It was frustrating and left me feeling ashamed of my constant struggle for money. Though I was often tempted to go into debt to ease up my financially strict lifestyle, I found that keeping my gratitude journal gave me perspective and stopped me from diving headlong into debt over my FOMO (fear of missing out). Even when money was tight, there was still so much to be thankful for.

I wouldn’t have realized it without looking for it though. Keeping a gratitude journal forced me to spend my days looking for the little moments of light, even when I felt like giving up. One day I remember writing that I was thankful for a jar of homemade jam to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with. Part of me felt pathetic that this was what I had to feel thankful for, but the other part of me was like, "Hey, I’m eating a pretty damn delicious sandwich right now.” It kept me in balance when my life was anything but stable.

When I had to pass up a gorgeous pair of shoes while out shopping with my friends, I wrote that I was thankful to have a friend who bought me a coffee and kept me company all day. It made me realize I had spent a day laughing and spending quality time with someone I loved. I might have missed the opportunity to appreciate my relationship with my friend if new shoes had been the highlight of my day.

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I still keep my gratitude journal, and I imagine I always will. It has helped me get through difficult times in my life, and has helped me more fully appreciate the "better" seasons of adulthood. I know now that there will never be a time in my life when I feel there is nothing new to feel thankful for.

Over the years I have been able to look back on my gratitude journal and see how far I have come. It has helped me feel the tremendous weight of big days, like when my husband landed his first post-college job, or when I published my first paid article. It has reminded me to enjoy the little moments, and constantly feel humbled. And it has continued to keep me from going into debt, because it’s hard to long for greener grass when you’re tending your own garden.

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