Chris Holton’s Story
Chris and Nikky Holton
Chris Holton grew up in Alma, Michigan, a rural town of fewer than 10,000 people. Holton was a born athlete, excelling in just about every sport he tried. He got so good at golf, he received a full-ride scholarship to play in college and study professional golf management.
That was until a shoulder injury during his sophomore year ended his scholarship. But by that time, Holton says, he was ready for a change anyway.
“I wasn’t thrilled with business at that point,” says Holton. “I did an internship and realized that I wanted to keep golf as a hobby.”
Even after transferring to a different college and changing his major to English, Holton couldn’t get excited about higher education.
“I hadn’t found the major that really captivated me, so I dropped out,” says Holton.
Go West, Young Man
Like generations of young American men before him, Holton packed up and moved west, where he and some friends landed an apartment in San Diego.
Although he pulled in fairly good wages bartending, waiting tables, and giving golf lessons, Holton says it wasn’t enough to support his lifestyle—especially in San Diego.
“I was 22 years old, working dead-end jobs and living way above my means,” says Holton. “If I were living anywhere else, I probably would have been alright, but I got to the point where I was just too far over my head and I just couldn’t sustain it anymore.”
Holton began paying for living expenses with his credit cards.
“We lived in a house that was way above what we could afford,” says Holton. “I was too young and dumb at that point to realize the long-term problems I was creating for myself.”
Eventually more than $10,000 in debt, and with few career prospects, Holton returned to his hometown.
Back in Michigan, Holton lived with a friend and continued working restaurant jobs and not thinking much about the future—until one night at a party, he met his future wife, Nikky.
The two started dating and as their relationship progressed, Holton says he had an epiphany that he would have to change if he wanted to keep his then-girlfriend in his life.
“Once I realized that I wanted to be ‘husband material,’ I grew up pretty fast,” says Holton. “I wanted to show her that I was someone she could depend on.”
So in July 2010, at 25 years old, Holton walked into an army recruiting office and enlisted.
In the Army Now
Holton had originally wanted to train to do pararescue in the Air Force, but he was turned away because of his debt.
“The Air Force is really strict,” says Holton. “If you have even a $5 overdue fee at Blockbuster, they won’t take you.”
So, Holton joined the army and in October 2010, he left for a 10-week boot camp. Between the end of boot camp and the beginning of his deployment to Afghanistan that spring, he proposed and got married to Nikky.
“We moved the wedding up to April so that if something happened during my deployment, the government would notify her,” says Holton.
Financial Perks of Service
When he enrolled in the army, Holton elected to forego the tuition assistance aspect of the GI Bill, and instead opted for the army’s student loan repayment plan—which meant that as long as he completed his contract, the army would pay his student loan debt for him.
Holton also came clean with Nikky about his credit card debt.
“When we started talking about getting married, I knew I needed to be transparent,” says Holton. “I let her know, ‘This is the baggage that comes with me, and this is my plan to take care of it.’”
The couple began to work toward their financial goals together. While Holton was deployed, he deposited his army salary into the couple’s joint account, paid more than the minimum on all his debts, and made a deal with his credit card company.
Life During Wartime
At first Holton enjoyed his military service.
“I joined the army thinking, ‘This is my career,’” says Holton. “I thought I would give it 20 years, retire at 45, and do something else.”
But soon, Holton ran into problems with his unit’s leadership, and he decided army life might not be the right direction for him.
Rather than delaying his job transition until after his deployment, Holton took steps toward a new career while still in Afghanistan. Holton enrolled at a military-friendly online university to complete his bachelor’s degree. The school capped his tuition costs at the rate the army would pay for, meaning that as long as Holton stayed in active service, he could go to school for free.
Throughout the rest of his deployment, Holton would return from missions and head straight to the computer to write papers.
“It was totally hectic and crazy,” says Holton. “But it was something I knew I had to do.”
The Right Career
This time, Holton had landed on a major that inspired him—health and wellness.
“I loved it right away,” says Holton. “That was the first degree that I had ever been passionate enough about that I actually wanted to see it through to the end.”
Holton maintained a 4.0 GPA throughout his 11-month deployment, and he finished his degree program while completing the last two and a half years of his army contract back in the states.
Holton said goodbye to active duty and started a brand-new career as a personal trainer, earning his certification in December 2013.
Facing the Financial Future
In February 2014, Holton and Nikky saved up and moved to Colorado, where they both found jobs and are looking into buying a home with the help of a home loan from the Department of Veterans Affairs sometime in the future.
The couple has a monthly budget to cover their needs, and they intentionally save for big-ticket items such as outdoor gear and trips to the mountains.
“Now if we want something, we start putting aside a certain amount of money instead of rushing out and buying it right away,” says Holton.
Holton has rebuilt his credit, but still does not have an active credit card. Nikky has a card with a small limit for emergencies.
“We are putting emphasis on things that prepare us for the future, so that we don’t fall into that trap of living paycheck to paycheck,” says Holton.
And Holton continues to enjoy his career choice. He recently discovered that he is eligible for 50 percent of his education benefits from the GI Bill, which he will use to help fund a master’s degree in kinesiology and exercise and sport psychology.
“I feel very fortunate to be doing what I’m doing now,” says Holton. “There’s not a job in this world that I would like more.”
Still, Holton’s past financial troubles are not totally out of his mind.
“It was definitely not a traditional path to where I am now. I made a lot of mistakes, especially financially,” says Holton. “My wife gives me a hard time because I literally check our bank account every single day. I think it is because of past mistakes. I just want to know that, ‘OK, we’re doing well. We’re saving.’”
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