WE ARE DEBT FREE!!!
This is the story of how we paid off almost $88,000 in student loan, car, and credit card debt in just over 3 years in our early twenties (part of which while I was still in college and unemployed).
You guys! I have waited so long to write this blog post (3 years and 4 months, to be exact), a post that in the early days of this venture I wasn’t sure we would ever get to. If you are in a place where you feel overwhelmed and crippled by the strain of debt weighing you down, I TOTALLY UNDERSTAND. It feels like I was just there yesterday. But there is a way out. This is our debt-free story. But as a preface, if you get nothing else out of this blog post, please take this: go read Dave Ramsey’s book The Total Money Makeover. It is an amazing book that will really help you start to look at money and finances differently (he is a Christian author, but you don’t need to be Christian or religious to benefit from it). I strongly recommend you read it with your husband/wife/partner. I read it aloud to Drew while in the car driving and it was so beneficial for us to read it together, be on the same page about all the info we were taking in, and chat about it and break it down together.
So, how to begin. When Drew and I got married, I inherited his over $80,000 worth of debt — ~$4,500 in credit card debt, ~$9,000 in car debt, ~$26,000 of his student loans, and ~$45,000 in more student loans that his parents took out. But the real kicker is that I had NO real idea (just the very tip of the iceberg). I did know about his credit card debt (from when we first moved to New Orleans and he had no income and relied on them to live), but he had promised to work on paying it off before our wedding (but wedding and honeymoon plans had gotten in the way). I knew that he had bought a new (used) car a year or two before, but I had no idea how much it had cost. I also knew that he and his parents had taken out loans for school, but I had NO IDEA how much they were, how they worked, when they had to be paid back, how much interest they accrued, or what their agreements were on paying them back (I had NO idea we’d have to pay for the loans his parents took out too!).
As you can imagine, this created quite a storm for our first year of marriage. It was a really, really rough year. There was a lot of frustration in communication – I was stressed about being in the dark on just how far in debt we were and he was too embarrassed by that number to thoroughly talk about it with me. When we did finally get to the bottom of how much we owed, I was just overwhelmed. It felt paralyzing to go from no debt at all (I had a scholarship for my college, my dad and grandpa had bought me an older used car when I turned 16, and still to this day I’ve never owned a credit card) to inheriting your husband’s 80+ grand overnight. My dreams of buying a house, having babies, and grad school for textile design all fell away. How could I ever have kids when we had so much debt!? We’d never be able to pay it off without two incomes! I could kiss thoughts of grad school goodbye! I didn’t ever want to go into more debt!
We got married a few weeks after Drew graduated from college, so it was only a couple months before the first payments on his student loans were due. I was still in college at the time and had no income (my scholarship paid for my living expenses, so that helped a bit). We barely had enough money to live, let alone pay payments on credit cards, his car, and his student loans every month! I grew up with a frugal dad and grandparents that never used credit cards or bought things they didn’t have the money for. I didn’t want to live a lifestyle full of debt. Something had to change.
When we were back in our hometown in Illinois that year for Christmas (6 months into our marriage), I casually mentioned something to my older sister Blair about Dave Ramsey and his financial counseling. I had grown up with my mom listening to Money Matters broadcasts on the Christian radio station and a few weeks earlier on a blog I was reading, Dave’s name had come back up in the context of a debt payoff plan. Blair knew exactly what I was referring to – Dave Ramsey’s 7 Baby Steps and what he called the “Debt Snowball.” She casually outlined the gist of it, and it was enough to really stir hope up in me that maybe this would be helpful to us. Drew and I had planned a little weekend getaway in St. Louis while we were back home and on our way out of the city, I asked Drew to stop at a Barnes and Noble. We went in and bought Dave Ramsey’s book, The Total Money Makeover. I started reading it aloud in the car as we drove back to Southern IL.
In the very beginning, Drew had been a little dismissive of all my worries about our debt. He said it was totally normal for people to have car payments and student loans. I’ll never forget the way that I could see his attitude changing as we drove down the highway from St. Louis to Harrisburg. As I read more of Dave’s book – filled with amazing true stories from people – I could see both of our minds turning. Why was it so “normal” for people in our culture to buy things that they couldn’t pay for – cars, houses, you name it? How quickly people take out a loan without even considering saving up the funds. And it was astounding when we really started to think about how long it took to pay those things off, how “normal” it was to have SO. MUCH. DEBT. Credit cards, student loans, car payments, house payments, refinancing things to pay for other things you don’t have the money for. How much you paid in interest alone. (I remember this quick example from the book: “Imagine you buy a $130,000 home, for which you take out a $110,000 mortgage at 7%. The final cost after all is said and done and paid would be $283,520 after 30 years.” YOU’VE PAID OVER TWICE WHAT THE HOUSE IS WORTH! Do people realize this when they buy a house??) Our society has bought into the “I can afford it if I can afford the payment” myth. Instead of asking “how much” people ask “how much a month.” We both started to quickly realize that this wasn’t the life we wanted to live and we wanted to do everything in our power to make sure that it wasn’t.
I finished reading the rest of the book aloud a few days later as we drove back to New Orleans from Southern Illinois. By then, we were both fully committed to trying Dave’s plan (and to cutting up Drew’s credit cards so that nothing like this would ever happen again!). And let me pause here to say that also, even though we already had a joint account and considered all money we both made “our” money, for the first time in our marriage, we were also on the SAME PAGE when it came to our finances and how to go about budgeting and spending that money. That step is SO important!
What we did was really quite simple. Every month we pay our bills first (rent, water/trash, electricity, internet, and car insurance every few months). After that, we have a small set budgeted amount we save for spending that month (groceries, gas, household/toiletries). EVERYTHING ELSE (really, every extra penny) goes towards paying off debt (pay minimum payments on all, then put everything extra on the smallest debt until it is paid off, then move down the line until they are all paid off). If we have a major issue come up (unexpected car trouble), we have a set aside small emergency fund for that, or it comes out of what we would put towards the debt (so we pay a little less extra that month). The key here is that you have to pay more than the minimum payment (often that minimum payment only covers interest, so you aren’t actually paying anything on the principal). Here is how Dave Ramsey describes his Debt Snowball Plan: “The principle is to stop everything except minimum payments and focus on one thing at a time. Otherwise, nothing gets accomplished because all your effort is diluted. First accumulate $1,000 cash as an emergency fund. Then begin intensely getting rid of all debt (except the house) using my debt snowball plan. List your debts in order with the smallest payoff or balance first. Do not be concerned with interest rates or terms unless two debts have similar payoffs, then list the higher interest rate debt first. Paying the little debts off first gives you quick feedback, and you are more likely to stay with the plan.” Once you pay off the smallest debt, roll over the amount that you would have been paying on it to your next debt (plus every extra penny you have), and keep doing that until you pay them all off. Use your emergency fund only for real emergencies (car trouble, surprise dental work, etc) and fill it back up as you go. You never want to put yourself back in the place where you would go more into debt (like borrowing money to pay for something unexpected).
For example, when we started, here is what our list of debts looked like from smallest to largest:
Citi Card: $369.57
Chase Southwest Card: $1,012.57
Chase Amazon Card: $3,123.67
Car Loan: $9,000
Drew Student Loan: $26,377.20
Lehman Student Loans: $42,623.00 (this ended up being closer to $48,000 with interest and fees)
For a total of: $82,506 (in the end, we paid almost $88,000 with interest)
It is easy to see how your total debt number can be overwhelming, but thinking about it like this helped us to see that our lowest debt was actually quite small. Instead of thinking “We have $4,500 in credit card debt that will take us forever to pay off” (which it would if we kept paying just the $25 minimum payment on interest every month!), we saw our lowest debt was only $370! Even on a tight budget, it doesn’t take that long to pay off three hundred bucks. Once we paid that off, we stopped paying all that extra in interest and rolled that $25 minimum payment (and all our extra pennies) to the next card to keep chugging away at it. We were able to pay off all the credit card debt and Drew’s car in just the first year alone! 9 months after that we paid off his student loan and 18 months after that we paid off the ones in his parent’s names! Once you pay off the first debt or two, you start to feel that “snowball effect” and you see how it gets easier to build momentum.
It also feels SO FREEING each time you pay one off and know that you are that much closer to being debt free. Truly, it feels so great to make that payment each month and see those numbers go down or away. When the ball really starts rolling and you see progress it is a high that makes you just want to keep going that much more. It truly becomes much more fulfilling to put money towards those payments than it does to buy anything else. It is so much better than a shopping spree!
We made some sacrifices and lifestyle changes to make it work (more on those below) and as we got older and got raises (and I graduated and started working) we never bumped up the amount we lived on each month. To this day, we still live on the same strict budget we did as college students, even though we are almost 25 and 26 years old. We put all that extra income towards our debt so that our payments each month increased. My ENTIRE yearly salary went towards our debt, plus whatever of Drew’s didn’t go towards our rent and bills. When we first started this journey, we barely had an extra $100 to put towards our debt, where at the end, some months we were making over $4,000 payments!
I think the biggest thing though, and I can’t stress this enough, is that if you are married – both partners have to get on the same page, come up with a plan and budget together, and both have to be equally committed to making it work and making sacrifices along the way. It takes a lot of communication and commitment, but it can make your marriage even stronger by making you a better team. I won’t lie and say that I didn’t hold anger and have some resentment along the way (especially in the beginning) towards both Drew and his parents about the fact that I had to put my dreams on hold to pay off money that I didn’t spend, but overall, it has made Drew and I a much stronger team than anything else we’ve done as a couple (and it has been great along the way to help me realize that yes, I was putting dreams on hold, but that the dreams would turn out to be way better than what I had planned anyway!).
So again, how did we do it? The short answer is: we paid the minimum payment on all the debts we had to, and then put every extra penny we had every month (after paying bills, setting aside living expenses, and separate from our small emergency fund) towards the smallest debt (each of the credit cards, then the car, then Drew’s student loans (first his, then his parents)), until we paid each of them off, rolling over the money from the previous ones to the payment on the current one.
I can’t emphasize enough that we’ve put a lot of work into making this happen. We both work A LOT. We both have full-time jobs and run our own business on top of that. Drew also bar tends at a local craft brewery several nights a week. Beyond that, the biggest thing we’ve done to make sure that we could do this was to make sacrifices right now so that we could live the life we wanted to later (Dave Ramsey’s motto is “Live like no one else so that later you can live like no one else” – delay pleasure for a greater result). We don’t have dream jobs. We’ve continued working in ways we haven’t enjoyed because we needed the income. We haven’t gotten to go to grad school. We’ve waited to have kids and buy a house. Yes, we are still young, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt when we see everyone around us buying and decorating their new houses and having baby showers and new babies to snuggle. We want those things too. We aren’t living the exact lifestyle that we want to be or thought we would at this time in our lives. But we are making sacrifices today that will make those things so much better when they do happen!
Living simply means something different for everyone, but having both come from frugal households and never being used to a lot of luxuries, it didn’t really seem that difficult for us. Simply put, we really just don’t buy very much stuff! Here are some other ways we altered our spending:
- We eat at home for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (Drew takes his lunch to work, I come home and eat mine on my lunch break). We have a monthly budget, and we meal plan weekly and stick to it. We eat leftovers for lunches instead of going out. We don’t drink soda or buy a lot of expensive processed foods. We only make one trip to the grocery store a week and stretch until the next trip (no running back to the store for “just one thing”). And to be honest, we eat a lot of soup and beans and rice because they are cheap. (One thing that really helped save money on groceries was switching from a “stock up on things” mindset to a “buy it only when you need it” mindset. If we ran out of something like black beans, I used to buy more the next time we went to the grocery store (whether we needed them for that week’s meals or not). While in theory this seems like a good idea, in reality I wasted money each week buying stuff I really didn’t need. Our pantry was so full you couldn’t see what we had. Some things we wouldn’t even end up using before they expired. When I found out about my gluten intolerance, I had to throw out or give a lot of stuff away. Of course I always keep the basics – salt, spices, butter, etc, but I’ve found that only buying the bare minimum that you need for each week’s meals saves a lot of money in grocery bills. Sometimes, you might find that you run out of something, live without it for a while, and realize you don’t really need it (I found this especially true with a lot of cleaning products)).
- We don’t have cable or satellite TV, DVR, or movie channels. We do have internet because it is a necessity for our careers. We have an antenna that picks up local stations for free and if we miss something we watch it online later (but in general, we are too busy to watch much television). We do have Amazon Prime (we use it personally, but Drew also uses it a lot for free/fast shipping for work purchases).
- I have a minimalist wardrobe and I don’t buy a lot of clothes or go shopping often. When I do buy something, I try to only buy well thought-out high quality pieces (that are going to last, so I don’t have to re-buy later) that add something to my wardrobe that was missing or to replace an item that no longer fits or is functional. This means no mall shopping on the weekends just for something to do (if you go, you are more likely to spend money on things you don’t really need). It also helps to send e-mail sales flyers and coupons directly to your “spam” folder to keep from tempting you to buy things you don’t need (even if they are on sale).
- No manicures, pedicures, blow-outs, massages, or other fancy “treat yo self” type services. I get a haircut once a year, I shape my own eyebrows, and I’ve never colored my hair. I don’t buy lipsticks or nail polishes. I don’t use hair products, perfume, fancy shampoos, or expensive toiletries.
- We use minimal household products. We skip buying fabric softener, dryer sheets (I use wool balls), and we use a natural all-purpose cleaner for almost all cleaning.
- We don’t go out to the movie theater or on expensive date nights. I think I’ve been to the movies twice in the last few years and I think both times were when my dad took us as a family. It doesn’t seem like a big cost, but it adds up if you do it often. We prefer to watch movies at home (so much cheaper).
- We don’t have the latest electronic gadgets (well, Drew has some through his work), but my laptop and camera are older, my desktop computer was given to me by my work when they upgraded their system, and I don’t have an iPad or an e-reader or an Apple watch. Drew now has a phone through his work, but when we first started our debt-free journey, he downgraded to a flip phone from a smartphone to save money.
- We don’t buy newspapers or subscribe to magazines. We don’t buy CDs or music on iTunes (we listen to Pandora, records we already have, and Spotify). We don’t go to Starbucks or make coffee shop visits regularly (occasionally on a Saturday morning date day activity). We don’t have gym memberships (we’ve tried occasionally, but can’t stomach the cost when walking outside or in the park is free). Since our house has so many windows with natural light, we save on energy bills by rarely turning on lights. We carry reusable water bottles with us and keep snacks at work (no trips to the vending machine or out for a snack).
- We don’t have expensive bad habits. We don’t smoke, we don’t drink soda or energy drinks, we aren’t addicted to coffee. Drew enjoys craft beer, but mostly drinks for free at the brewery he works at. He likes craft coffee, but doesn’t drink it regularly and will often make it at home. We don’t spend money going out, partying, or eating out (except for the occasional date night).
- We don’t buy each other gifts. No anniversary, birthday, or really even Christmas gifts. We buy things for ourselves occasionally when we really want something – we don’t need the other to surprise us with something we may or may not want. We are more likely to go out to dinner at a new restaurant (or one of our regular, cheap favorites) to celebrate a special occasion.
- We drive instead of fly. Travel is important to us, and even more important in this season of our lives before we have kids. But we skimp and save as much as we can to make those trips work. We drive long distances across the country to save money on flying. Houston is a 5 hour drive. Austin is an 8 hour drive. Nashville is a 9 hour drive. Our hometown in Illinois is a 10 hour drive. Asheville is a 12 hour drive. We stay in Airbnbs instead of hotels (we once paid $30 a night in Portland to stay in a room in someone’s home. It wasn’t the nicest accommodation, but it allowed us to take a trip we otherwise couldn’t afford). We go to natural sites and free attractions. We are foodies, but we don’t eat expensive meals either.
- We DIY. If you read this blog, then it isn’t a surprise that I like my house to be a pretty place for us to spend our days. But it might surprise you how little I spend on home decor and how rarely I buy things for our home. Most of our furniture is secondhand from Craigslist, flea markets, estate sales, or our childhood homes. What isn’t was either from a cheap big box store like IKEA or Target or we’ve built it ourselves. I’ve made almost all the curtains in our house (and our shower curtain) from sheet sets. And most of the art in our house is my own too. Paint is a cheap way to update rooms.
- We don’t make impulse purchases (we probably way over-analyze every purchase we make since we are hyper aware of our budget). I keep a running list on my phone of things (for the house, for my wardrobe, etc.) that I’d like whenever I come across the perfect one. This helps to keep me from making impulse purchases when I see something in a store. If it isn’t on the list and isn’t something I really need (or fills a need in my wardrobe, life, etc.) then I don’t buy it. And like I said above, in general we stay away from the mall or other stores where we’d be tempted to buy things anyway.
- We have to politely decline a lot of fun things that cost money. We can’t spend all week at Jazz Fest, go to concerts, or go to organizations/galas/Mardi Gras balls that some of our friends do. A lot of Drew’s friends travel to beer events that we don’t have the money to go to. Sometimes you can feel a little left out, but knowing that we are on our way to being debt free is worth it to us. New Orleans has tons of free festivals and things to do outside that aren’t stopping us from having a good time!
This process wasn’t always fun, but it was definitely worth it! The last three years went by so fast, I can’t believe we actually did it and are done! It really wasn’t that hard! And it is amazing that now we can go about our lives without all that debt hanging over our heads! YOU CAN DO IT! Start from anywhere!
P.S. I understand that this is really private and personal information. I share it in the hopes that maybe our story can help someone else out there in the same boat that we were in not so long ago! When we started this journey, I was 21 and an unemployed college student. Before I graduated and started working, we paid off all our credit card debt and a good chunk of Drew’s car while living in New Orleans on a one-income entry-level salary. If we can do it, you can too!
Feel free to leave a comment if you have any other questions!