Hello! Today, I have a great post from my blogging friend James. James and his wife paid off $62,000 in debt in just 7 months!
Shortly after we got married, my wife Andrea and I got serious about our finances and paid off all our debt.
This is the story of how we turned a profit on our wedding, combined our finances, and paid off $62,000 of debt in 7 months.
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Where’d all the debt come from?
All the debt was mine. I was a dumb young kid and thought I’d always be able to out earn my stupid decisions. Until one day I couldn’t.
Despite a generous 3-year military scholarship at my pricey, private college, I had student loans to pay for:
- my housing (~$12,000 x 4)
- my freshman year’s tuition (~$30,000)
- and a summer study abroad program (~$15,000)
Then shortly before I graduated, USAA, a military-member’s bank, offered me a $25,000 loan at the ridiculously low rate of 2% interest. USAA dubbed it a “Career Starter Loan,” but really it was their clever way of ensuring I’d be a customer for the foreseeable future. I used $15,000 to refinance my study-abroad loan, bought a new laptop, and put the rest in savings.
If you’re keeping count, that pushed my total debt upon graduating college up over $100,000.
So of course I immediately got serious about my finances, did a budget, and started attacking my debt, right?
I bought a sports car instead.
I was 22 years old, only 4 months into my Army career, and had racked up over ~$115,000 in debt. All I had to show for it was a fancy diploma, a 3 year old Mazda, and $1,100+/month in debt payments.
My wake up call
As can happen in the military, I got hurt.
I always knew it was a possibility, but never thought it’d happen to me. Ultimately, the Army decided it was best if they “retired” me. Just like that my once promising career was over only two years after it started.
Fortunately for me, the Army is a huge, slow moving bureaucracy and I had some time to prepare for my unexpected new life as a civilian. Unfortunately for me, I got hurt during the financial collapse of 2008 and I was entering one of the worst job markets of my life.
I didn’t know how long I’d be without a reliable income, but I knew I’d still be expected to reliably come up with $1,100/month for debt payments.
I opened an excel file and made my first crude budget, subtracting what I needed to spend each month from what I made each month. Turns out I had more money leftover at the end of the month than I realized. I saved as much of it as I could and set it aside as an emergency fund.
Six months after leaving the Army, and nearly draining my savings, I convinced a Fortune 500 company to put me in charge of a $15M/year operation. Now armed with a decent salary I set aside one month’s worth of expenses as a small emergency fund and attacked my debts with a vengeance.
I finally understood what a hindrance my debts were and I wanted them gone!
If you’d like, check out this article to get the exact tools and tactics I used to attack my debts. Following this plan, I would’ve paid off my remaining ~$80,000 and been totally debt free in 3 years.
There was just something I had to do first.
Will you marry me?
My debt was no secret to Andrea, and to her credit, she didn’t really care. She valued me more than my debt and saw how hard I worked to get through my career crisis and get my act together. In fact, we grew closer through all the craziness.
We’d been together for 5 years at this point and it was time to move our relationship forward. I paid off a couple more debts, kept current on my remaining balances, and used my excess cash each month to save for an engagement ring.
In September 2011 I asked Andrea to marry me, she said yes, and we were married a year later.
In that year, I paid the minimum payments on my remaining debts and we saved all our excess cash to pay for our wedding and honeymoon.
We made sure to stretch our dollars by:
- Booking a daytime wedding, it was a lot cheaper to rent a venue during the day than at night.
- We rented centerpieces (the vases all the flowers went in) instead of buying them. I’m not sure what we would’ve done with 20 identical glass cylinders after the wedding, anyway.
- Made our invitations and programs using kits available from craft stores.
- “Hired” friends and family in the industry we would’ve been willing to hire even if we didn’t know them
- Andrea’s aunt is a seamstress and made all the bridesmaids dresses.
- Our DJ/Pianist was a friend.
- Our Photographer was a friend.
In the end, we had a beautiful wedding, a great honeymoon, and were able to pay for everything in cash. We even had a bit leftover.
After our honeymoon, we moved into a new rental house and started combining our finances. Then once we could see all our money coming into and going out of the same account, we redid our budget.
Andrea and I both earned similar incomes, but now our expenses were much less as a married couple than when we lived on our own. We only had one rent payment, one set of utilities, etc. Since our “married” expenses each month were pretty close to what each of us spent as a single person we had a lot of cash left at the end of the month.
By this point, the debt was down to ~$62,000 and it was time for us to attack it.
Andrea and I both wanted to pay off the debt quickly, but we didn’t agree on how. The main point of contention centered around the money we had leftover from our wedding, wedding gift cash, and some of Andrea’s savings from her years as a responsible person.
Even though Andrea had shown me incredible grace, I still felt ashamed of my debt. I didn’t want it hanging over our heads and was willing to take drastic action to to wipe it out.
I wanted to throw most of our savings at debt, leaving just enough to act as a small emergency fund. Then once the debt was totally gone, we’d rebuild our savings to its previous level.
That plan would have us out of debt really fast, but was risky as it would leave us with only a small emergency fund for a while. I didn’t love this risky plan, but I was anxious to pay off our debts and was already used to living with only a small emergency fund. Besides, with two incomes I figured the odds of us having a catastrophic emergency were quite small.
Andrea, however, hated that plan.
She wasn’t comfortable with the risk and did not want to drain our savings. Having a big emergency fund gave her a sense of security I’d never experienced before and the idea of only having a small emergency fund freaked her out.
Balancing speed with security was a new concept for us. We viewed risk differently and had to come up with a plan we’d both be happy with. The more we talked about it, though, the less our conversations centered on our finances.
Instead, we focussed more on building the life we wanted.
Debt freedom and a big emergency fund were just some of the ingredients.
We both wanted to travel. We both wanted to give to charity. We both wanted to pursue work we love.
Paying off the debt would give us the freedom to do so.
We never wanted to worry about putting food on the table. We never wanted to wonder how we’d pay our rent. We didn’t ever want to be tied to a job we didn’t like just because we needed the money.
A big emergency fund would help us avoid those things.
Our plan for paying down debt
So here’s what we came up with.
- We agreed to use some savings to pay off a couple of my smaller student loans completely. This still left us with enough of an emergency fund to maintain Andrea’s sense of security.
- We agreed to keep our expenses to less than half of our combined income. We could’ve afforded to rent a fancier house and eat lobster every night, but we chose not to. This way, if one of us lost our jobs we’d still be able to pay rent and keep food on the table. While we were both working, though, we’d use the leftover cash to attack the remaining debt.
- We agreed to stay focussed and pay off all the remaining debt in less than a year. If by our first anniversary we still had some debt we’d tap into our savings to pay off whatever small amount was left.
Assuming everything went according to plan, we’d be debt free with a healthy emergency fund within the first year of our marriage.
FINALLY DEBT FREE!
Everything went according to plan and we’re done paying down debt!
Seven months later we were totally debt free. ~$62,000 paid off and we still had a healthy emergency fund.
Or to put it another way, we paid off ~$115,000 in five years, about a year faster than if we’d not gotten married and I just paid it off myself. I paid off ~$53,000 in 4 years on my own, slowed down my debt attack to get married, and together with my awesome wife wiped out the rest.
Even more important than paying off the debt, Andrea and I learned how to set the course of our lives and take action to get us there. We grew closer as a couple as we faced the challenge of paying off debt. Best of all Andrea and I learned to work together to achieve great things.
Now it’s your turn
Maybe you’ve never talked about hopes and dreams or set goals with your partner. Or maybe you’ve never even thought about it for yourself. This can be tough and tricky, but I’d like to help you out.
It’s pretty easy to articulate a “what” and a “how” for money and call it a day. Take for example “Let’s pay off our credit card/student loan debt by cutting our expenses.” That’s great and responsible, but boring. Instead, as Andrea and I learned, start with “why” you want to do something.
Think about or ask your partner:
- How would it feel to have an extra $100, $500, or $1,000 leftover at the end of the month?
- How would you approach your career differently if you didn’t have to trade your labor just to pay Sallie Mae or Visa?
- How much fun could you have?
- How generous could you be?
- What new options would you have in your life?
Taking this approach, you’d come up with something like: “I want to take a job for the love of it, give more money to charity, buy that thing I’ve always wanted without feeling guilty, and/or stay home with the kids. So let’s trim our expenses to pay off our debt.”
With a solid “why” like that, the “what” and “how” are just details. You’ll also be much more likely to stick with your goals when, not if, something comes along to distract you.
Pessimism is practical
If you find yourself struggling to come up with a worthy “why” release your inner pessimist. Think about all the things you don’t want in life. Think about what you’re afraid of. Then flip it by stating the opposite.
Take “I’m afraid I’m going to work as a corporate slave forever just to pay off my student loans” and flip it to “I want to pay off these loans so I can afford to work for a non-profit.”
“We’re going to be too broke to travel or have any fun when we get older” flips to become “I want to travel the world with our friends and family, so let’s save up a bunch of money to do so.”
Once you have your “why” figured out, “what” to do with your money and “how” will come more easily.
You’ll be able to withstand temptation and not get distracted by shiny stuff. And by working towards a worthy “why” together with your partner, you’ll learn to talk about money without fighting because you won’t just be talking about money. Instead, you’ll be planning and working towards a better life together.
I hope you and your partner will face the challenge of your finances, decide what you really want for your lives, and work towards your goals together. Aggressively paying off our debts actually brought Andrea and I closer together and deepened our marriage. We learned how to talk about tough subjects, set goals, and work together to achieve them. You and your partner can do the same.
Author bio: James helps couples handle and talk about money without fighting at loveandmoneymatters.com. Enjoy his blog post about paying down debt below.
What’s your family’s biggest financial goal? Why is it important to you? Are you currently paying down debt?
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Jason Butler says
I’m currently in the process of paying down debt. I’ve done ok. I know that as I continue to grow my side hustle income, I will be able to apply more money to my debt. I see big things happening in 2017.
James, that was really impressive. You’ve paid off a ton of debt and more importantly, you got a great partner with a similar goal now. Really great job working together to come up with a compromise. A lot of couples can’t handle these kind of financial hurdles. I think you’ve got a great start and you’ll do fantastic as you keep working together.
For us, we’re trying to get Mrs. RB40 to join me in early retirement. We have a solid ER plan, but she needs more security. So she’s not quite ready to retire yet.
This is a really powerful story! I love hearing how couples become debt free, maybe I’m just a sucker for a good success story. Congrats on becoming debt free! 🙂
Knowing other “normal” people broke through to become debt-free inspired us along the way. It’s certainly our hope that our “success story” will help others, too!
Oohhhhh so sorry don’t give up get it lindsey
My fiancee and I are currently paying off approximately a $2,600 debt for him that actually was sent to collections. In addition he has various other medical debts we are working on. The goal is to be debt free (except his car) so we can purchase a house next year. He is currently researching living in a shipping container or a tiny house. Seriously. He is from Argentina but doesn’t want to pay a mortgage for the next 30 years. So we are researching all of our options.
Sometimes it takes some unorthodox ideas to cut expenses in order to break through to debt-freedom. Kudos to you and your fiancee for getting creative!
Financial Panther says
That’s an awesome job of crushing so much debt so quickly!
I love how you point to the why of paying down debt. A lot of us get focused so much on paying down the debt that we don’t think what’s going to happen after we’re done with it.
For myself, paying down my student loan debt from $87,000 to $0 gave me the option to leave a job I really didn’t like. I even took a $50,000 paycut! But because I paid off my debt and was so used to living on less, I was able to take the new job without it affecting my lifestyle at all!
That’s awesome! Isn’t is amazing how paying off debt, even though it can be painful sometimes, opens up so many new opportunities we otherwise might have to turn away?
Mrs. Picky Pincher says
Congrats on paying off that debt and thank you for your service!
Our bugget goal for 2017 is paying off our $65,000 in student loans. We have an 18 month plan for these though, but it was so neat to see you did it in 7 months! It just goes to show what you can do when you prioritize debt payments.
$65k in 18 months is still a pretty aggressive plan, certainly nothing to sneeze at!
What are you most looking forward to once you’re debt free?
I owe my debt-free status to you, James. It is a wonderful feeling to have options, instead of allowing debt to dictate my quality of life. Keep up the great job of educating the public about financial management.
Great story of determination! It’s great that y’all compromised and set goals together. I am aggressively attacking student loans right now and love to read about people who set and achieve their financial goals- sooner rather than later! Thanks for sharing!
Hi Misty, glad you enjoyed our story! Debt freedom can be a long road, but it’s worth it.
What are you most looking forward to once you’re debt free?
Latoya | Life and a Budget says
This is an absolutely incredible testimonial. Higher earning power coupled with reduced spending is definitely a great plan to help destroy debt.
Marie Jackson says
Congratulations!! That’s amazing!
Once we got organized, things went pretty quick. Hopefully the tool I put together help people get their finances organized, too.
James, you truly are inspiring!
But also, these kind of things really makes me appreciate coming from Denmark – there you don’t pay to study.
Thanks Zascha! We did the best we could with the hand we were dealt.
Debbie Gartner says
Congrats on making it through together. What a success story. I’m about to go through this (but on my own) as I need to completely start on new income/starting a new business and pay off debt. Hoping things will look much better in 6 months. My key is to get the income coming in because that’s the only way to solve my ongoing expenses. Thanks for the inspiration.
Thanks for the kind words, Debbie. Let me know if there’s something else I can do to help.
Definitely a wonderfully motivating story. The key is financial education and prevention, and many of us myself included didn’t have a financial education prior to making crippling financial choices. Now I have no doubt that my husband and I will also overcome, but it does set us back a bit. Thank you for the motivating story!
Unfortunately, crippling financial choices are normal. I know I got into my mess by doing the same “normal” things I’d seen my family do.
Sounds like you and your husband are following a similar path to what Andrea and I did. I’m confident you’ll get through this, too!
I truly hope our story inspires others to do great in their lives.
That’s one super impressive story. I’ve never been in that much debt, but do follow a similar approach. As they used to say about dieting, “Nothing you can buy is as good as freedom feels” – and that’s what being financially secure gives you – freedom.
Thanks for the kind words, Rose!
I heard another one you might like. “A healthy man has a thousand wishes, a dying man has one.” When we were working through our debt, there was only one thing we wanted. As soon as our debt was gone, though, there was so much we wanted to do…and we finally had the freedom to do it!
Mahesh Kumar says
That’s so nice of James to share his story with us. It’s very inspirational and makes others find out answers to their struggles in life related with earning money, debts and more. Thanks for sharing this with all of us. This will surely help many work at home parents.
Thanks Mahesh, glad you found it helpful!
My husband and I just sat down several weeks ago and had a long discussion about paying down oour debt. Shamefully most of it is mine due to student loan debt but we are focused and finally working on it together. Previously, it was just me as he was not ever imvolved because he chose not to. His way of being involved was handing over his check and giving me full say in how our money was managed which to me felt overwhelming. We now sit down together every couple of weeks and figure out where the money is going now. It feels much better and we have gotten closer because of it. I am heading over to your page to leatn more.
Hi Tammy! Glad to hear you and your husband are working together now. It truly was key for us as I’m sure you’re finding out for yourselves.
Best wishes on your debt-free journey. Please let me know how I can help.
This was so motivating! When I graduate from PT school in 4 years I will be a newlywed and will have $50,000-$100,000 in student debt. It’s nice to know that it’s possible to pay off that big of a chunk of debt in as short of a time as I’d like.
Glad our story has motivated you! Student loans don’t need to stick around forever. I’m excited for the journey you’re on. Please let me know if there’s something I can do to help.
Dan @ MakingtheJourneytoWealth says
Wow. What an inspiring post. You guys really set your minds to it and accomplished something amazing. Also, thank you for your service!
Thanks for checking it out, Dan!
Wow, inspiring! Having a supportive partner, coupled with that dual income, is SO much more of an asset in paying off debt than many people realize. As you said, it essentially cuts expenses in half! I am single and live alone, but within a couple months from now (after my tax return comes in), I will officially be debt-free. Over the past few years, I have paid off more than 50k in student loans from two different colleges and more than 12k in credit card debt, which was mostly accrued out of necessity (it was my primary means of payment for many things while I was finishing up my second degree, since I was only able to work part time at that time). I have always been sensible with money and did learn the value of a dollar and how not to be frivolous with it from my very practical parents, but sometimes, a bit of debt is unavoidable to get where you want to be — especially in NYC, where I have lived for 15 years. But, relying mainly on my credit card for that short time period while I finished up my degree, although uncomfortable, allowed me to graduate more quickly, which enabled me to land a secure City job with excellent benefits and a pension sooner than I would have otherwise. For a while, I just made the minimum payments, but a couple years ago, I got serious about eliminating debt for GOOD: I renegotiated all of my bills (cut cable entirely, changed cell phone providers, got a lower rate on my internet) and started making more aggressive payments towards my debt with that “extra” money. I made myself a spreadsheet that details my monthly expenses and tracks my paycheck amounts, which I update every month. Seeing the student loan columns hit $0 was a pretty awesome day! I chose to eliminate those first, since my only remaining debt is currently on a 0% credit card. I have paid no interest on that card for nearly 18 months now (nor have I made a single purchase on it), and should have the remaining amount knocked out before interest kicks back in. Next up: building a “real” savings! It feels great to have done this all on my own, but one day, if I am partnered up, I feel confident that the strategies I have learned and applied will be useful if my future partner needs help 🙂 Congrats on your financial freedom, James!
Congrats on making it this far, JA! I’m thrilled for you!
Hate to be the pessimist here but, as much as it’s good to hear about how well you’ve done, what about other people who don’t make what appears to be $100K a year? We are a single-income household with after-tax monies at about $26K per year. My wife stays home with two very young children. We would love to travel but I’m not sure anything like what you have described is possible without a ton more money. We have about five conservative months in savings and live extremely frugally (avoid shiny stuff?? ha! That’s a good one. How about, just keep to your budget and enjoy still not having enough money).
Must be nice…
Hey Jax! Congrats on the 5 months of savings, that’s awesome! True, more money certainly helps…it’s why the last $62k went by so fast. But I paid off the first $53k of debt over 4 years when my income ranged from below the poverty line to a bit above average. So while I don’t know the specifics of your situation, I do know the principles of our plan worked no matter what our income was.
Hey, it’s so nice to read your story! It must be a great feeling having met your goal of becoming debt free.
I’ll be debt free (exept the house) by april 2018 and can’t wait!
The Savvy Couple says
This is so impressive!
It’s crazy the amount of debt that can be paid off when your solely focused on destroying it.
Thanks for all the tips and tricks on how you made it happen.
Nena ancy Jones says
Thanks for sharing.Thank you for all the tips. My goal is to pay $60,000 students loans debt with one year plan. I am making $1000-$1200 per month. The only expenses I have besides student loans are: rental (850 per 6 weeks, I rent a room with utilities included from someone’s house), car insurance ($1090 for six months), groceries and gas for my car. I am free credit cards debt. So I am hoping that I can accomplish that goal
Dawn D. says
This was a great story about paying off debt! It always motivates me so thanks! I’m currently doing the same thing. I’m paying off debts that were left to me by my ex. I’ve done it all myself so far. But I am almost there, 1 payment left and I’ll be debt free!
I’ve currently paid off over $8000 in 2 years on an $12.50/hourly income since getting back into the workforce since 2014. I didn’t finish college so I don’t get offered high paying positions. But I do have experience, so I try to work with that.
My main goal is to go back to college (once my debt is paid) and get a degree to make more money. I just wish i could figure out a side hustle or a blog to see if that would help me with college costs.
20 years ago, I helped my new husband with his debt in part by cashing in my $5K pension fund when we got married. I then kept a full-time job that I didn’t love with good pay and benefits for both of us. No new savings for me, because we were building up his future self-owned company. We’re divorced now. Yes, all this was super dumb on my part! Yes, I’m bitter! No, you should NOT help your partner with the debt that was accrued on their own!!! Ugh.
Honestly this is not a great article. This basically says to marry someone who will shoulder the financial burden one created for themselves. While I’m happy your wife helped, it sounds like most of this debt was your own doing. Seems to me that you owe her another home downpayment, a Tiffany ring, and a bunch of Tesla stock.