How We Paid off $86,000 in Debt in 5 Years – with 7 Kids!

Today, I have a great article from Carrie Willard. Carrie is a homeschooling mom of 7 kids aged 2-18. She encourages moms to simplify the mundane to make more time for the sublime on her blog: Her newest ebook, The Temporary Tightwad, explains how to radically reduce your spending in order to meet a life-changing…

Michelle Schroeder-Gardner

Last Updated: December 28, 2023

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Today, I have a great article from Carrie Willard. Carrie is a homeschooling mom of 7 kids aged 2-18. She encourages moms to simplify the mundane to make more time for the sublime on her blog: Her newest ebook, The Temporary Tightwad, explains how to radically reduce your spending in order to meet a life-changing money goal. Below is her article.

Here's how Carrie paid off $86,000 in debt in 5 years, with 7 kids! Paying off debt is such a great thing and anyone can do it. Here are her debt payoff tips and advice.In October of 2015, my husband and I paid off our last debt and joined the ranks of the proud debt-free. We did this in five years, with only one full-time income. During that time, we experienced health challenges, hospitalization, and the birth of three additional children. How did we manage to pay off so much debt with all that responsibility? I’m glad you asked!

Where the Debt Came From

First, let me backtrack a bit and tell you where the debt came from. Neither my husband nor I are big spenders. Frugal by nature, neither of us had expensive tastes or poor spending habits. So what was the debt?

In 2008, like so many others, my husband experienced a huge dip in income. His previously successful business was cut by about 75% during the recession. Expenses he handled with ease before (rent and utilities on a warehouse, paychecks for three contractors, a work vehicle) suddenly became impossible to keep up. He found himself selling off assets and defaulting on his lease just to pay his personal bills.

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When we met, I was a single, divorced mom supporting four kids as an internet marketer and blogger. I had managed to become debt-free and wanted my husband to enjoy that same freedom. One day I told him, “Babe, you make too much money to be broke!”. While my husband’s business was once again thriving, he was shackled by debt collectors chasing him.

I introduced my husband to Dave Ramsey’s radio show and while he drove to jobs, he listened. His paradigm about money began to shift as he learned that many of the money tropes he had heard all his life were just plain wrong. We decided to attend Financial Peace University classes. By this time I was pregnant, and my hormones were telling me that we needed to take some action, fast, to clean up the financial mess!

Note: Check your credit score with Credit Sesame for free!


Grieving and Depression Over Past Money Mistakes

One of the first things you do when deciding to get out of debt is to sit down and figure out exactly how much you owe. This process can be exhausting. At first you feel shock. Then, grief and depression sets in. I think this is normal. My husband had to go through a grieving process after seeing that figure!

During this time, I tried to be supportive. My husband had taken money advice from people he trusted, as we all do, who didn’t necessarily know what they were talking about. Some of these ideas betray what I call a “poverty mentality”. One of those ideas was “you’ll always have a car payment”. But buying new cars every few years was a huge part of his financial mess. Old loans rolled into new ones, and he was still paying off cars he had never driven, but that belonged to his ex.

I remember the conversation we had once we realized it would take us several years to pay off the debts. While this felt overwhelming at first, we knew that those years would pass anyway, and quickly. Would Future Us wish that Present Us had taken action? Absolutely! So we got busy creating a different future for ourselves and our kids.


The Importance of Budget Meetings

Hubby and I created a budget and started tracking our spending. Making a budget was crucial for us. Because we’re self-employed, our monthly income varies somewhat. Knowing exactly how much was coming in and going out made it possible for us to safely send big, fat checks to creditors each month, knowing we would still be able to keep the lights on and food in the fridge.

At first, we held weekly budget meetings to talk about how we were doing. Each of us would leave budget meeting with “homework”. Maybe his assignment was to call a creditor to negotiate a lower payoff amount. Mine might have been to call our cell phone company to ask for a cheaper plan.

Budget meetings kept us accountable and gave us a feeling of control. We encouraged each other and stayed on the same page.

Budget meetings also keep the “free spirit” in the marriage from opting out of financial stuff, and the “nerd” from taking over and becoming controlling and resentful. My husband is the free spirit in our marriage, but he loves budget meetings because they give him a sense of being in control of our money. They give him the peace that he craves. Knowing your personality type and your spouse’s helps you leverage your strengths.

Related: Family Budget Meetings – Yes, You Need To Have Them


Talking about Money is Good for the Marriage

For us, budget meetings helped us communicate about deep things. Talking about money also means talking about your hopes, dreams… and your deepest fears. Holding budget meetings fast-forwarded our marriage into a more mature relationship quickly. And working on an important goal together certainly strengthened our young marriage.

After a while, my husband’s low feelings turned to anger, which gave him incredible energy. That’s when things got intense and started to turn around, fast!


How We Got out of Debt

We followed Dave Ramsey’s Debt Snowball plan. I don’t agree with everything Dave says (for instance, we now use a credit card to pay for everything and enjoy rewards points, we just don’t hold a balance from month to month). However, having a plan laid out for you when you’re stressed about money is very helpful.

Whether you choose to pay off debt in order from smallest to largest, or pay the highest interest rates first is up to you and probably depends on your personality. Nerd types might prefer the latter, and feeler types the former. As long as you have a plan and stick with it, you’ll succeed.

Now it’s time to get down to the nitty gritty (did you just hear Nacho Libre there? I did!). What did we actually do to pay off the debts?

Related: 6 Credit Card Myths You Need To Know The Truth About


We Lowered Expenses

As I mentioned earlier, my job was to figure out how to get our expenses as low as we could. I played the “drugstore game” to get personal care items for pennies on the dollar. I used cloth diapers for the babies.

I worked on spending as little as possible on groceries. I learned that there was a sweet spot when it comes to food and kids – too low and they would complain about not having their favorite snacks, too high and I felt defeated and there would be food waste. At first, I did a lot of couponing. Later, I found a budget grocery store (ALDI) and did all my shopping there. (And I wrote a book about how to save money and eat healthy at ALDI!)

I got serious about lowering our utilities. I hung laundry (sometimes this was out of necessity, our dryer broke during our debt-free journey and we didn’t replace it for a while). I washed everything in cold water. I discovered that we could live through a hot, humid Georgia summer with the A/C set at 81F!

I only bought clothes at thrift stores and yard sales. We’re a homeschooling family, but I learned to obtain high-quality textbooks from thrift stores and PaperBackSwap, or for .01 plus shipping on Amazon.

We stayed out of restaurants and enjoyed cheap or free recreation. Thankfully our kids enjoy hiking, biking, walking in the woods or going to the park. And we budgeted for little treats. We felt it was better to take the kids out for a little splurge from time to time, even if it took us a couple months longer to pay off the debts.

Related tip: I recently joined $5 Meal Plan in order to help me eat at home more and cut my food spending. It’s only $5 a month and you get meal plans sent straight to you along with the exact shopping list you need in order to create the meals. The meals are easy to make and are affordable.


We Sold Stuff

We held a yard sale (and later on, another one!). Hubby sold unwanted tools and other guy stuff. I sold clothing and household items. The kids sold coffee and cookies!

Tip: if you host a yard sale, market it well and be sure to list the things you’re selling. Advertise on Craigslist and have lots of simple signs directing people. Price everything, and merchandise it in an attractive way. This means nothing in boxes or on the ground – get it on tables at eye-level. Hang clothes up. Make it easy for people to look and they’ll buy more. And put your most desirable merchandise closest to the road so when people drive by scoping out your sale, they’ll stop!

I got rid of anything we didn’t need. The kids got excited about selling their junk too, as we let them keep the money from their yard sale offerings. Bonus – decluttering!

I sold lightweight things on eBay. Heavy stuff got listed on Craigslist. Music, movies and books sell well on Amazon. When deciding whether to get rid of something, I would ask myself, “Would I go out today and buy this?” If the answer was no, then I sold it. I figured I could always buy those things again later on when our financial picture improved. Spoiler alert: I didn’t replace those things. I didn’t need them!

We gathered up good, name brand clothing and took it to consignment shops. The nice thing about this is, when you do require a new piece of clothing or shoes (and kids are always going to need something!), you can shop from your credit.

Related article: 8 Things To Sell Around Your Home For Money


We Increased Our Income

There’s a funny thing about working on getting out of debt. Your income increases! My husband read books and listened to CDs about business. He analyzed his workday and made changes that grew his income. He dropped jobs that produced less profit. He raised his prices – twice!

My husband did work a lot of Saturday afternoons while working our debt snowball. However, we didn’t let work take over our lives. We prioritized family and faith and made sure to schedule time for fun and rest.

During this time, I got back to work on my blog. I wrote an ebook for Amazon for the first time. That little ebook really took off. It sold several thousand copies and made the first page of Amazon’s bestseller list for its category! It felt great to hand my husband a fat check that first month to put towards the debt.

Related: 75+ Ways To Make Extra Money


Staying Motivated Over the Long Haul to Meet Financial Goals

One of the hardest parts of paying off a large debt is the time it takes. Staying motivated is crucial. You must keep your head in the right place so you don’t give up!

The nice thing about meeting a financial goal as a couple is that you can take turns boosting each other’s morale. When hubby was feeling down, I cheered him on. When I was the one feeling anxiety, he was strong.

Also, we each kept ourselves pumped by filling our minds with positive messages around finances. We committed to educating ourselves and getting rid of the money myths we had bought into. Hubby listened to CDs, podcasts and radio shows about personal finance in his car. I read books about wise money management. (Some of my favorites include The Tightwad Gazette series, Laura Vanderkam’s All The Money in the World, and more I list in this post about my favorite books on radical frugality:

I created a line graph on a huge poster and hung it in the kitchen. It outlined our savings balance and our debts. Each time we sent payments to creditors, I updated the poster. It was exciting to see, and it kept the kids interested too. We could see our progress right there in black and white and red.


We Celebrated Milestones

When we paid off a huge debt, we would celebrate in some way. Sometimes we would have a banana split party with the kids, or indulge in takeout from our favorite Mexican restaurant.


Getting the Kids on Board

Keeping the kids on board with our debt payoff goal was important for us. We wanted them to understand that this temporary deprivation was going to have long-term benefits for all of us. We were literally changing the financial picture not just for ourselves, but for them – and their children. We were creating a new financial legacy!

We were open with the kids about our past money mistakes. And we made sure to budget some fun. We even took a couple of vacations during our debt snowball. One of these was a camping trip – one of the cheapest vacations for sure, but no less fun for kids. Another was mostly funded by generous grandparents. We’ve found that when you’re vocal about your goal, people who care about you will come out of the woodwork to support you.

Of course, the opposite is also true. Sometimes people will try to sabotage you. That’s why it’s so important to keep your mind filled with the positive and focused on the goal.


Life Challenges You

Of course, the process of getting out of debt was not without its bumps and detours. We added three more babies to our brood. We had to save cash and buy two new-to-us vehicles to accommodate our growing family. We had increased income tax bills (due to our growing income!). We had unexpected medical bills. My husband had a health challenge. I had prolonged morning sickness. We had broken arms and E.R. visits with kids, some of which we had to pay for out of pocket.

Then there were the surprise debts – bills that would show up in the mail unexpectedly that my husband had forgotten existed. This was discouraging for sure.

There were frugal fails. The homemade laundry detergent that left our clothes mildewed and smelly (and made the cloth diapers repel water!). The botched at-home haircut (that one left me in tears, and it wasn’t even my hair!).

Despite all that, we kept focusing on our goal, knowing that one day that last check would be mailed and we would be debt-free! And the nice thing about getting out of debt is that budgeting, tracking expenses and having a plan for your money becomes second nature. Those habits stick with you so that once you have more discretionary income, setting goals becomes easy.

This spring, our family met a new goal: we bought our first house! After getting out of debt, we applied all that extra money towards saving for the down payment. We’re excited about our financial future now, instead of having a sense of dread and shame. All the hard work was so worth it.

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Michelle Schroeder-Gardner

Author: Michelle Schroeder-Gardner

Hey! I’m Michelle Schroeder-Gardner and I am the founder of Making Sense of Cents. I’m passionate about all things personal finance, side hustles, making extra money, and online businesses. I have been featured in major publications such as Forbes, CNBC, Time, and Business Insider. Learn more here.

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  1. Ember @ An Intentional Lifestyle

    I love your story! We are a Dave Ramsey-FPU family as well. We had $30k we paid off in 18 months and added a second baby during that time as well. It’s so tough! But I agree on so many points. We always have a budget meeting, and people laugh when I say that. But it has made such a difference in our financial relationship. We did cloth diapers and hanging clothes out. And the keeping focused is definitely the hard part. We decided to work toward Financial Independence after we finished our debt, but with one income, it’s not super easy. But like you said, we want to create a legacy for our kids as well. I so enjoyed your post!

    1. Thanks Ember! Glad you enjoyed reading.

  2. Love this post because it is real, love the fact that kids are been involved into yard sale and you’ve done a great job…well done!!!

    1. Thank you Giulia! That’s quite a compliment! We know they’re watching everything we do, so we had better set a good example.

  3. These stories are always inspiring, but this one is truly incredible! I give how Carie told her husband “you make too much money to be broke”… wise woman! Thank you for sharing!

    1. Mrs. Adventure… I know right! Thanks for your comment 🙂

  4. Mao

    I love reading these stories! It really is about rebalancing your lifestyle and trying to figure what is more important for you.

    It’s also great to teach kids from a young age as it would help them tremendously down the road.

  5. Wow! Your story gives us a lot of hope. Practical advice that anyone can follow with discipline.

  6. Helen

    Incredible story, I enjoyed reading it! You have an amazing family, like how you involve the kids too. Thanks for sharing Carrie!

  7. Oh I was like: alright, alright $86k in 5 years – not bad at a- SEVEN kids?!?? Oh my gosh when did you guys sleep?!

    1. Haha! We did. 🙂 But I did do some early morning writing. 🙂

  8. Great story and always awesome to see others succeed when it comes to destroying debt.


  9. I love reading stories of debt success from people with big families. We were recently surprised by twin boys when we tried to add “one more” child to the family.

    Our family is still in the middle of the journey out of debt – one of our big issues is my loans for graduate school – but we’re making good progress. I like how you would ask yourself “Would I go out today and buy this?” when deciding whether to sell things. We definitely need to do a big purge really soon.

    Thanks for the inspiration to keep chipping away at the debt!

  10. Cristina

    Thanks, I enjoyed your story. Thanks for sharing!

  11. Sarah

    What a beautiful testimony of togetherness! You are truly a crown to your husband and you’ve been mutually blessed and strengthened by this experience.:-)

    1. Thank you! Working on mutual goals is strengthening to the relationship for sure. 🙂

  12. Love this. It reads just like a guide to getting out of debt for anyone, and you did it with 7 kids! Congrats!

  13. Great story and well done! It takes an enormous amount of mental, emotional and physical fortitude to do what you did and maintain that enthusiasm despite all the setbacks and difficulties. And at the end of the day, you did it! Congratulations! Inspiring for other people who think they can’t! We are proudly debt free too after taking FPU. It’s a hard road but what’s the alternative, debt slavery? I know what I choose, money FREEDOM!

  14. Congrats Michelle. That is really a great motivation and inspiring story. Good luck for your future.

    1. This is not my story – it’s a guest post just so you know 🙂

  15. Congratulations on managing to successfully get debt free after 5 years. And to know you paid off $86k in debt is truly inspiring. That took much strategizing about your financial future, as well as cutting back possibly on spending money on some of your favorite things.

    You and your husband are not the only ones who experienced these different in income. I know all about shrub and having to deal with hard times financially. My mother was a civil servant city of New York for 35 years as we grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. We weren’t rich or broke; just enough to get by without having to worry about standing on anyone’s food closet of public assistance.

    The financial mistake you made in the past brought you the way you are today. Stronger and wiser. So be thankful for that. I myself know very well what it’s like to be set back financially. A setback is a set up for the biggest comeback financially and otherwise. And lowering expenses across the board will not only help you save money in longevity, but also help you to save enough money whereas you keep your dedicated server bill paid monthly and on time. 🙂

  16. #truth! Luck has nothing to do with it.

  17. Yes – because it took some sacrifice on their part too. And agreed – more is caught than taught. 🙂

  18. pia

    I think so many of us have benefited from a simple finance road map. Be it from Dave Ramsey or from Scott Pape, or any other finance gurus out there. The fact is, we meandered and floundered because we didn’t have a road map nor the know-how on how to create one.

    I love that you have budget meetings and homework for both of you. My husband is less interested and certainly would not agree to budget meetings. Instead, I slip in 5 minute sessions here and there with a specific question to generate discussion and we are able to make decisions that way after he’s gone away to think about it a little.

  19. BMG

    This is truly inspirational – great story Carrie. I’m so proud of you and your husband and what the two of you have been able to accomplish. Puts me and my 3 children to shame!

  20. to pay off debt, debt is a blessing when faith and positive thinking is combined to achieve a positive financial goal. 🙂