Punching $25,000 of debt in the face in 7 months

Today, I have a fun article from a reader. Mrs. Picky Pincher is the blogger and money-saving maven at Picky Pinchers. She writes about living the good life while paying off $225,000 of debt. Below is her story. Enjoy! I’ve always been bad at math. I remember sobbing my eyes out in fourth grade because…

Michelle Schroeder-Gardner

Last Updated: May 27, 2023

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Today, I have a fun article from a reader. Mrs. Picky Pincher is the blogger and money-saving maven at Picky Pinchers. She writes about living the good life while paying off $225,000 of debt. Below is her story. Enjoy!

Here's how this person paid off $25,000 of debt in just 7 months. Lots of hard work will get you there!I’ve always been bad at math. I remember sobbing my eyes out in fourth grade because I didn’t understand fractions. Eh, I still don’t really understand fractions, to be honest with you. But this lack of mathematical skill carried over into my adult life. It festered into a downright fear of doing anything number-related, including managing my money.

I was admittedly spoiled growing up.

My parents weren’t wealthy by any means, but they always prioritized my wants, giving me free rein of their platinum credit card at age 16. I never had to work a summer job and my parents paid for all of my expenses. They even agreed to pay for my pricey private school university degree. I caused the kind of debt that only a mother could love.

When I graduated from college in December of 2013, I thought I knew everything, but I actually knew nothing. The combination of stupidity and hubris was dangerous, my friends. I scored a low-paying hourly job working a glorified receptionist gig at an awful company. I didn’t budget and had no idea how to manage my variable income. All I knew was that I could barely afford my weekly groceries, but damn if I didn’t want to buy myself a new Calvin Klein dress.

I had zero self-control. Over the course of a few months, I blew $1,000 on Amazon and put most of it on my credit card. Curse you, two-day shipping!

I managed to pay off my credit card debt, thankfully, but I splurged on stupid crap and ate at restaurants all the time. I was flushing my money away and had no idea. At the time I was tethered to a $450/mo car payment and a $600 rent payment that I could barely make each month, thanks to my low income and spending habits.

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Here comes the debt

When Mr. Picky Pincher and I got married in May of 2015, we combined our finances. Aaaand that mostly meant we combined our debts. Mr. Picky Pincher had $14,000 in credit card debt and $45,000 in student loans while I had a $450 car payment. I also agreed to take on $25,000 of my student loan debt from my parents. That’s a whole lotta debt for a newly-married couple.

One night we sat down to look at our finances. I was so excited–we were newlyweds and planned on buying our forever home. But we were hit with a Big Stick of Reality once we looked at the numbers. Not only was it impossible for us to save enough to buy a house; it was also impossible for us to save anything at all.

That was probably the first time an Excel spreadsheet made me ugly cry.

We were utterly desperate to make our dream of home ownership possible. I had no idea where to turn–every cost seemed like a necessary expense. I felt like a big, fat failure. Every red entry in my bank statement twisted the knife. I felt so angry at myself and lost.

We finally saw the light when Mr. Picky Pincher stumbled upon Mr. Money Mustache’s blog. It had everything we needed: practical money advice, a suck-it-up wake up call, and a good verbal face-punching. After learning more about personal finance, Mr. Picky Pincher and I crafted a plan to kick our ugly debt to the curb–while living well.


A plan is hatched

1. We looked at what we were spending

Mr. Picky Pincher is the numbers guy in our household. He did his spreadsheet magic and listed all of our expenses from the last few months. He categorized our grocery, take out, utility, rent, entertainment, and debt costs. The result? Absolutely freakin’ sickening. I nearly keeled over dead when I saw we were spending $1,000 a month just on food! I remember turning to Mr. Picky Pincher and accusing him of adding up the numbers wrong. I almost threw his calculator out the window, but thankfully I have horrible hand-eye coordination, and the calculator was unharmed.

Sorry honey!

After looking at our bank account, I knew that we were making decent money, especially for people in their 20s. The problem was that we were basically setting our paychecks on fire, thanks to our horrible spending habits. It was a nasty, rude, and horrible wake-up call to become aware of our habits, but it gave us a baseline to start with.


2. We set long-term goals

At this point, a lot of the personal finance blogs I read suggested that we create a budget. I was down with budgeting, but I wanted to do one thing before we made our budget. I wanted to set long-term goals. After all, long-term goals like home ownership and debt freedom were our inspiration for paying off debt, anyway. Mr. Picky Pincher and I sat down and outlined our goals for our debt freedom journey. Home ownership, debt freedom, and early retirement were the goals we agreed upon. We also agreed that we wanted to be debt-free before having kids. We didn’t want to perpetuate the “debt is normal” mindset with our kids. And hey, I also wanted the freedom and flexibility to quit working and stay at home if needed. That’s not an easy feat when you’re saddled to $1,000 of debt payments each month!

I got the warm fuzzies once we wrote our goals down on paper. It finally seemed real; like I was waking up from a few decades of dreaming. We were really going to do this!


3. We made a budget

I’d never budgeted before, so this was a big, scary world of math and numbers to me. Thankfully Mr. Picky Pincher helped me navigate through the terrifying world of budgeting. Our budget functioned as a set of short-term goals to achieve for the month. The budget was the stepping stone for us to achieve our long term goals over time, so we could measure progress over the long run. We treated the budget like a Bible: it was the be-all-end-all for our monthly finances.

Our budget wasn’t perfect when we first made it, and it still isn’t perfect. We’ve had to adjust our budget categories and limits over time, as well as tracking our cost per meal and savings rate. The budget helped me see that numbers, math, and finance don’t have to be scary. I became a lot more comfortable with looking at our numbers and making informed decisions.


4. I slashed expenses like it was my job

After setting a budget, I realized we had a loooot of work to do. We set limits on our spending in all of our priciest areas, namely entertainment and food. If we wanted to come in on-budget for the month, we were going to have to cut a lot of stuff to find surplus cash.

Expense-cutting has been one of the hardest and most rewarding aspects of our debt freedom journey. When I glanced at our monthly expenses, I was dead-set on the fact that all of the expenses were necessary. I didn’t think anything was up for negotiation.

Oh, how wrong I was!

I started with the easy stuff, like canceling my monthly Birchbox subscription. I was really wary of cutting too many things out at once. After all, I didn’t want to feel like I was deprived or that we had to make extreme lifestyle changes. Taking small baby steps helped me become more comfortable with the frugal life–in fact, it made me crave savings even more.

We then went a little further out of our comfort zone, opting to rent DVDs and books from the library instead of buying them. I stopped buying expensive new clothes and opted for a more affordable and eco-friendly thrift store wardrobe.

We were even able to slash our behemoth food costs. We took our $1,000/mo grocery expense and made it our goal to spend just $400 a month on groceries.
I won’t lie: cutting our food budget in half was one of the most frustrating things I’ve ever done. It was complicated by the fact that Mr. Picky Pincher and I are, well, Picky about everything we eat. We weren’t going to settle for hot dogs and ramen on the dinner table every night. We had to made real, gourmet shiz without the gourmet price. It took about a year to find shopping and cooking strategies that worked for us. Over time, we did finally meet our $400 a month budget. And you know what? It felt uh-mazing. 🙂

At this point, saving money became addictive. We got bolder with the budget items we cut. We moved to a cheaper apartment to save $400 in rent each month. We sold my car to get rid of the $450/mo payment. I even went so far as sewing my own handkerchiefs to avoid buying Kleenex every month!


5. We increased our income

Of course, eventually we ran out of things to cut from our budget. We were finally able to put down several hundred extra dollars on our credit card bill each month. I was elated, but at the same time, I wondered what more we could do. After some poking around in our budget spreadsheets, I realized we needed to earn more.

In an auspicious turn of events, I was offered a job that paid $17,000 more than I was earning at the time. To be honest, I didn’t even know what the job description was when I accepted the job! I saw the dollar signs and I was hooked. Mr. Picky Pincher has been with the same company for over five years now, and he’s been rewarded for his loyalty with annual raises. He’s also asked for raises a few times and was never turned down.

Woohoo for extra money!

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Hot diggity–the plan works!

Okay, I have to be honest. I didn’t think this would work. I thought debt freedom was only something that happened to the crazy go-getters of the world. I didn’t think an average, number-hating cat lady like me would be able to make this plan work.

But you know what?

The plan worked. And it worked really, really well. After implementing our plan for two years, we’re now able to set aside a whopping $3,000 each month to debt and savings. $3,000 is an insane amount of money to me; it’s a small fortune. Heck, people compete on reality shows for that kind of money! I was flabbergasted that we had this much “extra” money in our budget all along.

Thanks to our Face-Punching Debt Plan (as it’s now known), we paid off $14,000 of credit card debt in one year. And that’s not it. We made our dream of home ownership a reality in September of 2016 after putting a hefty cash down payment on our Picky Palace. We were even able to spend $16,000 cash to renovate the home and make it livable. Once we had the home of our dreams, we tackled our student debt. Over the course of 7 months, we completely eliminated my $25,000 student loans.

Do you know how good it felt to call FedLoan to tell them I was paying off my loans? The Fedloan rep also seemed relieved that I wasn’t on the line to scream at her, either, so the feeling was mutual.

We’re now in the process of paying off Mr. Picky Pincher’s $45,000 student loans. After that, we’re tackling our big ol’ $145,000 mortgage.

Sure, it’ll take us another five years or so to be completely debt-free, but it’s worth it. This journey has taught me the value of hard work. I’m a total weenie, but I was able to put on a brave face and conquer the impossible. My life has changed for the better, and not just in my bank account. Through this debt freedom journey I’ve learned about contentment, the satisfaction of hard work, and that it’s okay to be a complete and utter oddball.

I’m happy to see where the future takes us as we become debt free and financially independent. It feels so good. 🙂

How much debt do you have? What are you doing to pay off debt?

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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. Your’re killing it Mrs. PP. I’m pretty sore I’ve told you this before. Reading your whole story puts it in perspective. Congrats on your house purchase. I’m sure it’s even more satisfying considering the work you put in to buy it.

    I just wrote a post about what to consider between paying off debt and investing. (Link in my name here). Next week I’ll be telling my full story. Quick summary is that my only debt is a mortgage and I’m in no rush to pay it off.

  2. This is about where I’m at with my debt! I’m just starting out on my personal finance journey and in the process of learning as much as possible. When I read stories like yours from people who start out at a similar debt dollar amount as I have it makes it seem more possible to achieve. Thank you for sharing your story!

  3. Oh how I know that $1000 grocery bill all too well. And the worst part was realizing that didn’t even include all the food we were eating because of restaurant bills. We were living frugally in most areas of life but that one line was such a drain for so long. In comparison, we would have done better to be paying for cable because it’s way cheaper than an expensive grocery budget.

  4. Marcy B

    You are both amazing and I bow to you. I am pretty frugal with everything but where we get clobbered with with our 4 pet’s medical expenses and vacations. My husband is still working a pretty physical job at 65 years old and he likes to reward himself for that hard work with more expensive vacations than I would like. I don’t have the heart to rein him in, though.

  5. Sean @ FrugalMoneyMan.com

    Way to cut your spending on food by 60%!!!

    Food can definitely eat at your wallet without you even noticing. You all definitely bunkered down and cut your expenses like crazy and I applaud you for that! It definitely isn’t easy to cut your expenses in multiple categories, but fortunately you caught the addictive bug of loving to do it.

    Congratulations to the both of you for the changes you made, and the example you continue to set!

  6. Loved this post. You are hilarious. I hear you on the food front- after years and years of being the kind of cook that served up fries, chicken nuggets and corn, I’ve developed skills in the kitchen and I LOVE the food we eat. But it is so pricey! We live in the country so I would love to grow more of our produce- even herbs would make a big difference to the food budget.I’d love to know what strategies you used to keep the food gourmet and the price budget.