My monthly Extraordinary Lives series has been a lot of fun, and I’m back with another inspiring interview. First up was JP Livingston, who retired with a net worth over $2,000,000 at the age of 28. Today's interview is with Amanda, who is now living debt free after paying off $133,000 in three years and seven months.
I've been following Amanda – @debtfreeinsunnyca – on Instagram for quite some time, and I'm so happy that I was finally able to interview her!
In this interview, you'll learn:
- How Amanda got into debt.
- Why she decided to get out of debt fast.
- The expenses she cut so that she could pay off her debt quickly.
- What she thinks about the cash envelope method.
- The sacrifices she made to reach her goal.
- What she did to stay motivated.
And more! This interview is packed full of valuable information!
I asked you, my readers, what questions I should ask her, so below are your questions (and some of mine) about Amanda's story and how she has accomplished so much. Make sure you're following me on Facebook so you have the opportunity to submit your own questions for the next interview.
- How Our Family of 5 Went from House Poor to Debt Free in 3 Years
- How This 34 Year Old Owns 7 Rental Homes
- How This Couple Retired at 38 and 41
- The Best Debt Payoff Stories – These Six People Paid Off Over $400,000 in Debt!
Tell me your story.
Hey Michelle! Thank you for the opportunity. Here is my story.
I was 22 years old and working as a massage therapist on a cruise ship when I was diagnosed with carpal tunnel and cubital (elbow) tunnel. The career that I had trained for was no longer an option. I had to start over and pick a new career. Tired of working commission jobs where your paycheck depends on how good of a salesperson you are, I sought out an in demand, well-paying career in cyber security.
Like any normal person would do, I took out student loans to cover my tuition. I didn’t pay any attention to how much I was borrowing or the interest rate. I figured I would be making the big bucks when I graduated and could afford the payments. To make that happen, I worked hard to get into my field and landed an internship during my first year in school. By the time I graduated, I had already been in the IT field for several years.
So, was I making the big bucks now? Nope, not even close. There was no big, fat pay raise when I graduated. Reality slapped me hard in the face when I realized I wasn’t going to be able to afford my student loan and car payments with my small salary in California.
I knew I had to do something to clean up my mess. Years before I had tried to get out of debt by following Dave Ramsey’s plan, but reverted to my old ways after going through some personal things. Wanting to give it another try, I enrolled in Financial Peace University. I also went back to school for my master’s degree. This allowed me to defer my loans while cleaning up my mess. The best part was the company I now worked for reimbursed tuition for degrees that are related to your field.
My debt was over $80,000 and consisted of student loans, a car, and a small credit card. Once I committed to doing a zero-based budget, I started to see some great progress. I was sharing all my progress with my then boyfriend, now husband. I tried to get him on board, but he wasn’t interested at the time. After a few months of hitting it hard, I started to get mad that my balance wasn’t going down as fast as I wanted it to. It was going to take me forever to get out of debt!
That’s when I had my second “I’ve had it” moment where I was now ready to take action. The Prius I was upside down on had to go. It was a drastic, but necessary move. I quickly saved up $5,000 for a used Honda Civic and sold my car. With one transaction I got rid of $17,000 worth of debt. It felt like I was getting somewhere now! Because of my past, dumb mistakes, I had to take out a $7,000 loan to cover the difference I was upside down on. Owing $7,000 is WAY better than owing $24,000. I consider this to be the best financial decision I’ve ever made. It catapulted my debt snowball and provided the motivation I needed to continue.
After seeing my progress and going through FPU, Josh got on board and started paying off his debt. He cash flowed my engagement ring and proposed several months later! We paused our debt free journey and cash flowed $14,000 in six months for our wedding and honeymoon.
With the wedding behind us, it was time to get to business. Together we had a total $133,763 in debt. Josh added a truck and multiple credit cards to the pile of debt. We combined our accounts, started doing a zero-based budget, and utilized cash envelopes to stay on track. We both worked to increase our income while keeping the same lifestyle. After three years and seven months of hard work, we became debt free on July 5th, 2018!
How much debt did you have and what was your debt from?
Our debt totaled $133,763 and consisted of 16 student loans, 8 credit cards, 2 vehicles, and 1 personal loan. Nearly half of our debt was my student loans from my associate’s and bachelor’s degrees.
Why did you want to get out of debt fast?
It’s an awful feeling not having enough money to pay your bills or having to tell your friends/family you can’t go out because you’re broke. I wanted to get out of debt fast so I could afford my bill and have money to do the things I enjoy.
My why evolved over time when Josh and I started talking about our future together. He almost bought a sailboat when he got out of the Army years ago. Josh ended up moving back to San Diego instead, and then we met. He shared his dream with me, and I was immediately on board. I had been obsessed with tiny house living, and having worked on cruise ships, I loved the water. Getting a sailboat and one day quitting our jobs to travel became our new why.
How long did it take you to pay off your debt and reach debt freedom?
We spent three years and seven months working on paying off all our debt. The first year I was on my own. We weren’t married yet, and it took some time to convince Josh to get on board. After getting engaged, we paused our debt payments for six months to cash flow our wedding. We finished up the remainder of our debt a year and a half after we were married.
How did you manage to get out of debt so fast?
Getting out of debt can be broken down into two areas: increasing your income and cutting your expenses. We did both during our journey.
Our income increased by $75,000 during our debt free journey. This was from raises, overtime, and on-call pay. How did we do this? I attribute a lot of my success to working while I was going to school. I landed a part-time internship when I was in my first year of school. It allowed me to work my way up the ladder faster and increase my income. While in my master’s program, I managed to get into the IT Security department at my company. It came with a significant pay increase and each yearly raise has been a generous amount.
Josh also works in IT. He doesn’t have a degree, but his eight years of experience in the Army and his drive more than make up for it. Josh manages critical applications and is one of the go-to people in the IT department. He’s on-call and often working overtime. His skills and work ethic have earned him well deserved pay increases over the years.
Cutting expenses also helped us reach debt freedom faster:
For most of our journey, we lived in a small 550 sq. ft house to keep rent low. This saved around $400 a month for the 2.5 years we lived there. That’s $12,000 saved!
Other than a honeymoon, we didn’t go on a vacation during our whole debt free journey. We had a few small trips: graduation, a wedding, Christmas in Tennessee with my family, which my mom paid for because she wanted to see us while supporting our journey.
Instead of traveling, we found free things to do in San Diego. Going hiking with the dogs was one of our favorite things to do. We also hung out with friends at their house instead of going out. We would cook dinner and watch a movie or TV series.
Hobbies and fun
Josh has a lot of expensive hobbies that he put on hold during our debt free journey: spear fishing, fishing, tech stuff, etc. I didn’t have any hobbies since my life was consumed by work and school. We cut out restaurants, date nights, movies, and excessive clothing. If we wanted to go out to eat or buy booze, it would come out of our budgeted spending money. There were a lot of Netflix and chill nights! Our date nights consisted of grilling out in our yard and sitting by the fire pit. We did budget for date nights whenever we hit a big milestone.
Josh and I work at the same company, which allowed us to carpool to save money. Additionally, our company has amazing benefits. Our health and dental insurance are extremely affordable, both of our cell phones are paid for because we’re on call, and we’re able to make up missed hours instead of taking PTO if we need to leave work for some reason.
Can you tell me about cash envelopes? How does it work and why do they help?
Cash envelopes are a budgeting method where you take out cash for specific categories instead of using your debit/credit card for purchases. Each payday we take out money for groceries, gas, spending money, and any sinking funds we’re saving for. For that two-week period, all groceries come out of the grocery envelope. Same with gas and spending money. Once it’s gone, it’s gone! There’s no money left in our accounts because it’s all been paid to debt, so you better spend the money wisely! We had our emergency fund in case anything happened, but spending too much on groceries is not an emergency.
This method really helps curb your spending because you feel it more when you use cash. It’s also easy to look in your wallet and see how much money you have for each category to stay on track. Josh is a spender and he’s had great success with cash envelopes. I had a wallet with several dividers made for him to make it easy.
A lot of people are scared to carry around cash. I think the benefits of using cash outweigh the risk of losing it or it being stolen. I suggest only carrying around the amount that you need and leaving the rest at home in a safe until you need it. If anything were to happen, you always have your emergency fund to fall back on.
What is your response to people that say, “You should invest that money instead of paying off the debt, you'll earn more in the long run…” etc.?
Ahhh the age-old argument! My response is do what works best for YOU! Everyone’s situation and priorities are different.
When I started, I didn’t have a choice because I wasn’t going to be able to afford the minimum payments on my debt! As we got further into our journey, sure we could have invested, but paying off debt was more important to us. Becoming debt free is a sure thing and will force you to change your spending habits for the better. I never want to get in a bind and have to pull out investments early because of debt or bad spending habits.
What sacrifices did you have to make in order to become debt free?
The biggest sacrifice I made to become debt free was selling my beloved Prius for a 2005 Honda Civic. At first, I didn’t want to sell it. I was going to try and get out of debt while keeping the car. After eight months of paying down my car loan and not making a lot of progress, I realized I had to make some bigger sacrifices, otherwise I would fall back into my old spending habits and go further into debt. I still miss the ability to get into my car without taking the keys out of my purse and the convenience of Bluetooth! My used Honda is old and janky, but it’s paid off!
Often people paying off loads of debt feel they have to choose between “living life” and making payments. Were there any times during the journey that you chose to “splurge”?
There were a few times we splurged! We got sick and tired of living in a small house, so we moved into a bigger rental with office space and a yard for the dogs. Before moving we did a cost analysis on the expenses to determine if it was worth it to us to push back our debt free date by a few months or stick it out and continue living the same way.
Our new place was so empty when we moved in. Imagine going from 550 sq. ft to over 1,300! We didn’t even have a table. We spent a few weeks buying furniture and things that we needed for the house before getting back into the swing of things.
Another big splurge was a complete surprise to me! I had been eyeballing this nice Canon DSLR camera and planned on getting it as a debt free gift to myself. Right before I graduated with my master’s degree, my mom was in California on a travel nursing assignment. She knew we were on a strict budget and would say no to most things that cost money. My mom told me she won $150 gift card and wanted to use it to take us out to eat.
I agreed because who passes up free!? During dinner, I kept making comments about us going all out because we have to use up the gift card. Avocado eggrolls, pizza, and several beers later, Josh said he forgot his wallet out in the truck and went to grab it. He came in the door behind me and set a big present on my lap! I immediately knew it was the camera!
So, how did Josh get this big purchase by me? He’s a veteran and was in school at the time. Veterans get a housing allowance each month while in school per the Post-911 GI Bill. The money was deposited into his personal checking account, and then he moved it to our joint checking every month. He told me that the allowance was delayed that month because of paperwork! I completely bought it. Josh used the money to go in on my graduation gift with my mom.
And the gift card? There was no gift card! They knew the only way to get me to a restaurant during our debt free journey was to lie to me and say she had a gift card. The total with tip came out to just over $150.
What did you do to stay motivated?
It’s so important to find ways to stay motivated when you have years of work ahead of yourself. Because I had fallen off track once before, I knew I had to find better ways to stay motivated and focused.
Visuals were by far my favorite way to stay motivated. I had multiple charts, spreadsheets, and countdowns going at home and work. Every time we made a payment towards debt, I would get to color in charts, change Excel spreadsheets, and update the whiteboard at work. Having reminders where you’ll see them every day is extremely motivating.
I also sought to find other people on the same journey. Back in 2014, there weren’t a lot of people on Instagram sharing their progress and journey. I found a small group of people from searching #debtfree and #daveramsey, and started following them. The hashtags started to get polluted by people selling those skinny teas and weight loss wraps. I put out a call to the small community, and we decided to vote on our own hashtag. That’s how the #debtfreecommunity was born!
It’s so motivating to talk to people who are going through the same thing. In real life, none of my friends or coworkers were trying to get out of debt. Their eyes would gloss over when talking about budgets or paying off a debt. Every time I opened Instagram, I would immediately be motivated by another person's journey or the lovely comments left on my posts.
If you were starting back at ground zero, what would you do differently?
There are so many things I would do differently! First off, instead of getting a $12,000 car when I was 16, I would save up a few thousand and buy a used, reliable car. That one decision would set my life on a much better path! I’d be able to save up money and pay for school upfront, which is my next point. I would spend more time figuring out what I want to do in life and researching schools. I’d make sure to pick a career that is not commission based and makes a great salary. I would start investing early in life, even if it was only $100 a month. I would continue to pay cash for purchases, save money, and invest.
What is your very best tip (or two) that you have for someone who wants to reach the same success as you?
Hands down the best tip I can give is to create a zero-based budget and stick to it. A budget doesn’t sound sexy or fun, but it gives you freedom to spend money on the things that matter to you. Budgeting doesn’t mean you have to cut out all your fun! Put it in the budget. The point is to know where your money is going and to spend it intentionally. Don’t resist the budget!
The second tip I can give is to find your people! It’s hard to stay motivated to pay off debt or save when all your friends are spending money left and right. Having a supportive group of people that get you is priceless.
What's your next financial goal?
Our next financial goal is to save $25,000 for our 6-month emergency fund. We want to be prepared for anything that comes at us!
We keep $2,000 in a local savings account and the rest will be in a high interest savings account. Transferring money from our large emergency fund to our checking account takes a few days, which is great because it helps prevent us from dipping into it for non-emergencies.
The emergency fund will cover all of our expenses for six months with minimal cuts to the budget. It’s going to be a huge relief to have money set aside just in case. No more money fights when something unexpected happens!
Where can my readers go to learn more about you?
Do you have any other questions for Amanda? Are you trying to pay off debt?
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