2 Strategies and 3 Habits That Helped Me Pay Off $93,000 of Debt in 3.5 Years

Hello! Today, I have a great debt payoff story from Heather O’Donnell of HappyHumbleHome.com. Enjoy! These days, I’m a frugal living blogger at Happy Humble Home and I provide money saving advice and encouragement to others. But there was a point in my life, not that long ago, when I thought I would be in…

Michelle Schroeder-Gardner

Last Updated: May 4, 2022

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Hello! Today, I have a great debt payoff story from Heather O’Donnell of HappyHumbleHome.com. Enjoy!

These days, I’m a frugal living blogger at Happy Humble Home and I provide money saving advice and encouragement to others.

But there was a point in my life, not that long ago, when I thought I would be in debt forever.

When my husband and I got married in August of 2015, we had $105,000 of debt. Since then, we have worked very hard towards our goal becoming debt free and we have crushed $95,000 of our debt.

Along the way, we’ve used 2 different debt payoff strategies and we’ve learned 3 essential habits that have helped us be successful along the way. In this post, I’m going to give you an inside look at how I overcame my giant mountain of debt because I know without a doubt that if I can do this, you absolutely can too.

More debt payoff stories:


I brought most of the debt into my marriage

My husband was debt-free except for his car payment. I had a giant student loan and a car payment of my own. Here’s a breakdown of exactly what our debt looked like:

  • Student Loan – $68,000
  • My Car Loan – $20,000
  • His Car Loan – $17,000

If you’re wondering about those numbers, let me give you a quick backstory.

My giant student loan was consolidated from my undergraduate and masters degrees. I went to school to be a elementary school teacher and was working as a kindergarten teacher in an inner city when we got married. Obviously, this was not a very high paying career choice.

It was just pure bad luck that my husband and I had to buy cars at the same time.

A few months before our wedding, his old car was starting to have problems and it would have been expensive to fix. We decided together that instead of fixing his old car, it would make more sense to trade it in and get a new one. So, he did.

We expected the little Honda Civic that I was driving at the time to last us at least another 5 years and we didn’t think his one car payment would be that bad.

But just a few weeks after my husband bought his new car, my car was totaled in a hit and run accident. Thankfully, I wasn’t injured. On the other hand, my poor little car was destroyed.

Clearly, I was going to need a new one. And of course, I could have bought something used and affordable. But instead I did a rushed month of research and decided to invest in a new car that would last us 10 years, barring another horrible accident.

So, that’s how we ended up with 2 car payments at the same time on top of my student loan.

We paid for our wedding in full with cash that we had saved up during our 18 month engagement. But this also meant that we were only paying the minimums on our debt during this time.


It was right after we were married that we decided to get serious about paying off our debt.

Emotionally, it was hard to be the one to bringing so much debt into my marriage. I felt really guilty about it and it took several long conversations with my husband before I was ready to tackle or debt together.

We started by learning everything we could about debt payoff strategies.

We decided that because we were already highly motivated, we should use the debt avalanche and focus on paying off my student loan first since it had a much higher interest rate.

For the next 18 months we devoted every spare dollar that we could to paying my student loan. We paid off $38,000 of the $68,000 total during that time.

The debt avalanche was serving us well. We’d paid off more than half of our biggest and highest interest rate debt. But our life situation was changing. I was pregnant and planning to leave my job to stay home with our baby. We knew this would drastically decrease our income and affect our debt payoff.


So, we decided to reevaluate our strategy.

After looking at our debts, we decided the best thing for us would be to eliminate our highest monthly payment. That would free up more money each month and would make life easier when I wasn’t working.

My husband’s car loan was our smallest debt, with our smallest interest rate, but it was our highest monthly payment at $505.  

We set our sights on that small car loan and started devoting all the extra money that had been going to my student loan each month to the car loan instead.

We had his car paid off in 6 months.

This put a lot more breathing room in our monthly budget.

Then, we turned our attention to my car payment. The minimum monthly payment for my car was only $297, but it was a much smaller total amount than my student loan and we wanted to remove that monthly payment too.

We put everything we could toward paying off my car, including our 2017 tax return, and we had it paid off 7 months later.

By this time, our son was here and I had left my job. Our income was much less than when we were both working and our expenses were a little higher since we had another person in our family.

So, our debt payoff slowed.

There were several months that we could only pay the minimum monthly payment towards the student loan.

Whenever we had a little extra, we would pay more.

Even though our progress had slowed, our motivation was still high. We had built so much momentum when we were paying off our debts quickly and that carried us through those harder months.

Since I left my job in August of 2017, we have paid off $21,000 of my student loan on one income.

So at the time that I’m writing this we still have about $10,000 of debt left. I have this new, life changing ability to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I know we will be debt-free soon, and once we are, we’re never going back.

I want to share with you 3 essential habits that we used to pay off our $95,000 of debt so far.

These strategies worked for me even as someone who was horrible with money in the beginning. And they’ve kept me motivated through the hard times when I felt like giving up. I know these strategies can work for you too.


1. Monthly Debt Check-In

Every month during the last weekend of the month, my husband and I spend an hour planning out our budget for the month ahead and checking in on our debt payoff progress.

We talk about how much debt we’ve paid off and how much further we have left to go.

Sometimes we play with an online debt calculator on Unbury.us. The calculator tells us when our debt will be paid off based on how much extra we can pay each month. For example, if we pay an extra $600 a month, we’ll have our debt paid off my February 2020. It just gives us a rough idea of how close we’re getting.

Talking about it is powerful gets us excited and motivates us to continue.


2. Cutting Expenses for Extra Debt Payments

We did everything we could think of to lowering our expenses so we would have more money to devote to paying off our debts. This wasn’t fun to think about at first, but it was fun to see all that extra money going toward paying off debt.

Here are some of the expenses we cut to free up money for extra debt payments.


We completely stopped going out to eat at restaurants. During the 3.5 years that we’ve been married and working on our debt, my husband and I have only been in a restaurant on our anniversary or birthdays.

We also stopped getting take-out food on the busy (or lazy) nights that we didn’t feel like cooking. Instead we had some supplies on hand for super simples meals that we both liked and that would be easy to prepare when we didn’t want to cook. These were mostly things like tuna, cartons of soup, or frozen chicken fried rice.

I made an effort to meal plan and once I learned a system that worked for me, I worked on stretching the same ingredients out for several different dinners in a week. For example, shredded beef would work for beef and broccoli, beef tacos, and stew.

Then, I started getting serious about saving money on groceries. I started looking for sales, comparing prices, using some coupons, and shopping with a grocery budget. I was able to lower our grocery costs by $40 a week with just a little bit of work and thinking ahead.

Household Costs

After we got our food costs under control, we focused our attention on our household costs.

We seriously cut down on our electric bill just by unplugging things and intentionally turning off what we weren’t using.

We negotiated our cell phone bill and saved $15 a month.

We made an effort to use a little less of everything – less paper towels, less detergent, less shampoo.

We’ve even tried to do some simple home repairs ourselves without calling (and paying) a professional. My husband was able to fix the ice maker in our freezer, replace our doorbell, and even do a simple repair on our toilet.

It was easier than I thought it would be.

I expected cutting our expenses to be a grueling process but it was so much easier than I ever expected. We would just try something, and if it worked we’d get really excited about the money we saved.

My success with cutting our expenses is one of the main reasons I wanted to start my blog, Happy Humble Home. I was excited to share simple, actionable ideas that other people could use in their own lives, with their own families, to save money.


3. Keeping the Future Front of Mind

The biggest change that helped me while paying off debt was actually a mindset shift.

I stopped thinking about what I wanted right now, and instead started focusing on what I want in the long run.

I knew that I didn’t want to still be paying off my student loan when my kids were in college. And during the times that I was struggling, that’s what I would remind myself.

And my husband and I are always talking about how much more money we will have once we don’t have to make any debt payments. We’ll actually be able to save money for things that we really want, like remodeling our bathrooms.

This isn’t an easy mindset shift to make.

There were so many times that I wanted the instant gratification that came from take-out food or going out with friends or buying a cute new outfit.

I had to keep reminding myself that 5 years from now I wouldn’t remember that meal, or event, or outfit. But if I made the right choices, in 5 years I could be debt free. And that would have a profound impact on my family forever.

With practice, those hard choices became easier to make.

And now that I’m so close to being debt-free, it’s very easy to turn down temptation.


$93,000 in 3.5 Years

It’s a little scary to put all my real life numbers out there into the world. But It’s pretty amazing to take a step back and think about how far I’ve come. And It’s even more amazing to think about how close I am to the finish line.

My husband and I expect to be 100% debt free by the end of 2019. And once we are, we are never going back. Also, there will be a party.

In the meantime, I’m going to keep sharing my money saving tips and debt insights over on my blog, Happy Humble Home. I’m doing my best to empower everyone I can reach to fix their financial situation, just like I have. I’d be honored to be a part of your financial journey. You can join me here to get access to all of my best money saving tips and tools (including a printable debt payoff tracker!)

If your debt feels overwhelming like mine once did, I want you to know that this is not impossible. With a little intentionality, some smart choices, and healthy money habits you can pay off your debt and change your future. I know that if I can do this, you can too.

Do you have debt? What are you doing to pay off your 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. In my personal opinion, I think it’s real love when a person knows that their future spouse has tons of debt, but marries them anyway. Most people who discover their potential spouse has tons of debt tend to quit on them and walk away. It’s a good thing to know real love still exists today, though it’s scarce in today’s world of relationship and employment uncertainty. I’m glad to hear you paid off a huge financial debt and have a peace of mind in the process today and sharing your amazing success story with us how you overcame it.

    One of the things I admire about you is that you stop thinking about what you wanted to purchase in the moment. I have to say that I’m guilty of that and I slightly when into debt because of it. I learned from it and strove to correct my mistake of thinking that way. Today, I put a lot of things off because as I’m right around the corner to achieving the near future status of “side hustle millionaire,” I’ve learned to do without a lot of things and value the importance of paying my credit card balances in full, and use the money more wisely to invest in paying my hosting fees/PPC paid advertising costs. I wish I had this mindset of paying off personal debt and having zero dollars in my younger years. But as the saying goes, you live and you learn.

    Thank you for thought provoking blog. 🙂

    1. Thank you! Congrats on your success too.

      1. Thanks Heather. 🙂

  2. #Goals

    This is amazing and very inspiring, Heather. My husband and I are in a similar position, although all of our debt left (around $100,000) is only student loans. We have paid off and cancelled 1 credit card, paid a car loan (bank) and another car loan (in-laws, so no interest, but we were even more determined to pay it off quickly, because we are so grateful for their help).

    I’m looking forward to the day I can say we are debt free, even though it’s still a long way to go 🙂

    1. Sounds like you’re making great progress, Jess!

      1. Thank you Heather! It’s been slow going, but we’re not giving up!

    2. If there’s anything I learned about credit cards and credit scores-FICO is that your credit score will drop of viewpoints if you cancel one or some credit cards. I learned that the hard way when I canceled a credit card in the last three months. My credit score dropped a few points. But as I paid off the balance on two of the credit cards, my score shot right back up. If you decide to not use a credit card, instead of canceling it, pay off the full balance and let it sit dormant. If you feel confident about destroying it and care less about losing a few points off of your credit score for a little while until it goes back up, go for the gusto by using your scissors and cutting your credit card in half. 🙂

  3. This is such an inspiring story… that makes me feeling that I am on the right way… it shows that saving money isn’t that boring and bourgeois everybody thinks… thank you for sharing your experiences…Kati

    1. Thank you! You can do it, Kati!

  4. Danielle

    This’ really happened to me when I was trapped with a bank loan. I decide to stop the debt by releasing the home back to the developer. Life without debt is much greater now

    1. Glad you are out of debt, Danielle!

    2. You can definitrely say that again, Danielle. Being free of personal debt is mentally liberating! 🙂

  5. Karina

    Insightful post!! Thank you for sharing your story, Heather! It was clear and simple to understand. After reading this post, I checked out unburyus and it was a great tool to envision how extra payments will impact the overall payoff. I am currently paying down my student loans and am always looking for inspiration and tips. Congrats on your success!! I’ll be heading over to your blog now 🙂