Hello! Today, I have a great personal finance story to share from a reader, Lisa. Lisa and her husband paid off $80,000 in debt and saved 20% for a down payment on a home in just 6 years. Enjoy!
This is our story of how my husband and I managed to pay off $80,000 of debt and save enough money to put 20% down on our family home.
It took us a total of 6 years to do it. As you will read in my story below, the first couple of those 6 years were actually spent accumulating more debt than paying it off.
There was definitely a large learning curve for us with managing our money. But, as we started to figure things out, our debt payoff efforts snowballed quite quickly.
Today I want to share the techniques and strategies that worked for us when paying down our massive amount of debt because I hope that some of them could work for your situation.
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Where our debt came from
As I eluded to above, I wasn’t always knowledgeable about how to pay off debt and manage money.
Growing up, I was never taught anything about personal finance.
I came from a single-parent household and we lived quite simply.
There wasn’t much extra money for family vacations, eating out at restaurants, or buying anything extravagant. And I was quite aware of this when I was young.
I watched as my friends were going on family vacations (I was even invited to go along on some), had the trendiest clothes (hello Guess Jeans), and the newest gadgets (like portable CD players).
I ended up being the first in my immediate family to go to college. Thinking back, going to college was one of those things that everyone assumed I was going to do.
I was never given any other alternative to going to college. Nor did I take the initiative to look into any other options.
Since I am a people pleaser, I couldn’t let anyone down, including myself.
I chose a career in the healthcare industry because I loved learning about the human body and I wanted to help people.
Like most people, I had to take out student loans to finance my education. But I really didn’t understand what they would amount to by the time I was done.
I actually didn’t even care at the time. I just knew I wanted to help people and, in my head, going to college was the only way to do that.
And my only way to pay for college was to take out student loans.
When I graduated from college in 2001, my total student loan debt was around $35,000. Plus I racked up $6,000 in credit card debt throughout those 4 years (buying books and beverages for parties really added up!).
After graduation, my mom let me live at home rent-free. I would highly recommend this if you have the option. Her generosity allowed me to pay off my credit card debt rather quickly.
However, I “needed” a reliable car to get to the entry-level job I landed. So I took on more debt to the tune of around $18,000 to buy myself a brand new car.
Fun (and frugal) fact: We still have (and use) that same car today, almost 20 years later!
Shortly after graduating college, I met my future husband. He also brought debt into the relationship with student loans and a car loan.
Plus, I found out later he bought my engagement ring with a credit card.
In late 2004, we bought a “starter home” together. It was around 1,000 square feet, but it was a 3 story house. So each level was only around 350 square feet.
Without even realizing it at the time, we actually did something right when we bought our first home. We chose to purchase a house that cost much less than what we were pre-approved for.
Choosing a house that didn’t make us house poor when we were first starting our lives together was a huge factor in paying down our mountain of debt in the coming years.
We also got a great deal on furniture before we even found our first house. We took advantage of a going-out-of-business sale and bought furniture that was steeply discounted (we could only hope it would fit inside our future house!).
My in-laws graciously allowed us to store our furniture in their house for months before we finally bought a house and moved in (and yes, the furniture actually did fit in our house).
In 2005, we got married.
We knew we were going to have to pay for most of the wedding on our own, so we found ways to keep the cost of the wedding down.
Here are some ways we ended up saving money on the cost of our wedding:
- Shopped around for the most inexpensive (but still nice) caterer/banquet hall
- Bought my wedding dress for $200 during a special sale
- Flowers and centerpieces were arranged by my mother-in-law
- Bought very simple wedding favors in bulk to get a discount
- Used coupons at Michaels and AC Moore to buy other wedding items (altar candles, guest book, invitation kits, etc)
- Printed my own wedding invitations
- Kept the wedding party and guest list small
Even though we attempted to keep our wedding cost down, we still needed to use credit to pay for some of it.
I don’t remember the total debt we had accumulated by that time. Between student loans, car loans, and credit card debt, we were in a pretty big hole.
What we did to tackle our debt
Here is an estimate of the debt I remember having around that time:
- My student loans $33,000
- My car loan $12,000
- His student loan $18,000
- His car loan $17,000
Just these things alone add up to $80,000 of debt!
Looked at our individual debts as “our debt”
The best thing we did to allow us to get out of debt so quickly was to combine our finances and attack the debt together. We knew getting out of the hole we dug for ourselves wasn’t going to happen if we didn’t work as a team.
Many couples want to keep their finances separate, or partially separate, even after getting married. We decided to combine everything and use the “what’s yours is mine and what’s mine is yours” approach.
We were in the debt repayment boat as a team. Even though I was the “team leader” and took charge of learning how to repay our debt, we were in it together.
I’m the analytical one in our relationship. I love spreadsheets and numbers. He is the go-with-the-flow type of guy. So he was perfectly okay with letting me take control.
But I always kept him updated on our progress, even though his eyes seemed to glaze over as I talked numbers.
Began educating myself on how to manage household finances
After I realized all the debt we had, I started to educate myself on the best way to get rid of it. The first personal finance book I ever read was Smart Couples Finish Rich by David Bach.
I love this book.
I give credit to this book for changing my thinking about money. I highly recommend it for any couple that is starting at square one like my husband and I did.
This book is also what started my love of personal finance. After reading it, I started reading personal finance magazines and other personal finance books.
I also decided to go back to school for an MBA. I was lucky enough to work at a company that had a reimbursement program for obtaining an advanced degree. Fortunately, I didn’t need to take out more student loans.
Paid the debts with the highest interest rates down first
There are many theories on the best methods to pay down debt. I opted to pay our debts down starting with the highest interest rate debt. This is sometimes referred to as the debt avalanche method.
This made the most sense to my analytical brain. So I listed all of our student loan debts and other consumer debts in order from the highest to the lowest interest rate.
We attacked our debts in this order, paying extra on the highest one while paying the minimum payments on all the others.
Important side tip: Make sure you read your student loan promissory notes so you understand all the conditions of the loan. Related content: How Do Student Loans Work?
I failed to do that and I found out I could have had one of my federal student loans completely canceled because of working for a non-profit organization for 7 years.
I only had about $1,000 left to repay on the almost $7,000 loan when a co-worker told me about it. I was so bummed! But lesson learned. I don’t want that to happen to you.
Changed our spending habits
Finding ways to save money on everyday expenses was a huge part of paying off our debt. It was during this time period of paying off debt that we learned we couldn’t be spending money so frivolously.
We started being more intentional with our spending habits. But we didn’t cut everything fun out of our budget.
We were in our mid 20’s at that time. The most important thing to us was to be able to do some traveling before starting a family.
In order to have money to pay off our debt, deposit money in a savings account, and travel we had to find ways to cut other expenses.
So we scaled back on spending money on things that didn’t matter to us. Two of the major things we cut back on were eating out and going out to bars.
Neither of us really knew how to cook at that time, so we were eating a lot of boxed and frozen foods. But it was still cheaper than eating out.
We also started packing our lunches for work consistently. There was a time when my husband was buying lunch every single day.
When he started taking his lunch to work, not only did we save money, but he lost 20 pounds.
As for the bar-hopping we enjoyed on weekends, it was right around that time when many of our friends started to prefer to hang out at someone’s house instead of going out to bars.
This worked out perfectly to help us cut back on that expense.
I also used to love shopping. If I wanted something, I would buy it without thinking twice. Clothes, makeup, and home decor were my favorite things to shop for.
But when we started focusing on paying off our debt, it all had to stop. And I was okay with it.
Because I realized that buying all that stuff I didn’t even need wasn’t going to help us reach our goals.
The best way to describe how we started living is frugal. Once we stopped the frivolous and unnecessary spending, we realized just how empowering living a frugal lifestyle actually is.
There are so many great benefits to living frugally. Here are some of my favorite things living frugally can help you with:
- Reaching your financial goals more quickly
- Feeling less stressed about money
- Having fewer fights with loved ones about money
- Achieving financial wellness
- Reaching financial independence and retiring early (FIRE)
- Having the means to give and donate generously
My husband is just as frugal of a person as I am. And I realize I am extremely lucky to be married to someone that shares the same thoughts about spending money as I do.
I know some couples really struggle to get on the same page when it comes to spending money.
My best advice would be to sit down together and develop a reasonable spending plan (aka budget) that you both can agree on that will also enable you to reach your financial goals.
Increased our income
Decreasing our spending was great for freeing up some extra money in the budget, however, it didn’t seem like it was quite enough to help us reach our financial goals as quickly as possible.
Living frugally was only half of the equation when it came to paying off our debt and saving money at the same time. The other half of the equation was finding a way to increase our income.
I ended up picking up a second job while working the entry-level job I landed out of college.
In healthcare, working casually on an as-needed basis for a company is called per diem or PRN work.
I was able to find a per diem job doing home care. When I left my full-time job for the day, I would go to the homes of patients to see them.
It was exhausting but we were able to pay for a couple of home improvements with cash that our home desperately needed.
Those home improvements helped us be more comfortable in the home while we lived there. They also helped to sell the house more quickly and for more money when it was time to sell.
After working my entry-level job for over 7 years, I decided I was ready for change.
In my profession, after gaining a few years of experience, moving on from an entry-level position usually results in a decent pay increase.
Since I was ready for a significant change in my career, I found a job in a different clinical setting than my first job.
And different healthcare settings generally have different pay scales.
So I was going from a setting with a lower pay scale to a setting with a higher pay scale. Plus, I had 7 years of experience under my belt so I was able to use that to negotiate a higher pay rate.
That is how we were able to significantly increase our household income.
What we did the right way after our household income went up was to continue to live the same frugal lifestyle we had been living. We avoided lifestyle inflation.
Increasing our income was the main reason we were able to pay off our debt while at the same time, saving money for a down payment on a home suitable for starting a family.
Even though we had a ton of debt to repay, we also felt it was important to be putting money into a savings account.
Many people wonder if they should pay off debt or save money. And I did have some mixed feelings about saving money before all of our debt was repaid.
But looking back, I’m glad we did it that way. Even though I am a very patient person around other people, I tend to get impatient when it comes to my own life and achievements.
I am the type of person that wants things to be done, like yesterday. So seeing both our debt decrease and our savings increase helped to keep me motivated and focused on our goals.
We bought our first home knowing that it wasn’t going to be our forever home. Our plan was to live there a few years and eventually move on to something else.
So after our wedding, we started working on establishing our savings goals. We knew we eventually wanted to start a family. We also knew that our cozy starter home with a crazy floor plan was not going to cut it for family life.
We determined the maximum amount we would want to spend on our family home that would allow us to live comfortably, even when we would have the extra costs that come along with having kids.
We designated our long-term savings goal to be 20% of this maximum amount.
I projected out that it would take around 8 years to accomplish our goals of paying down our debt and saving enough for the down payment.
For the first few years, we weren’t hitting our yearly savings goals. It wasn’t until 2009 when I landed the higher paying job that we were able to get back on track and actually exceed our savings goals.
By 2010 we had paid off all debt except a small amount on my one student loan with the lowest interest rate and saved more than enough for 20% down for our future home.
Just a quick recap…
Here are the strategies we used to pay off our mountain of debt and save enough money for a down payment on a home:
- Worked as a team, adopting the “what’s yours is mine and what’s mine is yours” motto
- Learned all the basics about personal finance and how to manage our money properly
- Paid off our debts with the highest interest rates first
- Reduced our spending and lived a frugal lifestyle
- Increased our income and avoided lifestyle inflation
- Prioritized saving money and set specific goals
You may be thinking that these strategies we used to reach our goals aren’t anything special or unique. And you are totally right, they aren’t.
All of these methods are written about all the time by people all over the internet. And the reason everyone writes about them is that they truly work.
If you have debt, using some or all of these strategies to make your own pay-off plan can help you be successful with becoming debt-free.
Be patient with yourself
Many people hear about how others pay off tons of debt or save thousands of dollars in just a few months’ time.
This can be quite frustrating for you if you don’t see progress or success as fast as someone else does.
But everyone’s financial situation is different. And you aren’t being fair to yourself when you start comparing your situation to someone else’s.
Focusing on creating your own personalized debt payoff plan and being patient with yourself throughout the process can really help set you up for success with meeting your financial goals.
Learn to adapt
Another important step for paying off debt is to pick the strategies you think will work for you and then adapt them so they apply to your situation.
This is important because there is more than one way to pay off debt. And determining the best path for your situation is your key to success.
If you have a financial setback during your debt payoff journey, being able to modify your debt payoff plan to get back on track will help you stay motivated and help you to keep a positive money mindset.
And your mindset is so important when it comes to money because your thoughts and feelings are what guide your decisions and the actions you take with your money.
Just remember, slow and steady wins the race. There is a big learning curve to managing your money effectively. Take your time and think things through.
It took us 6 years to piece everything together and figure out the best path to take. And we definitely made some wrong decisions along the way.
But I am actually grateful for making those wrong decisions.
Because those mistakes gave me the motivation I needed to start learning about personal finance.
There is a reason “Knowledge is Power” is one of my favorite old proverbs. Because now I am using this power to my advantage.
And I want you to be able to do that too.
About the author: Lisa is the founder of AdaptYourDollars.com where she writes about her knowledge of frugal living and personal finance. When she isn’t writing or at her day job helping people, she can be found hanging out with her family, cheering on her kids at their sporting events, baking bread, or running.
What strategies are you using in your debt payoff plan?