Hello! Today, I have a great debt payoff story from Zach Buchenau. He is a reader of Making Sense of Cents and shares how he and his wife paid off $34,000 in debt in the first six months of their marriage.
A little less than two years ago, my wife Katie and I were enjoying a warm, relaxing honeymoon in Arizona. Like most couples, we spent that time decompressing from all the hectic wedding festivities, enjoying each other’s company, and planning our debt payoff strategy.
Ok, I understand that paying off debt might not be the most romantic topic of conversation for newlyweds.
But here’s the thing, the moment we got married, our individual debts combined to equal a whopping $34,000.
And as you might suspect, we were both pretty overwhelmed by that number. (Truthfully, I still get a little queasy thinking about it.)
The good news is, after six months of hard work and dedication, we were able to pay off every last dime of our debt. And, to this day, it was one of the best financial moves we’ve ever made.
So, how did we pay off $34,000 of debt in our first six months of marriage?
Well, stick around, because in this post I am going to go over every step we took to get out of debt, and why we decided to do so in the first place.
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Why We Got Out Of Debt: The Question That Changed Everything
Before I dive into the actual steps we took to pay off all our debt, I feel like I should give you a little backstory.
Because I think it’s incredibly important for you to understand why a guy like me — who didn’t have any real aversion to debt — suddenly flipped a switch and decided to become debt-free.
In other words, what changed?
Well, without sounding too cliché, I can trace it back to a specific moment.
You see, one day, a few months before my wife and I got married, I was eating lunch at my desk and watching YouTube videos about woodworking.
(Oh, I guess it might help for you to know that I am completely obsessed with anything related to woodworking.)
Anyway, I came across a video titled, “How I Got Out Of Debt.”
I was intrigued, because the man in the thumbnail photo was one of the woodworking YouTubers I followed named Wranglerstar, yet the video wasn’t about woodworking.
So naturally, I decided to watch it.
First of all, there wasn’t anything flashy about this video. No motivational speaking. No real video editing of any kind. Just a guy talking to a camera while driving his old, beat-up pickup truck. Just my style.
Anyway, he spent the video talking about how he and his wife read this book called “The Total Money Makeover,” and how it helped them get out of debt and completely turn their financial life around.
Now, I’ll be honest, I had heard all sorts of family members and friends talk about getting out of debt, but this was my first real encounter with somebody who had actually done it. I was strangely enthralled.
And then it happened. About halfway through the video, he posed a question that instantly changed my life. He asked:
“If you didn’t have any [debt] payments, how much money would it take for you and your family to survive?”
Now, I’m a numbers guy, so I’ve always been acutely aware of how much money I bring in, and how much money goes out. Surprisingly though, until I heard this question, I had never broken my living expenses and my debt payments into two separate categories. Up until then, they were all just expenses in my mind. And once I did, I was shocked.
Between my soon-to-be wife and I, we were spending nearly $1,000 a month on debt payments. And for what? A couple cars we couldn’t afford and some insignificant stuff we bought with credit cards? Not worth it.
For the first time ever I saw debt for what it really was: a burden and an unnecessary financial risk for my future family. And the best part is, when I posed the question to Katie, she had the exact same reaction.
As it turns out we wanted better for our financial future, and so we resolved to go get it!
How We Got Out Of Debt
As I previously mentioned, at the same time we realized how big of a problem debt was in our life, we were deep into the throes of wedding planning. And since that can be a pretty hectic and expensive process, we decided to wait until after we said ‘I do’ to start attacking our debt full force.
In the meantime, we decided to save whatever money we could possibly squeeze out of our wedding budget. That way, when the time came to start our debt-free journey, we would be able to kick things off by knocking out a big chunk of debt right away.
Additionally, we made a point to discuss our finances on a daily basis so that we didn’t lose sight of our debt-free goal. Truthfully, the anticipation was more difficult than the actual debt-payoff process.
By the time our honeymoon rolled around, we were chomping at the bit to start attacking our debt. And the day we came back home, it was game on.
After months of waiting, the time had finally arrived to start paying off our debt.
Here’s exactly how we did it.
Side Note: For some people, the process we went through to pay off debt might seem a little extreme, while for others, it might not be extreme enough. It’s important for you to remember that personal finance is personal. In other words, just because this is the process we went through to pay off debt, doesn’t mean it is the right path for you. I just hope our story will provide you with a few tips, and maybe even some motivation for your own debt-free journey.
Ok, let’s dive in!
We Got On The Same Page
When it comes to marital finances, one of the things I have learned is that getting on the same page is critical if you want to be successful.
Whether you are trying to get out of debt, save for something specific, or just improve your financial communication, aligning your goals, dreams and thinking is one of the most important things you can do.
So, to begin our debt payoff journey, we spent a good amount of time planning the path we would take to get out of debt.
For us, this meant getting on a strict budget, cutting as many expenses as possible, and figuring out an aggressive, yet reasonable, timeline in which we would pay off all our debt. Additionally, we both agreed that we would spend 10 – 15 minutes every day logging our expenses into our budget, and assessing our progress together.
Looking back, this is one of the most important things we did.
We Prepared For Emergencies
When Katie and I arrived home from our honeymoon, we had a decent amount of money sitting in savings. Between the money we had squeezed from our wedding budget, and some generous wedding gifts we had just received, we had about $12,000 to play with.
Now, we could have just taken that money and thrown it all at our debt. However, that would have left us vulnerable to unexpected expenses and emergencies. So, at the advice of numerous financial experts, we decided to keep about $4,500 in savings as an emergency fund, and put the remaining $7,500 toward debt.
Well, that was our max out-of-pocket for health insurance at the time. And, having grown up in a family that experienced quite a few medical expenses, I wanted no part in medical bills I couldn’t afford to pay outright. After all, our goal was to get out of debt, not end up further in debt.
I just didn’t want anything to slow down our debt free journey; especially a medical emergency.
We Got Aggressive
After setting aside our emergency fund, Katie and I agreed that we wanted to get out of debt as soon as we possibly could. But here’s the thing, if we wanted to do that, it would require a lot of sacrifices in other areas of life.
Like ripping off a band-aid, we decided we would rather sacrifice a lot for a short period of time than sacrifice a little and allow our debt-free journey to take drag on.
We also knew that the longer it took, the harder it would be to maintain enough motivation to keep going. And we didn’t want to run the risk of giving up and living a life perpetually in debt.
So what did we do?
Well, for one, we cut our monthly food budget in half and planned out every meal and grocery trip to the cent. We also eliminated all restaurant spending, which was particularly hard for me, because at the time I lived almost exclusively on Chipotle burritos.
Beyond that, we cut just about every subscription and living expense that we could go without, and even limited our recreational spending to $25 each per month, which, more often than not, I ended up spending on books about personal finance. (More on that later.)
Our strategy was aggressive to say the least. But we knew that the more aggressive we got, the sooner we would experience the financial freedom we craved so badly.
We Used The Debt Snowball Method
After watching and listening to Wranglerstar talk about “The Total Money Makeover” by Dave Ramsey, and how it helped him get out of debt, I decided to order the book for myself.
And after reading it, my wife and I were convinced that the Debt Snowball method was the best way for us to pay off all of our various debts.
Now, if you’re familiar with Dave Ramsey, then you probably know a thing or two about the Debt Snowball. But if this is your first time hearing of it, allow me to give you a brief explanation.
The Debt Snowball is a debt payoff method wherein you attack your debts from smallest balance to largest balance.
Essentially, as you pay off each balance, you take the payment you were making toward that debt, and add it to the minimum payment of your next largest debt.
Over time, as you eliminate each balance and roll the money into your next largest debt, your debt payments begin to “snowball”, and you build up some serious momentum. And before you know it, your debt is all gone!
This is in contrast to the traditional method of paying off your debt from highest interest rate to lowest interest rate, known as the Debt Avalanche. And while the mathematicians out there might disagree with the debt snowball method, it was the key to our debt-free journey for a couple reasons:
- It allowed us to experience some quick wins, which really helped us maintain our motivation. Trust me, when you’re getting out of debt, maintaining motivation can be a pretty difficult task.
- By eliminating small balances, it reduced the number of monthly payments and various accounts we had to keep track of, which simplified our financial life, and relieved a surprising amount of stress.
In short, the Debt Snowball provided us with a clear, and surprisingly simple, path to becoming debt-free. And if you’re trying to get out of debt, I highly recommend you give it a try. It’s pretty amazing how well it works.
We Used The Debit Card Only Rule
One of the things I have learned about personal finance is that simplicity almost always translates into success. Why? Because the more complexity you add to your financial life, the harder and messier it becomes.
And that’s exactly why we decided to stop spending money on credit cards, and only ever use our debit card. Hence the name, “The Debit Card Only Rule”.
Now, I realize this might shock a few people, but by only using our debit cards (which were attached to our joint checking account), we simplified every area of our financial life.
- We were able to stop the bleeding, and eliminate any possibility of debt. Seeing how we were in the process of getting out of debt, this made a whole ton of sense.
- We only had to log into one account when we wanted to plug our daily expenses into our budget. This seriously reduced the time we had to spend budgeting.
- It helped us hold each other accountable by keeping all our spending completely out in the open. In other words, if either one of us spent money we weren’t supposed to, it would appear in our bank account, and we would have some explaining to do. And since neither one of us wanted to be the one to break the budget, we both stayed incredibly disciplined.
- It eliminated any and all financial tension in our marriage. Seriously, as crazy as it sounds, I don’t think my wife and I have had a single financial argument since adopting the debit card only rule.
In fact, the Debit Card Only Rule had such a wonderful impact on our financial life that even after getting out of debt, we continued to use it. To this day, we haven’t spent a single penny using a credit card.
We Eliminated Temptation
I don’t think it’s any secret that getting out of debt requires an incredible amount of self-discipline. Between cutting expenses, avoiding impulse purchases, and maintaining a budget, it takes a lot of mental energy. To add to the difficulty, when you’re bombarded with enticing advertisements from your favorite places to spend money, it’s about ten times harder.
So, one of the strategies we implemented while getting out of debt, was to eliminate as much of these temptations as we possibly could.
We unsubscribed from our favorite email lists, cut cable so that we wouldn’t be tempted by all the local restaurant commercials, and drastically reduced the time we spent on social media.
Basically, we tried to eliminate anything that might tempt us into spending money we could otherwise use to pay off debt. And it worked surprisingly well.
We Played Financial Offense
In my opinion, one of the most difficult aspects of paying off debt, and personal finance as a whole, is that you end up playing financial defense a lot. In other words, you spend a lot of time and effort trying to cut your budget, and avoid spending money.
The problem with this, is that over time, it can make your financial life feel restricted and, quite honestly, boring. And that’s the last thing we wanted to happen.
So, we decided that no matter what we did on our debt-free journey, we would do it with an attack-style mindset. In other words, we were going to play financial offense.
For example, instead of cutting just enough expenses to reach our goal, we decided to attack our expenses and cut as many as we could possibly live without.
Additionally, we capitalized on any opportunity that allowed us to apply extra money toward our debt. Whether it was selling our stuff on Craigslist, building and selling furniture, or even putting our entire tax refund (which, since we had just gotten married, was a pretty decent chunk of change) towards our Debt Snowball, we did everything in our power to attack our debt.
What we didn’t realize was how effective this small mental shift would be.
You see, when we first decided to pay off debt, we figured it would take us around 10 months to become debt-free. Yet, by playing financial offense, we were able to shave 4 months off of our original timeline.
In short, defense may win championships, but playing offense will help you get out of debt!
We Read About Personal Finance
As part of our goal to become debt-free, I decided to read at least one book about personal finance per month. I just figured that if we were going to spend all this time and effort getting out of debt, I wanted to know how to make the most of our money once we achieved our goal.
Now, to be clear, up until that point in my life, I wasn’t a natural reader. In all honesty, I didn’t even enjoy reading, so this was a big change for me.
But through all that reading, something unexpected happened: I found even more motivation to get out of debt.
I mean, there’s nothing like reading about the wealth-building power of compound interest to make you want to get out of debt and start investing.
In fact, I found it so motivating that I ended up reading 12 books over the course of 6 months.
Seriously, reading about personal finance was one of the most important things I did throughout our entire debt-free journey. And if you’re trying to get out of debt, I can’t recommend it enough!
Getting out of debt can be a difficult and time-consuming process. However, if you figure out a plan that plays to your strengths, and stick with it, you can work your way out of debt.
For us, the process of getting out of debt involved the following steps:
- Getting on the same page
- Preparing for emergencies
- Getting aggressive
- Using the Debt Snowball Method
- Using the Debit Card Only Rule
- Eliminating temptation
- Playing financial offense
- Reading about personal finance
So, what’s your debt-free plan? And what made you want to get out of debt in the first place?
Author Bio: Zach Buchenau is a web developer, blogger, and self-declared personal finance nerd. He is the founder of Be The Budget, a personal finance blog focused on getting out of debt, saving money, and maximizing your financial potential. When he isn’t writing about personal finance, you can find him woodworking, fly fishing, or walking through the weeds looking for his golf ball.