How we Paid off $71k of debt in less than 3 years on a single income

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Hey! I’m Merilee. My family paid off $70,781 of debt and became debt free in August 2019 after 2 years and 8 months of crazy hard work and a little bit of obsession! I’m not going to lie. It was a crazy journey! Sometimes it was exciting, other times it just plain sucked. But we did it! I know so many of you desire to reach this goal too, so for all of you, I have great news: we are nothing special! You can do this too!

The method we used is easy to replicate and nearly anyone can follow this same path to get themselves debt free within just a few months or years. I have seen many dozens of friends follow this same general guide, and we all kinda swear by it. It just works!

Here’s Where the Story Begins . . .

My husband graduated college in April 2016. I had graduated college a few years earlier and was busy as a stay-at-home-Mom with our two young kids. Yeah we’re crazy, we know! We both had student loans, but at that point I didn’t even know how many. We just took out more loans when we needed money without giving it much thought. I felt like we would never really have to pay them back (entitlement alert). Brilliant right?

paid off debt
My family in March 2019

The Oh Crap Moment

When it came time to graduate and start my husband’s first corporate job, we got a credit card to help us make the move to our new home in Texas. We continued using it monthly and paying it off. That was until November of 2016 when my husband made a purchase on the credit card that we couldn’t afford to pay off that month. It was terrible. I hated feeling like we were living outside of our means!

A little back story . . . back in 2009 my Mom had told me about a guy named Dave Ramsey and encouraged me to read one of his books, The Total Money Makeover. I did, but at that point was too naive to really apply it. However, the principles were still in the back of my mind, which is why not paying off the credit card set off a major red flag for me! At this point we also had a small car loan and some fancy financed iPhones

In November 2016 I decided to re-read Dave Ramsey’s book, The Total Money Makeover. It got me fired up about our debt! I also learned how to zero-base budget from the book, which was a total game changer for me. It also motivated me to add up all our debt. I discovered we had $71,000 of debt, which I didn’t even know! Scary right?

paid off debt
The Total Money Makeover book inspired us to start our journey

I decided I wanted to pay our debt off as soon as possible!

It took a little while to get my husband on board. He wasn’t thrilled about using all our extra cash on debt, and didn’t think our interest rates were “that bad.” I gave him the book Total Money Makeover for his birthday, and thankfully he read it and got on board! (Honest moment: My husband wasn’t as excited as I was throughout our journey. But he definitely allowed me to keep making payments to debt. There were months . . . recent months . . . where he was the “devil” on my shoulder, telling me we should be investing this money instead, the interest rates weren’t that bad, etc. I told him we were going to finish what we started, and you’ll thank me later! He complied. Ha ha. I’m trying to be transparent here and that’s just the truth! He doesn’t mind risk as much as I do.)

Officially Getting Started

We began making a plan to pay off our debt. I desperately wanted to know how long it was going to take us. I wanted to start living the good life as soon as possible. How long was I going to have to suffer for while sending every extra dollar to debt?! We created a Debt Snowball Calculator Spreadsheet to determine how soon we could be debt-free with our unique circumstances, extra payments, future payments to debt, etc. We determined it would take about two years (it took longer because we had things come up!). (We actually made it for ourselves, but soon after that we opened up a shop to offer that same calculator to others on this same journey, you can find that here).

debt snowball calculator
Debt Snowball Calculator to calculate how soon you can be debt-free

We solidified our plan and got to work!

We started our journey to total debt freedom in January 2017 after both deciding it was the right choice for our family. On day one, we had about $2,000 extra in our bank account. We used it to pay off my car loan (it wasn’t all that nice of a car . . . I still drive it . . . and it’s even less nice now hehe).

We budgeted furiously.

We cut back everywhere possible.

We said “no” to thousands of “wants.”

We kept track of our spending religiously.

We worked hard to increase our income.

My husband would work extra hard for bonuses and raises at his corporate job. I was working multiple side hustles and bringing in an extra $400-500 a month, while also being a full-time Mom. Every dollar possible went toward debt. We threw money at debt at every opportunity to get the cash out of our possession before we could spend it! In fact, we made over 90 extra payments to debt over the time of our debt payoff journey!

By increasing our income and cutting back on our spending, we were able to increase the amount we put toward debt every month. We did this month after month!

The Debt Snowball Method

This is the “strategy” we used. The debt-snowball method is a debt reduction strategy where you pay off your debt starting with the smallest balances first. First, you list out all your debts from smallest to largest. Pay the minimums on all the loans except the smallest loan. Throw every extra dollar you can at the smallest loan until it’s paid off. When the smallest loan is paid off, you attack the next smallest loan by putting your previous minimum payments and all extra cash at the next smallest loan. Repeat this until all the debts are paid off.

Mathematically, the debt avalanche method, where you pay off the highest interest rate loans first, makes sense. However, it can be grueling. The snowball method, starting with the smallest loan, is much more achievable and the “quick wins” of paying off small loans keep you motivated.

I swear by the debt snowball method. This is a hard psychological journey! No really, it is. We loved those quick wins. I highly recommend this strategy.

Let’s Look at the Numbers

Okay, okay. I know you are nosy and you want to see the numbers! Don’t worry. I’m not judging, I’m nosy and love the numbers too! It helps put things in perspective.

We started with $70,781 of debt (that was our debt balance the day we started this “journey,” not the original amount we took out on each loan)

STARTING BALANCES

$64,625 Student Loans
$2,851 Credit Card
$1,985 Car Loan
$1,320 iPhones

= $70,781 TOTAL DEBT

We paid it off over the course of 32 months, from January 2017 to August 2019.

That’s an average of $2,218 per month put toward debt.

That’s just an average. We had some higher months and some lower months. Sometimes we threw bonuses at debt and paid off $6,000 in one month. Other times we put zero toward debt for 3-4 months straight because big things came up and slowed us down. This is all a completely normal part of a debt payoff journey and should be expected!

Our Income

$2,218 per month may seem like a lot to some of you. Keep in mind that even though we are a single income family, we have a six figure salary right now.

However, we didn’t actually start our journey with a six figure salary. During our debt payoff process we increased our income by about 35%. We can’t share our exact income because of confidentiality with my husband’s employer, but our salary is within the range of $80,000 and $140,000. 

I hope that most people who have significant amounts of student loan debt, like we do, have a salary that allows them to pay off their student loans in a decent amount of time.

Don’t allow yourself to think that we were successful in this journey because we are high income earners. There are people who make way less than we do and people who make way more than we do, with all different family situations and levels of starting debt, who are simply not making excuses and crushing it. Be one of those people.

With What Money . . . ?

We paid off $63,000 of the debt from extra cash from my husband’s paychecks and bonuses (remember, this wasn’t by accident, we cut back furiously). We paid off about $8,000-$9,000 from my side hustles! We didn’t sell anything. We didn’t have any money when we started, except that $2,000 that was in our bank account at the start. Every dollar we paid off came from cutting expenses and increasing income as much as possible and putting the extra cash that created toward our debt as soon as possible.

Month after month of that, for 32 months, and the debt was paid in full.

A Typical Month

A typical month always started with budgeting.

Then we earned as much as possible.

I balanced the budget weekly to make sure we stayed in budget and that all bank accounts matched my records of our spending. I probably spent 4-6 hours per month budgeting.

We paid extra money toward debt as often as possible, usually with whatever was leftover at the end of the pay period, (Note: some people like to pay toward debt as soon as they get paid to get it the money out of their possession so they don’t spend it. This was hard for us. We preferred the flexibility of keeping it until the end of the pay period. Both methods work, it’s just personal preference.)

debt payoff progress tracker
Debt Payoff Progress Tracker, I kept this record every month

By the way, I know all these nitty gritty details because I kept really good records. I recommend you do too. I tracked each and every extra payment. Sometimes I would get confused on if I made the payment yet or not and so this helped me stay organized. I have a free Debt Payoff Progress Tracker Spreadsheet for you to keep track too! It has the exact same info I tracked every month: the date, amount paid toward debt, what loan you put it toward, and what money you used to make the payment (i.e. side hustle money, leftover paycheck money?). I used this every month on my journey to stay organized and have good data to look back at later.

The Secret Sauce

The secret sauce is in the budget! I swear by it! We paid off debt by minimizing our expenses and increasing our income to create as much extra cash as possible each month to put toward debt. Budgeting was essential to create that gap. Without budgeting, we would have spent our money every month and there would have been no extra. For real.

monthly budget template
Our free monthly budgeting template, budgeting is essential

Zero-based budgeting is life. I used a “master” budget spreadsheet and a spending tracker to keep track of the details. I have a full tutorial on how I budget, with a free budgeting spreadsheet, and a video tutorial on how to work it. You really have to nail budgeting, so I was really thorough here! Feeling kind of “WTF” and “ugh” about budgeting? Click here to get all the budgeting info and my free monthly budget spreadsheet! This is what we used. It will help. Promise. Take 10 minutes and go check it out!

The Mushy and Hard stuff

I’m going to be honest with you. This journey consumed me! I have a bit of an obsessive personality, and I also decided to share my journey publicly on Instagram through @easy_budget, so I’m sure those both contributed to it. But I heard a quote recently that I think completely sums up how I felt about this journey:

“A true goal needs to become an obsession”

That’s how it was for me. Hard things require a huge amount of commitment to complete them! I tend to obsess to make sure I stay on track.

Paying off debt is hard. It was hard to postpone my “wants” and “I deserves.” Believe me, I am very human and female and prone to be jealous of the Joneses! I still am, it’s something I battle every day. However, I knew we were working toward something much better than what we currently had. I knew that if we knocked this goal out of the park and then went on to save, invest, build businesses, and work our butts off, we would have a future beyond our wildest dreams. And I wanted that so bad I could taste it. I still can! Because even though our debt is paid off, we still haven’t reached that goal yet. It reminds me of a quote I have loved for years:

“Don’t sacrifice what you want most for what you want right now”

pay for cars with cash
The 2000 Honda Civic my husband still drives, we’ve postponed nicer cars until we can pay for them with cash

It’s hard. But you know what else is hard? Staying in debt and living paycheck-to-paycheck and stressing about money all the time. Choose your hard.

So that’s how we did it! For 32 months we cut costs, budgeted, increased our income, and threw every extra dollar at debt using the debt snowball method!

Setbacks

We had many setbacks along the way. It is not a linear journey. We had tragic deaths that required expensive last-minute plane tickets, we paused our debt snowball to have a baby, we moved, we changed jobs, we put some money into business ideas, one of which failed, and my husband was a little extra resistant for about 6 months. 

But we persisted!

debt free baby
Our sweet third baby, Lane, born 6 months before we became debt free!

Now It’s Your Turn

If you’re reading this, chances are you also have a boatload of debt and are thinking either:

a) I need some inspiration, or

b) no way, how did they do that?!

I hope this has satisfied both of those marks.

I’m here to tell you that you can do this too. If you are committed to it. Anyone can cut back on their expenses and increase their income to find some extra money to throw at debt.

If you don’t want to live paycheck-to-paycheck anymore, you want to start living your dream life without all the money stress, and you want to be free of your past money mistakes, I highly recommend you put this method to work and get your own debt paid off!

In August 2019, we made our final payment to debt. It feels so good to be living on the other side of debt! We are loving it!

Have any questions or comments? Reach out! I love to chat!

Need more help? Check out these related articles:

The 7 Steps to Paying off Big Debt

What to Include in a Bare Bones Budget

New to Budgeting? Cut Back in These Top 6 Areas First!

Your Pre-Debt-Free Journey Checklist

 

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About the Author

Welcome!

My name is Merilee and I’m the creator of Easy Budget. I started this blog to help other families like mine crush debt, budget, manage money, and meal plan like pros!

Everything you find here will be useful, motivating, and always easy. Need to contact me directly? Reach me here!

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