In 1992, my husband and I set out to be debt-free. Considering that we were in over $100,ooo worth of debt, that was no easy feat. But we paid it off, every cent. We did it and so can you! With that in mind, I want to share our journey with you in “How We Paid Off $100K Worth of Debt In 3 1/2 Years”!
You might be wondering how in the world two people could find themselves in so much debt as newlyweds, and yes, there is a story behind it all. My husband and I married later in life, I was 29 and he was 35, so we brought a good amount of “previous life” into the marriage.
I was married before and found myself a widow at 25 years old. There was no insurance and no family to rescue me. My 2 year-old daughter were pretty much alone in the world to figure it out. You can read more about that story here.
All that to say that I had built up debt from funeral expenses, unpaid debt from the previous marriage, back taxes, co-signing a car loan for a family member (NEVER co-sign for anyone!) and from trying to start a business. My new husband came along side of me and we put a plan together to pay it all off in 5 years.
We so desperately wanted to be free from this financial bondage that we did some pretty radical things! Our decisions weren’t always popular with our friends and family, but we pressed on, together, determined to hit our goals.
Studies are pretty clear in that most failed marriages stem from money problems, and we knew that. Our marriage and family was too important to us to let money serve as a source of conflict. Together, we read every book we could get our hands on (the internet wasn’t around yet!), sought council from folks wiser than us and even took a free financial class.
Our debt was paid off January 1996, nearly 18 months earlier than previously expected!
We’ve never gone back to that bondage and we’ve never regretted one single thing we gave up to get here!
If you really want financial independence and resilience, you’ve got to live below your means. In other words, you must spend less than you earn!
Just like if you wanted to lose weight, you would ingest fewer calories than you burn…plain and simple.
So, are you ready to get serious about this money thing? Like really serious?
- Serious like all you think about all day is saving money?
- Serious like you talk about it all the time?
- Serious like you read everything you can, every tip, every blog?
- Serious like you get up Saturday morning early with your spouse (telling the kids to stay in bed and read books with sippy cups in hand) and review the spending for the week?
Wait, isn’t this kind of OCD behavior?
Yes. Yes it is. That’s what it will take, at least for a while, until you can dig your way of of the hole you dug. BUT IT WORKS!
No one will do this for you, but believe me, it’ll be worth it.
How We Paid Off $100K Worth of Debt In 3 1/2 Years
1. Create a Budget and a Spending Plan
I’m sorry folks, but this is where it begins. You need to write a budget down on paper, yes, paper.
First of all, it’s a place of agreement and accountability. Contracts are written on paper, all important things are documented with paper, and so your family budget needs to be on paper.
You and your spouse need to be in agreement about this budget, and believe me, it will be so empowering.
The budget should be placed on the frig or somewhere you can see it everyday. A good budget can take a few months to iron out, you’re going to forget things and need to adjust, but you will only adjust mutually. Everything relating to this budget will be done together or not at all. No cheating, you must stick to it.
There are zillions of budget forms in the internet, some are better than others. My husband and I used the worksheets from Ron Blue’s “Master Your Money” and I was delighted to see that those tools are on-line now. Dave Ramsey’s budget sheets are also impressive, you can find those here.
Even if you decide to use an app to track your expenses, that doesn’t take the place of putting together a budget on paper!
2. Get on a Cash System
When my husband and I got serious about a budget, we heard about a system called the “Cash Envelope” system. How it works is when you get paid, you bring that cash home and place the designated amounts, according to your budget, in the appropriate envelopes.
Everything is paid with cash and when the cash is gone, you are done spending. The envelopes were labeled “Rent”, “Electric”, “Food”, “Christmas”, “Clothes”, etc, you get the idea.
Now, I realize that we live in a digital age and things are different, but the principles aren’t.
There are a couple of very nice apps that work around the same system, they are mint.com, tiller.com and everydollar.com. They are all free and very popular. These apps will keep track of your budget and all of your spending, categorizing all expenditures. They will also sync purchases between you and your spouse’s phones, so you’ll know exactly where your spending is at all time
But it will only capture what you are willing to give in terms of commitment!
3. Give Yourself a Weekly Allowance and Stick to It
Decide on a reasonable amount of money, or an “allowance” for each spouse for the week. One spouse’s allowance may well be more than the other one, but the amount is to be based on needs, not wants.
For example, when my husband and I were going through this time in our lives, I was at home with our young children all day, but my husband was on the road most of the day in a sales position. Obviously, he needed more gas money than I would need, and he needed a budget for food to be able to meet clients.
Whatever you decide on, challenge yourself to spend as little as possible each week. Avoid areas of temptation! Any monies you save can go directly to pay down debt!
If you are tempted to buy a soda and a candy bar when you walk into the gas station to pay, then pay at the pump. If you pick up more at the grocery store than you should, order on-online and pick up your groceries. Or, do as we did, bring only cash to the grocery and have one of your children keep track of what you’ve spent on a calculator as you walk through the store! By doing this, my kids learned a valuable lesson in that I could only purchase what I had money for!
4. Stop eating out
Period. No eating out. You must break this habit.
Basic meal planning is all that is necessary to eat at home. Cooking from scratch will save the most money in the long term. However, if you don’t have much in the way of cooking skills yet, do your best to keep the meals simple and uncomplicated.
I’ll admit that I had no idea how to cook when my husband and I married, much less keep a home. Yet, these days with the internet, there’s no excuse for not learning how to make some wholesome and delicious meals!
Youtube.com has a ton of basic cooking videos for whatever level of cooking you find yourself.
You don’t have to go all out to cook dinner! We love simple meals with fresh ingredients, like omelets or pancakes (LOVE breakfast for dinner!), grilled cheese with soup or pasta with canned sauce. Meals like this will only cost you a few dollars to make.
Take full advantage of leftovers by either eating them up or freezing them for another day! Consider it a free meal! If we’re at a party or gathering where there’s a lot of leftover food, you can be sure that I’ll take a plate (or two) home! Why not? It’s been paid for already, and will likely find itself in the trash if no one takes it. Food waste is a terrible thing.
Stock and use a pantry as well.. Keeping a pantry will help you to prepare meals quickly and easily.
5. Control your use of energy
You are likely paying for energy that isn’t being used.
Doing a “Do-It-Yourself Energy Audit” can help you to not only do a better job at minimizing your use of energy, but also help you to see where you are losing precious cooling/heating from your home.
Take the time to do this!
Our electric bill, with teenagers at home, is lower than most young couples pay for electricity in an apartment!
I am a maniac with this…lights are off unless being used, clotheslines are used regularly, everything is either unplugged or in an outlet strip that is also turned off unless it’s being used. Showers are kept short and baking is done in bulk to keep from heating up the oven repeatedly.
I turn off the breakers for the oven and the dryer every day at the breaker box! Why should I keep power running to these large appliances that I’m not using? After I make coffee in the morning, I turn off those breakers, then turn them on when I need them.
Find your meter and begin tracking how many kilowatts you’re using each day, pay particular attention to weekends and when the kids are home.
We use about 27 kilowatts per day during the week, but when the kids are home all day, it can jump to 40.
Be aware of this and train family members to turn lights, curling irons and video consoles OFF and unplug.
6. Entertain yourself at home
Estimates show that Americans spend upwards of 5-10% of their annual incomes on entertainment.
That’s a big number that could be going to pay down debt or to save for long-term goals. Seriously, there are so many ways to entertain yourself for free at home now, from YouTube to game night to library books (a fav of mine!) Here’s a few more ideas.
I can’t leave this suggestion without talking about the library. If you haven’t been to the library for years, it’s time that you go.
Perhaps you have memories of a library with musty books and 150 year-old librarians. Let me tell you, today the library is the “go to” place for books, movies, e-books, video games, etc…and what they don’t have can be ordered through “interlibrary” from anywhere in the country! Find a couple locations of library and check them out. (pun intended)
7. Quit those Bad Habits
Smoking, drinking, lottery tickets, etc. These habits are bad for your mind, your body and for your billfold. Enough said. Make some changes.
8. Shop only with a Purpose and a List
Shop only when there is a need.
You can’t go into a mall or a store and stroll around and expect to not buy anything.
No malls, folks.
You only go shopping when you need something, better yet, only when you need a few things. Don’t waste the gas to go get one thing. Keep a list on the frig for other family members to write down what they need or see that is running low.
In our home, we have a grocery day and I go only on that day. The kids know to add what they need to my “Notes” on my iPhone, and that gives me time to look for sales and/or coupons.
9. Never Take Money Out of an ATM Again
This is just poor planning. Refer to #3.
10. Get Rid of Cable
Cable is so passe. Multitudes of alternatives make it virtually obsolete now, here’s a list of options. Keep your money and pay down debt.
11. Have a Garage Sale
Actually, enlist Craigslist and Facebook marketplace as well.
My husband and I sold everything that wasn’t critical to our existence, because we were anxious to pay off old debt.
We sold couches, furniture, children’s clothes, cars, etc. Prioritize by selling anything you still owe money on that you just don’t need, and pay off that balance. Keep minimizing your home by selling off things you don’t need using the appropriate platform. Don’t bring anything into your home without eliminating something. Keeping your home simple and clean will keep your stress down and your mind focused.
12. Shop for Food at Discount Grocers
There is so much competition out there in the grocery world, and the margins are very lean for most stores. However, it’s almost impossible for any one store to have the lowest price on everything. The best way to minimize your grocery spending is to do a price book, but at least look for places like Aldi and Save-a-Lot to do the bulk of your shopping. I love Aldi for staples!
13. Use the “Debt Snowball” Method
Let’s say you have two credit cards that you’re paying off, we’ll call them card “A” and card “B”. You owe a minimum payment on card “A” of $200 and a payment of $300 on card “B”. Once you pay off card “A”, you take that $200 payment and apply it to card “B” by making a $500 payment until that card is paid off. See how it works?
Of course, I don’t recommend minimum payments, you’ll be paying for-ev-a! But, as you free up cash by abiding by your new budget, add as much as you can to those debt payments!
14. Stop Buying Gifts for People (anyone but your children)
Purchasing gifts takes up more of your budget than you realize. Most people are shocked once they begin to track how much they are spending on other people.
Depending upon how you were raised and what the level of expectation is, this could be the most difficult thing you deal with. There were so many expectations in my extended family in terms of gift-giving, it was really unhealthy. Next to groceries, gifts is usually one of the categories that is the most out of control.
I encourage you to take the time and talk with your spouse about this, and have those conversations with grandma and your parents. They may not agree, but again, this is your life. No one could fault you for taking care of your financial house (on second thought, it might not go well at all! Mine didn’t!) but that’s ok. They don’t pay your bills. You’re allowed to make your own decisions.
When we told our extended family that we were trying to get out of debt and live more fiscally responsible, and that we would be giving handmade gifts for Christmas, it went over like a lead balloon.
Seriously. Like *crickets*.
I made food baskets for each extended family member with homemade bread, marinara sauce and pasta in a cute basket. They weren’t impressed.
The following year, we stopped buying for the parents all together. To this day, I think they still resent it.
Oh, and those office gift expectations?
Yep, get rid of those.
White Elephant parties?
Pitching in for the baseball coach?
Not if you can’t pay your bills.
Take control and don’t let people tell you what you have to buy!
15. Take Care of What You Have
This goes a long way! Taking care of your clothes, shoes, furniture, furnace, tools, appliances, etc. extends the life of those things, meaning that you won’t have to buy another one anytime soon!
I change the furnace filter every month on the first. On that day, I also flush a packet on enzymes down the toilet for the septic system. I give the dogs their flea pills on the first as well. These are just regular maintenance chores that keep things working well and minimize problems.
I buy mostly better brands of used clothing, which I take very good care of. I line dry most of my clothes to make them last longer, and save on electricity too. Washing in the gentle cycle is also instrumental in making clothes last longer.
Put tools away so you can find them, clean out your frig once a week and make sure all of your food is being rotated and eaten. All of these habits save money!
16. Take Care of Your Health and Be Your Own Advocate
Regular check ups and maintenance will go a long way to keep you healthy and out of crises situations, which always cost more money to solve. If you insurance covers dental cleanings, make sure you get there for them! Anything preventative that your insurance covers, for goodness sakes, take advantage of it!
If you have a tooth that’s achy, don’t wait until you’re in so much pain that you’ll agree to anything. Regular flossing and brushing go a long way to prevent dental issues.
Eat well and take care of yourself! If you need to lose weight, do it! No one is going to do it for you. You can’t eat junk food and expect to feel good or stay healthy very long. Sickness and disease is expensive.
17. DIY Your Own Personal Care/ Cleaning Products
A few simple ingredients and you’re off to the races, saving tons of money every single month. It’s amazing how much you can do with vinegar and baking soda in your home! I buy the biggest containers that I can find of both and keep them handy!
Here’s my general household cleaner recipe, I just LOVE it!
- 4 parts water
- 1 part vinegar
- 1 tbs borax
- 1 tbs washing soda
- 1 squirt dish soap
- 20 drops of lavender essential oil, if you choose
Put in a recycled spray bottle and use in kitchen and bathroom! It costs just pennies to make!
18. Re-evaluate Every Single Monthly Bill You Have and Be Ruthless
Go line by line and scrutinize every single expense and ask yourself what you could live without. We canceled every magazine subscription and the newspaper. Studies show that magazine readers tend to buy more. The news is online to read every minute of the day, no need to buy a print paper.
Do you have a rotating charge that you’ve forgotten about, perhaps a weight loss app that you’re paying for every month? Go back and look for those little things that are taking your money!
19. Don’t Buy Anything Without Mutual Agreement with Your Spouse (24 hour rule)
This is a great rule when you already know you’re weak in certain areas. Frankly, there were stores that I just needed to stay out of, and places I didn’t need to go and be tempted to spend. Committing the to “24 Hour Rule” helped me to save a lot of money just by waiting.
If you’re out and see something that’s a great deal or something you really want, you must wait a full 24 hours before buying. Usually, like 9 times out of 10, I never went back. Very powerful tool.
20. Plant a Garden
Growing some of your own food in the summer is so empowering and wonderful! If you haven’t ever had a garden, start small and read “The Square Foot Garden”, available at the library. If you live in the city, check out books and websites about “container gardening”. No excuses, everyone can grow something.
21. Get a Side Hustle
Consider that second job or “side hustle”, even if it’s a temporary thing. Extra “side hustle” income is a great way to pay off debt!
My older kids all work regular jobs and have side hustles as well. One is into computer stuff, another delivers pizzas, but it gives them extra cash to pay for school and meet their goals.
22. Learn to Barter
Bartering is the oldest form of currency, and is making a big comeback!
If you can offer any kind of service or product, you can barter.
I’ve learned to barter in recent years, my best “swap” yet was for 10 laying hens in exchange for honey and coffee soap I made.
If you have a skill, whether it be plumbing, electric, handy-man, seamstress, babysitter, baker, write resumes, etc., you have something to barter with!
If you make soap, crafts, jewelry, cheese, art or even gift cards, you have something to barter with!!
I’ve read about physicians who are so strapped for cash that they are openly bartering for goods and services. Don’t be afraid to ask, all they can do is say no.
23. Get Rid of Paper Products
Getting rid of paper products like paper napkins, paper towels, paper plates, disposable diapers and tissues have saved us a ton over the years!
This savings can go straight to paying off debt!
When I was a kid, my mother always had a kitchen towel hanging by the sink.
She also had a cloth dishrag.
If something got spilled, she cleaned it with the dishrag.
If the spill was larger than that, she got the mop.
We never saw paper towels growing up! They are so unnecessary!
I replaced paper napkins years ago with cloth ones that I made from scrap fabric. I enjoy adding to my collection from time to time, but they work just fine!
While I was making cloth napkins, I also made hankies for cold and flu season, using old flannel shirts and sheets. They feel so much better on your nose and wash up with the other clothes just fine. I keep them in a basket in the kitchen for easy use.
Paper plates are rarely necessary, unless you’re having a picnic or something. For home use, we always use dishes.
When my children were babies, we used cloth diapers. Even when I had two in diapers, I never minded dealing with cloth diapers. We just kept the dirty ones in a 5-gallon bucket with some vinegar water and washed at the end of the day. Today, the cloth diapers have come such a long way, they’re just amazing! Whether you make them or buy, they will still be well-worth the investment!
24. Make Sure Able-Bodied Kids are Earning Their Way
The greatest threat to your retirement dollars are adult children.
Yep, those precious children need to earn their own way in a reasonable amount of time. This is obviously an incremental process, but make sure your kids understand the value of hard work early in life, and don’t get suckered into paying for every little thing as they become teenagers. If they want to drive, they need to help save for a car. They also need to work and pay for the gas and insurance.
I don’t believe in making things so hard for our young adults that they just throw their hands up in defeat, what we’re working towards here is a “work ethic”. Earning their own money builds confidence and makes them productive adults. Help them along when you can, but point the way to independence.
25. Take Action
If you’re reading this, and obviously you are, it’s time for change. Only you can do this. You gain nothing from this life unless you work and get down to business. It won’t be a perfect process, but just start! You can work through it as you go. You CAN pay off your debt!
Begin with #1 of this post and work until you’ve got a budget going.
If might take a while, but stick with it. Make the change!