$30K to $0: How We Became Debt-Free in One Year

Rachel and DougWe’re debt-free, but we didn’t begin our marriage this way.

Since this is our story, I asked Doug to write it with me. I’ll share how we did it, but I don’t intend for this to be a “do these easy steps and you’ll get these results too” type of article. I just hope that someone will be encouraged by this story.

Rachel:  We were about to get married, and the day came for us to “open the books.” I knew Doug had some debt, but I wasn’t sure how much it was. We needed to discuss our finances openly together. It turned out to be a really hard day.

Doug:  Right before we got married, we had a financial meeting. I found out I had a lot of debt, and that Rachel had lived without debt. It made me feel really bad. I felt like I was bringing a burden into our relationship. I knew as our relationship went on, the debt would become even more of a burden. That day I knew we needed a plan to get out of debt.

Rachel: When he added up the debt, it was more than $30,000:  $14,000 owed on his car, $16,000 in student loans, and possibly $2,000 in credit card debt. It was greater than all of my savings, and I knew that when we got married, the debt would become mine. I was ok with that. I felt encouraged that it was mainly from student loans, and that he wasn’t adding to it by overspending.

“I wanted to be unified in the way we handled our finances, and be debt-free.”

Doug: We had such different ways of handling finances. I had paid no attention to mine, but Rachel was in control of hers. When we compared our two financial situations and I saw them side by side, there wasn’t a middle ground. It became clear to me that I wanted to change how I had been doing it. I wanted to be unified in the way we handled our finances, and be debt-free.

Rachel:  One challenge was I had made a career change to an entry-level job in a new field. I was only earning half of what I had earned at my previous job. Somehow, that didn’t slow us down. Every extra bit of money that we earned was sent to pay off the debt. We watched the balance go down month after month.

Doug:  It was hard at first to take what seemed like Rachel’s money and pay off my debt, but I just kept thinking about how even our money is married. Money is a huge part of a marriage relationship. Every couple has to get together on it or else it could be a big problem. So we did.

10 Ways We Became Debt-Free

  1. We considered selling the car instead of slowly paying it off. As it turned out, the car was totaled in an accident, and the insurance money cleared the debt. We didn’t replace the car for a while. Doug had a work truck to drive to work, and we used Rachel’s car for everything else. When we replaced it later, we paid cash for a used car that was much less.
  2. We rented an apartment instead of buying a house. We still live in an apartment, but it’s because we want to, and it’s been a good decision financially for us.
  3. We furnished our apartment with second-hand furniture instead of buying new.
  4. Rachel sold company stock at an opportune time, and then paid debt with the money received.
  5. Doug took side jobs on the weekend and worked overtime to earn more money.
  6. Our income tax refund was sent to pay the debt.
  7. We left our savings alone, and primarily used our income for debt payments.
  8. We were making good progress on the debt payoff, so we contributed to our retirement accounts at the same time.
  9. We didn’t buy very much that year. We didn’t have cable. We stayed home a lot and watched movies.
  10. We lived on Doug’s salary. Everything Rachel earned went to the debt payoff, plus extra from Doug’s income. When the debt was cleared, we continued to live on Doug’s salary. It helped us when it was time for Rachel to stay home with the baby.

Doug:  The day I graduated from high school I received student loans, so I had been in debt my entire adult life. I was 33 years old, so it had been 15 years. I didn’t even consider it, because it was always there. By the time I was 34, the debt was gone. We hammered it — it was awesome. I was proud of myself. I felt manly. I felt free. Fortunate to have Rachel. Now I know that having money under control leads to having a lot of other things in life under control too.

Rachel:  I’m honestly surprised by how quickly the debt was paid off. I’m so thankful, just really thankful. I know that tackling it early in our relationship helped, because we didn’t have as many responsibilities at the time. It became a foundation for our finances — how we make decisions and work together on it. Doug worked really hard, he still does all the time. And that’s the story.

About Rachel

I write about practical tips that will help you simplify at home. Connect with me on Pinterest and Twitter.

Comments

  1. I really enjoyed reading your story! My husband and I have been married for three years, and we are still in debt, but we are making a lot of progress. We, too, sat down before we got married and made a plan to be debt free. He had just bought a truck, which he loves and needs, and was paying a very large bill each month. He also had student loans. I had student loans as well, but my car was paid off. We bought a house because the market was very good at that time, and we felt it was neccessary to accomidate our future family. Right before we had our first child, we paid off the truck and less than a month later, my car broke down (for good…it was old). All kinds of chaos seemed to happen like that over the past three years (my husband ruptured a disk and was off work, our roof practically blew off in a storm one winter…). I’m happy to say that right now, even living off of his income, we have NO car payments (we still have the truck and my car), our savings account holds one months living expenses, and we are almost done paying off his student loan. We have a good percentage of our house paid off so we’ll have good equity once the market gets better! We have no credit card debt and are living within our means. If we could do it all over again, we would have saved my income (when I was working full-time) and we would probably have little or no debt right now. That’s a lesson learned. I’m pleased with how far we’ve come and we’re stronger because of it!

    Rachel’s last blog post..Featured at Today’s Housewife

  2. thanks for the encouragement – Doug and Rachel. It can be done!

  3. Southern Gal says:

    How did you manage to plan a wedding and not incure more debt there? Curious to know for my daughter.

    • My son recently got married and the total they spent on their wedding was $1500 cash. That is for dress, suit, food, marriage license, wedding bands, EVERY LITTLE THING!!!
      The borrowed many items for the wedding & prayed for provision. The most beautiful thing was their vows to each other!
      Maybe encourage your daughter to focus on what the eternal significance of a wedding is?? :)
      Blessings ~

      • I have never met a couple who looked back and said, “yes, that caterer/reception hall was worth going into debt for”. Once the day’s over, people always realize they could’ve done with a lot less.

        • Have to agree with these gals – my husband and I got married last year for less than a grand (including the honeymoon expenses, less than two) and it was still a glorious event. The most important thing is that they’ll still be married whether they get married at the courthouse or go thousands in debt – love is what matters. :)

          Kate´s last post…Biscuits, done one way.

          • I am getting married soon to my fiance of almost 8 years and every single one of our friends tells us that going into debt over a couple hours of one day is NOT worth it. At least half have told us to go to Vegas and the other half told us to spend all the $$ on the honeymoon and make the wedding small.

            Melissa´s last post…The Little Table That Was Stained

  4. As someone who’s about to get married to a wonderful guy with 15K in student loans, this was incredibly encouraging. I love that you see marriage as what it is – two becoming one – and that you worked together to pay off the debt. Thanks for sharing!

    Chelsey @ Brown Eyed Basics’s last blog post..A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Weight Watchers

  5. My boyfriend and I live together and have our finances meshed and it drives me buggy. He is very frivolous, and I as a single mom have learned to be very penny pinching and he, having always been just him…not so much, he eats breakfast and lunch out, happy hour once a week…and lunches out are in sit down restaurants requiring tip, it’s about $100 a week he spends.

    The last three years were sort of carefree and I was hoping he would slowly become more responsible…very foolish of me…but now I’m worried that he’ll never grow up with regard to money.

    However, lately I have taken steps to let him know that financial responsibility is also important for him…I told him a few days ago I was going to separate our money and open a different account if he didn’t start controlling himself…there’s only so much reminding I’m willing to do…and he seems to have gotten the picture.

    We shall see…great post!

    MouthyGirl’s last blog post..GirlFriday Contest Coming!

    • Do not separate your accounts. Sometimes having separated accounts can cause many arguments for couples when the other partner is curious to know your spending habits. May I suggest you setup your online bills to pay off your so you won’t have to worry about the deductions. I will contribute a bit more to the minimum payment; if it’s $50/mo, give them $80. You’ll see your debt disappear in no time! Good luck and you can do it!

      • I would say the opposite – you aren’t required to share accounts. I would separate the accounts, so you can continue to be responsible with money and so your boyfriend’s frivolous waste does not impact your finances. Let him pay for his own mistakes – he won’t change until he wants to.
        Kaylen´s last post…I Forgot The Crock Pot

    • girlinoregon says:

      Sounds like you’ve got enough on your plate to take care of yourself and your kid(s). The boyfriend is acting like another kid for you to take care of–that should be a big red flag. Your experience with him is telling you that he’s not responsible with his money (or yours!). It may seem he’s gotten the picture but personal finance is 80% behavior and his his track record states clearly who he is in this arena. You are correct to separate your accounts and not combine your finances. Don’t just threaten him–follow up and get it done. You’re not married so either of you can walk away at any time (no matter how much in love you might be now).

  6. Your story is so fabulous! So many people see debt as a way of life – “It’s always going to be there.” I love how you two were so unified in the decisions and the work to get it done. Congratulations!

    Avlor’s last blog post..Wii Fit Update

  7. smallnotebook says:

    Southern Gal – our wedding was low-budget, and paid for with cash. We just wanted to get married, we didn’t want to have a big, expensive wedding. It was in the afternoon, so we had light refreshments instead of a meal. Choices like that helped us with the budget.

  8. At one time we were debt free except for our house. Circumstances have changed somewhat since then and we are no longer debt free, but it is always our goal. I am very thankful that my husband and I are on the same page with finances. We are both very good at not spending.

    Monica’s last blog post..Birthday Fun

  9. We’re working on doing this – thanks for sharing your story it is encouraging to read that someone else was able to do it while you’re in the middle of trying!

    Blessed’s last blog post..What I Am Doing Right As A Mother

  10. You guys rock! We don’t have debt but honey has a second job for 6 months so we can chalk away some major money for a move oversees. At first it’s hard to say no to things you want, but with a little practice, it is sort of empowering, isn’t it?!
    Thanks for sharing your story!

    SDC’s last blog post..Fireproof

  11. My partner and I started married life very similarly. We chose to pay off his debt in cash savings I had, and since then have been following a very good piece of advice you have up there: we put all the money he earns directly into our savings account. He’s going to stay how with our kids (when we have them) but we’re alread used to living on my income alone.

    Thanks for sharing!

  12. Awesome! We had $35K we paid off in 2 years using some of the same methods.

    The best piece of wedding advice we ever received was to live on one income from the beginning. Now look–I’m able to school th e children at home! What a blessing.

  13. Great work! We started marriage with nearly $200K in student loans! Thankfully we have it almost all paid off now. That is mostly because we DID buy a house though. We were fortunate enough to buy about 5 years ago and when we sold the place 18 months later we made enough to pay down a hefty chunk of student loans. Praise God! Of course in this economic climate that won’t be happening again…

    Thanks for the post!

    Andrea’s last blog post..Little Caesars

    • this is so amazing to hear! my husband and i will both be graduating from grad school in may, and together will have about $200,000 in student loans. i have a job lined up, and we already plan to live off one salary as my husband doesn’t have a job yet. how long did it take you to pay off so much? student loan interest rates are no longer very good, as they were in the past, so i am afraid we will be in trouble!

  14. What an inspiring story! Thank you for sharing it with us.

    Julie’s last blog post..

  15. Wonderful story. I brought a 1,000€ loan to our relationship, and that was it for both of us, no student or credit card debt. Since is a government given loan (you get interest free loans if you’re a student purchasing a new computer) we’ve decided to keep the stipulated payments instead of paying it off early. If we ever have extra money on top of our emergency fund we may reconsider, but until then this is it.
    However, I hear Doug on “feeling that money that is not yours…”. When we bought our furniture and appliances, we used some of Eric’s savings instead of paying with a credit card.

  16. What an encouragement this post is! I love that you two treated the debt as debt – no matter where it came from. School debt is still debt. There is no such thing as good debt.

    Thanks for Sharing!

    Dana

    Dana @ Letters to Elijah’s last blog post..A Good Investment…

  17. That was so fun to read! Thanks for sharing your story; it is so good to know others have been through it and have come out the other side! Sometimes it feels like we’re treading water, but I know we’ll get there eventually.

    Emma’s last blog post..Dollars and sense.

  18. Our story is a lot like yours except the roles are reversed. I was the one that came with a lot of debt and am not the best financial manager. My husband, on the other hand, seems to be a whiz at it. Working together we have cleared quite a bit of my debt, leaving mainly student loans, while saving money and paying for our wedding. Like yourself, we chose a small wedding and paid for it mostly with some savings and my Christmas bonus.

    Thanks for sharing your story!

    Dani’s last blog post..I’m No Riddler

  19. We’re in a different situation. We’re older, so our student loans were paid off a while ago. We’ve mostly lived debt-free (other than the mortgage) until recently and it’s very stressful. I have a plan laid out to be caught up by the end of 2008, which feels great, but . . . we still won’t have a lot left over each month.

    I love the idea of living on one salary, even with both working; that inspires me!

    Vintage Mommy’s last blog post..Our Adoption Story, Part 1

  20. Love this, Rachel! I’m sure you’ve inspired so many people to do this, and that it CAN be done. So many people just assume debt has to be a way of life, that it will never go away. What a bondage to carry that around for so long. How freeing it is to be a debt-free.

  21. That is fantastic. We are currently working our way out of student loan debt, ourselves. I am a SAHM, so it is going a bit slower with one income, but we are closing in on it within the next year or two.

    I wanted to thank you for your no spend month series. I just found your blog this week and perused the archives :). I have wanted to do that for a while, but with a new baby I put it on hold. I was re-inspired reading your series and have started one of my own if you are interested:

    http://dailyreforming.blogspot.com/2008/10/introducing-no-spend-months.html

    I am so happy to have found your blog and your description is perfect – a very encouraging blog.

    Blessings,
    Mrs. S

    Mrs. S’s last blog post..Introducing: No Spend Months

  22. 30k in a year is amazing! Congrats!

    Your story reminds me so much of my own. I married debt, too, and we have had our finances combined since we started living together almost 4 years ago.

    At the end of the month we will have paid off everything except for his student loans and our condo, which we have to pay PMI on since we have less that 20% equity. Our goal is to get out from under PMI by my birthday next September. The interest rate is so low on the Student Loans that it doesn’t make sense to pay them off early.

    Lauren’s last blog post..Writer’s Block

  23. Thanks so much for sharing your story. We are working our plan to be debt free, and expect to be there in about 19 months. I’m inspired by your story, and encouraged to stay the course.

    Mama Koala’s last blog post..Tag, I’m it!

  24. I’m so glad you are spreading the word about how wonderful it is to be debt free. As a young girl I had every credit card available. I learned the hard way but now if it’s not in the bank i can’t afford it, what ever it is. I love seeing my nest egg grow and not having to worry about bills
    PARENTS!! TEACH YOUR CHILDREN ABOUT MONEY!!!

    TabbyinTexas’s last blog post..14 Oct 08

    • girlinoregon says:

      My husbands parents were (and are) very tight with their money. They put 40% of their income into savings and did without a lot over many years. His father had the mentality and memories of being a boy in The Great Depression. All three kids have trust funds from their grandparents, and will inherit much when the grands and parents have passed. They were “lectured” about money the entire time they grew up–and are still given much unsolicited advice as adults. None of this, however, equals TEACHING because they’ve ALL got plenty of debt and didn’t learn anything but to be insecure and buy things to try to fill the gaps.

  25. Frugal Angie says:

    We too are just about to be debt free. There is a light at the end of the tunnel!!

    Living frugal was not an option at first. After we married and moved, I didn’t have a job. So we were living off of a “straight out of college income” and made a decision before we married to STOP using credit cards. If we didn’t have money in the bank, we didn’t buy it. (Thank goodness for Wal-Mart gift cards at the wedding!)

    After about a year, when our financial situation was 100x better, our frugal habits were just that…. HABITS. Our spending habits stayed the same, even though our income increased.

    Now we have the choice to live differently, but I still shop garage sales, craigslist, resale…. and very seldom pay full price for anything that isn’t grocery items.

    I’m in control of my money, and am not slave to the monthly payments!!!

    Southern Gal – Small Budgeted weddings are the best. Be creative, make a list of priorities, and recruit friends and families to help with everything (food, cake, flowers, pictures, dresses, etc)

  26. Great post! It takes a lot of work and sacrifice to pull yourself out of debt like that. I’ve always despised debt, and only now have my first loan. It freaks me out to have it (it’s a car loan, and I’m planning on paying it off as early as possible), but I think I’ll be ok. Although I think I spend too much and need to cut back, I ALWAYS pay off my credit cards as soon as the bill comes in. And I always have. I still use the cards, but I don’t buy things if I know we don’t have the money in the bank. Your post reminds me, though, that there is more I can do to get myself back on track!

    thursday’s last blog post..To the Loop and Back

  27. I love how you wrote this together, and your story is very inspiring! We also live on one salary, so that one of our paychecks goes pretty much directly to savings…and if something would happen to one of our jobs, we wouldn’t be immediately in financial stress. I want to go part time or stay home at some point, and the money we are putting away now will help us reach that goal as well. You are setting an excellent example for your children, congratulations!

    Steph @ Problem Solvin Mom’s last blog post..Looking for healthy snack ideas?

  28. It can be done when you make it your main focus and priority. Life is so much easier knowing that I don’t owe anybody and in a pinch I can live in the car that I own. Not that it would be comfortable for two people and two cats to live in a Corolla.

  29. I’ve been married for about a month, but it was my husband who married debt. While he’s the one with the savings and the 401K, I’m the one with a negative net worth. I wish that he would commit to saving more with me (we’ll get take out fairly often as he “makes money and wants to treat us”), but I also realize that I made the mess and I should be the one to get us out of it. Thankfully, with his savings we can realize the dream of home ownership in the next year or two, & I can continue to put my money towards my credit card debt. Thanks for this post and for giving me the “I’m OK/ We’re OK” feeling.

    • girlinoregon says:

      Since you are married it’s not YOUR mess or HIS mess…you are one so it’s BOTH your mess to clean up now. My hubby has old debts and I’m working with him to clear them up. Every time he wants to eat out or take out put that money on the debts and it’ll go down even quicker. :)

  30. Something about having kids made it more difficult to go without. Just before having our first child, hubby graduated from law school with $65k loans (and then joined the Navy). Shortly after we had our 3rd child, we bought the $20,000 minivan. It seems we have a hard time paying it all down quicker. We are not adding to our debt (no credit cards), but we are only slowly decreasing it.

    List Mama’s last blog post..List of Blogs/Sites to Send a Little Link Love

  31. rachel,
    thank you for your comment on my intial post for my “no spend two weeks…” for my sociology project. you are right, many of the things i wanted to buy then…yeah, i can’t even remember them. i made it through two weeks and i’m on to conquer the rest of the year. and our debt too, thanks to this post. thanks for your thoughts and encouragement. i finished my project yesterday if you want to check out my final post :)
    thanks again, have a great week!
    carly

    carly’s last blog post..day 15: finally…i am done!!

  32. You forgot the best piece of advice – cut up your credit cards and never use them again.

  33. As a marriage consultant, the biggest stress that I often hear in people’s marriages is from the anxiety around money and bills. It sounds like you’ve done a great job to get rid of that angst. I hope it continues through these hard times.

    And in my personal life, my husband has just retired. He has always thought that I spent too much money on food and eating out. He’s taken over the grocery buying and the cooking. I think I have died and gone to heaven and he’s as happy as can be that our grocery bills have been cut by 1/3!!!! Yes, that makes this wife happy!

  34. That’s great. Congratulations if that was your goal. But from a purely financial point of view, selling stock to pay off debt may or may not be the right decision. Of course these days it looks like a home run! But you have to look at the rate of return vs. the interest on the debt, as I’m sure you know.

  35. What an inspiring story! We don’t have credit card debt, but my husband is still in school and we have student loan debt for him. We are focusing on paying it off, but have slowed down because I was laid off. Hopefully one day we can pay all this off though, and be debt free. It is my dream!

  36. AMAZING!! Well done! We are struggling to pay off $40,000 right now – but being on parental leave after a super speedy international adoption (hence the debt) makes it very tough. I hope to knock it down to nothing as soon as I’m back to work in 3 more months… frustrating though!

    Krista´s last blog post..Fun!

  37. What an encouragement! We’re doing the Dave Ramsey thing…it’s going well, but it’s amazing how my eyes have been opened once my hubby and I looked at how much we spend on *stuff.* There have been many “Oh I wish I hadn’t done that back then…” moments, but going forward and not repeating the financial mistakes is what keeps us encouraged. Thanks for sharing this!!!

    Britt´s last post…New Website Design

  38. Thats great that you both worked on it together. And specially before having babies! Thats like the number one thing. Both must be committed and really focused getting rid of the debt. Your story is encouraging. But to me seems a little too good to be true. I’m having trouble getting my husband to actually commit to becoming debt free.

  39. I enjoyed the blog, as I am almost a mirror position to your husband in terms of total debt. I would love to know a way that I can reduce my date and paying off $15k as single person in a year, so obviously I’d be on a two year plan. The problem I have is that I would like to do this while in graduate school (part time), working full time and without the opportunity to do a part time job due to my work and school schedule. I presently make about $35k and I hope to find a job paying about $38 to 40k (we shall in this economy). Any advice?

  40. I’ve been reading your blog for quite some time now, but not as far back as 2008 – glad I read this! :) My hubby and I are DEBT FREE as of LAST WEEK!!! HOORAY!! Your story sounds a bit like ours, except we got into $20k worth of debt TOGETHER! HA! But, now we’re out!! I just did a little series on it on my blog, actually. :)

    I was wondering, though, how long did it take you to pay off your debt?

    It took us about 5-ish yrs and in the midst of it all, we had a baby and I quit working to stay home AND we bought a house! God is SO GOOD!!!

    Catie´s last post…Veggie Garden

  41. Oh. I just saw the trackbacks above that say it took you ONE YEAR!! Holy cow! Way to go! :)

    Catie´s last post…Veggie Garden

  42. This is so great to see someone taking charge of their debt. My husband had a similar situation when we got married and we worked to pay off $45’000 debt in 2 and a half years. It’s nice to have that off our shoulders.

  43. This is so encouraging. While our debt is not nearly so small, it is all student loans, it just feels good to see people survive it and be free.

  44. We too are trying our best to keep debt to a minimum- glad to have found your site. It’s always good when two people can be on the same page in a relationship as well.
    Stretching the One Income Dollar´s last post…Our Santas Choice Order Has Arrived

  45. great post! hubby & i paid off nearly all our student loans (about $14,000) in our first year of marriage by living on one income and paying off debt with all of the other (minus tax & tithe).

    let me tell you, sometimes it was really hard to pay tithe to the church and not have it go toward the debt, but it taught us that it’s all the Lord’s money anyway, and we have to be good stewards of it.

    we were 21 & 23 at the time, and some lady from the bank kept telling us to just pay the minimum and keep the debt because it would die with us. seriously! what kind of advice is that for a young couple?