Debt: It's the four-letter word that can wreak havoc on your finances. In our Debt Confessions series, real people share how they tackled debt — from credit card bills to student loans to everything in between — and how it felt to reach their zero-balance goals.

Here, a woman in Phoenix, Arizona, shares how losing her job gave her the motivation she needed to pay off $52,000 debt.

For Jackie Beck, 49, going into debt felt like a normal part of life. “Like many people,” she says, “I thought that borrowing was the way you got the things you wanted in life like a car or house. I've since learned that using debt is a much harder way to go about getting those things than using money you already have.”

Not including their mortgage, Beck and her husband owed $52,000 — including a $19,000 student loan from grad school — at the height of their debt. “I hated having it hanging over my head,” she says. “I hated that my money was always already gone before I even got it, because I needed to send it to creditors. My debt kept me from doing the things I really wanted to do in life.”

Beck had tried for years to get out of debt with no success. Then, when she divorced her first husband and lost her job not long after, she was forced to reduce her expenses while raising a young son until she finally found another job a few years later. “I didn't go about getting out of debt by reducing expenses,” she says. “I reduced expenses because I spent several years living on very little.”

That tough experience made her realize that she didn’t need as much as she had previously thought. She prioritized her necessities: First came house payments, groceries, utilities, gas and car insurance, internet, clothes for her growing son, and then clothes for herself, if she really needed them.

“It is amazing to be debt-free and not owe anything to anyone. I want everyone to feel that way.”

When she got a job again, she realized that she hadn’t missed a lot of the things she used to buy. So she put that money towards her repaying her debt instead. “A lot of people give things up in order to get out of debt and try to be really strict the whole time. They then get so focused on what they're missing versus what they do have,” she said. “I prefer values-based spending, where you buy the things that you truly get value from and don't buy the other things.”

You can’t get something if you don’t ask for it, so Beck learned how to ask for discounts. “If I needed to buy shoes because my old ones had worn out,” she recalls, “I would find the pair I wanted and then literally ask the cashier if I could get a discount on them. Many places will give you a discount if you ask politely.”

Beck would also look for coupon codes when shopping online. When she couldn’t find coupons, she discovered that if she left her items in her basket, companies would sometimes email her a coupon code, urging her to checkout.

At the same time that she was cutting back, Beck looked for ways to boost her income. She started several sites, including a blog about her debt, and began accepting advertising. She also took on side jobs. “I began doing freelance writing for others, buying things at garage sales and then selling them for more on eBay and Craigslist, and taking photos for others for a small fee,” she says.

After Beck remarried, her new husband joined in on the get-out-of-debt mission. “He did some computer repair work on the side,” she says. “We also both made it a point to ask for raises in our jobs, and to work at getting better jobs.” They funneled the extra income toward their debt and began contributing to their retirement accounts.

After years of struggling and failing to get out of debt, Beck had a revelation: “I finally figured out that I was failing at budgeting and debt reduction because I kept believing life would go as planned,” she says. “When something unexpected happened, I'd chalk it up to being an unusual month. I eventually realized that every month is an unusual month, and that I needed to plan for emergencies.”

A year after Beck and her husband paid off their house, she took her dream trip to Antarctica and he bought his dream car. Though Beck erased her debt five years ago, the memory still makes her emotional. “I still tear up every time I think about it,” she says. “It is amazing to be debt-free and not owe anything to anyone. To be able to travel more, give more and just be free. I want everyone to feel that way.”

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