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 goals.

Here, one couple shares how they paid down more than $100,000 in debt — and counting — in their first year of marriage.

It was during a premarital counseling session at their Atlanta church that Faith and Leo Jean-Louis first realized just how much debt they had.

The newly engaged couple was excited to meet with their pastor, who began by asking a simple but difficult question: What is the purpose of your relationship, and what do you two want to accomplish together? “We came up with a few things, but we kept coming back to one theme: We want to be a family that gives, monetarily and otherwise,” Leo says.

Naturally, that led to an examination of their finances, including their debt, which they’d never added up before. With the multiple degrees between them, the couple knew they had a good amount of student loans. Leo held a bachelor’s degree in psychology and master’s in occupational therapy, while Faith had a biochemistry degree and master’s in nursing — plus additional classes for a pediatric specialty. Add that to some credit-card debt from wedding expenses and a personal loan to fix the HVAC in Leo’s house, and the figure was higher than either could have imagined: more than $211,000.

“I cringed, to say the least,” Faith, 27, recalls. “It felt like a massive burden. I had always taken debt as a given, but this was kind of beyond. We could see how it would stop us from being able to do what we wanted so, clearly, we had to do something.”

COMING UP WITH A PLAN

After their wedding in June 2017, the newlyweds got started almost immediately on their debt-payoff plan. On the advice of a financial planner, their first decision was to set up a budget. Their second? Put half of their $20,000 in savings and wedding gifts toward paying down debt. “We liked the idea of having a good amount of savings, so we resisted at first,” Leo says. “But it ended up being a great catalyst and motivator.”

Tackling their budget took a few months as they figured out their fixed costs and joint spending habits, given that they were living together for the first time. “We sat down together to calculate how much we were actually spending on everything – the things you need like housing costs, groceries and gas, plus the things you don’t need, like occasional dinners out,” Faith says.

From there, two clear themes emerged: They were spending too much on groceries and gasoline. The couple began planning their supermarket trips more closely, buying only what they needed for specific meals rather than grabbing items haphazardly. They also decided to carpool together on the days when they both worked on the same side of town.

There were smaller costs they cut too, but one thing stayed off the chopping block: They continued volunteering and donating to causes they believed in, keeping in mind what they told their pastor about their purpose as a couple.

TAKING ON SIDE GIGS

With more than $200,000 in debt, the couple knew that spending cuts alone weren’t going to be enough. They both took on second jobs. This was Faith’s typical schedule, at its peak: Work 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. as a pediatric nurse practitioner, come home to nap for a few hours, then get to an overnight job caring for newborns from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Although she’s scaled back her overnights, for several months she worked 90-plus hours a week. “It’s been intense, to say the least, but we absolutely could not have made this kind of progress without serious additional income from second jobs,” Faith says.

Leo, meanwhile, picked up occupational therapy gigs on Friday evenings and Saturdays, in addition to his full-time job during the workweek. “We really needed all three pieces – the budget, the cuts and the second incomes – to make a serious impact on our debt,” Leo says.

One year later, the couple has felt that impact: They’ve paid down $110,000 in debt — more than half of their original total — and are aiming to be debt-free by the end of 2019. They keep charts on the wall to track their progress. Although they started by tackling their highest-interest debt first, they eventually switched to the snowball method, or tackling the smallest balances first, because it provided more motivation.

Rewards are baked into their payoff plan, too. Faith and Leo celebrate with a wine and ice cream night at home each time they get rid of a balance. And to celebrate reaching the halfway point to their debt milestone, they recently allowed themselves a trip to Costa Rica.

But the biggest reward of all is looking forward to a debt-free future. They’re using their experience to launch a website and write a book aimed at inspiring others who are also working on paying down debt.

“We both thought debt was a part of life, but now I see how it shackles you,” Leo says. “Now we can be that family that gives back, and we can dream any dream we want. Nothing is holding us back anymore.”

Recommended Reading