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, one man shares how he and his family cut costs and paid down their debt of over $100,000 in just four years.

Many of us regret our youthful mistakes, but the choices Shawn Wilson made before age 20 eventually left him over $100,000 in debt. “I first got into debt purchasing a vehicle at the age of 17,” he says. “After paying off that car, I got into another car loan. After seeing how easy it was to borrow money, I got another car loan not even a year later.”

While owning three cars before he turned 20 made him feel pretty cool, he saw things differently after spending on credit cards and lines of credit pushed his total debt to six figures.

When Shawn, a wastewater operator, and his wife, Kayleen, a stay-at-home mom in Benson, Minnesota, finally got motivated to pay off their debt, he started wishing he had done things differently. “I hated the idea of my money going toward something that gave me no return,” he says. “I was making someone else richer when I could have been investing that into myself.”

The couple knew they had to make some changes. The first thing they did was take an honest look at their budget. “We had to look at where our money was going,” says Shawn. “I believe many people are scared of budgets and spending plans because they know they'll be hit with reality.”

For starters, that meant cutting back on groceries by buying whole, rather than processed foods. Today, their supermarket bill is just $400 a month for a family of six. “We create a grocery list and don’t purchase anything outside of that list,” says Shawn. They also go without cable or satellite TV and take out books and movies from the library.

With those and other cuts, they were able to put between 20 percent and 25 percent of their income toward their debt, but it wasn’t easy. “Being frugal was a challenge at first,” says Shawn. “We were trying to break bad habits and even to this day we’re learning new habits and sharpening our discipline.”

While it can be faster and cheaper to pay off the debt with the highest interest rate first, Shawn found that the snowball method — a strategy of paying off the smallest debts first — was what kept them on track. “It helped us tremendously,” he says. “Every time we paid something off, we felt like we were making progress versus trying to pay off the big debts and having it seem like they were not budging.”

“Even to this day we’re learning new habits and sharpening our discipline.”

Even as the Wilsons worked toward their debt goals, they were careful to set aside a portion of their income in an emergency fund that could support them for three to six months. “It’s important,” says Shawn. “Our emergency fund gives us a cushion if we run into a rough month.” It also gave them confidence that minor financial setbacks wouldn’t lead to more debt.

They were debt-free as of February 2017, just four years after kicking off their journey. “It felt awesome,” says Shawn. “It was a unique experience. Something we never felt before.”

They since acquired a small amount of credit card debt — which they recently paid off — after increasing their spending and investing in a video course to help Kayleen learn a new skill so she could start earning an income.

Although the debt wasn’t staggering this time around, Shawn wishes they had talked about how to handle purchases once they were out of debt. “Have a plan for when you’re debt-free,” he says, “or else you’ll end up going back into debt like most people, including us.”

Recommended Reading