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 young couple who paid off debt shares how their five figures in student loans and credit card balances weighed them down as newlyweds, and what they did to finally dig themselves out.
Everyone has debt. That belief is what kept Brittney Lynn, 29, from looking too closely at what she really owed. So, when she and her husband Ryan got married in September 2012, she was shocked that their total student loans, credit card debt, and personal loans added up to over $50,000. "I remember that night vividly, as I started to cry looking at all of our debt and wondering how we were ever going to pay it back," recalls Brittney. "I know $50,000 isn't a lot compared to some people, but it was still a lot of money for two newlyweds. It terrified both of us."
Brittney, who does press relations and online marketing for entrepreneurs and runs the Day in the Life podcast, knew that they had to make some big changes. "The thought of being in my 40s still paying off student loans was terrifying to me," she says. "I didn't want to live life carrying around debt from years ago. I wanted a less stressful life for myself and our future family."
So, the Lynns set a goal to get out of debt as soon as possible. They became fiercely frugal to pull it off. They drove old cars, lived in a small apartment, put their bonuses towards their debt, and started selling stuff they no longer used to raise money. "We sold a lot of things," Brittney recalls. "Clothes, shoes, home decor, old bridesmaid dresses."
They also incorporated more vegetarian meals into their diet to save on the high price of meat, and limited nights out for dinner, drinks, or concerts. They prioritized their finances so much, they became known as the "frugal friends" in their social circle. "It was definitely difficult in the beginning," Brittney says. "It was hard to be right out of college and seeing all of our friends buy new cars and houses and us still living in a mediocre apartment and driving 15-year-old cars."
But as their debt payoff gained traction, it became a lot easier. "Once you pay off your first debt," she says, "a fire grows inside of you and it motivates you to continue. As you keep going and paying off more and more, it becomes easier to stay motivated."
Their journey to free themselves from debt wasn't without road bumps. Their biggest challenge came from their cars, which broke down completely. Rather than buy new cars, they used some money they had been putting aside to buy used replacements. But those cars also broke down often. "There was a six-month streak where one of our cars would break down every month, and we'd have to buy new parts to fix it," says Brittney. "It was difficult because that was keeping us from paying off our debt sooner, but we eventually made it through."
Even as they scrimped and saved, they decided that being able to travel was critical for them. They went to Ireland and road-tripped around the U.S. to friends' weddings. "We had to keep sane in some way and traveling a bit was enough to keep us from going off the deep end and splurging on a shopping spree," she says. Two and a half years later, they celebrated being debt-free with a two-week European vacation.
These days, friends often ask for money advice. "Small amounts of money really do add up, and it's extremely important to know where you stand financially," Brittney says. "That means knowing the exact amount of debt you have, how much income you bring in, and how much you're spending each month."
"Once you pay off your first debt, a fire grows inside of you."
The couple used Excel spreadsheets to track their finances, but the Lynns also recommend finance apps for those who would rather not do it the old-fashioned way. "Find what works for you and stick with it," she says. "Ignoring the problem is not going to make it go away. You need to know what you're dealing with so you can make a plan to move forward."
Getting out of debt gave Brittney the freedom to launch her PR business. She and Ryan also recently bought their first home and are planning for their future - which includes more travel. "During our two-and-a-half-year debt repayment stint, we would always say to each other, 'When we're debt-free, we'll do XYZ,'" says Brittney. "Now, we can actually do those things."