When Jen Smith, 28, imagined her wedding, she always pictured a beautiful day celebrating the love her and her husband, Travis, 30, had for each other in front of their closest friends and family. But while their wedding was indeed beautiful, it also had an uninvited guest in attendance — their debt.
After racking up $53,000 in student loans from grad school, it felt like an impossible burden. In fact, Smith, an acupuncturist and frugality expert at Saving With Spunk, tried for a while to pretend that it didn’t exist. “Before I met Travis I ignored it because it was such a burden,” she says.
Travis, an aircraft mechanic, also had around $21,000 in student loans. Plus, they had about $4,000 on a car loan they had taken out together. After the St. Petersburg, Florida, couple tied the knot, their total household debt was suddenly $78,000. Given that they both made less than $40,000 each, they knew they had a challenge in front of them.
When the Smiths tried to tackle the sum, they felt overwhelmed. “When we started paying it back it felt like a mountain keeping us from our future,” Jen says. “With every payment that mountain got smaller but it wasn't until the final months that it felt like we were really going to conquer it.”
The newlyweds got serious about their debt the day they got back from their honeymoon. “To pay it off quick, we needed to bring in more income,” Jen says. “I was looking for side jobs the day we got back. I started babysitting and Travis took on extra mechanic work.”
“We didn’t change our lifestyle from when we were broke single people.”
To save money, they maintained their lifestyle from what Jen dubs their “broke single people” days and put all of Travis’ income towards their debt. “We used free Wi-Fi instead of paying for our own,” she says, “rarely ate out, rented a tiny apartment, asked for gift cards and cash for birthdays and Christmas, and ate very simple and cheap meals — partly because I'm a horrible cook.”
While it was difficult to give things up, they felt fortunate that they were doing this as newlyweds. “I think all the newness of marriage distracted us from a lot of the things we gave up,” she says. Also, with every payment, that mountain of debt got smaller and gave them hope.
Of course, things didn’t always go as planned. Their landlord decided to kick them out and convert their cheap apartment into an Airbnb. And when they looked at other rental options, they realized that they would have to commit to a year of renting a much more expensive place. “At the time, we only had seven months of debt payments left,” Jen says.
With rent prices rising, they opted to buy a house. The investment threw their debt repayment off track, which caused a lot of stress. “I would have waited to buy a house if I had to do it over again,” she says.
Around that time, they also found out that Travis’ employer hadn’t been deducting his income tax properly, and they were going to owe an additional $5,000 in taxes.
But their persistence paid off, and after 23 months of scrimping, saving and side-hustling, the Smiths finally made their last debt payment. “It felt great,” Jen recalls. “Now, I geek out on researching interest rates and investment options while plotting to grow my money instead of paying down debt.”
For others looking to get out of debt, the Smiths suggest focusing your spending on the few things that really matter to you, like Netflix or the occasional dinner out, and avoid spending on everything else.
Paying off their debt together even brought the couple closer, though it wasn’t all smooth sailing.
“It did lead to a few healthy arguments — like when to turn the air conditioner on in the spring — but we both communicated our reasoning and moved on,” Jen says. “We would not be this close without going through all this.”