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 couple shares how they erased $51,000 in debt in just two years — and had fun doing it.

There are a lot of reasons why people end up in debt, but for John Schneider, 44, and his husband David Auten, 47, amassing $51,000 worth was a way to make up for difficult childhoods. “We both grew up in a time and a place when it wasn’t OK to be gay,” says Schneider. “When we finally moved out on our own and found our community, we spent and lived to make up for lost time, and often our spending exceeded our earning.”

But those weekly splurges quickly started adding up. “We were frustrated and embarrassed by our debt,” says Schneider. “Our gay and straight peers were doing better than us financially. They were buying cars and houses, getting married and having children, and we had so much debt that we had to move into a friend’s basement apartment.”

That’s when the Denver couple got serious about their finances. Here’s how.

CONSOLIDATING CARDS

Schneider and Auten started by consolidating what they owed with credit cards that offered a 0% introductory interest rate for 12 to 18 months on balance transfers. “We calculated that we were paying $10,000 a year in interest payments,” says Schneider. “If we could redirect that $10,000 in interest payments towards the principal, we would expedite our debt freedom.”

Before using this method, check to be sure your credit card doesn’t charge a transfer fee, which can be anywhere from 1% to 5% — and that your payoff plan will be complete before the interest rate on the card shoots up again.

PLANNING MEALS

Before tackling their debt, the couple spent $400 per week on groceries and another $400 per week dining out. “With our grocery shopping, we’d create a weekly menu centered around buying what was either on sale or what we had a coupon for, ideally both,” says Schneider. “We cooked in bulk on Sundays. We’d make soup or cook a whole chicken that we would eat for lunch or dinner throughout the week.”

CREATING THE ‘NSE’ RULE

It was important to Schneider and Auten that they not miss out on all the things that make them happy, so they created what they call the NSE (or Not So Expensive) rule, which meant finding cheaper alternatives. “For example, we love wine,” says Schneider. “But we don’t need a $30 bottle of wine on a Wednesday night. We discovered that there are very good boxes of wine that offer more wine for less money.”

They also looked for other ways to get the same thing at a lower price, like a family plan to reduce their monthly cell-phone bills.

FINDING CHEAP THRILLS

Just because the couple was paying off debt didn’t mean they couldn’t still have fun. “We became the cruise directors of everything there was to do that was cheap and free in Denver,” says Schneider. “We took the initiative to find out what was going on and organized our crew to join us.”

If they wanted to have a date night, they made finding cheap fun a challenge. “David once wanted to take me on a date, and I made the stipulation that it couldn’t cost more than $20,” says Schneider.

In two years, they were able to pay off their debt, which they documented on their blog, Debt Free Guys. “We had to learn new behaviors,” says Schneider. “What kept us going was our progress, seeing our credit card balances lower each month.”

In the end, it was worth it for the couple. “Being financially independent,” he says, “has been one of the best things we’ve ever experienced.”

Recommended Reading