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 writer shares her 10-year debt payoff journey — and how achieving her goal led to much more.
Last summer, my husband, Ben, and I found our dream home.
It was 74 acres of fields, woods, ponds and even an orchard teeming with fruit trees. We saw the opportunity to build a farm and a business for my husband; to give our four children, ages 3 to 9, freedom to grow.
The house itself was a mansion compared to the starter home we’d squeezed into for the past seven years. There was a kitchen that could actually fit all six of us (a luxury!), bedrooms for all the kids and even a home gym. When we made our way through the house and into the backyard, I looked at Ben with excitement.
“This is it,” I said to him, grabbing his hand. “This is what we’ve been waiting for.”
But here’s the thing: My husband is a middle-school math teacher and I’m a freelance writer, working from home with our four young kids. Oh, and we’re only 31. So how on earth would we manage to buy that kind of house at our age?
Well, it wasn’t easy, pretty, or without stress. (Seriously, I developed an eye twitch for months.) But the only real secret to us landing our dream home was the fact that we had been preparing for this moment for years — eliminating our debt over our decade-long marriage. Here’s how.
THE HISTORY BEHIND OUR DEBT
Our debt story began the moment we graduated college, and I began relentlessly attacking our loans. My husband and I had a pretty early start into adulthood — I became pregnant during my senior year of college, we married over winter break, I graduated in the spring with a bachelor’s degree in nursing, and then I gave birth to our first daughter a week later.
While my husband finished up his degree through the fall semester, I supported us by working the night shift as a nurse and caring for our daughter during the day. It was an exhausting time in our lives, but even then, I made paying off our debt a priority. I picked up extra shifts and applied that money to our highest-interest loan. While many of our peers were still finishing up their degrees, we were juggling new parenthood, work and some sky-high debts.
In six months, I paid off that first $3,000 student loan and was on to the next, with $20,000 left to go for our undergraduate degrees.
"I looked for ways to be creative with our debt."
We both felt lucky for getting out with a relatively low amount of debt, thanks to scholarships and working through college. But then came grad school. By the time I got halfway through a grad degree and my husband finished his master’s, we were another $30,000 in the red. Add in the used-but-still-expensive-car we purchased when I was pregnant with our third child, and our debt quickly soared to over $70,000 on top of the mortgage on our starter home.
When we weren’t stressed about our debt, we were motivated by the thought of our future dream home. So I got to work.
GETTING OUR PAYDOWN STRATEGY IN PLACE
Although I never set an official budget, I was very frugal. We never spent money on things like cable, we packed lunches and rarely ate out, we never carried a balance on our credit cards, my husband drove the same truck he bought in high school, and we worked opposite shifts to avoid child care costs.
I also looked for ways to be creative with our debt. I consolidated some of our loans to get a lower interest rate and took advantage of federal loan forgiveness programs. And because my husband’s salary was fixed, I focused on growing my own freelance income to put more toward debt.
Slowly, but surely, we started to watch that balance dwindle. By the time we turned 28 and shortly after welcoming our fourth child, we were officially debt-free outside of our mortgage.
THE ULTIMATE DEBT PAYOFF
Three months ago, we closed on our dream home, and each and every time we pull into our driveway and see the sun setting behind our woods (ours!), we feel so incredibly grateful.
I'm proud of what we accomplished, but I would also never pretend we did it 100 percent on our own. Privilege paved a good start for us, like our parents’ financial support toward our wedding and my first car. We also had access to a federal loan forgiveness program thanks to my husband’s work as a teacher, which isn’t an option for everyone.
We learned about financial responsibility at very young ages; my father took me to open my first checking account at the age of 16. My father-in-law helped Ben start his own lawn care business when he was 8.
Now that we’ve officially traded our debt-free life for, well, a lot more debt in the form of a brand-new mortgage, there’s some fear as we move forward. But as we brainstorm new business plans for our property, we’re even more determined to pour ourselves into making the most of a new opportunity for our family. (And hoping that Ben’s 16-year-old truck doesn’t break down before we get there.)