19 minute read

Carrying debt seems to be the norm, but these trendsetters go against the grain. We asked 21 experts and influencers with different types of debt, debt loads, interest rates, incomes, and timelines to tell us their stories. Their unique approaches will inspire you on your way to financial freedom.

 

Camilo & Justin – @thebudgetguys

Being an adult is expensive. Attending college, buying a home and car, getting married, moving, and other daily costs add up quickly. We are taught to reach for the stars, but often not given the financial education to accompany the cost of our dreams. We had just gotten married and moved into our newly purchased home in 2017. We had college degrees and well-paying jobs. We had two cars and we were able to afford a yearly vacation. By all measures, we should have been content, but something was not right. We sat in our kitchen shortly after getting married and realized we were $153,000 in debt, not including our home. Most of the debt was our combined student loan debt. We felt sunk. How would we ever be able to save over a lifetime, start a family, or be able to retire on our terms if we were paying back student loans well into our careers?

We decided to take our financial future into our own hands. We got into debt and we could get out of it with hard work. We were aggressive and “gazelle intense.” We created a budget and made sure that every dollar we made had a purpose. We said no to new clothes, dinners out with friends, trips, and limited our purchases to necessities. We cut back on expenses by making and planning our weekly food menu, selling unnecessary and unused household items, and learning to be content with the things we already had. We each increased our income by getting second jobs teaching English online. In short, we lived below our means and paid as much as we could to debt. This took a change in mindset to be happy with the simple (and free) things in life and to not be driven by material things or mindless spending.

Being an adult is expensive. This fact is not going to change, but we can change, and we did. This journey has not been easy. There are times when we just want a night out or to buy something online. We try to focus on relationships, especially ours, and we have grown closer. One of our adult goals is to achieve financial freedom and to start a family through adoption. After three years of aggressive debt payments, we have $32,000 in debt remaining and a three-month emergency fund. For the first time in our lives, we feel like we are in complete control of our finances.

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Cindy Zuniga – @zerobasedbudget

My name is Cindy Zuniga. I am a full-time commercial litigation attorney and the founder of Zero-Based Budget Coaching LLC. My personal finance journey started in January 2016 when I started repaying my massive debt. I had graduated law school in June 2015 with over $215,000 of debt. My debt consisted of $192,000 from law school, $11,000 from undergrad, and $12,000 from credit cards.

After a year of making consistent debt payments and realizing that most of my payments were going to the interest on my loans, I refinanced my debt at a lower interest rate and shortened the repayment period. Refinancing saved me approximately $40,000. I also created a debt repayment plan which included following a zero-based budget. A zero-based budget is a budgeting method where you have a plan for every dollar that you expect to bring in in a given month. In addition to budgeting, I sent any “extras,” such as annual bonuses, tax refunds, etc., to my debt as additional principal payments. I finished paying my debt in December 2019, 48 months after starting my debt-free journey.

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Chloe Elise – @deeper.than.money

My journey to debt freedom started when I was a junior in college. I was working multiple part-time jobs, but no matter how many more hours I picked up or how many new part-time jobs I started working, I never had enough money. I thought that all I needed to solve my problems was to make more money. However, even with more money coming into my bank account, I still felt broke.
After trial and error and lots of failing, I finally figured out what worked for me (especially what worked long-term!). I ended up paying off over $36,000 of debt in 18 months. For six of those 18 months I was still in school, so I became debt free one year after I graduated from college.

I made progress in two big ways: with logistics and with mindset. Logistically, I set a specific plan to map out my priorities and how I would prioritize paying off debt. I got scrappy and threw as much extra money as I could to my debt: I created side hustles, negotiated expenses, and worked hard at my corporate job for raises (I have a free three-day challenge on how I did this.)

Two years later and being debt free has changed my life. After that, I was able to create an emergency fund (eight months of expenses), pay for my wedding in cash, buy my parents a car for Christmas, and still max out my retirement accounts. If you are in the thick of working toward financial freedom, it can feel like there’s a long road ahead of you. Focus on your priorities and enjoy the journey; it is coming.

Now, I teach other millennials how to pay off debt, grow their savings and enjoy financial freedom in their 20s and 30s. Financial freedom is possible for you!

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Cinneah El-Amin – @fly.nanced

My debt is a reflection of my past poor money management and living beyond my means. Despite graduating debt-free from college and receiving a full ride to attend my graduate school program, I took out my first loans in 2017 for $15,000. I didn’t think much about my debt, even as I started working full time in New York City. I continued racking up credit card debt by spending recklessly on brunches, happy hours, and spontaneous adventures with friends.

It wasn’t until I hit rock bottom in 2018 – when I could not afford to pay off my credit card bills – that I knew I needed to make a change. Now, I am on track to become debt-free in 2020 thanks to a realistic budget, clarity around my spending triggers, and living below my means. I am proof that no matter what money mistakes you’ve made in the past, you can overcome them to become debt-free!

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Sahirenys Pierce – @poisedfinancelifestyle

II am Sahirenys Pierce, a millennial Latina mom who runs a personal finance blog called ThePoiseLifestyle.com and also the creator of the High-5 Banking Method. I share relatable content like how my millennial family paid off over $99,000 of debt within five years while living in San Diego, CA.

My debt-free journey started during the 2008 recession where I learned a valuable life lesson: “If you owe it, then you don’t own it.” This resulted in my parents losing everything, including their home, cars, and marriage. This harsh realization showed me debt’s true colors and was the fire that guided me toward living a debt-free lifestyle in the future.

After graduating with a finance degree and entering the financial service industry, I was made aware of another debt reality. If I wanted to help manage people’s finances, I personally could not file for bankruptcy. This job requirement opened up the conversation with my fiancé about our debt prior to getting married. We both had student loans, cars, and a wedding to plan. My fiancé, Freddie, decided to pick up some extra UX/UI graphic design freelance work, while I focused on gaining my finance certifications. An increase in income, a budget, and the High-5 Banking Method were the tools we used to pay off $99,000 of debt within five years.

The best advice for paying off debt is to create a game plan that fits your real situation and that you value. If you find the “WHY” of what motivates you to pay off debt, you will be ten times more likely to pay it off. “No purpose, no action” is one of my favorite motivational quotes while on the journey to debt freedom.

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Sami Womack – @asunnysideuplife

I began this journey with my high school sweetheart, Daniel, our three daughters, and a debt price tag of $490,000. Back in 2014, we took control of our family’s finances by writing out a budget, adding up our debt, eventually selling 90 percent of our belongings, downsizing from a 3,200-square-foot house with a mortgage to a 650-square-foot rented house, and changing lots of daily habits to live on 60 percent of our income.

Over our six-year journey, we became debt-free, cash-flowed an SUV, a truck, two boats, and an RV, and have now purchased 18 acres to build our dream home among the East Texas pine trees.

Watch Debt.com’s interview with Sami here.

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Deedra Boodram – @slaythisdebt

Our financial journey started after I decided to leave the U.S. Army to become a stay-at-home mom. We had four little ones, but we were still spending money like we still had two full-time incomes. Becoming intentional with our finances changed our life. My husband and I were able to pay off over $80,000 worth of debt in 24 months. That debt included student loan debt, two car loans, and credit cards. We accomplished this by getting on a budget, practicing minimalism, increasing our income, picking up side hustles, and living well below our means. Intentional living was key!

Some of our side hustles included starting a YouTube channel (Slay This Debt) and selling items we no longer needed on several different online platforms. Additionally, my husband worked as a security guard for a local college, The Masters golf tournament, and Super Bowl LI. He did this all while on active duty and pursuing his master’s degree, which he earned without incurring any additional debt. In addition to creating content for Slay This Debt, I also embraced and cultivated life as a home economist. This had a profoundly positive effect on our quality of life.

After becoming debt-free, we realized that debt freedom was not the end goal. Financial independence and generational wealth was!

We saved up and purchased our first property that we lived in for a year and now rent out. We also started investing in the stock market. In just three years we were able to pay off over $100,000 of mortgage debt. We recently picked up a second rental property, which we will live in and rent out when we receive orders to our next duty station. My husband will be eligible to retire from the military in seven years. At that time, we will be financially independent!

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Dyana King – @moneybossmama

Just four years ago, I was unable to pay bills without the use of a credit card and barely had $30 from each paycheck. After hitting rock bottom, I decided to start my official debt-free journey in September of 2016. I had exactly $34,907.10 tied to my name, which was more than my annual income!

Looking at all the debt I had accumulated made my heart drop, but I knew there had to be more to life than giving up my paycheck to lenders. So, I decided to push through.

As a mom of two on one income, I refused to become another sad “single mom” statistic. I wanted to give my kids more than what I had, and I was determined to do it despite my circumstances. The more my financial literacy increased, the better my debt payoff strategy became.

Since I didn’t have much money to spare, I knew I had to be strategic with every dollar. I leveraged extra money like tax refunds, kept a tight budget, and began side hustling to help me beef up my payments. As my balances decreased, my spendable income slowly increased enough to allow me to contribute more to savings and my debt balances.

The journey to debt freedom hasn’t been the fastest or easiest. I’ve gone into more debt over three times and have had many screw-ups along the way! Despite my setbacks, I’ve paid off over $28,000 and hope to be debt-free by the end of 2020!

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Jen Smith – @modernfrugality

My husband Travis and I started our marriage with almost $78,000 in student loan and car debt. I’d spent years being ashamed of my debt, not believing I’d ever be rid of it. It was actually his encouragement that made me believe for the first time that I could be debt-free. We didn’t make much – around $70,000 between us – and Travis was unemployed twice during our debt-free journey, but we lived frugally and side-hustled our butts off and were able to pay it off in 23 months.

All the times we said “no” to friends who wanted to go out and the things we missed were such big deals for me at the time. I felt like the world was going on and I was stuck at home watching it happen. But now, almost three years later, I can’t remember anything I said “no” to. It’s all so insignificant and the freedom I feel without debt has stayed and that has been so rewarding. We’ve been able to coast through quarantine, salaries cut in half, without worries. And that is worth anything I gave up while paying off debt.

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Jenna Simpson – @savinghalfourincome

My husband and I started with over $130,000 in debt between overdue taxes, credit cards and a line of credit. After two and a half years of complete discipline, budget cuts, and increasing our income, we managed to pay it all off.

Our biggest advantage in our debt payments was that we learned to mostly live on one income while using the other income to pay off our debts. It did take us months to learn to live off one income. In the first month we took ten percent of my income and put it to debt, the second month was 20 percent, then 40 percent the next month, and we continued this until we were saving 80 percent of my income to put to debt. My husband’s income paid all our bills and living expenses. We continue to live debt-free, besides our mortgage, which was halfway paid for in four years. Our plan is to be mortgage-free in another three and a half years.

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Michael Lacey – @winningtowealth

My wife Taylor and I realized we were $61,000 in debt after a disagreement about money on our honeymoon. It was then that we knew something needed to change about the way we handled money.

Once we both agreed to pay off our debt, we listed all our debts from the smallest balance to the largest balance and started paying them off one at a time. We also started meeting once a month to create a zero-based budget, which helped us keep our essential expenses low.

The result was us completely eliminating that $61,000 worth of debt from our lives in just 16 months.

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Kelly Smith – @freedominabudget

Seven years ago, my net worth was negative, making my self-worth negative. My student loans were in default, my car was repossessed, my power was turned off multiple times, and I was afraid to answer a call or knock at the door. The worst part was I had money in my account at the time of my car repossession, but I was so unorganized with my money and bills that I never realized how past due I was. (Probably because I was afraid to answer my phone or open mail because of my defaulted student loans.) Enough was enough: I drew a line in the sand and decided I needed to make a change. I watched every personal finance video I could find on YouTube, learned how to make a budget, and eventually started my own YouTube channel, Freedom In A Budget, for accountability.

Three years later, I paid off $23,000 worth of student loans and became debt-free! I didn’t stop there; next, I saved cash for my wedding, saved cash for my dream car, saved cash for an Alaskan Cruise vacation, and bought my first house! I am now back in debt with a mortgage of $325,000, but we are paying it off quickly as well as saving for our first investment rental property. When I think back to where/who I was seven years ago, I don’t even recognize the person I once was. I am proud to say over the course of seven years I went from a negative $23,000 net worth to a positive $250,000+ net worth. Making my first budget changed my entire life.

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Leah Marie Collins – @theleahmariecollins

In 2017, I was a young, single, businesswoman living in the District of Columbia, working 15 hours a day on average, for one of the most prestigious accounting and consulting firms in the world. I spent the majority of my career helping global organizations manage their bottom line while my own personal finances were in disarray! I knew that things had to change, so I challenged myself to become my first client and set a goal to pay off $40,000 of debt ($13,000 student loans, $25,000 auto loan, $2,000 credit card) in 18 months.

I was able to eliminate this debt by:

  1. Creating a budget and actually tracking my spending to that budget.
  2. Reducing my spending. I spent a significant amount of money on travel and eating out. Therefore, I banned myself from going on a vacation (unless it was a close friend’s wedding) until I paid off my debt. I even went so far as to only eat lunch from the cafeteria after 2:30 p.m. because that is when they would discount food for the day. Eventually, I became accustomed to spending less and when I was tempted to purchase something that I did not need, I asked myself if that item was worth me not achieving my goals.
  3. Developing multiple revenue streams. For me and most people, our largest expenses are living expenses (rent, mortgage, utilities). I decided to rent out the second bedroom in my condo in order to lower these costs. Many people are very resistant to getting a roommate, but if you do a good job screening candidates, this one simple move will be a game-changer as far as reaching your financial goals. At the time, I was paying $1,980 on my mortgage and condo association fees, and I charged my roommate $1,100. This covered over half of my living expenses!
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Melissa and Murphy – @fitnfunds

Six years ago, we had $229,000 of consumer/student loan debt. Over the course of five years (January 2014-March 2019), we worked a lot of overtime at our primary jobs, had a side hustle (Uber/Lyft), and sold things online to pay off all our debts. The process and sacrifices were NOT easy, but we made our last debt payment (Melissa’s original six-figure student loan) in March of 2019.

Today we are 100% debt-free, building wealth, enjoying our life without payments, and the best part is we started a business to help others become financially free.

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Taylor Hayes – @imperfectfinance

I graduated from a four-year university in 2015 with $60,000 of student loan debt. For the first few years after graduation, I paid minimum payments toward my student loans, spent most of my paychecks, and had very little in savings. It wasn’t until I stumbled upon a few personal finance blogs (Mr. Money Mustache and I Will Teach You To Be Rich by Ramit Sethi) that I realized my debt was a problem and that if I ever wanted to get out from under it, I needed to change the way I handled my money.

I then began immersing myself in more personal finance material including books, blogs, and podcasts, and eventually, I gained enough confidence to really believe that I could pay off my debt in a few years’ time. In early 2019, I got a part-time job scooping ice cream (on top of my full-time job as a data analyst) and ultimately began doing whatever I could to increase my income – babysitting, freelance writing, and selling everything I no longer needed or used on eBay and Poshmark. Toward the end of my debt-free journey, I created a Student Loan Guide that I sold on Etsy that encompassed everything I wish I knew when first beginning my debt-free journey. The profits from this helped me pay off my last $1,000 of debt! I also cut my expenses as much as possible by doing things like getting a roommate, negotiating my bills (there’s a script for this in Ramit Sethi’s book!), switching to a less expensive gym, and not buying any new clothing items for the last year of my debt-free journey.

I finished paying off my debt on May 15, 2020! Almost 5 years after graduating college, exactly.

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Vee Weir – @veefrugalfox

I began my debt-free journey in 2016 after graduating from college. I realized I couldn’t pay my student loan payment and buy my life-depending medication. That was my aha moment. I decided I had to make a drastic change. From there, I paid off over $60,000 by working as hard as I could, budgeting, educating myself, and living on less than I made.

Throughout my debt-free journey, I have experienced divorce and job loss, but ultimately, this debt-free lifestyle and community have changed my life trajectory in more ways than those two things did. I now work as a full-time business owner helping those in the personal finance space with their brands and businesses. Most of these content creators were my friends via the Instagram #debtfreecommunity hashtag before they were my clients!

My debt-free journey inspired me to take charge of my life and become an entrepreneur, as well as help others find that fire within themselves. If I can do it, you can do it, too!

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Brittany and Kelan Kline – @thesavvycouple

Brittany and I left college with over $40,000 in student loan debt. We realized from the start that paying the minimum was not going to work. We wanted to chip away at it much quicker. So instead of making the minimum payment of $450, we started paying $600 per month on autopilot.

These student loan payments always seem to hurt when creating our monthly budget as it took up a good portion of our monthly expenses. A few years into paying our student loans back, we knocked them down to $25,000 remaining. At this time, our personal finance blog The Savvy Couple really started to take off. We were making anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 per month from our blog and that was the key to paying off the rest of our debt so fast. We started to attack our debt and throw $5,000 per month at it until it was gone in fewer than five months!

Making that last payment was one of the most freeing feelings we have ever had. We knew becoming debt-free was key to truly find more freedom in life. Becoming debt-free allowed both of us to quit our jobs and work from home full-time on our blog. It also allowed us to quickly ramp up our investing and grow our net worth to over $200,000 before turning 30 years old. Our goal is to retire early around age 40. Paying off our student loans has been a huge factor in helping that become a reality.

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DeShena Woodward – @deshenawoodward

In 2017, I started my debt payoff journey. By the time I was ready to make a change, I found myself in $52,000 worth of debt from credit cards, personal loans, and a car loan. So, the first thing I did was to stop using credit. Then, I began slashing my spending on entertainment, shopping, utilities, groceries, and kid’s activities. I also increased my income by about 40 percent with a new job. I paid off my smallest debt first to build momentum. Then, I began attacking the bills with the highest interest rates. I also did a couple of zero-percent interest balance transfers.

However, the most important thing I did was change my mindset around spending. So once my income increased, I kept my expenses low. Before you know it, I was able to pay off that $52,000 in a little over two and a half years. Now I’ve been 100 percent debt-free for almost one year, and my finances are stronger than ever!

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Nika – @debtfreegonnabe

I started my debt-free journey in September 2018 with $180,000 in debt. This debt consisted of nine student loans, one car loan, and nine credit cards. By June 2019, I had paid off $16,000 in credit card debt; then I was gut-punched with $21,000 in outstanding tax debt, which brought my total debt to $211,000. Since then, I’ve paid off an additional $40,000, including three of the four outstanding tax debts, and I am now down to my final three credit cards before I move on to tackling my student loans.

In order to free up money to allocate toward debt payments, I got on a budget and cut out unnecessary spending (like frequent trips to my favorite coffee shop and saying “yes” to every invite to happy hour). I still do fun stuff, but I make sure to include it in my budget and save for it if necessary. I also looked for ways to cut recurring expenses by calling to negotiate a lower monthly bill for my cell phone and internet services. To earn extra money to throw to my debt, I picked up a side hustle working as a shopper with Instacart, and then as front desk staff at an indoor cycle studio. I even sold items I no longer needed on platforms like Facebook Marketplace and Mercari and participated in online surveys.

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Shatoria – @coincountinmama

I was introduced to student loans at the tender age of 18 years old. When I signed on the dotted line, I was unaware of what lay ahead of me. I didn’t know what terms and conditions were, nor did I know what the term interest rate meant! All I knew was I wanted to go to college, obtain a degree and find a great job! Four years later, I graduated with a bachelor’s degree and $125,000 of student loan debt (YIKES)! Three months after working on this great job, I was laid off due to the financial crisis. I was unemployed and unable to find another job, so I decided to go back to school and obtain a master’s degree.

Two years later, I obtained an MBA and an additional $40,000 debt and $5,000 in credit card debt. I initially accepted the fact that it would take me 30 years to pay it off. I mean, that’s what’s stated in the terms, right? Two years ago, I became a mom and I decided that I was sick and tired of being in debt. I decided that was not okay with watching 85 percent of my payments go toward the loan interest as opposed to the principal of the loan. I had enough. I decided to start paying off my outstanding debt. First, I tackled my credit cards and I have completely paid them off. Now that I have medical bills, I am working on paying those off, and then I will aggressively conquer my student loan debt. To date, I have paid off $5000 of debt. It’s a start; however, I’m ready to take on more. I’ve cut back on excessive spending, eliminated unused/unnecessary subscriptions, and I meal prep. Recently, I’ve taken on a few side hustles to help me quickly achieve this goal. It’s my goal to have all my debt paid off by 2025.

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Alfred Wilson – @frugal_freddy

Our debt-free journey started in October 2017 when my wife Felice and I got married. At that time, I was bringing about $145,000 of debt (mostly student loan debt) into our new marriage and fortunately, my wife paid off her debt before we tied the knot!

Throughout our journey, we have postponed our honeymoon, scaled back our lifestyle, tightened our budget, sold the junk in our home, and even worked a few part-time jobs to generate extra money in order to pay down the debt faster. More recently, we decided to “pause” our journey so we can focus our time, energy and money toward buying our first home. To be honest, it wasn’t the easiest decision to make, but we think it was the right decision to make since we’re fairly new parents and plan to expand our family in the near future.

As of today, we’re at $60,000 in debt. We continue to chip away at the debt with a “Mini Snowball” as well as add various income streams so they can solely pay off the remainder of our debt. This journey has enhanced our perspective as it relates to money management, saving, budgeting, and wealth building. We’re appreciative of the journey and having the opportunity to help our family and friends eliminate their debt and help them be better stewards of their money.

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About the Author

Debt.com

Debt.com

Debt.com’s writers are journalists, personal finance experts, and certified credit counselors. Their advice about money – how to make it, how to save it, and how to spend it – is based on, collectively, a century of personal finance experience. They’ve been featured in media outlets ranging from The New York Times to USA Today, from Forbes to FOX News, and from MSN to CBS.

Published by Debt.com, LLC