How One Mom Ditched Her Family’s $89,000 Debt

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Mom Spotlight: How One Mom Ditched Her Family's $89,000 in DebtSix kids means more than multiplying diapers, food, clothing and toys … the dollar signs multiply as well. Angela Coffman, of Kansas City, Missouri, one of the four subjects on the recent TLC special Extreme Cheapskates, was a stay-at-home mom of six, and in debt to the tune of $89,000–hoping to get her mortgage, car loan and credit card paid off … somehow.

Through extraordinary dedication, effort and big-time penny-pinching, she managed to pull her family up by its bootstraps and erase all that debt … in just six months!

Today, Coffman works from home, teaching others how to live frugally on her website, Grocery Shrink. We caught up with this reality TV star to talk about how she paid off that debt, and how she budgets to keep it off.

What were you doing to acquire so much debt?

My husband and I were living the American dream. We had several credit cards, but we mostly used one that gave us cash back on our purchases. We would put everything on it—food, clothing, all of our necessities—and then try to pay it back at the end of the month. We borrowed $20,000 to buy a car, we had put $75,000 down on a house that we were using as a rental property and borrowed $1,000 to buy a leather couch. Then my husband Darren, who’s an accountant, lost his job, and we couldn’t pay off the credit card any more.

How did you become motivated to do something about it?

I knew there was a better way to handle our money. My parents paid off our home when I was in the fourth grade, and they never borrowed money again. They really had taught me better. One day, I heard finance expert Dave Ramsey on the radio announcing a contest to win a trip to the Bahamas. You had to be one of the top ten families in the nation who paid off the most debt or saved the most money in a six-month period. About that time Darren got a new job, and I figured, even if we lose the contest but we give it our all, we’ll end up winners. We won—and got to go on the trip.

RELATED: If My Partner Doesn’t Have His Credit Cards Paid Off, Can We Get Married?

What did you do during those six months to save money?

We went all out. We spent nothing that we did not have to in order to survive. We ate food that we picked from our yard, we turned off our heat and burned wood in the fireplace instead, we used cloth diapers, cloth napkins, cloth toilet paper—anything that you would usually use paper for. We hand-made gifts, I made clothes for the kids out of leftovers from garage sales that neighbors would give me. So my sons wore denim skirts … but they looked like shorts after I sewed them.

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We decided to sell our house and wait for a time when we were financially able to support an investment like that. We sold some cattle that my husband owned, and we sold whatever else we could. We only kept $1,000 for ourselves. That was our only cushion between us and bankruptcy. The rest went to paying off debt.

By the end of the six months, we were completely out of debt. Three months later, we had actually saved $40,000 to put down on a new house.

Tell me about the reusable toilet paper.

It started when we were doing the contest, when every dime made a difference. But then we realized we liked it a lot better. I cut up squares of cloth. It’s softer, lint free and doesn’t tear up—it’s fantastic. We were using cloth diapers at the time time, so we would just pour it all in the wash together. There were people who said, “Cloth toilet paper, that’s disgusting!” I’ve seen disgusting, though, and this isn’t it. But, I realize there is a cultural line that we had crossed. I do buy a pack of toilet paper every year to keep in the guest bathroom or for backup. But the kids get really upset when there are no cloth wipes.

RELATED: How I Paid Off Credit Card Debt in 5 Steps

How much do you think you save with the cloth wipes?

Since we have eight people in the family, I would guess we’re saving between $15 and $20 a month. And we’ve been doing it since 2005.

What other strategies do you still use today?

We live in the country, and the nearest grocery store is 30 miles away, so I started going to the grocery store once a month to conserve gas. That was our transition to a whole new way of shopping. I started working on a pantry system. Instead of buying food for a week’s worth of meals, I would buy a month’s worth of food in one trip. At the time of the contest, I had three kids and my monthly food budget for the five of us was $185. 

And what is your budget today?

We have six kids now—ages 12, 10, 8, 6, 4 and 10 months—so our monthly food budget for the eight of us is $400 total, $50 per person. We save $400 per month by shopping all at one time.

Could you explain the pantry system?

Over time, I built a pantry with a three- to six-month supply of food like tomato sauce, whole wheat flour and brown rice pasta. Now, when I go out for my monthly shopping trip, it’s just for fresh items and the really good deals. When I see great deals, I stock up. I got to the point where I would never pay full price. If I see that tomato sauce is really cheap, I buy 30 cans. We won’t use it that month, but I can store it for a year.

Also, I plan menus for the whole month. It gives me something to shoot for when I’m at the store and I see deals.

(Want to save on food by planning ahead yourself? Check out our Food for a Month series.)

What other thrifty tactics do you use?

We only use cash. Every month, my husband I work out a budget, and whatever that is, we pull it out in cash. I have a plastic coupon organizer with tabs for categories like groceries, clothing, gifts, etc. that I use to divvy up the cash. That way when I’m at the store, I can see at a glance if I’m over budget. When we were putting everything on credit cards, we technically had a budget, but I couldn’t tell how close to it we were when we were at the store.

RELATED: What’s the Best Way to Get My Credit Cards Paid Off?

What about for your children’s clothes?

Twice a year, in the fall and spring, we plan a clothing menu for every person in the family. For example, for my oldest daughter Heidi, I will write down that she needs three pairs of jeans, two church dresses, this many socks, etc. First we look through what we already have and we write that down on the menu, so we know exactly how much we’ll need to buy for her. We start looking at garage sales, then thrift stores, then the clearance racks at high-end department stores like Dillards. Also, Old Navy has amazing clearance racks. Then, if I still haven’t found what I’m looking for, I’ll look on Craigslist and Ebay—especially if I’m looking for something special like soccer cleats. My last resort would be to buy it new.

On the TLC special, you used a babysitting club. Do you still do that?

Yes, we do. We trade every other Tuesday night with another family. One week their family comes over, and I provide food for their kids. The parents have four hours to do whatever they want. And the next week it’s our turn. It’s fantastic. Darren and I weren’t able to eat out because it was too expensive with the children, but now when it’s just the two of us, we can afford it.

Do you ever splurge?

Last year, we took our three older children on a cruise to Mexico. We found a deal at Vacations To Go. The tickets were $250 each for Darren and me, and the children’s tickets were $150 each. That included a week on the cruise ship and all of our food and entertainment. It was a splurge for us, but we can only go if we find a deal like that.

(If Coffman’s story intrigues you, check out the story of one married couple—and fellow Extreme Cheapskates—so frugal they managed to pay for a child not their own to attend college.)

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Need a new family budget? We can help you get started.

  • http://www.makingsenseofcents.com/ Michelle

    Wow good job!

  • Andrea

    Truly amazing! 

  • CrystalLime

    the toilet paper would be a cost i could live with

    • Boppity

      I ran the numbers- on the low side it’s almost $2,000 she’s saved. I just got an old flannel sheet at Goodwill and I’m going to give it a try, I could sure use $2,000 on other things, if it works out well.

  • Beccaod

    Oh I love Angela and Grocery Shrink. She always has lots of good ideas! Plus she’s awesome to follow on Pinterest :)

    Wish I could find a way to convince my husband to live more like this, but hope it doesn’t take an extreme situation to do it. 

  • tsmama

    Her hubby had to be making a good salary…to pay off 89,000 in 6 months and then in another 40,000 in 3 months. That’s 130,000 in one year plus what they lived on. This just makes this whole possibility seem unrealistic for me. Good for them though!

    • Anonymous

      I don’t think he was making *that* good of a salary. Plus, factor in the kids and the mom not working and I don’t think what they did is out of reach for anyone. It’s just a matter of priorities.

    • HotMamaParry

      Good point! While I appreciate the idea of being good stewards of their money, she almost seems obsessive about thriftiness. It feels a little cheap to me. Focusing only on not losing money instead of earning money, is living a life of scarcity.

  • Jessica

    Great to see Angela’s interview!  I get her newsletter and it’s great.  I think they were able to pay off so much so quickly because they sold so much stuff including her house and an extra car I think.  I do still use store bought toilet paper, but she is inspiring to me because she found a way to make it work that suited her family.  I take some of her tips and leave some.  It helps me to think of other ideas that would work for us.  Thanks for the interview Learnvest!

  • Kashonda75

    This really encourage me that I can get out of my lil debt….

  • Anonymous

    Um wow! And I thought *my* husband was cheap. This is both inspiring and just incredible!

  • robin

    How can you realistically shop for a month?  Doesn’t this family drink any milk? My family of 5 goes thru 8 gallons a week.  What about fresh fruit and vegetables?  I suppose this family has a farm?

    • mable hastings

      We buy a gallon of full fat milk and then I cut it half and half with water.  It tastes like skim and I can still use it to make yogurt every week, but it has really reduced our millk costs.

      • Anonymous

         Its funny, my grandma does the exact same thing, but she did live through the Great Depression, so she does a lot of things like that. shes the ultimate waste-not spend-not guru. :)

    • Wee_wild_beastie

      I believe it did say they live in the country, but farm or no farm, you can still grow your own fruits and veggies with only a small amount of land or in pots/planters (my mom does).  Also, depending on the kind of milk they buy, it can be shelf stable.  I’ve known people to stock powdered milk, soy milk, rice milk, etc. and it’s lasts a long time and doesn’t need refridgeration until it’s been opened/prepared.

  • http://profiles.google.com/rwilldesign Rebecca Williams

    My son would FREAK out if I made him use cloth toilet paper, although I might consider it. Maybe its a test for me to see how much I use next month.

    If selling the house is factored into that, then it really isn’t that they paid off all of that debt, they just cut it out. Not that that is a bad thing. She did say they couldn’t really afford it. Plus it did say they saved $40,000 over a 9 month period. So assuming that at least $70,000 of that debt was the sell of the house and they paid off the other $19,000 plus saved $40,000…still very impressive.

    I would be curious as to what the family income was during that 9 months, because if they paid off and saved based on above, that is $6500/month plus cost of living??? Wow…

    • Anonymous

      Rebecca,

      I went back and reread the article. It said that they saved $40K in 3 months after they sold the house and paid the dept ans only kept $1000 from it. This is a lot. not sure what to think now. They must be making a lot of money. Wow

  • Surely Shirley

    They didn’t erase the debt, they SOLD A HOUSE and used the proceeds to pay off the debt. Dave Ramsey should have disqualified them from the contest.

    • Kim

      Pretty sure Dave says to sell what you can to pay off your debt – including selling a house (or car, etc.) you can’t afford and renting while you save up if necessary.

      • kita

        You are correct. Dave does say that. It doesn’t matter WHAT you sell as long as it is an avenue to get out of that debt!! I’m on the Dave Ramsey program and it works!!

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/CAFJY57HO4RFK7345VFQE2G7KA Colleen

    Ok, I REALLY want to save money, that is why I was first directed to this article, but, the deal buster is that my husband doesn’t make $85,000/6 months, first of all, however, if he did  I think that I could make a realistic budget and not get into debt to begin with!  I’m not “throwing stones” , however, we live on less than that a year-and, our home is paid for, I am raising two children, and my son doesn’t wear anything close to skirts!!  We live comfortably, we have no credit card debit, we only use our debit card or cash, the only debt we have is for our family vehicle, which will be paid for in less than 2 years.  I buy practically all of our clothes from clearance, which I buy end of season, for practically nothing.  It can be done, and reasonably done.

    • guest

      Go back and read the article again, you really missed iton some of the points, also go to the author’s blog for more tips on how to save.

  • Anonymous

    It’s  a great idea to sell your house for 2 reasons: to get out of the dept and not to have more headaches. I personally don’t believe in owning a house because it cost you more than renting plus the work that needs to be done: cut grass, remove snow, fixing it up etc.
    The only part I would never do is using cloth instead of toilet paper. I can’t really wash poop-ed cloth in the washer. They can buy cheapper toilet paper, like the one sold at the dollar stores or Walmart. However it is difficult to manage and save money for  a family of 6, unless both parents  have good jobs. But CONGRATS to them, for the great achivemnet.

  • Anonymous

    I went back and reread the article. It said that they saved $40K in 3
    months after they sold the house and paid the dept ans only kept $1000
    from it. This is a lot. Not sure what to think now. They must be making a
    lot of money. Wow