When it comes to reaching your loftiest money goals, there’s one nasty four-letter word that tends to stand in the way: Debt.
And Americans have a lot of it: On average, each household carries a $17,000 credit card balance.
Contrast that with the fact that many Americans are significantly lacking in the savings department — only 37% would be able to cover an unexpected expense of $1,000 out of savings.
But kicking your debt to the curb really isn't an impossible goal — just look at these seven inspiring stories. Their shared secret? The right (reformed) mind-set.
The Inspiration: “We Wanted to Improve Our Marriage”
Who: Mark, 33, and Lauren Greutman, 33, Syracuse, New York
How Much They Owed: $45,000
"A decade ago, Mark and I had racked up thousands in student loans, auto loans and credit card debt.
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We had no discipline when it came to our finances — we’d buy groceries, for example, but continue to dine out every night — and never learned how to effectively communicate with each other about money. As a result we argued often. Our 'uh-oh' moment came when we were reviewing our credit card bills and adding up the totals one day — and realized it was time to build both a better financial future and a healthier relationship.
Getting Debt-Free: It inspired us to finally get on the same page about our budget, and revert to a simpler lifestyle. We got rid of cable, stopped going on expensive vacations, meal-planned and ate mostly at home — the latter of which we estimate saved us $5,000 a year. Five years later we reached our goal, paying off debt.
Staying That Way: We've maintained our precious debt-free status by scrutinizing every purchase we make to ensure it's really important to us. If the expense doesn't align with our values — or we don't have the cash to pay for it in full — we skip it. Today, our marriage is stronger than ever because of the hard times we’ve overcome — and because we’ve learned the importance of playing on the same financial team."
The Inspiration: “I Wanted to Retire Comfortably”
Who: Sara Van Donge, 38, Walla Walla, Washington
How Much She Owed: $27,000
"After graduating from college, I moved back home to be near my family, where every Tuesday morning I'd meet my dad, aunt and four other people who were retirees for breakfast. I was the only 'young' person at the table.
As I spent more time with them, I noticed a big connection between being debt-free early in life and retirement freedom. The ladies with significant savings lived in nice retirement communities, and spent money freely. The less fortunate ones had to pay attention to every dime. At 27 I resolved to be the kind of retiree who traveled and had freedom — not one who scrimped and worried.
Getting Debt-Free: I made a plan to dig out of my student and auto loan debt by 30. I stopped ordering drinks at restaurants and stuck to water. I walked and biked whenever possible, bought furniture second-hand, and even colored my own hair. This saved a few hundred dollars each month, which enabled me to double my car payments. Once that was paid off, I rolled it into my student loan payments. On my 30th birthday, I wrote the final check for my student loans.
Staying That Way: I’ve never forgotten my dream of a carefree retirement — eight years later, I’m still debt-free, aside from my mortgage. I consistently save as much money as I can in my 403(b) account, and as soon as I’m able to free up some large expenses in my budget — namely, child care — I’m going to save even more aggressively."
The Inspiration: “We Wanted Our Money to Belong to Us”
Who Miles, 49, and Jackie Beck, 46, Phoenix, Arizona
How Much They Owed $147,000
"For years Miles and I lived a 'normal' life — but we weren’t free. We were chained to our credit card, student loan, car, home improvement and mortgage debt. We started visualizing a life where every cent of our money would be ours alone — not even a mortgage company's — and we'd no longer have bills hanging over our heads.
Getting Debt-Free: We used the Snowball Method — you focus on paying off the debt with the lowest balance first, then move on to the next, until it's all gone. I became laser-focused on paying off my student loan, checking my balance daily and calculating the long-term impact of sending in various payment amounts. We celebrated every single balance reduction until we finally paid off the last $49,500 of our mortgage.
Staying That Way: People think living a debt-free life means living a 'frugal' life, but that doesn't have to be the case. It means you don't borrow money for any reason. Rather than live as spenders, we’ve transformed into savers. We plan for both expected expenses and emergencies. If we want something — even big things, like that guilt-free trip I took to Antarctica — we save up for it."
The Inspiration: “I Wanted to Follow in My Aunt's Footsteps"
Who Angela Farrell, 31, Black Rock, Connecticut
How Much She Owed $35,000
"Last spring my husband, Joe, and my two toddler sons and I went to visit my aunt. While we were there, she started telling me about a cruise she was saving up for to celebrate an upcoming anniversary — and how she wasn’t willing to put any of the costs on a credit card. It turns out, she and my uncle are completely debt-free, despite having two cars, four kids — three of whom are in college — and living in an expensive area. I wanted to be like them.
Getting Debt-Free: Our plan to kick our credit card, student loan and auto loan debt included couponing, meal planning, withholding 'want' purchases, and selling one of our cars in order to buy a lower-value one instead. These changes freed up a ton of cash, allowing us to cancel out our debt in one year.
Staying That Way: Now that we don't have to funnel money toward our debt each month, we're able to save a lot of money each pay period without much effort. Our sons are my inspiration to stay debt-free and continue bettering our finances through saving. Joe and I want them to grow up without the weight of financial stress or burden — even if it means fewer new toys and a closet full of hand-me-downs."
The Inspiration: "I Needed to Stop Stressing Over Student Loans"
Who Michelle Schroeder-Gardner, 25, St. Louis
How Much She Owed $40,000
"I have three college degrees — two in business, plus an MBA in finance — and, at one point, I had $40,000 in student loans to prove it. The weight of that overwhelmed me. I’d been on my own since my dad passed away when I was 18, and my $1,000 monthly payment threatened my financial autonomy. So a few years ago, when my student loans came out of deferment, I vowed to pay them off as fast as possible — and relieve myself of the stress.
Getting Debt-Free: One of my main strategies was to earn more. I picked up several side jobs — from being a mystery shopper to a freelance writer — and sold items I owned, like clothes, a gaming system and DVDs. I even did surveys for money. Believe it or not, these side hustles brought in as much as $11,000 one month, helping me reach my debt-free goal in just seven months!
Staying That Way: The financial — and mental — relief I feel is what keeps me motivated to maintain my debt-free status.
I'm also enjoying another happy result of the experience: A few months after I finished paying off the debt, I had saved up enough to quit my day job as an analyst and focus on a writing business I’d launched. I love it. I’m location-independent and have the opportunity — and cash — to travel often."
The Inspiration: “We Wanted the Freedom to Pursue Our Career Dreams”
Who: Danny, 39, and Tracy Kofke, 42, Hoschton, Georgia
How Much They Owed: $25,000
"Tracy and I met when I was student-teaching at the elementary school where she taught first grade. We married the following June. While planning our future together, we discussed my passion for becoming an elementary school teacher — which is, admittedly, not the world’s most highest-grossing job — and Tracy’s desire to be a stay-at-home mom. But we knew that if these dreams were to become a reality, we’d better figure out a way to tackle our student and car loan debt first.
Getting Debt-Free: We devised ways to scale back on our weekly expenses, such as bringing leftovers for lunch. And we adopted an all-cash diet to stay on track, which helped us accelerate Tracy's student loan payments. I also biked to work when I could, and we eventually sold both our cars to pay for our wedding. It turns out, we didn't need the cars, anyway, since we jetted off to Poland shortly after to teach at the American International School. We stayed there for two years, and lived on one salary in order to pay off debt and save money in an emergency fund. It took us two more years to become debt-free. Fortunately, our careful preparation allowed Tracy to fulfill her dream of being a stay-at-home mom, when our first daughter was born.
Staying That Way: To stay out of debt, we make an effort to live well below our means. Our date nights sometimes consist of sandwiches and a cheap Redbox movie. Plus, after nine years as a stay-at-home mom, Tracy reentered the workforce. A few years ago, she had a great opportunity to teach second grade at the school where I work — so we use her salary now to continue beefing up our savings."
The Inspiration: “I Didn’t Want to Bring Debt Into My Marriage”
Who: Zina Kumok, 26, Indianapolis
How Much She Owed: $28,000
"Back in 2011 my boyfriend and I began talking about getting married one day. He didn’t have any debt, but I did — almost $30,000 in student loans from my undergraduate degree. I didn’t want to saddle him with my baggage, which is why I resolved to pay off my loans as fast as I could.
Getting Debt-Free: I primarily focused on applying windfall cash — birthday checks, freelance cash, tax refunds and Christmas money — toward the debt. I also opened accounts at different banks to get their sign-up bonuses, which was often $100 or more. After three years I was completely debt-free.
Staying That Way: Since paying off my debt, I've established new goals to further improve my finances, like putting away six months of income in an emergency fund and ramping up my retirement savings. It feels like I’ve wiped my financial slate clean, and created a situation that my boyfriend — now fiancé! — and I can enjoy when we start our lives together."
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