When Nicole Harrington met her husband, Patrick, while the two were undergraduate students at the University of Arizona, she says the chemistry was undeniable — literally: "We were organic chemistry lab partners."
Once they were married and became financial partners, they realized that when it came to money, they came from different parts of the periodic table, having grown up in families with differing philosophies about money. "We came together and decided we wanted to be financially literate, have a long-term focus, and reach out to financial professionals to fill in the holes," she says.
The couple, who live in Tucson with their two kids, aged 9 and 6, did just that. With the help of a certified financial planner, the Harringtons are rapidly paying off debt, investing for their and their children's future, and even enjoying some luxuries in the meantime: They own a pair of horses that they and their kids can ride in their spare time.
But their success didn't happen overnight. For years, the Harringtons lived paycheck to paycheck, with student loan and other debt they struggled to pay off. They owe their comfort now to years of financial discipline and the rapid growth of an online Etsy business that Nicole started from her kitchen island.
Her business, Looking Sharp Cactus, which refashions bottles into household items, including centerpieces, serving trays, and soap dispensers, took off. "In the first year, the business made $10,000 or so," she said. "Each year, my business would double or more than double."
After finishing up her bachelor's, Nicole enrolled at the University of Missouri to pursue a graduate degree in veterinary medicine. Her husband followed, finishing up his undergrad degree at Mizzou and eventually earning a master's degree at a university nearby.
Neither had student loans before the move to Missouri, but once they got there, Nicole says, "the debt started to snowball." Harrington's debt from vet school alone came to just under $200,000, she says. And, for personal reasons, she had to leave school without finishing her degree.
To keep costs low, the couple bought and took out a mortgage on a trailer, paying $300 a month and another $150 a month to rent the lot at the trailer park. When they moved back to Arizona, resettling in Tucson, they sold the trailer for what they had paid for it. "I was able to recover that money instead of sinking it into rent someplace," Nicole says. "So all I paid for living expenses for those few years was the rent on the lot."
Video by Stephen Parkhurst
Back in Arizona, where Patrick worked as an industrial hygienist, money was still tight. The couple consolidated their loans at a higher interest rate and chipped away at them using the income-based repayment method. That meant that the payments weren't eating up a huge portion of their monthly budget but also that the couple weren't making much headway toward paying down the balance. "It wasn't even really touching it," Harrington says.
Patrick's job offered a 401(k) plan, helping them save a modest amount for retirement. Nicole began working as a teacher. Some of her salary went toward the state's retirement fund for public sector workers.
They also bought some individual stocks in mid to late 2000s, but many of those bets, Nicole says, didn't pan out. She wishes now that they'd diversified more: "I didn't have confidence in the stock market, let alone something like an ETF," she says. "We missed those 10 years where the stock market was really on fire."
The couple welcomed their first child in 2011. When Nicole was pregnant with their second in 2014, the family ran into a financial quandary. "I wasn't being offered health insurance," she says. "They were keeping me just under a full-time employee." She switched to a job with better benefits but soon realized, with another child in the mix, that going back to a 9-to-5 job was a losing financial proposition.
"The cost of child care would have wiped out my entire salary, and I would have missed the years when my kids were little," she says. "So we decided there was no point in me going back to work."
Once their second child was born, the Harringtons wrote their first budget, began tracking their expenses, and scaled down their spending. The couple have never carried credit card debt, Nicole says, which, at times, necessitated some sacrifices. "At the end of the month, there was not even $5 left," she says. "We couldn't buy a pack of Oreos."
During that time, when a friend recommended Nicole supplement her income by selling crafts on Etsy, she balked at first. "I didn't think I had the skill set to be marketable on Etsy," she says. "I'm not a maker. Plus I had two little kids running around the house."
Video by David Fang
But then she considered how even a small stream of income could change her finances. Her friend pointed out, "Hey, even if you make $50 a month, there's half your groceries for one week," Nicole recalls. "And I was like, 'Huh.'"
She started out selling jewelry but found it difficult to establish a niche. She changed her business several times in the early days, she says, using an inventory system in which she was only paying for a small amount of materials when she needed them to fill orders. "It's really important to stay flexible and not take on a bunch of sunk costs," she says.
Nicole finally hit upon a winning business idea when her sister gifted her some pretty glass bottles. Her grandfather, who had done lapidary as a hobby in retirement, shaping, cutting, and polishing gemstones, had left her his equipment. Nicole had spent time using the machine with her grandfather as a kid, and realized it could be used to cut glass bottles.
Residents of Tucson could no longer put glass bottles in their recycling bins, she noted, and instead had to drive glass bottles to specific collection sites. As a result, many bottles ended up in the landfill. "I realized, I can make this into something," she says, "and give it a second life."
Looking Sharp Cactus, which now has its own website in addition to an Etsy page, has been in business for five years. The business, which also sells succulents from the local Arizona desert, has grown to 14 seasonal part-time employees.
Nicole still runs the show, working long hours to create, market, and sell her site's products when she's not raising her children, now 6 and 9 years old. "To be successful, customers and people you work with need to be able to get in touch with you instantly," she says. "There's no clock in and clock out."
With her business substantially bolstering the family's income, she and her husband hired a fee-only certified financial planner in Tucson to help the couple set and achieve their financial goals. The couple spends about 50% of their take-home pay and are deploying the rest to save for retirement, boost their kids' college funds, and finish paying down debt.
Video by David Fang
"We already paid off our car loan," Nicole says. "Now we're attacking the mortgage and the student loans." Harrington says they may divvy up the money or pay down one type of debt at a time. She estimates that if they focus on it, they could pay off their mortgage in a little over a year.
While they work toward becoming debt-free, the Harringtons are still living within their means, avoiding credit card debt and doing their own home and vehicle maintenance.
One major splurge: a pair of horses that live on the property. "I work from home, so I can do all the labor — we don't have to pay for any of it," Nicole says. "Still, they're our biggest expense outside of the mortgage."
The costs are well worth it for a family that likes to spend time together in the great outdoors, and whose kids enjoy participating in riding competitions.
"It's a large expense, but it's an expense I never could have dreamed of before I had my Etsy income," Nicole says.
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