They Paid Off $218K of Debt—Without Windfalls or Six-Figure Salaries
Marianne Hayes
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Think you need a six-figure salary to get ahead of the financial game? These six may change your mind. Together, they paid off $218,000 of debt—without huge salaries or major windfalls, just discipline, hard work and serious determination to be debt-free.

Here’s how they did it.

Francis John“I slayed $12,000 of student loans while earning $8.30 an hour.”

Francis John, 32, machine operator in Sioux Falls, S.D.

“I decided to tackle my $12,000 student loan balance in spring 2009. I was recently engaged and felt inspired to be debt-free for my bride.

The problem was that I was only earning $8.30 an hour as a bellman at a local hotel, bringing in around $1,300 to $1,500 a month, depending on my hours. Though I was already living pretty frugally and had some wiggle room in my budget, I knew I could cut back.

The first thing I did was identify expenses to scale back for maximum impact: rent, phone and food. So I downgraded from a one-bedroom to a studio, lowering my living expenses from $600 to $450. I also got a prepaid cell phone plan, cutting my $80 bill by more than half, and stopped eating out almost entirely—opting instead to eat at my future mother-in-law’s house.

Thanks to these little tweaks—plus a well-timed increase in tips at work—I was slowly able to up my debt contributions. By June 2011, I was paying off $700 per month. I made my final payment three years later, just a few months before my May 2012 wedding!

Since getting out of debt, I’ve built up a $6,000 balance in my 401(k), which is offered through my current job as a machine operator. I’ve even begun funneling some extra cash into a regular brokerage account, too.”

Jen and Travis Smith“We used side hustles to pay off $53,000 in debt last year.”

Jen, 27, and Travis Smith, 30, an acupuncturist and aircraft mechanic in St. Petersburg, Fla.

“Thinking back on it, I can hardly believe that my husband Travis and I paid off $53,000 in student loans last year, which is about 60 percent of our combined gross income. (I earned roughly $43,000; Travis brought in $46,000.)

After our October 2015 wedding, we had $86,000 of debt between us: a $7,000 car loan and $79,000 of student debt. This was a huge hurdle for our big-picture goal of homeownership, so we attacked our loans head-on—immediately putting $9,000 of wedding cash toward our debt.

Then we slashed our food budget by more than $200 per month. (A little meal planning goes a long way.) We also opted for a cheaper apartment with no amenities, which dropped our rent by about $75 per month, and funneled our $3,000 tax refund straight toward our debt.

The biggest game changer was stepping up our side hustles. Travis did everything from filing papers to stuffing newspaper coupons, while I took on freelance acupuncture work. This boosted our take-home pay to about $5,800 per month. Fortunately, St. Petersburg is a relatively affordable city—plus we were committed to our goal—so our expenses rarely exceeded $1,000, leaving plenty left over to put toward debt.

We still have about $19,000 left to pay off, but we plan to knock it all out this year.”

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77 comments

    Thank you for sharing 🙂 so nice to read someone reach their goals on an income that is more aligned with most people. Very inspiring ~ good job!

    It’s really easy to sound like a hero paying off debt when you make $100,000 a year. My wife and I make about $40,000 a year. Let’s see you do it with that, two cars, a $1700 a month apartment, two cats, and $100,000 in debt.

    Find a way to drive one car, find an apt much less than 1700 (unless you live in an inflated city, and if you can give away your cats to a family who can afford it. Do you have cable? Do you have a way to sublet another room in your apt if you have to keep it? Just ideas and trying to help.

    Not to come across rude Adam, but I think you missed the gist of the article. Nobody on here states they make 100k a year. The recurring theme is sacrifice, and identifying what you can scale back on or change in order to increase your contributions to your debt. Anybody can come up with excuses as to why they can’t do this or that all day long, but these individuals just figured out how to make it happen with the cards they were dealt.

    Sell one car. Give away your cats. Downgrade apartment. Sounds like you don’t have any kids since you didn’t mention any. Downgrade or eliminate cable, cheaper cell phone bill, food prepping rather than eating out, etc. It’s not rocket science.

    If he can’t afford to feed those cats or give them adequate care why wouldn’t he give them to someone who can? And I assume he can’t based on what he said they bring in and all the expenses he listed.

    I make 24k as a teacher. My rent is$800/month. I have a dog. I paid off over 75k in the last​ ten years. As long as you are making excuses you are giving yourself permission to not just do it. It sounds like you just decided to accept debt.

    Although I think these people’s judgements of you are unfounded, unfair and just plain rude, it sounds to me as if you didn’t even read the article before commenting. None of those featured in the article make over $100K even in combined income and the majority make less than you and your spouse.

    I think Adam is saying that he and his wife make $40k combined. The couple in this article make $89k combined. Also, I don’t have any pets, but I do understand that giving them up would be similar to me giving up my kids.

    Adam, I agree that maybe it’s time to move. Perhaps, try researching cities that aren’t so costly to live in. Paying less rent could really take some of the pressure off.

    Speaking as someone who does make $100,000 not including husband’s income of 80000…it is definitely not what you make. We have been foolish with spending and have debt. Shame on us! Kudos to those in the articles who have been able to make those sacrifices and get sent paid off. Debt is certainly a constant stressor in our life and we are beginning to make changes to get started.

    Jeff is spot on. Cats are money pits. I spend 12k a year each! That’s $114,000/year!!! It’s crazy!
    (I spend much less on the oldest one. That’s why the numbers don’t exactly add up)

    Adam you sound irresponsible and bitter…. I made about that with four kids and I’ve never been on welfare. Manage your finances. 100k in debt is insane!

    Perhaps people with a household income should not take on the financial responsibility of two cats. Furthermore, why are you spending 1700 a month in rent? As someone who lives in downtown LA you could downgrade an apartment and save hundreds a month. Also, getting rid of a car, taking extra time to carpool, or using public transportation is a huge monthly saving. The moral of the entire article is to cut spending, not to expect that you can have everything and still pay off loans

    Piece o cake. Keep applying for better paying jobs. Move if you have too. Depends on how bad you want it! You didn’t get 100k in debt for no reason.

    Well I’m a mother of 5 & don’t make 1000,000 a year I also have animals if I can pay my debt off so can you. This doesn’t happen over night you take one step after the next.

    It would depend on the state you live in. If you live in California, the wages are higher…but so is everything else: housing, food, transportation, you name it!

    I was searching for a California reference. I read all of the stories and was hoping there would be a family story to give me inspiration. Was glad there was. Our apartment is $1710 a month for a 2 bedroom. My husband commutes and my kids are at 3 different schools that aren’t within walking/biking distance and you have to pay a lot of $$ to bus them or to use the boys and girls clubs with transportation. My husband commutes an hour away and I work odd jobs and get my kids around. We are looking for creative ways to incorporate the “side hustle” and could definitely cut spending; had cable in 2010 and cut it and never looked back. Have slashed phone bills and don’t have subscriptions to anything. California is just expensive all around; we aren’t in a major city and cost of living is still nuts. We can definitely do more to save and attack debt though. Glad you referenced location. 🙂

    These are nice but I would gladly trade places with any of them. 230K in student loan debt making 70K salary before taxes. Paying $800/mo in student loan payments and loan balances increasing every month because I can’t even cover the interest.

    Brent, are you under an income sensitive repayment plan? I’m not sure if you qualify but you may want to check. A friend of mine earns $55k a year and pays $148 on student loans under that plan.
    Good luck!

    True, IBR plans seem like a good think until you watch that loan grow because of interest. Although it may get forgiven in 20-25 yrs, I believe you owe taxes on the forgiven amount and by that time you would owe in taxes your original amount

    How did accruing $230K in student loans seem like a good idea? I get that student loans are necessary for most of us, but $230K? That’s way too much debt to take on for the privilege of $70K job. Why would you willingly do that? So who will cover your defaulted loans when you can’t? Taxpayers. GRRR!

    If the only consideration were financial, you’re right it’s a terrible investment. Pursuing a profession you love, that helps others and that you are good at is important too. We often don’t get our pick of the cheapest graduate programs either since you have to apply and be accepted. Cost of education and rediculous interest rates put students in this situation.

    I’m in the same boat and totally agree with you. Plus, I have a kid. It’s not as simple as sacrificing or cutting back. Debt is overwhelming and stressful.

    That’s not how those student loans work. Taxpayers don’t pay the loans. Those loans will stay with you until they’re paid off. Even if you file for bankruptcy, you still have to pay those student loans.

    Adam- that’s because he doesn’t live in a state lol CA & gets 100k a year. It’s easy for people that make a lot of $$ to pay off debt. People in other states think 1700 a month in rent is like paying a million dollars. Your not irresponsible….

    Racking up $100K in debt while earning just $40K is the definition of irresponsible. He is living far beyond his means.

    Adam, maybe you should get rid of those cats. They are obviously the impetus of your $100k debt and doing so would enormously improve your financial health.

    In all of this I’ve not heard about a single parent of a teenager and those demands plus the debt demands and life.

    I know I’m going to get a lot of eye-rolls on this, but think it needs to be said. I am the sole provider of a family of 6. Living debt free is enormously empowering, and very easy to do. It’s basic math. Spend less than you make. I get student debt, I had it and paid it off. I also get the unexpected life situations (4 kids). What I see in our culture is people refusing to live within their means. People are desperate to buy things they can’t afford (to impress other people). It permeates our culture and no one wants to take responsibility for it. Adam above mentions $1700 month rent on $40k?! Find a new place to live! Get rid of the cats and a car! $100k in debt! You may want to find a second job as well as someone who is going to give you sound financial advice.

    Serisouly, everyone telling him to get rid of the cats.. Come on people. That’s just petty. Downsizing to one car and a smaller appartment may work. However, depending on where Adam lives $1700 for rent is cheap. I’m living in orange county, and I am lucky if I can find a studio for less than $1800. Location matters.

    Adam keep your kitties,they are not the cause of your financial burden here. I can’t believe so many people are telling him to get rid of his cats,that is cold n uncaring to him and to the cats. I have had cats my whole life and make a very low income. I have always taken very good care of my kitties and one lived very happily and healthy to 23 years old. Cats do not cost much money to take good care of.
    I do think you need to find a way to lower that rent and other expenses where you can.

    Lol I think most are being funny about the cats BUT he brought up the cats. Meaning he is taking into account that they are not cheap. Had the cats not been one od they’re financial burden he wouldn’t have mention them. And the person who suggested it at first gave him advice on way more then just the cats. That’s when the cat comments started.

    Certainly not the sole reason, but fees for pets in apartments can be very expensive (perhaps explaining such an exorbitant rate for rent), along with high quality food and litter for 2 cats, vet bills, etc. It’s an unnecessary cost. And he’s invited critiques by airing his situation.

    All of you are right, and all of you are wrong. In a good way. As you came together pitching words. Try putting money where your mouth is. If each of you worked together as a group, a family, of sorts. You as a group, would see quicker results. Retire early while you can still physically can. It took the amount of time to create, use same methods to undo what’s been done. Together. Quicker, better, happier life.

    The cats clearly are not the problem. Pet children are almost as important to people as their actual children. I am surprised people don’t understand that. There is a great book thst analyzes the reasons people get ahead financially and why people who earn a fortune are often broke. It’s not how much comes in, its how much goes out. This book talks about different attitudes toward spending.
    https://www.amazon.com/Millionaire-Next-Door-Surprising-Americas/dp/1589795474

    I’ve heard rumors that student loans will be forgiven after 20 years of faithfully paying on them. I’m on the income based repayment plan, and have over $150,000 in debt from my undergraduate degree and law school. I work full time, make my monthly payments, live with my parents, and drive a 16 year old car I bought outright. I’m studying for my CPCU so I don’t really have time for a committed second job, such as bartending or serving (although I have experience doing both).

    So my question is, does anyone know if student loans get forgiven, or is that truly a rumor and I’ll be SOL paying off my student loans until I’m 80?

    (And please don’t get me wrong, I want to pay off my loans, and despite the repayment plan I put away as much as I can each month to pay towards my student loans, I just can’t imagine being able to buy a house, pay for a wedding, and save up 8 months worth of living expenses for a “rainy day” fund while putting more than half of my paycheck toward my student loans (if I want to pay off within 15 years)). I’m truly doing my best to be financially responsible.

    Thanks everybody.

    Do you really want to be in debt with student loans for 20 years. You will be paying your student loans when your children (that you don’t even have yet) graduate.

    If you can’t pay your debts. Don’t worry. Just live pay check to pay check and pay the minimum balance until the end of your life. They can’t make you finish paying your 100k debt if you’re dead.

    Trump is lowering the student loan repayment to 12.5% of your income (max) for 10 or 15 (undecided) years before loans are forgiven.
    In certain areas (normally rural) of higher need and jobs for non-profits (VA Hospital) loans are forgiven in 10 years currently.
    Make your payments and don’t refinance thru a private lender, or you will be repaying your whole life.

    And note: you cannot default on federal student loans. So taxpayers will not be covering it. But it’s ridiculous the govt got involved in student loans to begin with.

    $1700 is pretty reasonable for rent in most large cities. In San Diego, unless you want to live far inland and commute 2 hours each way, rent starts at about $1500. LA as someone mentioned $1800.

    I teach architecture where the starting intern salary (after 5-8 years of school) is still under 40k. Students ask me all the time how they will pay off their loans and I have no reasonable response. But, we need architects …not all careers pay well.
    (I was very lucky and didn’t have any myself)

    Btw …4 children shouldn’t be “an unexpected life situation” unless you marry someone with kids already. Birth control exists.

    Pretty sure the OP meant unexpected things happen when one has 4 kids, not that having the kids was unexpected.

    help i need to payoff $250,000 to be debt free im in pre foreclosure there not being to friendly in modification and mediation is around the corner technically we should be out on the street. im not giving up can u guide me.

    All please keep in mind that we are not here to judge but offer tips and hope from real world stories. We don’t know each other’s stories…we’re all just trying to get ahead. It’s all about choices. I can say this because I am that person that started out with just $30k a year, I had a young child and debt. My story is just as different as all of your’s. But, what I do have in common with everyone is that I had to cut back to free up money. I also worked hard, grew my career and pay off the highest interest debt first while paying the minimum on others. After the highest was paid off, I moved to the next, etc. I can now say that I have worked my way to a six figure income and my debt is limited to my student loans (the lowest interest debt), which was needed to get to that income level. The principle here and in the article, is that this method can be scaled to any income and any debt. Remember, it’s how we get out of debt that matters : )

    Income base repayment has huge penalties, fees if you miss a payment and virtually impossible to pay. Plus many financial professionals say it’s just another adjustable or balloon rate. And this whole idea that your debt is forgiven after X amount of years is just to bait you into a contract agreement that the financial institutions can set up a payment arrangement on their terms. Once your income goes up payments go up as well, and you have to provide them with your w-2 or 1040 From. So just like this article states you have to make major compromises (which you shouldn’t have to if you have a degree). I question the merits of this article since there are way more stories of hardship and catastrophes for individuals and family members alike dealing with the burden of student debt.

    And side hustle? I mean come on you worked hard as it is, you got a degree and are paying a huge price for it, and now you have to work even harder? Even the Laws of diminishing returns proves that working harder doesn’t fruit larger returns. Aside from all this the only way you can have an impact on your student loan debt is to lower your principal first, but again you can’t apply payment directly to principle until you cover interest first. And how are you gunna do that when the majority of ppl live paycheck to paycheck. Frankly the idea your charged interest without having to consider the fact of individual life expectancy and employment period (or gaps) is so malevolent. If lucky an individual only has a life expectancy 60ish or 70ish at best, and losing employment time that he will never get back now has to take years out of his future life to pay his debt before he or she dies. Just like some of the critics of this article states earlier, cutting back on what? Healthier food? Better quality of living? Cut back on your life? To what pay your student loans off? Sure pay your loans off so your health goes down and now you have no money to cover medical bills because you used all the money you could of had potential saved up, in exchange for your student loans. Studies have shown a better quality of living increases life expectancy – just an FYI.

    And for the couples that paid 53k in student debt your youth is gone. I pray they will still be able to work in the future and that their parents are still alive so they can still be freeloaders for dinner, or at least until their parents move in with them.

    Another thing that ties with this issues is the mortgage crisis. Remember part of the reason the mortgage crisis was created was because of the expectation of income or future expectation of higher income to pay mortgage debt. When that expectation wasn’t met look what happen in 2008. This article smells fishy something unrealistic about it that doesn’t make sense to me. It has a undertone in influencing readers of this article to work more (aka side hustle), starve, or move in a less developed environment. It also seems to try to encourage readers in similar situations to work within a problem instead of fixing the root cause. It’s like a doctor treating the symptoms not the root cause. So instead of finding the root cause they hire writers to publish articles like this one, they lobbies to push polices to seize your income tax. Basically and pardon my lack of a better word. But it’s bullish!! The point of an education is to make more money if your working in a career that doesn’t require a degree I am sorry not sorry, but you should not have to pay a dam cent of your student loan. plain and simple. Education institution have to be put in there place. And if corporate America doesn’t wanna pay you the cost of your degree then they should stop handing out loans and degrees for them. They have to have accountability just as they require from their employees.

    You have to search outside of a Money and Banking class for a real solution for this. And the solution to the problem is in the same way it was created, out of nothing. It was created out of nothing it should be wiped out the same way. Money is created from nothing and interest is extra money created out of nothing. So Cancel/Void the student loan debt and allow the Financial Institutions to print the money to cover the balance and it’s a win win on both sides. It’s like a reboot on a computer. Is like adding coolant to an economic engine that’s over heating.

    I’ll leave it at this I don’t need fixing the system needs fixing. In the words of Janet Yellen Federal Reserve Speaker in her speech concerning the problem of the US economy to congress…”it’s a structural problem”

    Anyone here debt free and are interested in sharing their story? I’m looking for someone to feature on my blog. If interested shoot me an email from my site.

    To people trying to buy a house you should make the regular payment when it is due. After that you should contact the loan company about 2 weeks later whren you get paid again and pay about half of another payment and specify that you want to pay that amount on the principle.

    When I left my ex-husband in 2013, we were $219,000 + in debt. Tack on 2,000 for the lawyer for our divorce and that brings it to over $221,000. He decided to completely avoid and ignore all of the money that we owed, and just said he couldn’t pay anything towards any of the bills. That left me to deal with 10 years of our bad decisions and spending, all by myself. I decided that going bankrupt wouldn’t teach me anything, so I started trying to figure out how to pay off the debt. My credit at that point was around 520, and I felt hopeless. I put everything down on one piece of paper and started making plans on how to pay everything off. I began making payment arrangements and contacting all of my creditors so I could sign up for payment plans or even settlements. I also had to tackle a house in foreclosure and IRS debt. I did it all on my own, without any sort of credit counseling or legal help with the debt. Fast forward to today…..I have paid off almost all of my debt..I have $10,000 left to go (this is one debt, and my last one to pay off) and I’m constantly trying to reconfigure things to throw as much $ towards this last debt. My credit score is now 767!!! I have a savings account that money automatically goes into every week! I’m paying my own way through school now to further my career. I don’t have one single creditor calling me looking for money. Oh, and my income is around 36,000 a year. You can do anything you put your mind to! You just have to really be serious about it and make it your main focus. It’s the best feeling in the world to have all of that weight lifted off of your shoulders.

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