When Michael and Taylor Lacy of Houston, Texas, both 30, got married in 2014, they honeymooned in the Florida Keys to celebrate. It was during this romantic getaway, after they had said "I do," that they revealed the details of their personal finances to one other. That's when they learned they owed about $61,000, made up of about $42,000 in auto loan debt and $19,000 in credit card debt.
Michael, who hadn't given much thought to his spending or borrowing habits until that point, quickly realized they weren't on solid financial ground, and it hurt his pride: "Having that feeling as a brand new husband that I let my wife down, that was a huge blow to my ego, so I never wanted to feel that feeling again," says Michael.
After the trip, they had a bank balance of only around $800. Because they had used credit card rewards points to cover the flight and they paid for the resort out of pocket, the Lacys were forced to fund their everyday expenses using credit cards.
The honeymoon, literally and figuratively, was over. They decided it would be their last trip until they could pay off their debt — which, 16 months later, they did in full.
Michael, who works in sales, and Taylor, a teacher, immediately started tackling their debt as a team. Together, they earned a combined income of about $95,000, and each month they put $3,000-$4,000 toward their debt, depending on how much extra income Michael earned from delivering food as a side hustle.
"We came home from our honeymoon, created a plan, and started budgeting and having a meeting every single month," says Michael.
Candid conversations about what motivated each of them to save helped them cut out unnecessary expenses, like trips to the hair salon or dining out. The Lacys leaned on each other whenever they experienced a setback — as happened in 2015, when Michael was laid off from his job and remained unemployed for almost five months.
During that time, he continued delivering food, taking on extra hours to make up for the lost income. He earned about $500 to $600 per week through his side hustle. Though they could've cut back on their debt payments, the Lacys were determined to keep the momentum going.
"I didn't want us to stop paying off our debt and fall back into that complacency," says Michael. "I was working longer days doing food delivery to keep our income at a certain level in order to keep us on the path that we were on."
When Michael found a new job in sales and started earning a salary consistent with his previous one, he continued delivering food in his spare time.
In addition to boosting their side hustle income, Michael and Taylor used a mix of the debt snowball method, paying off the loans with the smallest balances first, and the avalanche method, meaning they paid off the loan with the highest interest rate, but only when they had two loans with similar balances. They also maintained a zero-based budget, in which they categorized their expenses into four buckets: food, transportation, housing, and clothing. If there was money left over, it went toward their debt.
Together, they decided that sacrificing small expenses was worth it to achieve long-term goals, like being able to travel or owning their dream home.
When they officially became debt-free in February, 2016, they celebrated by taking a seven-day cruise to Cozumel, Jamaica, and the Cayman Islands. This time, they paid for their vacation outright, thanks to their new approach to financial planning.
"The best part of that trip was knowing that we weren't putting it on a credit card and bringing those costs home with us," says Michael. "We got to really enjoy ourselves to the fullest without worrying about money on our trip."
Michael says that overcoming a financial obstacle early on in their marriage strengthened their relationship. Now, they feel prepared to take on anything.
"Tackling this debt has made us have this feeling that if we come together, we can destroy whatever, because our communication is at an all-time high and I attribute it a lot to that debt-free journey," says Michael.
He suggests that the takeaway lesson, especially for couples, is to make sure you lay out your financial history on the table early, and get on the same page with your partner about how you plan to manage your finances.
Now that their money isn't tied up in old debts, the Lacys have adopted a new kind of financial lifestyle. For the last 2.5 years, they've lived solely on Taylor's teaching salary and invested Michael's earning in index funds. Their next goal is to use some of the money generated by those investments to buy their first rental property next year.
Drawing on the lessons he learned from getting out of debt, Michael now does financial coaching on the side. For couples in a similar situation, he says it helps to approach the journey as a team.
"You have to commit to not taking on more debt and then put it all out on the table," says Michael. "You have to know what you're facing, and then from there create a plan together to pay it off."
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