I went from owing $260,000 to a net worth of $1 million in 10 years: Here is how I got started

“Small steps over time made a big difference.”

Cori Arnold is the founder of Cornball Productions.
Courtesy Cori Arnold

A decade ago, I had amassed $260,000 of debt consisting of $141,000 in student loans, $45,000 on a loss-generating duplex, $22,000 in credit cards, and $52,000 on a fixer-upper. 

Even though professionally I worked as a financial analyst and finance manager, handling accounting and other business concerns for large companies, I often felt like I was running from behind when it came to my own money. 

One day, I was watching a Suze Orman special and a light bulb went off. Orman brought a woman on stage and showed her a rack of clothes and a pile of cash. She asked the woman which one she preferred to have. She said the cash, and I agreed. 

At the time, I had planned on working until a traditional retirement age and thought that I would be making various house, car, and miscellaneous payments for the rest of my life. But the visual simplicity of Orman's example got me thinking. 

Logically, I understood that every time I bought something I didn't need or truly enjoy, I was trading it for cash. But I had never seen it laid out quite so clearly before. And I started wondering if there was another way I could approach my finances. But I knew I wouldn't be able to make any changes without first knowing exactly what I owed

When I took the time to write out all the details of my debt — total balances, monthly payments, interest rates, and annual interest expense — I was shocked at where my money was going, particularly how much I was paying in interest every single year. That was the second turning point that inspired me to start doing things differently. 

Today, thanks to some key strategies, I paid off that $260,000 of debt in five years, started focusing on building wealth, and this year I reached a net worth of $1 million. Here is how I got started. 

I tracked my financial details

I started a debt tracker in a simple Excel spreadsheet. And I updated it every two weeks as my paychecks came in. For a long time I also had a notebook where I wrote down my expenses. 

Tracking reveals patterns and opportunities. Creating a consistent routine, and having a record of my progress helped me focus my thoughts, which in turn started to influence my money habits for the better. 

When I began this process, one of my immediate goals was to significantly reduce my total interest expense. And having all this data to refer to in my tracker helped me create a plan to reduce and consolidate my debt. 

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I looked for ways to consolidate my debt

When I started my debt pay-off journey, I was living in a fixer-upper I had bought in 2012 with help from a construction loan. Because this was a customized loan, I initially had a higher interest rate. Once I saw in my debt tracker how much interest I was paying, I refinanced my home, and consolidated one of my student loans into the refinanced mortgage

It also soon became clear one of my biggest expenses was a duplex I had purchased as a real estate investment back in 2009, before I really gave my finances much focus. As a result, I was losing money every month and spending a lot on interest. 

It took over a year to sell the duplex, but it was ultimately a move that made a huge difference, because within two years of starting this journey, my debt balance was now at $177,000 and my annual interest expense was down to $6,500. In 2016, I sold the fixer-upper, which helped me finally pay off all of my loans. 

In addition to the refinancing, around the time my duplex sold in 2013, I decided to move some of the debt balance to a series of zero-percent interest credit cards over the course of the next couple of years. 

If you decide to go this route with consolidating your debt, I would keep some things in mind. There is usually a fee associated with transferring balances. You also have to be able to pay off the balance within the zero-percent term, otherwise you will get hit with more interest. 

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I reduced my expenses and shifted my mindset

In addition to tracking my debt, I also tracked my spending. Being intentional about my spending meant looking at all of my expenses, even seemingly small ones. One example that sticks out in my mind was a Keurig coffee machine that I'd been given. 

That machine hadn't cost me anything, but I realized I was spending $10 every week on Keurig cups. Spending an extra $10 per week added up to over $500 each year, which was $500 I could use for something I actually needed or enjoyed. So I gifted the machine to a friend who I knew would like it.

I also took an inventory of my closet and pressed pause on clothing and shoe shopping for a few years, and rarely went out to eat. But these changes didn't feel like sacrifices, because I knew I was working toward my vision of being debt-free. Those small steps over time made a big difference.

Around this time, I also started reframing the way I thought about money, and approaching it with more of an abundance mindset. Last year, I turned that into something more tangible, and started writing down 3 to 5 small, specific things I'm thankful for every morning. And I've found that actively practicing gratitude has helped me identify and pursue new opportunities. 

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I found ways to earn additional income

If you are looking to start a side hustle, my best advice is to think about your interests and skill sets and consider how you could find a way to monetize what you love. If there is something you have always wanted to learn more about, don't be afraid to give it a try.

I've had a variety of different income streams and side hustles over the years. I've tutored and worked retail part time, and currently I have two side businesses. I write books and a finance blog, and I make and sell journals and check registers through my company Cornball Productions. 

My other side hustle is flipping properties. Altogether, both solo and with my business partner Deb, I have flipped and sold three homes. In 2018, I got my Realtor's license and became a part-time real estate agent to help with the selling process. Deb and I also bought a rental property together before the pandemic. Extra income from my side hustles has been a big help on my wealth-building journey. 

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I invested consistently while I paid off my debt 

Even though my main priority was paying off my debt, I wanted to make sure that I was still investing for my future. So I made sure to contribute 10% of my paychecks to my retirement accounts throughout the process. 

Once I paid off the debt, I reviewed my budget and increased my contribution to 22% of every paycheck. Seeing my investments grow due to compound interest has been gratifying. 

There were definitely times when I found investing intimidating or even discouraging. But now, I've found that regular contributions to things like mutual funds and index funds and ETFs, being patient and staying the course, even through periods of volatility, have helped my portfolio grow over time.

This year, thanks in large part to my diverse portfolio of real estate investments, index funds and individual stocks and my employer 401(k), I was able to reach a $1 million dollar net worth. Of course, investing success is never guaranteed. While this is a strategy that I was comfortable with, be sure to look at your goals and risk tolerance prior to investing.

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I did some personal inventory

I found some great resources that helped me along the way, like Suze Orman's podcast, and books including "Grow Rich" by Napoleon Hill, "The One Thing" by Gary Keller, and "The Millionaire Next Door" by Thomas Stanley. 

But in 2018, there came a point when I realized I was struggling to stay motivated. I knew that I wouldn't be able to stick with these wealth-building goals unless I had something tangible to back it up.

It took some time to really figure out what I wanted. I went through a spell where I thought I could flip homes full time and work as an agent on the side. But I enjoyed it more as a side hustle, in part because I didn't want to spend all day on construction sites. 

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I realized that writing was truly what I enjoyed doing the most. I have loved it since I was a kid, but never pursued it. I doubted my ability, and I think the accountant part of me always thought it was too risky. But when I wrote my first book about my experience flipping houses in 2019 (that I published in March 2020 right before the pandemic), I saw how much I enjoyed it. I realized that if I didn't really try, I would regret it. 

That's when my mindset shifted again, and money became the means to the end, not my only end goal. Now I am prioritizing my financial goals so I can devote my time to accomplishing my big dream of writing a bestselling book. 

I created a goal-setting method that worked for me 

With my debt paid off, understanding the life I wanted to build with the money I was saving and investing made it easier to maintain the healthy money habits I had started to solve that $260,000 problem.  

To that end, in 2017, I started working on a goal-setting method that I call Beanstalk Goals to help me stay motivated and engaged as my circumstances changed. Here's how the process works:

  1. Clear your mind. You can do this through meditation, gratitude, affirmations, yoga, exercise, visualization — anything that helps you establish a positive mindset.
  2. Brainstorm. As you generate ideas of what you want, write them down. Focus on one area — career, family, finances — and then think about the really big thing that would make you satisfied when you're 80. Write that overarching goal at the top of your beanstalk.
  3. Break it down. Moving down from the top of your beanstalk, write down the high level steps you need to get to that goal, and then underneath them, write smaller actionable things you can do right now to accomplish them. 
  4. Track your progress. Keep track of as many details as you can. No detail is too small if it helps you recognize patterns to help you create new habits.
  5. Understand the obstacles. This isn't to discourage you. I've found that by laying out what you may be up against ahead of time, you can come up with some great potential solutions.

While you're doing this, my best advice is to be patient, persistent, and consistent. This framework has helped me a lot when I needed a boost to keep going, and it is what I use when thinking about new money and career objectives today. 

Cori Arnold is the author of "Aspirations Journal Using Beanstalk Goals," "Make Flipping Real Estate Your Part-Time Hustle," "You're Approved," and "Career Advice for Graduates." She founded Cornball Productions, which offers gratitude journals and check registers available on Amazon. She manages her blog, Will You Be Rich or Poor, which focuses on mindset and money, and has a growing Twitter following @mindsetcori. By day, she is a finance manager for a large company and she lives in rural Ohio.

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