How a 26-year-old paid off $23,000 in debt and grew her net worth to $100,000 in 2 years

"I never want anyone to think I just decided one day to become debt-free and it just happened. I was doing a lot of work."

How this 26-year-old paid off $23,000 of debt and built her net worth

In 2018, Cinneah El-Amin noticed a disconnect on her social media feeds: Personal finance and travel felt mutually exclusive. "There had to be a way to think about travel without it being a financial hindrance and to think about personal finance without shaming people who want to vacation," she recalls thinking.

With that, her travel- and personal finance-focused lifestyle blog, Flynanced, was born.

Though El-Amin didn’t start sharing her personal finance journey publicly until 2020, by that time she was already on the path to achieving two big financial goals: paying off $23,000 in credit card and student loan debt, and growing her net worth to $100,000. She reached both of those milestones within two years.

Here's how the 26-year-old business owner and product development manager at Mastercard made it happen.

She built 'foundations' to take control of her money

After graduating from a master's program in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and moving to New York City, El-Amin fell "hard into the traps of early 20s life," spending extra money on things like brunch, Ubers, and travel — and added $10,000 worth of credit card debt to her $15,000 of student loan debt.

By early 2019, she was ready to make a change. She started improving her money habits by sticking to a zero-based budget, which means she allocated every dollar of her take-home pay before it hit her bank account. She shifted her credit card debt to a balance transfer card so she could take advantage of the temporary 0% interest rate.

For the first time, El-Amin felt like she was in control of her finances because she had clarity over how much money she was making and spending. Even though she mostly made the minimum payments, she managed to eliminate $2,000 worth of debt.

The year "2019 was really about me building foundations," she says. "I never want anyone to think I just decided one day to become debt-free and it just happened. I was doing a lot of work behind the scenes."

Cinneah El-Amin.
Courtesy Cinneah El-Amin

She changed habits to avoid being 'miserable' while paying off debt

El-Amin committed to paying off the remaining $23,000 of debt in 2020. Splitting up the $23,000 into 12 monthly payments of a bit less than $2,000 each made paying off the total feel more manageable. 

She sought out ways to increase her income: She picked up side hustles like taking online surveys and built income streams with Flynanced, including online courses and paid partnerships on Instagram. And she transitioned into a new role at Mastercard, which came with a $30,000 salary bump.

While she was committed to becoming debt-free, El-Amin was determined not to feel "miserable" while doing so. She allowed herself a little room in in her budget for fun. Instead of spending money on delivery food and Uber rides, El-Amin put money towards activities she enjoyed most, namely, traveling. 

I never want anyone to think I just decided one day to become debt-free and it just happened. I was doing a lot of work behind the scenes.
Cinneah El-Amin

El-Amin used extra cash from lifestyle changes caused by the lockdown and her tax refund to make headway on her debt.

She also took advantage of the CARES Act provision for penalty-free 401(k) withdrawals to pull an unexpected $1,750 employer contribution from her old account after switching jobs. That allowed her to pay down almost all of one of her student loans. While El-Amin felt that move was important at the time, she and many other financial experts say dipping into your retirement accounts isn't a decision to make lightly, since doing so can set you back financially.

With all those efforts, El-Amin was officially debt-free by December 2020.

She maxed out her 401(k) while living in Mexico

After paying off her debt, El-Amin's net worth stood at a little less than $60,000. It helped that throughout her debt payoff journey, El-Amin still prioritized investing in her workplace-sponsored retirement plan to take advantage of her employer match and compound interest.

With her debt in the rearview mirror, El-Amin found herself with more disposable income to put toward building wealth. She set a goal to max out her 401(k) during the summer of 2021. The annual 401(k) contribution limit for 2021 is $19,500 for people younger than 50. 

One surprising factor in her success: working remotely from Tulum, Mexico, for three months. Wanting a temporary reset, El-Amin realized she could get a lot more for her dollar there than in New York. She used "travel hacking" techniques to build up her rewards from travel credit cards, meaning she could use travel credits and miles from her cards to bring down costs for her flight and other expenses.

Those savings and a lower cost of living meant El-Amin was able to contribute almost half of her paycheck to retirement savings while she traveled.

"I was spending less than half of what I was spending, even living with two roommates in New York City," she says. "And as a result, I was able to get really aggressive. During that time [in Tulum], I started saving 40% of my paycheck towards retirement. That's something I would not have been able to do if I stayed in New York, and here I was with this amazing backdrop behind me."

Cinneah El-Amin.
Courtesy Cinneah El-Amin

She spread out her extra income to build up an emergency fund and add to her health savings account and a Roth IRA. The 2021 contribution limits are $3,600 for an individual HSA and $6,000 for a Roth IRA, and she expects to max out both this year as well.

El-Amin reached her goal of maxing out her 401(k) in July — the same month she reached her $100,000 net worth goal. Now back in New York City, she's looking forward to continuing to build wealth while finding the flexibility to travel.

"We don't all have to be entrepreneurs tomorrow and give up those 9-to-5 jobs," she says. "I encourage folks to find that career that's going to ignite your passion and be something that you're not supermiserable about so it can really help you do other things."

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