In 2008, my wife and I seemed the picture of the American dream: We were college-educated newlyweds with good jobs, a nice condo and a brand-new car. But, as I realized one day while looking at our finances, we actually weren’t doing very well at all: We’d racked up $52,000 of student loans, car loans and credit card debt.
Once it sunk in, we committed to doing whatever it took to break free—from cutting daily expenses to trading in our new car. I even delivered pizzas part time. It took us 18 months to pay that all off, which gave us peace of mind and more flexibility as a family.
Years later, I still remember how it felt to be drowning in debt. I would have done almost anything to help us pay it off faster. That’s a sentiment I share with these five, who went to extreme measures to pay off thousands.
Zack, 29, and Jen McCullock, 27, a project manager and nonprofit program supervisor in Oklahoma City, Okla.
Back in 2014, Zack and Jen McCullock were busy paying down $50,000 of debt they’d accumulated from student loans, car loans and medical expenses. They’d successfully cut enough costs—by swapping insurers, getting their phone bills covered by work and downgrading their cable package—to pay off about $6,000 in three months. Still, they felt their $800 rent payment was standing in the way of faster progress.
One night over dinner, Zack brought up the idea of temporarily living in a camper. “We weren’t making much progress, so I thought, let’s do something extreme,” he says. Though they initially brushed it off, some quick calculations showed this could help them eliminate their debt within the year.
So they put a plan in motion: They purchased a $3,400 camper (using cash from savings) and spent about $300 on small renovations. Then they sold some belongings, put others in storage—and moved into the 100-square-foot camper.
At first, it felt like an adventure. But after about three months, reality set in—as did frustrations over cramped space, never having alone time and constantly running out of hot water. “It was definitely a test of patience,” Zack says. “We had to constantly remind ourselves that the payoff would be worth it.”
And, they say, it was: After 11 months, the McCullocks sold the camper—for three times the amount they’d purchased it for—and used the proceeds to submit their last debt payment. They celebrated with the nice dinner they’d been looking forward to for months.
They’ve since moved into an apartment in downtown Oklahoma City, but are still focused on living simply in order to hit their financial goals. They’re on track to max out their retirement accounts and look forward to using some of their freed-up funds to travel more.
Jen, 28, and Travis Smith, 30, an acupuncturist and aircraft mechanic in St. Petersburg, Fla.
After tying the knot in October 2015, Jen and Travis Smith were on the hook for about $86,000 of debt: $79,000 student loans, plus a $7,000 car loan. Wanting to start off their marriage on the right financial track, the newlyweds kicked their repayment plans into high gear.
They just crossed the debt-free finish line at the beginning of September 2017, thanks to income-boosting side hustles, banking tax refunds, slashing their monthly expenses and one other game-changing hack: never paying full price for anything.
"We quit buying groceries at the more convenient (and expensive) grocery chains and opted for budget-friendly stores like Aldi," says Jen. "It's out of the way and the selection isn't as great, but doing this, along with meal planning and couponing, shaves about $200 a month off my grocery bill."
The Smiths also swapped in Walmart for Target and began buying clothes at Goodwill and ThredUp instead of the mall. They've applied the same idea to their health care expenses: Joining a religious nonprofit where members cost-share medical bills saved them $1,500 in the last year and they cut another $250 by purchasing prescriptions through a discounted online provider.
Discount sites like Restaurants.com, Groupon and LivingSocial have saved them about $300 on everything from teeth cleanings and tire alignments to tickets to events in the community, says Jen. "If you do just a little bit of research, you'll find that you very rarely have to pay full price for most things."
This isn’t to say it came without sacrifices. There were time the Smiths had to skip out on budget-busting activities because they couldn’t find discounts. “Missing out on time with friends definitely stung more than putting off trips or furnishing our house,” Jen says. “But over the years, we found friends who wanted to spend time with us and didn’t need the ‘going out’ part.”
In the end, The Smiths say they have no regrets. Not only did they hit their total goal in just under two years, but their efforts helped them pay off $50,000 in the first year alone.
Editor’s note: Marianne Hayes contributed reporting.
Kat Tretina, 32, a writer in Orlando, Fla.
If you told Kat Tretina seven years ago that a successful horse braiding business would help her pay off her student loans three years ahead of schedule, she’d have called you crazy. But inspiration struck one day when her friend canceled their plans, explaining she needed to save money in order to pay her horse braider $100 the following day.
While Tretina didn’t have any experience with horses or animal grooming, she could do a mean French braid and was looking for a side gig. “My student loans were a huge burden on me, and I couldn't afford to make extra payments on my salary alone. I had to increase my income with extra work, [even if that] meant sacrificing my free time," she says. “Horse braiding [seemed like] something I could pick up to start making money quickly.”
Setting out to teach herself a new skill, Tretina watched instructional videos, ordered $20 worth of supplies and practiced on her friend’s horse. She quickly realized why people can charge so much for this work: It’s time consuming, your hands tire quickly and you deal with a lot of crap—literally. But the idea of earning extra cash was motivation enough.
Once she’d mastered a few styles, she researched mid-level horse shows in her area, where there was likely to be high demand. “My first show, I just had a cardboard sign that said ‘horse braiding.’ After a few minutes, a lady asked if I could braid her daughter’s pony,” she says. She ended up staying busy the whole day—and raked in $500.
It wasn’t long before Tretina was consistently using her side gig cash to apply an extra $500 to $750 toward her student loan principals, which helped her pay them off completely 18 months later. “I had to sacrifice my weekends and early mornings [to do this]. There was no social life at this point. I had to say no to parties and getting drinks on the weekend since I had to be up at 3 a.m. the next day,” Tretina says. “But having that student loan payoff date in mind kept me going.”
Today, Tretina earns an average of $1,000 per month with her side business—though she’s made as much as $1,000 per day at larger shows, where she can demand a higher fee.