North Carolina couple that paid off $300,000 in 3 years credits this mental shift

Bernadette Joy
Swapping two cars for one, and budgeting for the occasional ride-share, was one of the ways Bernadette Joy and her husband became debt-free.
Courtesy Bernadette Joy

After my husband and I paid off $300K of debt, including our house, in three years, the question people asked me the most was, "What did you sacrifice?" Sacrifice is a heavy word. I think that mindset can discourage paying off debt, because it can feel like you have to give up things that you love.

Instead, I think of those steps as "swaps," trading in things that aren't serving you for strategies that will help you accomplish your goal.

As I traded expenses and found ways to save, I began making debt payments multiple times a week, even for just a few dollars. Why? With each, I could put up a new sticky note on my fridge, where I was tracking my debt, with that new, smaller number. Seeing that number go down every day kept me motivated.

Here are a few strategies along those lines that worked for us and might work for you too.

Bernadette Joy's sticky note debt tracking method in action.
Courtesy Bernadette Joy

Cut back on things you don't use or value

At first, I canceled my Netflix subscription just to save money. I found that this worked for me because with the time I got back not binge-watching TV dramas, it led me to discover a world of DIY content on YouTube that helped me take steps toward achieving my goal.

I watched videos about paying off debt, starting a business, and how to cook delicious food on a budget. I not only saved that $12 subscription fee every month, but I attribute our ability to get our grocery bill down to $50 a week thanks to the tips I learned on YouTube.

Likewise, I'm not a coffee drinker, but I kept getting asked to go for coffee by friends and potential work collaborators. Instead of spending $5.75 on an oat matcha latte I didn't really want, I asked if we could catch up while walking in the park. Or if we were more friendly, I would invite them to a free yoga class.

Ultimately, I was able to use that money for something I actually needed, and that swap helped me make fitness and my friendships a priority, without breaking the bank.

Bernadette Joy's husband AJ Maulion enjoying one of the couple's regular game nights.
Courtesy Bernadette Joy

Become a fan of the 'early bird special'

If you're working towards paying off debt, you can still go out to eat, you just need to think creatively. Look for happy hour deals and early bird specials so you can still enjoy the ambience of a restaurant while you're on a budget.

Or instead of going out, we would have friends over and make it a theme party. For my birthday last year, we had a K-pop theme party, complete with karaoke in our living room, games, and a potluck of Asian-themed dishes, each of us contributing a dish.

I also recommend embracing the occasional breakfast for dinner at home. It's inexpensive and easy for even the worst cooks. In Charlotte, I can make French toast, eggs, fruit, and bacon for less than $3 per person.

Rethink your transportation

Depending on where you live, take a moment to look over your transportation options. Where can you walk? Or use public transportation? And where a car is necessary, consider carpooling or looking into your company's remote work option if there is one available to you. All these things can help save on car expenses.

When we started to pay off my loans, my car was due on its lease. We crunched the numbers and ultimately decided not to renew or get a new car, but downsize to one car for our family. This forced me to be more strategic in planning my outings to minimize unnecessary travel.

After we became debt-free last year, we revisited the possibility of a second car again. While we have been able to get by with $100 a month budgeted towards ride-share apps in the past two years, having a second car again would add at least $480 to our monthly expenses when you factored in a car payment, gas, insurance, and parking. That's $5,760 a year we had been able to save without it. So even though we can now afford it, we've decided to remain a one car household.

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Video by David Fang

Shop for new-to-you clothes

I love all things fashion, and even with my commitment to pay off debt I still found myself in need of retail therapy every now and then. I realized that it was the thrill of the hunt and finding something new that I enjoyed, not spending a lot of money.

My favorite thing to do in the fall and spring is to clear out my closet of anything I wasn't using anymore. I took the clothes to secondhand stores like Buffalo Exchange, Clothes Mentor, or Uptown Cheapskate to trade those clothes for store credit.

Then I would use the store credit to get something new. The caveat is that I could never expect to get a huge amount back. Still, it was usually enough to get one or two new pieces. It was a great way to keep my closet up to date on a budget.

Keep your debt-free journey fun

The biggest misconception I hear about paying off debt is that no fun is allowed. And to be honest, if you don't enjoy the journey, you're not likely to stick to it.

My husband AJ loves board games. They're a passion we cultivated from trading expensive dinners out for those game nights with friends. So we set a regular allowance for board games, and after we became debt-free, AJ traveled to his first board game convention.

For me, it's music. Even through our journey, we learned to sacrifice some smaller expenses to still be able to see "Hamilton" when it came to town. Did I have to eat at home every day for a month in order to make those tickets work? Yes, and it was worth it.

Paying off debt definitely means making choices, but it doesn't have to be miserable. Saving and budgeting for activities we absolutely loved allowed us to swap paying off debt for the rest of our lives to enjoying freedom from debt today.

Bernadette Joy is a personal finance enthusiast based in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is currently enjoying #debtfreelife after paying off $300,000 of debt in three years. Follow her fun, debt-free tips at @bernadebtjoy.

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