5 strategies that helped regular people pay off tens of thousands of dollars in debt

"I am very visually motivated, so we came up with a visual aid to remind us of our progress."

The McNeely family.
Courtesy Talaat and Tai McNeely

The average American has $90,460 in debt, including credit cards, mortgages, student loans, and more, according to a CNBC Select analysis of Experian data. By age, that breaks down to an average $78,396 for millennials, $135,841 for Gen Xers, and $96,984 for baby boomers.

Those figures may sound daunting, but there are strategies you can employ to knock out even large debts more quickly. Here's what five ordinary couples did that worked and allowed them to, collectively, pay off $1 million in debt.

Bernadette Joy Cruz-Maulion and AJ Maulion.
Courtesy Bernadette Joy Cruz-Maulion

1. Adopt a minimalist lifestyle

Bernadette Joy Maulion and her husband AJ Maulion paid off more than $300,000 in debt over three years. The Charlotte, North Carolina, couple sent Bernadette's full salary toward their debts and adopted a minimalist lifestyle so they could live off a portion of AJ's income.

Some of their big lifestyle changes included downgrading from two cars to one, which saved $400 a month, and subbing in free or cheap activities for nights out with friends. They trimmed their restaurant budget to about $100 per month. "When people ask me for advice [on how to save money], I say, 'Become a really good cook,'" Bernadette told Grow previously. 

Read more: How a one-income, minimalist lifestyle helped a couple pay off $300,000 in debt in 3 years

Arrest Your Debt founder Ryan Luke and his wife Courtney.
Courtesy Ryan Luke

2. Find ways to boost your income

Emily Glover and her husband Dan paid off more than $80,000 in debt over one year.

One of their strategies was looking for ways to bring in more money. Emily increased her freelance copywriting prices and was able to lock down an "anchor" client who provided consistent monthly work with flexible hours. As a result, she boosted her income by about $1,000 per month, all of which went straight to paying off debt.

Read more: How we paid off over $80,000 in one year and changed our approach to debt

Emily Glover and her husband Dan.
Photo by Emily Glover

3. Use visual tools for motivation

Ryan Luke and his wife Courtney paid off $241,000 in nine years.

They cut back as much as possible on discretionary expenses such as video games and dining out, and prioritized which debts to focus on while paying the minimum on others.

"I am very visually motivated, so we came up with a visual aid to remind us of our progress and our goal," Ryan told Grow previously. He and Courtney placed a glass jar on their kitchen countertop and filled it with marbles, with each marble representing $1,000 they owed on their mortgage. At the end of each month, they would remove the marbles based on how much they paid.

"Every day I would walk past that glass jar or sit next to it when I ate breakfast or dinner," he said. "It was a constant reminder and something I needed to stay motivated."

Read more: We paid off $241,000 and became debt-free in 9 years: Here's our best advice

Talaat and Tai McNeely of His and Her Money.
Courtesy Talaat and Tai McNeely

4. Make the most of little changes

Tai and Talaat McNeely of His and Her Money paid off $330,000 of mortgage and related debt on their dream home in five years. "It was an accumulation of a lot of little things that added up to hitting one big goal," says Tai.

To earn extra cash, the couple started doing mystery shopping, earning anywhere from $5 to $100 per job. They held a yearly garage sale and sent all the profits to the debt payoff. Any extra money they saved by trimming expenses or earned with a raise or side hustle went toward the principal.

"The $20 bill, the $5 bill. A lot of times people won't get out of debt because they don't think that kind of trade-off is going to make a difference," she says. "Well, now we're sitting in a debt-free home, and we can do whatever we want to do, especially in the middle of a pandemic, because we started with $20."  

Read more: 'Stacking Benjamins' host: How a couple paid off $330,000 in 5 years and more stories of conquering debt

Dr. Disha Spath and her husband Josh.
Courtesy Disha Spath

5. Capitalize on big lifestyle shifts

Dr. Disha Spath and her husband paid off $208,000 in student loans, car loans and mortgage debt in under 18 months. Spath, who started the blog The Frugal Physician, said the couple's strategies included the debt snowball approach, putting all of our extra monthly savings towards the smallest loan until it was paid off.

They also made a big lifestyle change: They sold their home to become renters. Afterwards, their housing expenses dropped by about $350 per month, and they put their savings toward their debt. Renting also cut out unexpected maintenance and home improvement costs for their primary residence, freeing up more money in their budget.

Read more: I paid off $200,000 of student loans in 18 months with the help of this plan

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