They Paid Off $218K of Debt—Without Windfalls or Six-Figure Salaries
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Think you need a six-figure salary to get ahead of the financial game? These six may change your mind. Together, they paid off $218,000 of debt—without huge salaries or major windfalls, just discipline, hard work and serious determination to be debt-free.

Here’s how they did it.

Francis John“I slayed $12,000 of student loans while earning $8.30 an hour.”

Francis John, 32, machine operator in Sioux Falls, S.D.

“I decided to tackle my $12,000 student loan balance in spring 2009. I was recently engaged and felt inspired to be debt-free for my bride.

The problem was that I was only earning $8.30 an hour as a bellman at a local hotel, bringing in around $1,300 to $1,500 a month, depending on my hours. Though I was already living pretty frugally and had some wiggle room in my budget, I knew I could cut back.

The first thing I did was identify expenses to scale back for maximum impact: rent, phone and food. So I downgraded from a one-bedroom to a studio, lowering my living expenses from $600 to $450. I also got a prepaid cell phone plan, cutting my $80 bill by more than half, and stopped eating out almost entirely—opting instead to eat at my future mother-in-law’s house.

Thanks to these little tweaks—plus a well-timed increase in tips at work—I was slowly able to up my debt contributions. By June 2011, I was paying off $700 per month. I made my final payment three years later, just a few months before my May 2012 wedding!

Since getting out of debt, I’ve built up a $6,000 balance in my 401(k), which is offered through my current job as a machine operator. I’ve even begun funneling some extra cash into a regular brokerage account, too.”

Jen and Travis Smith“We used side hustles to pay off $53,000 in debt last year.”

Jen, 27, and Travis Smith, 30, an acupuncturist and aircraft mechanic in St. Petersburg, Fla.

“Thinking back on it, I can hardly believe that my husband Travis and I paid off $53,000 in student loans last year, which is about 60 percent of our combined gross income. (I earned roughly $43,000; Travis brought in $46,000.)

Related: Here's how to save $50,000.

After our October 2015 wedding, we had $86,000 of debt between us: a $7,000 car loan and $79,000 of student debt. This was a huge hurdle for our big-picture goal of homeownership, so we attacked our loans head-on—immediately putting $9,000 of wedding cash toward our debt.

Then we slashed our food budget by more than $200 per month. (A little meal planning goes a long way.) We also opted for a cheaper apartment with no amenities, which dropped our rent by about $75 per month, and funneled our $3,000 tax refund straight toward our debt.

The biggest game changer was stepping up our side hustles. Travis did everything from filing papers to stuffing newspaper coupons, while I took on freelance acupuncture work. This boosted our take-home pay to about $5,800 per month. Fortunately, St. Petersburg is a relatively affordable city—plus we were committed to our goal—so our expenses rarely exceeded $1,000, leaving plenty left over to put toward debt.

We still have about $19,000 left to pay off, but we plan to knock it all out this year.”

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April 20, 2017

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