We paid off $200,000 in 5 years, became debt-free, and started a business: Here's our best advice

Julien Saunders
Kiersten and Julien Saunders are the married co-founders of the blog Rich & Regular.
Courtesy Julien Saunders

My wife Kiersten and I have been married for five years now, and together we've paid off $200,000 in debt, including auto loans, student loans, credit card debt, tax debt, and a mortgage. But we've come a long way. 

When the 2008 economic crisis hit, I was a recent homeowner, I was underwater on my mortgage and was barely able to pay my student loans. But there was an upside. I had just started a new entry-level job, and it was going to change my life.

In 2012, I met my wife at work when we started new roles on the same team on the same day. I ultimately spent 10 years at that company. Through hard work and perseverance, I was promoted five times and almost tripled my salary.

We launched our blog Rich & Regular in 2017. When we decided to run it full time, I left my job 2018, and Kiersten followed this spring. Our early days of paying off debt gave us both the confidence and the financial cushion we needed to pivot from one career to another.

The most important thing we learned from our journey to become debt-free is that even the toughest of times are temporary. And we are using those lessons now to do our best to thrive during this moment. 

Trust yourself, your goals, and your plan

During our debt-payoff days, there were low moments where we dreaded opening mail from the bank and had to get really creative to stay within our budget. Our investment portfolio was in a rapid free-fall, and the value of our home seemed as if it would never bounce back to its previous high. 

But rather than throw in the towel, we decided to trust. We stopped looking at our accounts obsessively and believed in the cyclical nature of the markets. We stopped fighting about the things we'd given up and believed there were delicious combinations of rice and beans we just hadn't tried yet.

It was not easy, and at times it strained our relationship, but we remained committed to building the life we wanted together.

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In addition to our employee sponsored 401(k) plans and IRAs, we opened an additional savings account that we wanted to use to eventually go towards a real estate investment. The act of simply starting to save, even small amounts, was enough to give us a feeling of progress and helped to hold us accountable towards achieving that goal. 

We eventually owned two rental properties that provided us supplemental income we would use to boost our investing even further. Today, over 10 years later, we are reaping the benefit of our decisions and we remain focused on our long-term financial goals.

Always prepare for emergencies

When my wife and I met, we were both incredibly grateful for the opportunity and excited for the increase in our income. But we knew there wouldn't always be financial smooth sailing and prepared ourselves accordingly.

Whenever we received bonus checks or any boosts in income, we maintained a low spending rate. We continued to drive our old cars, and opted to stay in a smaller home to help ensure we maintained our savings goals. When we did increase our spending, it was toward small things we knew we would both enjoy, like good French roast coffee in the morning, or high quality sheets for our bedroom. 

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For years, we lived on less than half of our combined income, choosing to save and invest the rest. By doing this, we were giving ourselves an added layer of security by ensuring that if one or both of us were to lose our job, we'd have emergency savings we could rely on.

More importantly, we established a standard of living we were both comfortable with and a firm sense of resilience. Today, these financial habits have allowed us to minimize worry and focus steadily on growing our income even during the most uncertain times.

Look for new ways to use your skills 

For years my wife and I worked in marketing roles for a hospitality company. Early on, we decided that our jobs weren't just for collecting a paycheck. We saw them as an opportunity to develop valuable skills and to identify potential entrepreneurial ventures. 

We made sure to observe where our employer was making long-term investments and especially where they were reliant on external expertise. Over time, we gained a perspective on what we might be able to do if we ever struck out on our own.

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When we saw our employer was willing to pay thousands of dollars to a small agency for niche marketing research, we thought, why couldn't we start our own agency? We understood that we could use our sales and marketing skills to branch out of hospitality altogether, and focus on other growing sectors. And we knew that if we were constantly thinking about how to make the most of our money and careers, others would be too. 

Today, through Rich & Regular, my wife and I are now both full-time creative entrepreneurs in the finance and media industries. We have careers that we are passionate about, writing and creating digital content to help brands reach their target customers. We also use the blog to share tools and advice to help anyone who is looking to build sustainable wealth, eliminate debt, and become financially independent. 

Things are uncertain right now, but if you are dealing with a job loss or variable income, you also have an opportunity to embrace what you are good at and find new and unexpected ways where you and your skill set can make an impact. 

Julien Saunders is the co-founder of the blog Rich & Regular. In between 2013 and 2018, he and his wife and co-founder Kiersten paid off $200,000 in debt.

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