Borrowing

The right side hustles helped a zookeeper and her spouse pay off $98,000 in debt in under 3 years

Despite no longer working as a zookeeper, Steffa Mantilla still spends plenty of time with cats.
Courtesy Steffa Mantilla

Steffa Mantilla started out in the bird department at Chicago's Brookfield Zoo before reaching her goal of becoming a senior cheetah keeper at the Houston Zoo. But in 2017, after 11 years as a zookeeper, the job had begun to take its toll. Mantilla's earnings had remained nearly stagnant over the course of her career, the hours were terrible, and she wasn't interested in moving up to a management position and limiting her work with animals.

She made about $15/hour as a zookeeper in Houston, or about $1,800 each month, which was just $2.50/hour more than she earned at her first real job in at the Brookfield Zoo. Her husband CJ earns about $70,000 annually as a medical device sales rep, plus bonuses for hitting sales quotas, which can add thousands of dollars onto their joint income.

With the baby on the way, they were also expecting to pay $900/month on child care. Steffa wanted to quit and stay home instead, but there was a problem: She and CJ were also $205,000 in debt. They had a $165,000 mortgage, a $26,000 car loan, $12,000 in student loans, and iPhones purchased on a payment plan for $2,000. They made a $1,200 mortgage payment every month but were treading water otherwise: They never added to the load but they didn't reduce it either.

Before she quit, the Mantillas vowed to pay off their $40,000 in non-mortgage debt. They were able to not only achieve their goal, but exceed it: Two and a half years later, the couple has paid off $98,000, including every last penny of their non-mortgage debt, thanks to Steffa's smart choice of side hustles and some strategic cutbacks.

Here's how they made it happen.

Steffa Mantilla with Cleo (left) and with her son and husband, CJ (right).
Courtesy Steffa Mantilla

The strategy: Prioritize, and start a lucrative side hustle

Once Steffa decided to leave her job in 2017, she and CJ sat down to overhaul their budget. A review of their household budget revealed that they spent an average of $800 each month at restaurants and about $600 on groceries, as well as hundreds more on "lots of expensive outings."

They also highlighted one-time expenses that were beyond their means, such as the $20,000 they spent on a week-long trip to Africa. "Basically, we never said 'no' to anything because we figured we could afford it," Steffa realized.

They reduced these expenses, since they feared entirely eliminating them outright would be too big of a lifestyle adjustment to maintain. "One thing we realized was that we couldn't make our budget superstrict or we wouldn't stick with it," says Mantilla. They "budgeted for one or two restaurants a week."

By cutting back on dining out and planning meals and grocery purchases instead, which they coordinated through an app, Steffa and her husband were able to free up about $1,800 in their budget each month, which they put toward paying off their debts.

One thing we realized was that we couldn't make our budget superstrict or we wouldn't stick with it.
Steffa Mantilla
personal finance blogger, zookeeper

Any overtime or extra commission money earned by CJ went towards the debt as well. Devoting that money exclusively to debt payments and living entirely on CJ's salary also allowed them to evaluate whether it would be feasible for her to quit.

Once all the adjustments were made and they committed to a monthly budget, they realized that, if Steffa left her job, they'd only be $500 short of what they needed to make ends meet and keep up with their mortgage payments.

With years of professional experience handling animals, pet sitting was an obvious way to make up the difference. The Rover account Steffa set up after quitting quickly built enough of a client base to earn $500/month taking care of cats and walking dogs. "I could market it pretty easily, to hire a former zookeeper to take care of your pet," she says.

The celebration: Fancy dinner and, soon, a vacation

In two and a half years, the Mantillas have paid off about $98,000 in debt: They wiped out all $40,000 of their non-mortgage debt and then paid down $40,000 of the mortgage. More recently, they paid an additional $18,000 toward the mortgage with money from CJ's bonuses. They still have $107,000 left on the mortgage, but they're on track to pay it down over the next three years.

Since quitting her full-time job, Steffa's monthly earnings total about $500, with about $250 to $300 coming from a few regular pet sitting clients and another $250 from affiliate marketing on her personal finance blog, Plantsonify.

The biggest payoff, however, is that working as a freelance pet sitter has allowed her to achieve a work-life balance that's sustainable for her. Steffa's son is able to accompany her on her pet visits, and she's in-demand enough to accept only clients with cats and small to medium-sized dogs.

Courtesy Steffa Mantilla

"When we paid off the debt — everything except the mortgage — the celebration was, 'Yay, now we have a baby! And I can stay at home!'" says Steffa. "We just went out to dinner, we didn't do anything supercrazy. And then we were basically superexhausted for the next few months with the baby."

The main goal right now is to pay off the house. Once that's done, they're hoping to take an international vacation. Spain is on their list of potential destinations.

The opportunity: Saving for retirement

Once the mortgage is paid off, Steffa and CJ expect to focus on their next financial goal: Saving seriously for retirement, a plan that she jokingly describes as "superexciting."

"We're really excited about maximizing our contribution. Like, we want to max out my husband's 401(k). We want to max the Roth IRAs, the Spousal Roth IRA, and then depending on if I can do like a SEP IRA. So yeah, basically, we just want to maximize our retirement contributions."

Do you have a Big Wins story to share? Email getgrowing@cnbc.com.

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