Borrowing

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

Joe Saul-Sehy
Tai and Talaat McNeely paid off $330,000 in debt in five years.
Courtesy Tai and Talaat McNeely

The internet is awash in financial success stories. If you're working to make your money dreams a reality, these achievements can seem momentous, even intimidating.

Some people you read about do come from trust-fund money or have held a high-paying job, but what I've learned from more than eight years hosting 'The Stacking Benjamins Podcast' is that most of the people who have accomplished their money goals are just like you.

Here are three stories that will remind you that you too can achieve incredible results.

Tai and Talaat McNeely

Their goal: To pay off their house early to give themselves the freedom to make life changes without debt holding them down.

What makes them like the rest of us: They were raising three kids on one income.

What they achieved: They paid off $330,000 worth of mortgage debt in five years and are now a debt-free family living in a paid-off home. This allows them to run their company His & Her Money full time.

Their key strategy: They used weekends and evenings to work side hustles like mystery shopping, focus group participation, blogging, and holding garage sales. The money from the sales of toys, shoes, old clothes, and furniture that they no longer used went toward paying down their mortgage.

Their biggest lesson: "We didn't allow ourselves to make any excuses, no matter how valid they may have been," they told me.

Amanda L. Grossman

Courtesy Amanda L. Grossman

Her goal: To pay off her and her husband's $59,492 in student, car, and engagement ring debt so Grossman could quit her day job and pursue her passion of writing about personal finance on her site Frugal Confessions full time.

What makes her like the rest of us: Grossman graduated in 2005 with student loans of $36,000. She has never earned more than $43,000 a year. Now a parent, she is raising her son while working from home on her online business.

What she achieved: She completely paid off her debt. As an added bonus, Grossman and her husband paid cash for their car and a home foundation repair that cost more than $7,000, as well as their wedding, an 11-day trip to Austria (the plane tickets were a gift).

Her key strategy: Keep a tight lid on expenses. By working from home, Grossman says that she has been able to reduce her child care expenses by not having to hire outside help.

While she wouldn't call herself as an extreme couponer, Amanda says she learned how to create a tight budget and stack coupons to afford more with less money. In the personal finance community, this is a strategy called The Drugstore Game, and it involves using both manufacturer and store coupons to pay the lowest prices. She also recommends the free grocery savings lists from the site Coupon Mom.

When the Grossman's purchased their home, they used the $8,000 first-time homebuyer tax credit that the government offered from 2008 to 2010 as part of the postrecession stimulus package. At the time, she had $14,000 in savings. After they put a down payment on the house, they used $7,000 of the $8,000 credit to pay off her husband's car loan.

Her biggest lesson: "What we have accomplished has taken sacrifice. I think more sacrifice than people realize, or want to acknowledge," said Grossman. "But I can 100% say, and my husband would agree, that those sacrifices were worth it."

Steven Donovan

Courtesy Steven Donovan

His goal: Pay off over $100,000 in personal debt.

What makes him like the rest of us: "I made all the usual mistakes," he says: He got into student loan debt and credit card debt, for example.

What he achieved: He started reading and listening to anything he could find on personal finance, and started a blog called Even Steven Money to document his journey. He paid off everything in five years.

His key strategy: Find an accountability partner. His blog ended up being the tool that kept him honest. He'd write out and publicly share his strategies for paying off his debt. He says his readers pushed him to do more, holding him to his goals and cheering him on. Over time, Donovan says he found himself working to exceed his original goals because of their support.

His biggest lesson: Take things one step at a time. "Start not with step 5, not with step 7. Start with step 1," said Donovan. "Step 1 for me started with 'Why?' Why do I want to pay off my debt? Do I want to travel the world? Move to a new career? Start with why."

Once you establish that reason, Donovan says you're then able to better focus on the "what," the concrete things that will set you up for the future and help you achieve your goal, like using your 401(k) company match.

Even though everyone comes from different circumstances and faces different challenges, the one thing I can guarantee you is that there's someone out there who has faced what you're facing, with your same struggles, and achieved what he or she wanted to achieve.

Joe Saul-Sehy is the creator and co-host of the award-winning "Stacking Benjamins" and "Money With Friends" podcasts. For 16 years as a former financial advisor, he helped people plan for their savings goals. His advice has been quoted in publications ranging from The New York Times, Chicago Sun-Times, Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, and he's spoken at hundreds of companies ranging from Chrysler to IBM and Microsoft. For nine years he was the WXYZ-television "Money Man" in Detroit, where he currently lives with his spouse Cheryl.

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