In 2011, Brent and Katelyn Gargasz earned a combined income of $85,000 as registered nurses in Western Pennsylvania. Over two years, Brent and Katelyn both received salary increases, boosting their household income to $100,000 by 2013. Yet they still lived paycheck-to-paycheck, spending more as they earned more — and accruing a variety of debts.
"We really didn't save any money at all for a period of years," says Brent Gargasz. "And another issue for us was that we didn't talk about money with each other."
In addition to an existing $30,300 in student loan debt with interest rates ranging from 6% to 8%, the couple racked up $13,450 in credit card debt at interest rates of 18% to 19%. They both financed new cars, increasing their debt balance another $43,340. On top of that, they took out a tractor loan for $22,260, tipping their total debt past six figures.
They made minimum payments of about $2,000 on their debts each month. But their balance continued to creep up, and by 2013 their debt neared $109,000.
Brent and Katelyn are now 35 and 31, respectively, and living debt-free in Frazeysburg, Ohio. They credit a large part of their success to speaking candidly with one another about their growing problem.
As they started communicating, they started budgeting and putting more money toward their debt. Inspired, they started Debt & Cupcakes, a blog that offers tips for becoming debt-free. (The name is a nod to their tradition of baking together and giving treats away to fellow nurses while chipping away at their debt.) "It was just something fun we did that didn't cost much money," says Brent.
Five years later, in March 2018, the couple finally paid off their debt in full. Here's how they learned to communicate about their finances and save for their long-term goals.
When the couple started talking about paying down their debt, it became clear that their lack of communication was a contributing factor. For example, Brent and Katelyn had separate credit card accounts and didn't discuss their purchases with one another.
"We weren't thinking that we were a team. We had a very individualistic way about our finances," says Brent.
As a first step, they were transparent during their talks about money: "The first thing we had to do was tell the other person how much the balance was on each of our credit cards," Brent says. "We put it all on the table and then created a very detailed budget, keeping track of everything we spent and how much of that was going towards debt."
Instead of budgeting towards zero, the couple budgeted towards $100 — meaning that at the end of each month, they would have $100 left over as a buffer to avoid overdraft fees.
They also shifted their approach of simply trying to cover minimum payments. The couple adopted the snowball method, which they found effective because it "provides a lot of positive reinforcement," says Brent.
"Once you accomplish a goal of paying something off, your brain tells you, 'This was a good thing.' It makes you feel good because typically, spending your extra money to get out of debt is not a very glamorous way to spend your extra money," he says.
Staying within their new budget required major lifestyle changes, starting with curbing their habit of dining out.
"After looking at three months' worth of bank statements, we found we spent $500 going out to eat, and we didn't live in a high cost of living market," says Brent. "Everything we brought in was spent on going out to eat and buying groceries that we didn't eat and were thrown away."
Video by David Fang
They also stopped shopping at big chain stores. "It was shocking to see how much things cost when you shopped at smaller, value grocery stores," he says.
The family of two was spending almost $700 on groceries and curbside pickup every two weeks, but managed to cut their grocery bill in half by switching to Aldi from Giant Eagle and Kroger.
"We now spend around $300 to $350 depending on the month," Brent says. "If we forget something, it just waits until next time."
Video by Jason Armesto
The couple made sure they didn't feel deprived by leaving room in their budget for small indulgences, like sushi dinners as rewards for paying off a portion of their debt.
"It was a little celebration that wasn't going to totally derail the process," Brent says. "Kind of like if you're dieting and have a cheat meal — it was our budgetary cheat. It would allow us to kind of reset and refocus towards the next goal. It also set a reminder that the next celebration was just around the corner, and to us, going out to eat for $50 to celebrate paying off a few thousand dollars of debt seemed like it was a good trade-off."
Over the course of five years, they increased the amount they put toward their debt each month. By the end, they gained momentum and paid off $59,403 in 12 months, more than half of the original debt.
"We started with a few hundred extra dollars per month [and went up] to almost $5,000 during the last four months," says Brent. "Our income grew over that five years and our snowball got pretty large by the end."
When the Gargaszes were completely debt-free, they decided to take their first vacation in five years. They went to Disney World in Florida. "We became so frugal that we penny-pinched while on vacation," Brent says.
To save money, the the couple used points to rent a car free for 10 days and drove to Orlando instead of flying. And because of their loyalty rewards status, they scored two free nights at a Hilton hotel.
They also bought food outside of the park and ate at local restaurants instead of purchasing a pricey meal plan at the park or hotel. In total, their vacation cost about $1,500.
Being debt-free gave Brent the freedom to leave his job and pursue one of his interests full time. In 2019, the couple launched a food truck business, Farm Fired Pizzas. "After dealing with burnout, I was able to leave my job and do something that I really wanted to do," Brent says.
The Gargaszes have continued to be careful with money. That has allowed them to save up a six-month emergency fund, increase contributions to their 401(k) accounts, and open a post-tax brokerage account.
"Creating and celebrating those small goals along the way was key for us as we went on this journey," Brent says. "I truly think if we would have looked at this on a macro level, we wouldn't have been able to do it. It would have seemed like something that was unconquerable, and we would have given up."
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