The First Thing I Did When I Got Debt-Free: 6 Stories


If you’re still paying off debt, you may have thought about all the other ways you could be using that money you’re handing over in payments. These six people used to ask themselves that question, too—until they fought their way out of the red. Since coming out on the other side of debt, they’ve now been able to accomplish major goals they once only dreamt of.

Here, they open up about the very first thing they did after becoming debt-free. From starting a family to taking the vacation of a lifetime, these stories are sure to inspire you to step up your own debt repayment game, too.

“I went on a dream vacation.”

Deacon Hayes, 33, financial blogger and coach, in Phoenix, Ariz.

“Shortly after our 2008 wedding, my wife and I sat down and tallied up all our outstanding debt. That’s when we were hit with the ugly truth: Our car loans, credit cards and student debt added up to over $50,000.

Traveling the world was something we were itching to do, but the mountain of debt represented a major hurdle. So we got serious and completely rejiggered our budget. We eliminated all splurgy expenses, took a personal finance class and started selling unwanted household items online. We even sold my new Nissan Altima and opted instead for a $2,500 used car that had definitely seen better days.

Our approach was extreme, but it worked. We were debt-free just 18 months later. After breathing a tremendous sigh of relief (and building up our emergency fund), we began saving for the dream trip of a lifetime—a two-week adventure through Singapore, Hong Kong and Indonesia. After kicking our debt to the curb, the vacation felt like a well-earned reward.”

“I kicked up my retirement contributions.”

Lamar Dawson, 30, a public relations executive in N.Y.

“When I graduated from Georgetown in 2012, I walked away with more than just a Master’s degree—I also had about $20,000 in student loans and another $5,000 in credit card debt.

Not surprisingly, saving for retirement wasn’t exactly my top priority at the time. But after spending three years making minimum payments, it became clear that unless I got aggressive, my debt could potentially throw a wrench in my long-term saving goals.

That’s when I got serious. I created a budget, and stuck to it. I also eliminated unnecessary extras like Netflix and Hulu. But I didn’t stop there—I also picked up a second job at a restaurant to bring in more cash.

My efforts definitely paid off! I wiped out all my balances within two years.

The best part is that now that I’m debt-free, I contribute 15 percent of my income to my retirement accounts, compared to the 5 percent I saved when I was still in debt. While I may not be a money guru, I do know that preparing for the long term is super important. Today, I no longer feel like I’m playing catchup.”

“I took a year off work and stayed home with my baby.”

Tracy Cutchlow, 38, an author in Seattle, Wash.

“Everybody says not to do it. But my husband Luke and I did: We paid off our mortgage early—in nine years. (We kept our expenses low enough to live on one income, and put any raises toward the mortgage.)

Suddenly, it freed up $3,500 per month ($1,500 owed, plus $2,000 in extra payments). Imagine that! The day itself wasn’t all that special: We high-fived and took a photo of the bank where we had the final check cut. Since then, though, we’ve been able to do some pretty cool things.

The best thing was staying home with my baby. I took a year-long leave in 2012 from my job as a managing editor. We had saved up for a six-month leave, but I knew I could stretch it to a year—maybe more—without a mortgage. I will always cherish that unhurried time together with my baby.

I also felt I had the leeway to start writing a book. The idea came from wanting guidance as a first-time parent, yet not having time to read stacks of parenting books. My book summarizes all the best research in one tip per page. It’s called ‘Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science.’

That’s something I probably never would have done if I felt tied to my corporate job to pay the mortgage. Now parents and professionals write to tell me how my book has helped them. It’s immensely gratifying.”

(Photo credit: Meryl Schenker Photography)

“I started my own business.”

Gerald Aguilar, 27, president of a pest control company in Jupiter, Fla.

Working for myself was always something I wanted, but my debt was seriously holding me back from taking the entrepreneurial leap. A few years back, I was on the hook for about $4,000—a mix of medical expenses, along with some credit card debt.

Then the owners of the company I was working for at the time dangled a big carrot in front of me: If I ever wanted to branch off on my own, they’d let me buy out my customer base. Hearing this was definitely the nudge I needed.

In the year that followed, I put my head down and worked hard, which resulted in me landing some very big contracts. I saved every bonus I earned and was able to pay off all my debt in September 2015. An extra perk? I doubled my client list in the process.

Once debt-free, I saved up $2,500 within three months, which I used to purchase my customer base and go solo. Now I’m running my own business where I make more than I did before, have a comfortable savings account balance and zero debt to my name.”

“I tied the knot.”

Elisabeth Manning, 46, a fertility expert in Sonoma, Calif.

“When my path crossed with Martin’s in 2011, my finances weren’t exactly in great shape. I owed about $10,000 in student loans, $6,200 between three maxed out credit cards and $19,000 on a car loan. As I fell head over heels for Martin, the thought of burdening him with my debt seemed wildly unfair.

We eventually started talking about marriage, and I made it clear that I wanted to begin this next chapter with a clean slate—for his benefit and mine. After growing up in a financially unstable home, I didn’t want to be enslaved to debt as an adult. So we decided to put our wedding on hold until I was out of the hole.

This took three years of focused budgeting and willpower, but I’m happy to say that I completely wiped out my student loans, credit card debt and all but the last $1,500 of my car loan—which is on track to be paid off in September. Martin and I tied the knot in April, and I couldn’t be happier. I’m definitely looking forward to a bright, debt-free future.”

“I finally felt free.”

Jackie Beck, 48, creator of Pay Off Debt app in Phoenix, Ariz.

“It took us close to 10 years from start to finish, but my husband Miles and I paid off over $147,000 in debt. This included a house, car, student loan and credit cards. To accomplish this goal, we obsessively zeroed in on one debt at a time, which was extremely motivating. Each time we paid one off, we celebrated the fact that we’d never owe that debt again. Plus, we then had even more money to devote toward the next.

While we certainly tracked our spending and planned out how to allocate our cash, we made sure not to deprive ourselves. I believe—and am living proof—that you can get out of debt while still enjoying life. We ate out, traveled and bought things we enjoyed. (Though we made sure to skip purchases we didn’t truly value.) But here’s the key: We only spent money we had. If we wanted or needed something and didn’t have the cash on hand, we saved up for it first.

We realized that choosing to spend our extra money, instead of using it for additional debt payments, meant it would take longer to pay off what we owed. Miles and I were okay with that tradeoff, and were debt-free by 2012.

The first thing I experienced after getting on the other side of debt? An unbelievable sense of freedom! It wasn’t until our debt was gone that I fully realized just how much it had been weighing us down mentally. Having this kind of peace of mind has been incredible.”