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In this series, NerdWallet interviews people who have triumphed over debt using a combination of commitment, budgeting and smart financial choices. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Jamie Griffin’s dream teaching job came at a cost: Graduating from college in 2011 with degrees in teaching and history left him burdened with $45,000 in student loan debt. Struggling to make the monthly payments, he switched from a 10-year to a 25-year repayment plan. But it wasn’t enough to stop his bank account from bleeding.
In summer 2013, Jamie had a meaningful discussion about the future with his close friend and colleague, Jenna. Both envisioned becoming financially savvy, getting married and starting families. Facing over $100,000 in debt combined, those dreams seemed distant. At the time, they were middle school paraprofessionals (teaching assistants) each earning $19,000 a year after taxes.
So the two decided to make some changes. They created budget spreadsheets, cut spending and took up extra work — at one point, working seven jobs between them. As their relationship turned romantic, the Duluth, Minnesota, couple blended their budgets and began tackling debt as a team.
Now, Jamie, 32, and Jenna, 31, are debt-free and proud parents of a baby girl. They’re freely pursuing other financial goals, and Jamie blogs about their journey at Mr. Jamie Griffin. They recently connected with NerdWallet to share their experience, which may inspire you to pay off debt.
What was your total debt when you started? What is your debt today?
Jenna: We had $4,500 of credit card debt, $6,000 in car loans and $90,000 of student loan debt. Today, we are debt-free (minus a mortgage).
How did you end up in debt?
Jamie: When I applied for college, I had hardly any money saved and my parents basically couldn’t contribute anything. I knew I’d need to take out loans, but I figured that was just the cost of going to college. Almost everyone I knew was taking out loans.
I initially opened my credit card to pay for gas. I wanted to build up some credit and people told me that was a great way to do it. Before I knew it, I was using my credit card to buy more than gas and wasn’t paying it off every month like I planned. Then, the transmission on my car broke and I used my card to pay for it.
Jenna: I opened my credit card in high school to start building credit. … Eventually, my spending got out of hand and I used my card more and more. I wasn’t making enough money to pay it off at the end of the month, but didn’t change my spending habits.
I didn’t see any other option to pay for college other than taking out loans. My family couldn’t contribute much and I didn’t have enough money, either. I accepted the maximum amount for each loan that the financial aid office offered and used the money to pay for rent, groceries, gas and any other expenses that I had.
What triggered your decision to start getting out of debt?
Jamie: I knew I wanted to be a husband that had control on money, could balance a budget and live financially responsible. … Jenna inspired me to learn how to make a budget and that research led me to discover the debt snowball.
Jenna: I felt a lot of shame about my student loans and spending habits. I was embarrassed to bring $45,000 of student loan debt into my future marriage. It was like a weight that crushed me, and I didn’t want that to be my life forever.
Down the road, we knew we both wanted to start a family. With a $922 minimum student loan payment, a baby and day care were out of the question until we paid off our loans.
What steps did you take to reduce your debt?
Jamie: We started living on a budget. It was really simple, but it helped us track our expenses and get a realistic idea of how much we were spending every month. If something didn’t bring us value or align with our goals, we cut it from the budget.
We didn’t realize we were spending $300 to $500 a month just eating out. Our rule became if we can’t buy it from a grocery store and it doesn’t fit into our $50 a week food budget, we can’t get it. We learned how to meal prep like pros. We cooked all of our meals on Sunday night and ate leftovers all week long.
We also knew we had to increase our income. We worked any extra job we could to make more money. … We were both teaching, coaching a sport, working front desk at a hotel, and Jenna worked [in retail]. Eventually, we upgraded from the hotel to be a bartender and server at a fine dining Italian restaurant. [The Griffins eventually transitioned to full-time teaching jobs and received bonuses.]
It seems weird and counterintuitive, but we believe a huge reason we’re debt-free today is because we tithed every month [the Griffins give 10% of their income to their church]. Trusting God did so much with our finances and he blessed us over and over again.
How did the debt snowball work for you?
(With debt snowball, you pay off the smallest debt first, then roll the amount you were paying toward your bigger debts.)
Jamie: Seeing a mountain of debt and being able to chip away at it and celebrate successes along the way was really motivating for us. I had a student loan that was $32,000 and had the highest interest rate, about 6.5%. If we had attacked that one right away, it would have taken forever to pay off. We knew we could get a couple quick wins within the first year, whereas it would have taken us many years to get a win [using other methods]. We paid off my smallest student loan first, which took four months.
What did your budgeting process look like?
Jamie: We discovered Dave Ramsey pretty early on and kind of adopted his baby-step system. We saved our $1,000 emergency fund as the first step, then started working on our debt as much as we could. After we started doing extra jobs, all that extra money went toward our loans.
We could have been debt-free a few months earlier, but for us, it was really important to buy a house, so we [temporarily] diverted some of those funds. Every month, we put a little bit of money into savings, no matter what.
» MORE: How to create a budget
Did you negotiate lower payments or get forgiveness from your creditors?
Jamie: Jenna and I had one loan each that qualified for federal loan forgiveness. Mine was a really big loan of $32,000. If I taught at a low-income school for five consecutive years, $5,000 would get forgiven. Jenna had a large loan with the same terms, but because she teaches science instead of history, hers would have $17,500 forgiven.
We paid off my loan because it was faster to do it like that than wait it out. With Jenna’s loan, we just got the email and notification that it’s been forgiven in full!
What challenges did you face along the way?
Jamie: It was hard to watch friends and family do so many things we wanted to do — go on vacation, spend weekends in hotels, upgrade vehicles, buy whatever food they wanted, go out to dinner, buy houses and start families — but we knew we had to wait.
We wanted all of it, especially starting a family. We dreamed of a snuggly little baby for so long, and it hurt to wait because we couldn’t afford it. In the first couple years, our lives felt very restricted. We planned almost every purchase. Sometimes I just wanted to buy a damn coffee or a DQ Blizzard without checking in with my wife.
If you had to do it again, what would you do differently?
Jamie: In high school, I knew there were scholarships and things like that available, but I didn’t really understand or seek out opportunities for them. I would definitely seek out other ways to pay for college besides a massive amount of loans.
How has your life changed since you paid off debt?
Jamie: We’ve felt a lot more free. We don’t feel the weight and baggage of debt and can use all of that extra money to invest, save for retirement, plan vacations, be more generous and afford day care. But most of all, we’ve developed healthy habits and attitudes toward money. We learned a bunch of new skills that we can use for the rest of our lives.
How to ditch your own debt
Ready to start your debt-free journey? Here’s what you can do:
Explore repayment options. If you have federal loans, you may qualify for student loan forgiveness based on your job or income.
Pick a payment strategy. The debt snowball method the Griffins used is effective for achieving quick victories. The debt avalanche, which tackles high-interest debts first, can save you more money, faster.
Consider a side job. Working part-time at a restaurant or renting a room out on Airbnb can help you earn more money and accelerate debt repayment.
Top photo by Brok and Amanda Hansmeyer. Additional photos courtesy of Jamie Griffin.