In this series, NerdWallet interviews people who have triumphed over debt. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Bernadette Joy Maulion, 34, went to business school part time after a career in human resources, hoping to start a new chapter in her professional life. School wasn’t cheap, and she took out $72,000 in student loans.
She and husband AJ, 37, had a $57,000 mortgage on the first house they’d bought in Charlotte, North Carolina, and were using it as a rental. They also had a $180,800 mortgage on a second home they’d bought after becoming inspired by Chip and Joanna Gaines from HGTV’s “Fixer Upper.”
While in business school, Bernadette Joy had an idea for her own company, a local version of online clothing store Rent the Runway. She got the business off the ground with AJ’s help but quickly realized that debt was standing in the way of her entrepreneurial future. The Maulions knew it was time to face their debt.
They set out to pay off the student loans — selling things, taking on part-time jobs and adding a roommate while living mainly off of AJ’s salary as a project manager. Motivated by their success, they also paid off the rental home, then later sold it and put the proceeds toward paying down their primary mortgage.
Now, Bernadette Joy runs her business full time without debt. She connected with NerdWallet to share the highs and lows of her experience, which may inspire your own journey to pay off debt.
How much debt did you have starting out?
Bernadette Joy: We had approximately $72,000 in student loans, $57,000 left to pay on the rental property and $180,800 on our primary home. Our salaries at the time were $91,000 for AJ as a project manager and $30,000 for me as an executive recruiter. AJ was eligible for annual bonuses and I was eligible for commissions.
(Note: The Maulions paid off the rental property in 2017 and sold it in 2019 for $153,000, using the proceeds to pay down their remaining mortgage.)
What triggered your decision to get out of debt?
BJ: We thought the business had great potential, and I was itching to quit my day job. I looked at my student loans my last semester of my program in January 2016, and I was completely overwhelmed. The only thing keeping me in my day job was the debt. After much crying and stress, we decided that if we could pay off the student loans it would make us feel comfortable enough for me to quit.
What strategies did you use to pay off debt?
BJ: We started with the student loans using the debt snowball method. We paid off the series of loans from smallest to largest [by amount owed]. The snowball method spoke to me specifically because I am the type of person [who] likes to see things checked off my list.
From a budgeting standpoint, being able to reduce the amount of variability in your expenses is important. It made more sense to mentally allocate AJ’s salary because it was consistent. We started living off of his income. Anything I made was like icing on the cake.
We halted any unnecessary expenses, including vacations, professional development, and I also chose to grow the business more slowly to keep it debt-free.
AJ: We put a hold on my 401(k) contributions for a year until we paid off the student loans. We really wanted to focus and put our resources into the debt. We thought it through and said once we are done with this debt, we can contribute the maximum amount. [Editor's note: NerdWallet recommends saving for retirement even while paying off debt, to allow time for your money to grow.]
How else did you free up money for debt paydown?
BJ: My car was on a lease, AJ’s 2009 Kia Spectra was fully paid off. We got rid of the leased car, and that saved us a couple hundred bucks a month. I kind of went crazy and sold everything; we had a yard sale. AJ’s younger brother was our roommate from 2016 until April of this year. He paid us rent.
AJ: I would drive for Uber on the way home from work. I pretty much did that for six months. I was also an extra on TV shows, like “Banshee” on Cinemax and “Shots Fired” on Fox.
We also cut down on eating out and bought everything on sale at the grocery store, even Cheez-Its.
Were you ever discouraged? How did you stay motivated?
BJ: There were instances where we had to slow down because we were exhausted.
Once, I went to the mall and bought a bunch of stuff because I thought I deserved it. I went home and felt so guilty — I realized a lot of my personal spending was triggered by emotion. Knowing my trigger, I would divert that energy into [building] my business.
I used to hang Post-its on my refrigerator of our current debt number. Even if I could knock off a couple dollars I put it on a Post-it. For example, there’s this pair of shoes I really wanted at the store. Instead of buying them, I put that money toward the debt and put up the Post-it. I put photos of them up on Instagram and people reached out to me. They would ask, “Hey, where’s your Post-it?” That accountability from people was great.
AJ: You get so engrossed in [paying off debt], but don’t forget to acknowledge your successes.
You gotta keep taking those small wins. For us it took three years to pay off debt, for others it might take more. Celebrate the small wins so you can last longer.
What would you have done differently?
BJ: I would have given myself a lot more grace during that time. The reason we were able to pay off debt soon was because I was so mad about it.
Our original timeline to pay the student loan was two years. But once we started getting momentum, I thought we could pay it off sooner. I didn’t recognize that in the beginning, it’s a bit easier to trim from your budget. I wish I could have told myself: You’re still being really good; people don’t usually pay this off in two years.
How did this experience influence your business?
BJ: I chose to grow my business more slowly, not rush it. My business model was influenced by wanting to make it affordable for me to run and for my clients. It forced me to be super creative. I think if I had gone the traditional route, I would have taken a small-business loan. But it was all self-funded, no outside investors, no loans.
In reality, we didn’t stop investing [for our future] completely. We were diverting funds toward building this business.
AJ: It took me a while to get comfortable with this investment. She got me to believe in the long term, the future vision. I was taking a lot of pictures for inventory. We have a room in our house where we had clients come in to browse dresses. I felt like I was a part of something bigger for our future.
What are your financial goals now?
BJ: We want to retire early, and now that I’m not in a 9-to-5 job, we want to see how we can get AJ there, too. The picture on our fridge now is about our next vacation home. Every first Sunday of the month, we talk about how are we going to get that.
How to ditch your own debt
Inspired by the Maulions’ commitment to ditching debt? Here’s how you can get started:
Build a budget that gives every dollar a job to do. We like the 50/30/20 budget, which allocates 50% of your take-home pay to necessities, 30% to wants and 20% to savings and paying off debt.
The Maulions said staying on the same page as a couple helped them succeed. Set up regular money conversations with your partner to check in on goals, stay motivated and hold each other accountable.
Don’t shortchange your retirement. If your employer offers a retirement plan with a match, NerdWallet recommends contributing at least enough to get the match even while you're paying off debt. The sooner you put money into your retirement fund, the longer it has to compound for your retirement.
Photo courtesy of Bernadette Joy Maulion.