In this series, NerdWallet interviews people who have triumphed over debt using a combination of commitment, budgeting and smart financial choices. Their stories may even inspire you to pay off your debt.
A year before Tracie Fobes was married, she declared bankruptcy. It eliminated her debt, but by the time she and her husband had their first child, they’d accumulated $37,000 more debt due primarily to a home equity loan and two auto loans. Fobes said that until they began to have open conversations about money, she hadn’t realized why they had gotten into debt in the first place.
The Missouri couple started their repayment journey in November 2007, and today, they’re free of all consumer debt. Tracie Fobes is a stay-at-home mom and now blogs about family life, money management, saving and finding deals at The Penny Pinchin’ Mom. Here’s their story.
How did you end up in debt?
Tracie Fobes: When our oldest was born, I quit my job to become a stay-at-home mom. This was something that was important to both my husband and I, so we knew it would make our financial situation tight, but it was well worth it. We purchased a brand new minivan right after she was born. At the time, I had another vehicle and owed much more than it was worth. That meant we had to roll that amount into the financing on our van. Our payment had to go up as result. My husband had a pickup as well. While it was a bit older, we still had to take out a loan to make the purchase, which contributed to our debt as well.
We also decided that it would be “smart” to pay for things we needed around the house by taking out a home equity loan rather than using credit cards. The interest rate was lower, but it was still a very stupid mistake on our part. We also had one small credit card that did not have much of a balance on it. We really never used cards too often, so we did not have to worry about that.
What triggered your decision to start getting out of debt?
I remember going to dinner with some friends one evening. While money was tight, my husband told me that I just needed to have an evening away from the kids. At the end of the meal, while most of us were using plastic to pay for dinner, my friend pulled out an envelope with cash. I asked her what the cash was for and she started to explain what they were doing and how they were digging themselves out from under their debt. In the back of my mind, I started thinking that if they could do this, why couldn’t we?
When I got home from dinner, I told my husband what they were doing. We knew that they made no more than we did. We began our research and within a week, we had started working on a budget and a debt plan. The rest, as they say, is history.
What steps did you take to reduce your debt?
We were a team. We knew we had to work together and be on the same page during this entire process, or it would not work. Our budget was 100% a joint effort. When it came to the debts to pay first, we talked it through and agreed as a team the path to take.
We both looked at what we could do to have money to pay off our debts. My husband decided to sell things he no longer needed. I took the approach of trying to reduce our budget, namely groceries. I began researching and learning ways to really save on the food we needed. In doing so, I began to share my findings with others. That led me to start my website, Penny Pinchin’ Mom, which also allowed me to make additional money that we were able to throw at our debt.
How has your life changed for the better since you got out of debt?
I wish that I could put the feeling into words, but I can’t. It is just something you have to experience. It is like happiness, relief, joy, calm and peace, all rolled into one.
We now have less stress when it comes to money. When the cost of groceries or fuel goes up, it doesn’t make us worry. Sure, we hate it as much as the next person, but it doesn’t really affect us negatively. We don’t worry how we will come up with more money to cover these increased expenses.
In addition, we can do the things we want. We took our three children on their dream vacation last summer. We spent more than a week in Florida doing all of the “kid” things such as Disney, the beach and Universal Studios. The best thing about this trip was that it was paid for in cash. 100% of it. No bills following us home after our trip. Our hard work and savings afforded us this amazing opportunity to do something amazing for our kids.
We also have less stress about job loss. There is money in the bank to cover us should that happen. When you remove financial stress from your life, you get to live the life you want. There is no better feeling.
Make your own 'get rid of debt' plan
If you have debt you’d like to eliminate, you’re going to need a plan of attack:
Start by stopping: Avoid adding to your existing debt or opening new accounts.
Next, assess what you owe and rank your debts from highest interest to low-interest or “good” debts, such as a mortgage payment.
Then, determine where you can cut spending and how much you’ll devote to paying off each debt. If you need some psychological motivation, try paying off your smallest debts first with the debt snowball method. Or you might prefer the debt avalanche method, in which you pay off your highest-interest debts first. This method is likely to save you the most money on interest and help you pay off your total debt faster.
Finally, make a commitment to stick to your plan.
As part of your larger payoff plan, consider consolidating your debts into one new debt with a lower interest rate. This can lower your monthly payments and even help you pay off your debt sooner. You can consolidate with a 0% balance-transfer credit card or a personal loan. Try using a personal loans calculator to learn about possible interest rates and monthly payments, according to your credit score.