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.
Cherie Lowe and her husband, Brian, were six figures deep in debt: more than $80,000 in student loans, a credit card balance of more than $16,000, $12,000 in car loans, $7,000 in a payday loan, $10,000 in medical debt and $1,000 for furniture purchased on a payment plan. They began paying it off on April 2, 2008, and four years later, the Lowes were debt-free.
Cherie is now an author and personal finance blogger who runs Queen of Free. She says sharing her family’s experience has prompted others to begin their own debt payoff journeys. “To have your biggest failure provide a pathway toward freedom for others is humbling and exciting,” she says. Here’s her story, related via email.
What was your total debt when you started your repayment journey?
Cherie Lowe: $127,482.30
What is your total debt today?
Zero dollars by March 28, 2012. As of today, it remains at $0. We do have a mortgage, though.
How did you end up in debt?
My husband, Brian, and I ended up in debt by primarily not paying attention or having a plan. We took everyone else’s advice on money instead of investigating anything on our own. It was completely on us.
Since we didn’t have any true savings, any time an unexpected expense came up, we placed that on a credit card. If someone told us we should lend out on the full amount to finance college, we took their word for it. If others said, “Everyone has a car payment,” we assumed we needed one, too. Nine years into our marriage, our lack of paying attention and of a plan finally caught up with us.
What triggered your decision to start getting out of debt?
The birth of our second daughter, Zoe, in March of 2008 was the catalyst for our financial change. It probably wasn’t the best time for us to begin a journey of paying off all of our debt. After all, new babies bring big expenses, both medical and household. However, I often tell others, “There is no good time to begin paying off debt. There is only today.”
We knew that our financial trajectory wasn’t going to improve with our current plan of not having a plan. We were only going to end up with more problems if we continued down the same path, and it would get a whole lot rockier. By our best estimates, it was going to take 15 years, or seven and a half if we really hustled. In the end, it took just under four. But regardless of how long it was going to take, we were determined from the get-go to clean up the mess and create a brighter future for our family.
What steps did you take to reduce your debt?
We began very slowly. I think this might have been one of the greatest keys to our success, quite honestly. Rather than making too many lifestyle changes at once, we began by scaling back very gradually. This allowed the changes to become permanent rather than hasty habits that would be all too soon reversed.
We definitely tapped into the knowledge and wisdom of every personal finance author we could find. We saved up an emergency fund since we never had one before. We used the debt snowball method and baby steps outlined by author and radio personality Dave Ramsey.
On a more philosophical level, we began referring to our debt as an actual being. It seems cheesy or cliché, but realizing that our debt was a force out to destroy our marriage, family and financial future was key in our journey. We called our debt the dragon and even went as far as writing letters to the dragon and eviction notices for our student loan debt. It was a comical distraction, but there was truth at the center of our whimsy. As a married couple, this helped us focus our energies on the real problem rather than fighting with each other about money.
And then we made hundreds of lifestyle changes in small increments. I detail the majority of them in my book, “Slaying the Debt Dragon: How One Family Conquered Their Money Monster and Found an Inspired Happily Ever After.” I began hardcore meal planning and making use of every morsel of food. My husband quit eating at restaurants for over two and a half years. I started making our own laundry detergent and finding creative ways to keep our girls occupied. My husband took on a second and then a third job. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it. We made saving money and kicking debt in the teeth a game, always asking ourselves how we might reduce spending and increase income.
We involved our kids in the journey, too — allowing them to help us set goals and come up with ways to have fun without spending money. They were fully aware of the fact that we were paying off debt. As we clicked off our individual debts, we allowed them to choose how to mark that accomplishment. From an occasional dinner out at a restaurant to a weekend trip as a family, they chose how we would celebrate the wins.
How has your life changed for the better since you got out of debt?
It’s difficult to quantify and explain just how life-changing our journey out of debt became. For me, it became my life’s work — helping others learn to manage money and their physical resources well, leading to freelance writing jobs, a book deal and speaking engagements.
For Brian and I as a couple, we experienced improved communication and intimacy in our marriage. We didn’t have a bad marriage before the experience, and we don’t have a perfect marriage now, but we’re definitely in a much more secure place with one another.
Financially, we’ve been able to take great vacations, purchase vehicles, improve our home, save tens of thousands of dollars in retirement, quickly beef up the girls' college savings, and establish a much larger emergency fund — all with cash.
On a more spiritual level, we’ve become the generous givers we’ve always dreamed of being — providing for needs in our family, community and world in ways we never would have been able to do when we had so much debt. We’re free from the heavy chains of shame, guilt and embarrassment that our debt caused. We aren’t 100% worry-free when it comes to money — who really ever is? But it’s definitely not as stressful on the other side of the journey.
How to start slaying your own debt
In order to face your debt, you’re going to have to own up to all your debt sources: high-interest credit cards, payday loans, student loans, auto loans, home equity loans and others. Then determine your payoff method. Some people need the motivation that comes from paying off their smallest debts first, known as the debt snowball method, popularized by Dave Ramsey. However, you’ll likely save more on interest and pay down your debt faster using the debt avalanche method, in which you pay down your highest interest debts first.
Whichever strategy you choose, you could also benefit from debt consolidation. This rolls all debts into one with a lower interest rate. If you have good or excellent credit and a plan to pay off your debt within a 12-month or 18-month window, a 0% balance-transfer credit card might be your best option. For those with lower credit scores and a plan to pay off within five years or less, a personal loan could be the better way to go. A personal loans calculator can show you what your monthly payments might be.