In this series, NerdWallet interviews people who have triumphed over debt. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Kendall Berry was watching the royal wedding in her dorm room in 2011, praying for her own prince to show up, when Dave Berry, her future husband, walked through the door.
“It was honestly love at first sight,” says Kendall, 29. “On our first date … we talked about everything from our faiths, to our thoughts on divorce and other issues, to how many children we wanted and what we saw for our lives.”
One thing they didn’t talk about: money. And on that point the two couldn’t have been more different.
“I always viewed money as something to spend. I always worked, but I spent every penny that came in,” Kendall says. “Dave was the opposite. He was a great saver.”
Dave, 33, is in the Army. Before the pair met, he stockpiled his money, amassing a solid chunk of savings. His stash was quickly depleted as the two dated — mostly long distance, with him at flight school in Alabama and her at college in Pennsylvania — and later married in September 2012.
“I was probably the most expensive decision he ever made,” Kendall says. “While we were dating he would fly me down to visit him at flight school. He was always very generous with his money.”
In their first year of marriage, Kendall estimates they spent half of Dave’s savings, mostly on “stuff.” A new bedroom set. A couple of vacations. Things for the house.
They also bought a new car and built up a small balance on their credit cards, adding nearly $20,000 in debt to the more than $34,000 in student loans from Kendall’s time at Messiah College.
It wasn’t until 2016, when the Berrys started planning for kids, that they got serious about their debt. The couple, who live in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, started budgeting in earnest and paid off nearly $54,000 in debt in just seven months.
Kendall recently connected with NerdWallet to share their story, which may inspire your own journey in paying off debt.
How much debt did you have and what’s your debt load now?
We’d accumulated more than $53,000 in debt, not counting our mortgage.
- Student loans: $34,181 ($27,000 plus accrued interest)
- Car loan: $18,781
- Credit cards: $1,000 (approximately)
We paid off all of our consumer debts — a little over $53,000 — and the current balance on the mortgage is $183,982.
What triggered your decision to start getting out of debt?
In 2015-2016 we started talking about how we really wanted to be parents. And for the first time, I was thinking “I want to have a lot of children, but I also want to stay home with those children. Is that possible?” I decided to total up the amount of debt we had and how much we were paying each month.
I was devastated when I realized that we had so much debt that there was no possible way for me to stay home. We had to have both incomes to stay afloat. That was the point where I said something has to change.
That very same weekend our church was offering Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University class. I told my husband, “We really need to take this, I think this will be really good for us.” He was a bit more skeptical — it’s hard for any of us to think we’re not doing something the way we should or that we have something to learn from someone.
We took the class and it honestly changed our lives. That’s when we became so motivated and intent about paying off our debt.
What strategies did you use to pay off your debt?
We were very fortunate. We both had good jobs that paid well; our household income at the time was around $130,000. And we still had a good amount of savings ($20,000). We put half toward our debt and kept half in our emergency fund, then used the debt snowball method to pay down the rest. Seeing those debts fall off was really motivating.
Every month we put as much as we possibly could toward our debt. Simply doing an actual budget — using the EveryDollar app — helped us cut back on a lot of random spending at Target or Bass Pro Shops or going out to eat. We did travel to see family, but we didn’t take any extravagant vacations during that time, whereas in a previous year we spent $4,000-$5,000 on a trip to the Bahamas.
We limited our food budget, stopped buying stuff we didn’t need and didn’t decorate our house or buy furniture for several of the rooms that were empty. To this day, we still have a completely empty front room, and when people come over, they ask if we just moved in. We just can’t justify buying furniture we don’t need when we have other goals.
In March of that year, we also got a big tax refund, more than $6,000, which all went toward our debt. We’ve since adjusted our tax withholdings to not have such a big return.
How did paying off debt affect your relationship?
Our relationship has only gotten stronger. It was wonderful to begin with, but we learned how to work together to achieve a goal. That was really powerful for the two of us, to learn that we can do hard things. That we can say “no” to ourselves — mostly me saying “no” to myself — there’s a maturity that comes with that.
And I learned to have more self-discipline and to work toward a goal. Having children was the biggest goal and the biggest motivation for us. Even though that has not worked out, it’s still a huge part of how we paid off our debt.
How has your life changed since you got out of debt?
I was feeling very burnt out at my job as a social worker. And everything with trying to get pregnant was stressing me out to the point it made me sick. We finally decided that we didn’t both need to work now that we’d paid off all of our debt and built up our emergency fund.
In the summer of 2018, I left my job and took a few months to just relax and recharge. During that time, I thought to myself: “What do I love? What’s something that I would do for free?”
I love telling people about our financial journey, so in August 2018 I signed up for Dave Ramsey’s financial coach master training. In November 2018, I officially started my business as a financial coach.
We also have a newfound financial freedom that will allow us to pursue fertility treatments. Right now, we’re still in the testing portion of it, but hopefully we’ll find out what our treatment options are in the next few months.
Our insurance doesn’t pay for anything and since I don’t have a full-time job, it will definitely be something we have to save for — whatever we decide to do. It’s just difficult in so many ways. It takes a physical toll. It takes an emotional toll. And then to have the financial piece on top of that. I feel very fortunate that the financial piece of it isn’t as much of a concern for us.
What are your financial goals now?
Our biggest goal right now is to have our house paid off by the end of 2025. Starting in the new year we’ll pay a little more than double payments. It’s kind of a lofty goal, but it’s doable. I love getting on those early mortgage payoff calculators and tweaking numbers again and again until they work.
Paying off our house would give my husband more freedom to pursue his career. And if fertility things don’t work out, we’ll have the financial resources to consider adoption or other options.
How to ditch your own debt
Inspired to pay off your own debt? Here are a few tips:
- Track your spending. Using a budgeting app to track their spending helped the Berrys identify places to cut back and put more money toward their debt.
- Focus on your goals. Having a goal helped the Berrys get serious about their debt and change their spending habits. What would you like to achieve in the next five years? Use that as motivation to clean up your financial habits.
- Adopt a debt strategy. The Berrys used the debt snowball method to strategically pay off their debt and build momentum. You can also use the debt avalanche method, which tackles high-interest debt first, saving you more money in the long run.
Photo courtesy of Kendall Berry.