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How I Ditched Debt: Holiday Bills Break a Couple’s Budget

Jan. 15, 2019
Paying Off Debt, Personal Finance
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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.

 

Anthony and Jhanilka Hartzog

One Christmas brought a breaking point for Anthony and Jhanilka Hartzog.

The young couple had just racked up a couple thousand dollars in credit card charges to finance gifts for their friends and family. That debt, on top of a car loan and student loans, became too much.

So the two made a plan: Earn more, spend less, get debt-free. Working in tandem, the couple blended a new budget, a higher income and fiscal discipline to meet their goal while still enjoying things like travel along the way.

The couple, who earn around $190,000 annually between their day jobs and side hustles, moved to Dallas from New York in 2016. The move was a win-win: Anthony, who works in IT, got a raise, and the cost of living was lower in Texas. Those factors made their payoff journey easier when they hit that breaking point.

Anthony, 32, and Jhanilka, 30, who works in mental health, recently connected with NerdWallet to share their story, which may inspire your own journey in paying off debt.

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What was your debt when you started?

We had a little over $114,000 in debt and paid it off in 23 months.

About $2,600 on credit cards, which was mostly from groceries and flights. Then a $24,000 car loan, which was probably more expensive than I needed my car to be. My student loans were another $24,000 and my wife had $63,500 in student loans, too.

When did you realize you wanted to get out of debt?

The exact moment was Christmas 2016.

We were using credit cards like everyone else, where usually we’d use the card for the rewards and pay it off at the end of the month.

But that Christmas we ran over by a couple thousand and we couldn’t pay it off, so we had to dip into savings to pay it off. So in January 2017 we had to get serious.

What was your first step to getting debt-free?

In February 2017 we took a financial education course. Our big takeaway from that was that we didn’t even realize how we were spending our money.

Budgeting was the most significant thing we realized how to manage. A budget isn’t something that controls your money, it allows you to tell your money how you want to spend it.

Did you use a specific strategy to pay off your debt?

On top of our budget, we started with the debt snowball method, paying off the smallest to largest debt and tracked it on an amortization spreadsheet.

Did you run into any struggles?

Some of our biggest struggles were debates between my wife and I about how to manage our money. Jhanilka is big into traveling and didn’t want to put her life on hold to pay off debt.

So we did both. We got more money through side hustles to afford travel to see our family.

And for Christmas every year we still have to adjust course. The holidays always threw us off, so this year we saved $100 a month so we had $1,200 to put toward Christmas.

What side hustles did you pick up?

We did a lot of different side hustles so we could pay off our debt faster while affording things we wanted. I started working at a gym. We did dog-watching, and I rented out my car on a peer-to-peer app. These jobs all added up.

Everyone wants a sexy side hustle. But the best way to make more money is to work more. So we just worked more.

What kept you motivated?

Each other. We were focused on what we wanted out of our marriage and were motivated by that.

To stay focused we had some spreadsheets and even a thermometer on our fridge that we could fill in when we’d paid off another thousand dollars. And we talked about our goals a lot.

I also listened to a lot of podcasts about personal finance. Hearing what people can do with their money when they’re not paying it to other people really kept me motivated.

How to ditch your own debt

Maybe you’re coming off a holiday debt hangover yourself, or just want to resolve what you owe for good. Here are some pointers:

  1. Take stock of your debt: On a spreadsheet or just a piece of paper, write out what you owe. List each account, its balance and the interest rate.
  2. Know what you can pay: Comb through your budget (or start one) and see what you can realistically pay monthly toward your debt.
  3. Find a strategy: Debt snowball can keep you motivated with some quick wins as you pay off smaller accounts first. But debt avalanche may save you money overall and get you out of debt quicker.
  4. Consider a side hustle: Picking up a shift at a local store or becoming a rideshare driver can give you some extra cash to make paying off your debt faster and easier.
  5. Know when to seek a fresh start: If you’re struggling to pay your minimum balances and cover necessities, you may want to look into debt relief. Credit counseling and bankruptcy, for example, can help you resolve your debts instead of treading water.

Photo courtesy of Anthony Hartzog.

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