How We Paid Off Some Crazy Debt

Between July 2009 and December 2011 John and I paid off my $45,000 of school debt. (John, heroically, forbids me from calling it “my” debt– it’s “ours,” he says.  But really, it’s mine, a small amount left from undergrad, and a huge amount from a master’s degree.  It’s embarrassing, mortifying, horrible.  I shouldn’t have accrued it in the first place, but that’s another story.) In his words, we just paid off a Corvette.  Yikes.  But now we are debt free!!!!!!!!!

Also, I feel pretty insecure and weird about writing the actual number amount.  I don’t know if that’s ok.  But I want people to see that it is possible to pay off a huge amount of money in a really short amount of time if you really get your head in the game.

So anyway,  I decided to work on a running list of ways to save money, some of the tricks we used over those two years.  It wasn’t always easy, wasn’t always fun, but we learned to be content with little– and now we feel like we live in the lap of luxury as we eat beans & corn tortillas, which we still do several times a week.

So whether you’re trying to pay off debt, or are just trying to save more, here are some ideas.  (Not all of these work all the time– when I was working full time at school and sick for most of the year, I didn’t have the energy to make as much food from scratch, for example.)


*If you are really trying to get out of debt, start listening to/reading Dave Ramesy. Right now.  If you are not frantically trying to get out of debt you need to learn about how money works, check out how much you are paying in interest on your loans, and get motivated.  When John and I sat down one day a few months into marriage and saw how many thousands of dollars we were paying just in interest, we decided we had to step it up.

* Don’t settle for minimum payments!!!  We were doing that for about 6 months– until we looked at all the interest we were paying– and immediately got MAD and decided to go crazy with frugality until we were free of debt.

* Work extra jobs.  I worked full time last school year but also did some catering jobs for a restaurant, and a ton of babysitting in the evenings and weekends.  And school holidays.  I still remember feeling kind of sorry for myself when I agreed to watch one precious little boy for 9 hours on President’s Day (a rare, wonderful school holiday).  But that was $100 closer to being out of debt.

* Sell some stuff.  Seriously.  Sell that fancy car you’re still making payments on, sell that flat screen and whatever else you can get your hands on.  You think I’m kidding, but I’m not.


* Eat in.  In other words, eat out almost never.  We occasionally break this rule for social reasons, if we feel like it would benefit others (i.e., a going away lunch for someone).  I would say we have gone out for occasions like that or just with friends an average of 4 times per year (including places like panera) and on our own, maybe 2 times per year (not including road trips when we do get fast food).  We cooked simple meals at home for anniversaries and Valentine’s Day (which we continue to do, even after getting out of debt).

* Reduce meat consumption.  Stop thinking of meat as a necessity, and start seeing it for what it is, a treat.  A garnish, even.  Find some great ways to cook beans, tempeh, eggs, and you you will be fine.  (eating like this is also better for the environment and health… Read Jonathan Foer’s GENIUS book Eating Animals to learn more.)

* Wash and re-use ziplock  bags.  I swore I would never do this.  And it’s tough, because you use more water this way, and it’s a hard call between reducing plastic and saving water. I have been using the same box of gallon sized ziplock bags for about a year.  (When I do buy them, I invest in good, sturdy brand-name ones, because I think they last longer).

*Drink water from the tap.  You can save a lot by cutting needless drinks out of your budget.  Sodas, fruit juices, bottled water, alcohol.  Whatever comes out of the tap is seriously fine.  Plus, you’re not consuming all those plastic bottles– recycling is worse than just not using the plastic in the first place.   (Confession:  we do drink wine.  We drink almost exclusively $3/bottle Charles Shaw, which we buy by the dozen in cases from Trader Joes. I spent all of college babysitting for a French family, and after a few summers with them in France, I just can’t imagine meals without a glass.  But we don’t have it with every dinner, and if you don’t live near a Trader Joe’s, it’s hard to find really cheap, drinkable wine.)

* Make a grocery budget, and stick to it, and use cash.  This one is hard for me.  I walk with resolve into the grocery store every week, and some closeout sale on organic turkey hotdogs will send me into a frenzy and I’ll buy 10 packages because they only cost $1.50 a pack. Or some kind of special tea will whisper promises of blissful afternoons of peace and quiet and rest.  Or some supplement or health food item will trick me into thinking that I will live forever/solve all my problems if I just buy it.  I resisted using cash for a long, long time (didn’t want the hassle, the risk of losing it or its being stolen, etc.), but now that I’ve started it makes me think about grocery shopping in a TOTALLY new way. I HIGHLY, HIGHLY recommend taking out cash at the beginning of the month and sticking to it.

* coupons!!!   Cellfire allows you to download coupons straight onto your grocery card for a limited number of stores.  I think a lot of the new phones have coupon apps where you can just download coupons into your phone, scan the phone at the checkout and be done.  This seems absolutely crazy to me, and I think not every store does it, but I’m pretty sure Target and some places do.  MoneySavingMom has a TON of good stuff about coupons (and money-saving advice in general). (Also, with coupons, be careful to balance time spent with money saved.  I used to be able to “do” coupons for about 30 minutes and save about $10 a week, which worked.  If you are already super busy, have tiny children, etc., couponing may not be the best use of your time.  Coupons can start making you do crazy things, like drive to a store 20 minutes away just to save $1 on some random thing. So just try to keep your head and be sensible about things like the cost of gas, the value of your own time, etc.).

* Buy fewer snacks/desserts/junk food (but build in some treats to the grocery budget).  Most snack foods are really expensive.  I almost never buy normal junk food.  I buy popcorn kernels which we pop on the stove (don’t have a microwave).  The effort it takes to pop the stuff “from scratch” limits the amount and frequency we consume it.  About every week, I buy a bar of super dark chocolate– at least 80% cocoa.  It helps satisfy the need for something sweet, contains almost no sugar, a ton of iron, and the richness keeps me from over-eating.  I also try to buy raw almonds and cashews, or other nuts for snacks (they are relatively expensive, but just a small amount is more satisfying than a whole bag of chips, and they contain tons of B vitamins, minerals, protein, etc).

*Opt for quality over quantity.  This is a hard thing to balance, but try to eat less but better food.  eat more mindfully, slowly, etc.  (We have eaten Ramen noodles or beans and rice for countless meals.  But we also don’t force ourselves to eat leftovers that have been in the fridge too long– John does heroically eat some disgusting leftovers, and my heart will always swell with adoration for the things he has eaten. But I would honestly rather skip dinner altogether, or eat one spoon of peanut butter or an egg, than eat disgusting leftovers.  This is a personal call, and it’s good to avoid waste, but there is no need to eat truly gross food, and anything that has been in the fridge more than a few days just needs to go.  Unless you are married to the most amazing man in the world who will eat it for you.)

* Boil or microwave sponges to kill bacteria, use them longer.  But don’t soak them for 30 minutes in a mixture of water and bleach, because they will disintegrate.  I learned that lesson the hard way.  (Microwave on high for 2 minutes– and make sure the sponge is damp when you put it in!)

* Resist buying pre-made meals.  Make as much from scratch as you feasibly have time for. Buy a big jar of oats instead of breakfast cereal or oatmeal packets, make your own pancake mix rather than buying boxes, etc. Learn how to make your own bread, hummus,  salsa, etc.  This will also cut down a ton of packaging!!!!! (Like everything, there is a balance.  During the school year I was too drained to make much, so we ended up spending a little more on convenience foods.)


* Watch shows for free online rather than paying for cable

* Netflix is a great option for movies and shows.  We canceled our subscription when they raised the prices, but for our first two years of marriage (the paying off debt years) it kept us watching our fill of awesome movies.

* Don’t go to the movies unless it is really necessary (which is never).  While we were paying off debt we went to maybe one movie per year.  It hurts, it’s hard, but we had friends who would go every weekend and that stuff adds up.  It also motivated me to think that what we would pay for two people to see a movie, plus drinks and popcorn, adds up to almost enough money to feed a child for a whole month.

*Learn card games, board games, go for walks, listen to sermons or classes online, read, volunteer! We had a great group of friends while we were paying off debt, but we pretty much always said no when they invited us to something that involved going out to eat, going to movies, going to concerts.  They thought we were a little crazy, which we were.  But we had people over to our house for potluck barbecues, or we went to friends’ houses for game nights or played frisbee at the park or went to the beach (yeah, it was pretty nice to live at the beach…).  Do simple things and invite others into what you’re doing.  Decline invites to things that cost money and just explain the reason why. It’s counter-cultural and a little crazy, but totally worth it. 


* Shampoo revolution!  Switch to baking soda/water mixture for shampoo

* Switch to apple cider vinegar/water mixture for conditioner

* Eliminate bottled body wash— use watered down Dr. Bronner’s liquid castile soap or bar soap

*Eliminate shaving cream— replace with same as above (I haven’t bought shaving cream in over 4 years, and shaving is totally a breeze without it.  Eliminating this also reduces a lot of waste!)

* Inspect every aspect of personal care routine— what can you live without?  I used to buy fancy stuff from Aveda to try to get more volume in my hair, but after switching to baking soda/apple cider vinegar routine, I don’t need products like that anymore!  Take a few days off from wearing make-up each week to stretch it out longer, etc.  Or don’t wear it at all.  I don’t wear eye liner or eye shadow anymore, and mascara only once a week or so.  I haven’t bought lipstick in maybe 2 years…

* Use corn starch as a dry-shampoo substitute (de-greases hair like a charm and adds some seriously awesome volume.  May make your hair look a little powdery/gray if you use too much– bend over and add it from underneath for best results)

* Do your own pedicures.  Nothing can compare to having someone else give your feet a good massage, scrub, etc.  But you can also get MRSA and other diseases from those little whirpool tubs at pedicure places, and it’s so easy to just fill a basin with hot water, maybe add some epsom salt, and soak your feet at home.  Mix some sea salt and oil (olive, even vegetable, works fine) and use that as a scrub.  Pat dry, and paint away.


* Thermostat– totally obvious, but keep it up in the summer and down in the winter. Read The Glass Castle and you will realize that you will survive. 60 degrees in the winter would have been like a balmy paradise for those poor kids when they were living in West Virginia.

*Live with less.  When John and I got married we had basically no furniture.  We had: a bed to sleep on (a really old one that he got for free from a guy he knew) plus my old twin bed, which we decided to keep.  We didn’t have a couch or living room chairs or shelves.  We used the twin bed as a couch for about a year until a friend of ours gave us (for free) a hideously ugly love seat.  It was grotesque. When we got back from our honeymoon we ate our first meal sitting on towels on the floor.  We found a great table at a thrift store the next day for $60.   Over the next year or so we got some free chairs from the school where I worked (like office waiting room chairs), a free coffee table, some free shelves. We used an old fleece blanket of John’s from K-Mart on our bed.  Did our house look like a dreamy, eclectic, hip vision from anthropologie? No way. Was there a ton of furniture that would have made our lives so much more comfortable and stylish? Absolutely.  But we saved SO MUCH by putting off dreams of cozy armchairs, a nice couch, a down comforter, etc.

*When you do buy, buy quality.  This can be tough when you’re on a tight budget, but it will save you money in the long run. For real.  Last summer, we had a little heap of a particle-board shelf in one corner of our house. John had bought it for $10 at Walmart in college.  It was sagging and crumbling.  Overflowing.  I hated it so, so much.  We dearly needed more shelf space, and shelf space that was not crumbling and sagging pathetically.  It was so tempting to go buy another set of larger, newer particle-board shelves for $40 somewhere.  But we waited until we can found some plain, real wood shelves that cost less than $100. We’d rather invest $80 in real shelves than buy another set that will just be sagging and crumbling again in 5 years.  Plus, particle board is full of formaldehyde and should not be manufactured or sold. Never, ever, ever, ever buy it.

Anyway, those are just some ideas.  Now we are debt free.  It was totally worth every meal of beans and rice, every day of driving a really old car, and every time we said no thanks to groups of friends going out for drinks or movies.  It was quite a journey and thankfully we both grew a lot through the process.  And even now that we’re out of debt, we stick to most of these principles.  There really are people who have nothing– no food or water or a bed to sleep on– and we want to keep living with the bare minimum so we can give more to them.

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