Paying off debt is no easy feat, but it is manageable with the right approach. In fact, Wise Bread shares how one inspiring couple paid off $48,000 in under three years! Find out how they tackled their debt below.
It would be easy to assume Mark and Lauren Greutman were living the American Dream. They had a growing family and had just built a 3,200 square foot home in a lovely Charlotte suburb. They appeared to have it all. What friends and neighbors couldn't see from the outside, though, was the $42,000 in consumer debt they'd racked up over time, much of it on high-interest rate credit cards. (See also: How One Inspiring Saver Found True Love, Shook Off Debt Denial, and Paid Off $123,000)
Falling Separately Into Debt and Together Into a Short Sale
When things were at their worst, the Greutmans owed a whopping $1,000 per month more than they were earning. Like most credit card debtors, their burden had grown slowly over time, until it swelled to the point where they couldn't ignore the balance any longer. At the time, the Greutmans weren't consulting each other before making purchases and they weren't on the same page about their financial goals. "It was a breaking point for us when we realized we didn't have enough money to pay our bills," says Mark. "We were so accustomed to paying the minimums on our credit cards that we didn't even realize the hole we were in. We realized we were in debt," he adds, "but we never sat down and added it all up."
Around the same time, the Greutmans received more bad news. The company Mark worked for was restructuring and his job was on the line. Even worse, he was the family's primary income earner, their house was under water (they owed more on it than it was worth), and they had a preschooler and newborn to care for.
In an incredible stroke of good fortune, Mark received an unsolicited job offer the following day — from a previous employer from the Greutman's hometown in upstate New York. The Greutmans were thrilled by the job opportunity and also for the chance to move back home. They were able to sell the Charlotte house in just two months by enlisting the help of a short sale specialist. The process added an additional $6,000 to their debt burden but, at the same time, the sale helped them shed responsibility for a sizable monthly mortgage payment. "The quick short sale was a miracle," says Lauren. "We were so tired of being house poor. [Building that home] was a bad financial decision from the beginning."
A New Life in Repayment
With the move, the Greutmans were determined to make a financial change and wipe their debt clean. The general cost of living was lower in their new upstate New York town, but they also downsized considerably. After a few weeks of living with family, the Greutmans set their sights on an 800 square foot townhome that was large enough for their family yet modest enough to decrease their housing expenses by more than $1,000 per month.
Once settled into the new house, the Greutmans got serious about their budget. "We had budgeted in Charlotte to tread water but in New York we were in a position to make a difference with our debt," says Lauren. "I learned to coupon and to meal plan. For years, I fed our family on $50 per week."
The Greutmans cut other unnecessary expenses to boost their monthly debt payments. "We never went out on dates, we didn't have cable," says Lauren. "We got down to the bare bones minimum. We didn't have a home phone line, we didn't have smartphones. We just used our inexpensive, dumb phones," she laughs. (See also: 73 Easy Ways to Save Money Today)
Then, Lauren started looking for creative ways to supplement the household's income. She took online surveys that paid $10-$20 each and, over the course of a year, put that income aside for that year's Christmas gifts. "I saved about $400 and we didn't have to go into more debt for the holiday," she says.
Lauren also boosted the family income by reselling garage sale antiques on eBay, attending marketing company focus groups that paid up to $100 per session, and eventually, by sharing her newly acquired couponing skills on her blog, Iamthatlady.com.
It took about 10 months for the blog to start generating revenue. "We wanted to send our son to private school but it was $350 per month and we didn't have the money," says Lauren. "In 10 months, the blog grew so I was bringing in enough to pay for the tuition." Eventually her online income grew to thousands per month and the Greutmans funneled those additional funds toward their debts. (See also: How One Young Entrepreneur Paid Off $40,000 in Student Debt by Age 24)
At the start of their journey, the Greutmans owed $25,000 in credit card debt, $10,000 for student loans, $7,000 for a car loan, and $6,000 from expenses related to the short sale of their Charlotte home.
To stay on track with their plan, the Greutmans created what they call a financial bucket list. "It includes all the things you want to do with your money before you die," says Lauren. "It helps you discover where your values lie."
"It also helps to have your long-term goals in mind when you're making short-term decisions," adds Mark. "For us, not being on the same page was what created a lot of our trouble. Getting on the same page is what got us out of debt." (See also: 7 Questions That Reveal If You and Your Partner Are a Money Match)
Relationships first. While at the settlement table, the Greutmans discovered they were $4,000 shy of the amount they needed to complete their short sale — and they didn't have the money. At the last minute, they were able to borrow the funds from a family member and the sale went through. "We paid that off first," says Lauren. "It was a personal issue and we didn't want to muddle that relationship."
Then the credit cards. Next the Greutmans tackled their hefty credit card debt. They'd added $2,000 in moving expenses to their total and were eager to pay it all off. "We paid the cards with the smallest balances first," says Lauren, explaining the modified debt snowball method they used as a repayment plan. Instead of tackling the credit card bill with the highest interest rate first, the snowball method suggests paying the minimum for all bills, except for the one with the smallest outstanding balance. That bill should be tackled with all available funds. Once the first bill is paid off, the debtor moves on to the next smallest balance, and so on. "We liked seeing small wins along the way," says Lauren. "We were always throwing as much as possible toward our debts."
And then the car, and finally the student loan. After the credit card bills were repaid, the Greutmans tackled their car payment, even though it was a larger debt than their student loan. They knew they were highly motivated at that point and were happy to see the interest savings add up. (See also: How One College Graduate Paid Off $28,000 in Three Years on a $30K Salary)
Life After Debt
Eventually, the Greutman family of four grew to a family of six and they moved to a larger home. "We bought a house that was far under what we could afford," says Mark. "It's very modest. It was a third of the price of the big house," he says, referring to the house they'd owned in Charlotte. Today their only debt is their mortgage, which they plan to pay off in 11 years.
Earlier this year, Mark left his day job to join Lauren as a full-time online entrepreneur. Together they run MarkandLaurenG.com, a personal finance site for couples embarking on their own debt reduction journeys. The Greutmans took a pay cut with the change, but, because their monthly obligations are now so low, it's a move that's well within their budget. "We wanted a simpler, happier lifestyle where we could spend more time with our family," says Lauren. "Now we can go on field trips with our kids. It was a lifestyle decision and not one we could have made before."
They're also working together to accomplish the goals on their financial bucket list. For the Greutmans, long-term financial plans include being able to maximize time with their kids, private school tuition, an annual vacation, remaining debt free, and, eventually, retirement. "What's not on our list is the desire to move to a nicer house," says Lauren. "No matter how much money we make, we want to continue to live simply and spend simply."
— Alaina Tweddale
Check out more great stories from Wise Bread:
- How to Get Lower Interest Rates
- 6 Little Stressors You Can Easily Eliminate
- 4 Money Resolutions You Can Skip This Year