How We Paid Off $190K of Debt

We were making good money but had no idea where it was going. We were in student loan debt up to our eyeballs after financing a good part of two MBAs while living in NYC with two kids under two. Shamefully, we financed our rent, eating out, a full-time nanny, taxi rides that took us only ten blocks, oh you name it – we were paying interest on it.

After graduating and having our third child a few years later, we knew something had to change. The bills kept getting larger, and we had financial goals that we wanted to achieve, but our cash was tied up making debt payments. After taking a budgeting class, we got serious and created monthly budgets. Over the course of two years, we funneled every unspent penny to the bank. Here’s how we paid off over $190,000 in debt.

Month 1: Cut the Credit Cards
The first month we attended a budgeting course, made a final credit card payment of $200 and the rest of our unallocated funds went towards student loans. We were paying the minimum payments on more than ten different loans, ranging from Sallie Mae to Citibank to Discover. We cut up the credit cards and closed the accounts so we wouldn’t be tempted. I heard somewhere that you spend 40% more money when you can swipe, so we did plastic surgery and cut up the cards.

Month 2: Start a Debt Snowball
After we stopped swiping, that freed up a huge chunk of change to add to our student loans in addition to the minimum payments we were already making. We started with the lowest balance and put all the “extra” fund towards it. Some of the “swiping” was for food and gas, so we did have to reduce our eating out quite significantly. As a result, we shifted most of the money we were charging towards our “debt snowball.” It’s a term used when you focus on eliminating one debt at a time by sending in an extra payment above the minimum payment. You keep paying the minimum balances on all your debts, but drill down every unspent penny towards the bill with the lowest balance. This is key, because it builds momentum. As soon as you can see the light at the end of the tunnel for one bill, it motivates you to keep going.

Month 3: Sell the Car
The third month, we really got serious about eliminating debt much faster, so we decided to sell one of the cars. When we first heard the idea we both brushed it off as a universal given that a two-parent working household needed two cars. Period. But we were desperate to get out of debt and selling the car would surge us towards being debt free. We marched into Carmax and sold our Hyundai Veracruz. In addition to getting rid of the car note, we also saved money on auto insurance, gas, tolls and oil changes. The result was an additional $900 ($600 car note, $160 in tolls, $100 in gas and oil changes and $40 in insurance savings) a month to put towards our student loan debt snowball.

Use Savings to Pay Off Debt
In addition to selling the car, we redirected money sitting in savings we agreed was better off going towards student loans. We made sure to keep some savings, but the interest rate we were paying on our debt was HIGHER than the interest rate we were gaining on our savings. So in effect, we were paying to stay in debt. That was a no brainer for us, so we took a wad from savings and immediately paid off three student loans.

Month 4: Keep Budgeting on Vacation
We planned a Thanksgiving trip to Colorado and purchased plane tickets before we took the budgeting class, so we did our best to minimize expenses while on vacation. We made a special “vacation” tab on our budget and created the following categories: transportation (even include airport parking, tolls and checked luggage fees), food which includes groceries and eating out (don’t let airport food prices drain you so pack some traveling snacks), entertainment and souvenirs, lodging and any location-specific items (think winter clothes for skiing or extra sunscreen at the beach).

Month 5: Embrace the Envelope System
We were getting better at budgeting but found that we kept overspending in the food category, so we started using cash. We took out cash once a week and stuffed it into an envelope. It including money for groceries and eating out. The first time we went to Costco is was a real awakening. I shopped like I normally do, throwing items into the cart. Well, if you’ve ever been to a club store you know you can easily rack up $100 of groceries with just a few times. We got to register and as the cashier was scanning items, Hubby mentioned that we’d be over and asked what was I going to put back. Excuse me?! Put back?! Was he serious? There were people in line behind us that would see me ask to take things off. How embarrassing. This was when I realized we were serious about the budget, and feelings didn’t matter anymore.

Month 6: Create Sinking Funds
We quickly realized it was hard to keep a consistent budget when every month something really unexpected happened. It was someone’s birthday, or a baby shower invitation showed up, or the dishwasher broke. We decided to set up four saving accounts each with a specific purpose: gifts, healthcare, maintenance and travel. We set up automatic transfers from our checking account to fund these “sinking funds.” This meant when someone’s birthday came around every few months we had a nice chunk of change already accumulated so that we didn’t need to put another unexpected dent in our snowball.

Month 7: Ignore Your Bonuses
As bonus season approached, we looked forward to completely ignoring our bonuses as additional income and putting them towards our debts. In the past, we splurged during bonus time and made a few big purchases, but this time we earmarked some money for donations and taxes, put a little back into the travel sinking fund and the rest went towards Sallie Mae.

Month 8: Turn off 401K Contributions
At this point, we’d knocked off another student loan, and we were hungry to find more cash to add to our debt snowball. We had reduced everywhere we could find, until one day I was looking at my pay stub and saw I had money going into my 401K. Now, I grew up with the idea that saving for retirement was mandatory, so deciding to turn off our contributions was a BIG decision. We knew it wouldn’t be forever, in fact just one year, and we would continue to receive interest and invest the money already in the account.

Month 9: Open a Joint Account
At the beginning of our journey, we had two bank accounts, and it was hard to keep track of everything when we both didn’t have visibility to the expenses. We pooled our incomes together into one account and used direct deposit from our jobs to fund the account. We paid our bills from this account and set up most of the bills (including tithes) to come out electronically. Once we merged accounts we found a few expenses that were coming out that the other person wasn’t aware of.

Month 10: Ask for a Raise
If you’re performing well on your job (documented by excellent marks during a recent review), and you have a major project that you just nailed, it may be a good time to ask for a raise. When this combination occurred I asked for a raise, and to my surprise, I received one!

Month 11: Start Using EveryDollar
Summer rolled around by this time, so our child care expenses went up for summer camp. We also switched budgeting software and started using EveryDollar. It allowed us to link our bank accounts so that we could drag and drop cute little icons to file each expense. We didn’t have to keep track of receipts anymore which made for an easier budget review. We had monthly meetings where we adjusted the budget and reconciled our spending. If we went over in one area, we reduced a line item somewhere else.

Month 12: Splurge A Little
In our pursuit of debt-free living we had already cut corners everywhere. We were renting videos for free from the library, we still had no cable, and we were packing our lunches. But some time this month, I’d decided it was time for a little break. We bought some furniture for the kids room and it was a nice treat.

Month 13: Keep Tithing
You may wonder if it makes sense to give when you’re trying to spend less, but for some reason the equation worked for us. When our hearts were open to give and be good stewards, it helped us keep a generous spirit which is always better in the long run.

Month 14: Stay Home & Unsubscribe
After over a year of strict budgeting and sacrifice, we were really picking up speed. We realized that when we stay home we tended to spend less. When I was out running errands it was easy to rack up a few hundred dollars between Target and Costco, so I stayed put a lot more. It was also much easier with one car. When we reached the end of the gas budget, we literally stopped going places. Another huge way to decrease your spending is to unsubscribe from every store email loyalty program you’ve signed up for. If you’re bombarded with marketing campaigns and pictures of beautiful things you may want, you’re more likely to make a purchase.

Month 15: Negotiate Bills
I finally started using the art of negotiation. When our internet service provider’s promotional period ended, I immediately called to cancel. They transferred me to the retention department, where I informed them that the new amount was outside of my budget. They were able to extend the promotional period another year.

Month 16: Set a Significant Purchase Limit
Hubby and I set a spending limit, and anything above that number we put a few guardrails in place. We set our significant purchase limit at $100 which means we need to chat about the purchase before it can be made and wait 24 hours. One evening, while I shopping for a black evening gown for a corporate gala I found the perfect dress AND it was on sale. Of course, it was more than $100, but I figured since it was related to work I would side step our rules. I snapped a photo in the dressing room and texted it to Hubby, and he reminded me that we agreed to have a budget committee meeting for these instances. I was ready to leave the mall with the dress in tow. Extremely reluctantly, I left the only remaining dress in my size at the mall, and the next morning after our budget meeting (we ended up moving some money from Dry Cleaning that we weren’t going to spend) I hustled back only to learn that black dresses were an additional 10% off that day. Sticking to the plan saved us even more money again.

Month 17: Say No to Some Really Fun Things
When Beyoncé came to Dallas I was so excited. A group of coworkers were headed to see her, and they wanted good seats. After they told me the ticket price, I disappointedly shared that it was waaayyy too expensive (plus it would require a budget committee meeting and I really couldn’t justify $300-$400 on a concert when getting out of debt was our top priority). We were also approached to join an exclusive parenting association, which after learning the dues were in the thousands, we also said no to. We even declined to attend two weddings that we really, really, really wanted to go to.

Month 18: Give the Kids a Budget
The kids even had a line item on the budget. They had $25 every month to spend on whatever they wanted. If they were invited to a birthday, they had $25 to select a present. If there was a really shiny new toy all three kids wanted, they had to collaborate to determine who got what.

Month 19: Don’t Listen to Everyone
People will tell you that you’re crazy, that it doesn’t take all that. That you should be doing this or that with your money instead. But keep your head down and stick to the budget.

Month 20: Use the Frontage Road
When you’ve shaved off pennies everywhere you can think of, you can still find more ways to grow your debt snowball. We still didn’t have cable since air antennas and Netlix were so reasonable, so we started taking the frontage road instead of the highway to save even more. In Texas, we have tolls and at one point we were spending $240 a month on tolls. Every dollar counts! We also reviewed our insurance policies and adjusted them. We were able to increase our deductible, which resulted in a lower monthly bill.

Month 21: Do Your Own Nails
There were a few ways I liked to pamper myself, and one was getting my nails done. This habit could run upwards of $80 a trip for a manicure, pedicure (with extra message time) and tip. So, I decided I would do my own nails weekly. They ended up looking better than the salon, and for the price of one manicure I could purchase several different nail polish colors.

Month 22: Shop Second Hand
When back-to-school shopping came around, I refused to pay store prices for clothes the kids were going to stain, lose, or grow out of in the next ninety days. Instead, I marched into the nearest consignment store. I learned I could drop off gently used clothes for a store credit and then shop to my heart’s content. I ended up spending $50 on back to school clothes and got everything we needed from the consignment store. Oh, and the kids had no idea they were wearing used clothes.

Month 23: Stop Saying You Deserve This
Throughout the entire two years it was really easy to say, “I worked hard, I deserve this purchase.” But that mentality will keep you in debt. We were excited to “deserve” a debt-free life, so we elevated the importance of sacrifice for these twenty-four months.

Month 24: Finish Strong
The last debt payment was really big, but it was worth it! Other than basic necessities (food, shelter, transportation and utilities) we did not spend a dime. After we sent in the final payment, we hosted an “In the Black” party where we toasted to no longer being in debt or being “in the red.” We invited all the nice people who gave us rides during the two years, and we had a chance to thank everyone that played a role on our road to paying off a total of $190,698.17!

Baby Step 2, FPU, FPU & Finances - 01.31.174 comments

Why Bedtime Routines are the New Mommy Hack

Lots of things work for babies that we forget to continue as adults. Fingerpainting, laughing, and crying when you’re sad – those are the basics. Seriously, when you were little we all thought we were good at drawing, right? Babies are seriously onto something. They’re totally comfortable in their own skin, they bravely try new things, and my favorite to re-adopt, they take naps. Enough said. They even notice the seemingly mundane things like how intricate church ceilings are. So why have we abandoned these amazing traits? It’s super cool to take naps, trust me. And to have a bedtime routine. If you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night, or not feeling totally rested in the morning, it may be time to reinstitute the bedtime routine from your childhood. At a certain point it’s time to wind down, log off, hit the X in the right corner, leave your phone charging in another room, take a bath and go to bed.

A few weeks ago I did a little Facebook research on bathing at night, and my mommy circle taught me four great reasons why I should incorporate bathing at night into my bedtime routine.

1. You Sleep better
After a soothing bath in yummy smelling, steaming hot water I can destress and wind down from the day, and I truly sleep better. One night I did just the opposite for Miss C after bathing her in commercial soap that totally irritated her eczema. Using super soothing, gentle and hypoallergenic bath time products is a must. A new one for you to try is The Honest Company’s Baby Bottom Wash. It helps clean those areas that sometimes itch, even for adults (hehehe).

2. More Time in the Morning
I’m like Flash from Zootopia in the morning. No matter how early I wake up, I can’t seem to move fast enough. As the day kicks off and I feel the hustled rush to get out the door, I’ve resorted to writing down a morning list on the bathroom mirror to keep me on track. Having just five more minutes makes a huge difference between feeling super stressed and just regular stressed when I leave the house.

3. Clean Sheets
Many of my mommy friends credited keeping clean sheets as the top reason why they bathe at night. Something about washing off the yuck of the day transforms them into sleeping bunnies.

4. Free of Distractions
Having uninterrupted time is HUGE. This reason alone is compelling enough to bathe at night. If you have a house full of people like me, alone time is sacred and cherished. I anticipate breaking out my bath products and soaking with Netflix to treat myself to “me time” before lights out.

Motherhood - 01.20.171 comment

3 Reasons Why I Nourish His Passions

1. He loves animals. And not just one or two animals, but all animals. We call him the animal encyclopedia at home. He loves aquatic animals so much that we know how may teeth each type of shark has in their mouth. But above all, he loves horses.

2. Horses can heal. And they make him happy, and it’s how he got the nickname Boots. When we moved to Texas from Connecticut he wore cowboy boots for the first twenty-four months – even in 110 degree weather.

3. He’s got the skill. This boy can do twenty push-ups in a row. Not girl push-ups, not wobbly-arm push ups, I’m talking the real deal. He’s strong enough, has the passion, and the focus. I’m not saying he’s going to the equestrian Olympics next year, but watch out for Boots.

Boots, Motherhood, Our Quiver - 01.17.170 comments

We’re Still Dreaming

I was scared, humiliated, and threatened during my first and last stay at Caesar’s Palace in Vegas. I’ll never know if this experience happened because I’m a woman, or because I look young, because I’m black or perhaps even all three. I do know that Dr. King fought with his words and intellect to prevent racial injustice, and unfortunately it’s still a dream of mine that equality will one day exist in this country.

I left the hotel spa around 6pm one evening in October 2014. I walked through the hotel lobby, through the casino and joined co-workers I saw at the round bar near the buffet entrance. They were sitting and chatting at a round table, which doubled as a gambling station, although no one was using the touch screens to gamble. The bartender asked me for ID, and I told him that I did not have it on me since I was coming from the spa, but that I was a guest of the hotel staying in room #4472. He told me that he could not serve me nor could I gamble on the casino floor and that I needed ID. I gave him my name and asked him to look me up in the hotel system because my ID was swiped when I checked in and I believed the hotel has a record of my identification and age.

I continued the conversation with the four male co-workers at the bar, and a few minutes later three security officers approached the bar area because the bartender called for security. I did not know that the bartender was calling security. One of my co-workers became upset that security had been called and reminded them that the company we worked for does extensive business with the hotel. I told my co-worker it was okay and that I would leave. I got up and began walking to my room.

Just before the elevator bank near the Starbuck’s café, I heard someone speaking to me, asking me to leave the hotel. He said I needed to turn left and leave the hotel premises. I turned around, stunned by the fact that three officers had followed me through the casino, through the hotel lobby and towards the elevators. One of the security guard’s name was Walter and he appeared of Hispanic heritage. The second guard was an older black male, and the third an older white male. I told the officers I was a guest of the hotel thinking this would end the matter, which seemingly was escalated severely by the presence of not one, not two, but three officers.

Instead of apologizing and walking away, the officers cornered me, continued asking me for my ID and several other questions, and one guard put his hand on what appeared to be a gun. At this point I was trembling and crying, and scared that the guards would become physically aggressive towards me. I didn’t have my wallet or my cell phone and they were demanding that I leave. I ended the conversation, which was publicly humiliating as guests walked by, and asked if I was excused to return to my room. He finally said yes.

Once in my room I broke down. After speaking to my husband, I remained in my room packing and feeling shocked at what had just occurred. I decided to book an early flight the next morning as I wanted to get as far away from the hotel as soon as possible. I did nothing wrong. I wasn’t aggressive. I wasn’t committing a crime. I wasn’t yelling. But yet, I feared for my life in that hotel. Black lives matter just like mine.

Life - 01.16.170 comments

How to Make Brothers Get Along

Why is the sight of this six-colored toy so intimidating? Every time I see one in a store I cautiously rotate a side, silently squeal with rebellion, and then quickly turn it back before I twist it into an unsolvable state. It’s merely a palm-sized cube, but the interlocking faces pivot to reveal seemingly limitless and certainly baffling color combinations.

Somehow Gadget inherited a joy for the pursuit of defeating this puzzle and received a Rubik’s cube for Christmas. He enjoys tangling the colors and spends hours trying to demystify the secret in order to arrange all six sides into matching faces. So, what better way to annoy your older brother than to mess up his Rubik’s cube? Somehow, the unattended cube found its way into Boot’s hands and then we heard the yell. Gadget was furious. Boots had messed up the mechanics and succeeded in getting under his brother’s skin. It’s the age old tension between brothers. Boots never knows whether to annoy, copy, mimic, or admire. I guess that day he chose infuriate.

Always looking for a teachable moment with these boys, I came up with the great idea that Boot’s punishment was to solve the cube for his brother. He couldn’t leave the table until he figured it out. Well, he didn’t figure it out and this argument stretched out beyond the Christmas break. In an attempt to foster teamwork, Hubby modified the punishment and made the boys work together. Boots looked up the right YouTube video, and Gadget implemented the solution. As they made progress I asked Gadget how did he maintain uniform faces while he twisted the cube so much. His matter-of-fact reply, “algorithms.” Well then, excuse me. I’m sufficiently satisfied and impressed. They figured it out together.

Boots, Children, Gadget, Motherhood - 01.15.170 comments

Hi. I live in North Texas with God, my man, my boys, and a sweet baby girl.
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