Illustrations by Erin Taj

Into the Black: How I Paid Off $68,000 in Debt in Three Years

After years of reckless credit-card spending, Page Trimble embraced a life of free rock climbing and cheap beer

There’s perhaps no greater strain on contemporary American life than debt. It transforms even the smallest purchase decision into a cost-benefit analysis. It turns the relatively simple act of checking your bank balance into a harrowing experience. And it makes earning an income seem futile, since the money goes toward creditors and not your overall wealth. For those who live under debt’s shadow, it’s hard for them to feel as if they’ll ever get out.

No wonder the issue has been top of mind in this election cycle. A shocking 80 percent of Americans are in some kind of debt (with mortgages being the most common), and 70 percent of U.S. adults think debt is a life necessity. This indebtedness has substantial public health effects: Money and finances have been the biggest source of stress for Americans every year since 2007, and research has shown a correlation between indebtedness and obesity, depression, substance abuse and suicide.

For some debtors, however, there’s an eventual escape. Whether it’s through limiting their spending, adding new sources of income or both, they’re able to make lifestyle changes necessary to start paying down their debt and eventually reach solvency. And their success stories make up our new series “Into the Black.”

In the first installment, Page Trimble recounts how he and his wife embraced a hermetic existence (and lost some friends) in order to pay down their massive student loan and credit card debt.

Page Trimble, 31, Durham, North Carolina

Past debt: $68,000 in June 2013
Source: A combination of student loan, credit card and computer debt — Trimble’s wife bought her Dell computer through a financing program offered by the company.
Past job: Selling continuing education classes to real estate professionals
Past salary: $26,000 base salary plus a commission on sales (although he never made enough sales to hit the commission threshold)
Current job: Salesman at a mobile app development company
Current salary: $50,000 base salary plus commission. He made $86,000 last year.
Current debt: $0

How he pulled it off:
My wife and I got married in June 2013, and we bootstrapped the wedding. My parents gave us $1,000, and instead of gifts, our friends paid for different parts of the wedding. One friend bought beer, one paid for the DJ, another handled the flowers.

I was making $26,000 at the time, working sales for a company that sold continuing education classes to real estate agents. I didn’t earn one commission dollar the entire time I was there. I had a second job working at Outback Steakhouse for six days a week, so I was working 40 hours a week at my first job and another 30 or 40 at the restaurant.

Three months after the wedding, I got a new job selling mobile apps that paid me more: a $35,000 base salary plus commission. Over the years my commission ramped up to the point that I was making three times what I did at my last job.

Being frugal can be really boring, so I still spent on beer: PBR, Lone Star, Shiner Bock. You can always have a good time if you have friends around and beer.

When I got the new job was about the same time my wife and I read Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover and decided to change our lives and start paying off our debt. About 95 percent of the activities we did after that were free. We wouldn’t spend to go out to eat or go to concerts or movies. If it cost a lot of money, we just wouldn’t do it.

We lived in Austin at the time and it had tons of free festivals, such as the Zilker Kite Festival. SXSW has a ton of free shows if you’re willing to wait in line. Eventbrite sent us an email whenever there was a free event — free concerts, movie night on the lawn. Oftentimes we’d go to the park or hang out at friends’ houses. We’d pay $3 to swim in this public swimming hole called Barton Springs. Instead of going out, we’d invite over other couples for dinner parties and we’d all split the cost of food. Other times we’d just lounge around the house, being close with each other and doing newlywed stuff (like sex).

I bought a $300 bike and rode it to work to save on gas. I biked 80 percent of the time it wasn’t raining.

Being frugal can be really boring, so I still spent on beer: PBR, Lone Star, Shiner Bock. You can always have a good time if you have friends around and beer. Every once in awhile we’d splurge and buy Austin Beer Works, a new craft brewery there.

I was really bad with money when I was younger. I had had a credit card since I was in high school, and thought I was good since I always made the minimum payment. I didn’t understand that the money on the card is debt. It’s just a loan. But it made me feel like I had an extra $2,000 in my pocket, and I spent like it. I ended up carrying a balance for more than eight years. And the crazy part was I worked all throughout high school and college — I didn’t even need to go into credit card debt.

One time, in college, I signed up for a new credit card just so I could get a free sandwich at Subway.

I had a second job working at Outback Steakhouse for six days a week, so I was working 40 hours a week at my first job and another 30 or 40 at the restaurant.

You have to tell people “no” a lot when you decided to quit spending as much. Some of our friends understood what we were trying to do, but others were like, “Why are you not coming out to eat with us? Why aren’t you coming to the show?” Other people don’t care what your financial goals are. They just want to hang out and have you do what they’re doing.

We definitely lost some friends during this process. Not legit friends, but tertiary ones we just drank with.

One of the best things I did was take up a cheap hobby. I bought $200 of climbing equipment for me and my wife so we could use it at this free, outdoor climbing space about a half mile from where we lived. We’d go climbing two or three days a week, and eventually some friends of ours started joining us. It was free, and it was a great workout.

We’ve been debt-free for about more than two weeks now. So, technically, we’re broke. It’s weird to be broke when you’re making good money. Like a paradox. But I’m just excited to have done it in my 30s and not my 50s.

John McDermott is a staff writer at MEL, where he last wrote about the complicated relationship between smokeless tobacco and sports.

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