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Personal Finance Tips From People Who Have Paid Off Their Debts

A year’s worth of wisdom from our personal-finance series ‘Into the Black’

Over the past year, MEL has interviewed 11 people who paid off large amounts of debt. We started the project — which became our personal finance series Into the Black — in May to learn more about the different means by which people make their way out of debt.

America is in the midst of a debt crisis of historic proportions. Student loan debt totals more than $1 trillion, a record high, and by some estimates the average U.S. household is more than $100,000 in debt. Household debt as a percentage of GDP has decreased in recent years, but remains higher than it was for virtually all of the post-World War II era.

But the subjects of Into the Black have managed to pay off a combined total of more than a half million dollars through a wide variety of methods. One Into the Black subject scavenged the ocean floor for gold to pay down his debt. Another sold video game-themed ornaments on Etsy. Many of them lived lives of extreme austerity. Surprisingly, only one person resorted to driving for Uber.

But most striking were the similarities in their journeys. Each person executed their debt pay-down process differently, but they all followed the same core concepts.

These money-saving principles are laid out below, the collective knowledge of nearly a dozen people who have successfully overcome the crushing financial and emotional burden of debt. We hope it offers some inspiration to others who may wish to do the same.

Make a budget

The first step toward solvency is often the most painful: You have to make a budget.

It may seem obvious to the point it doesn’t even bear mentioning, but many Into the Black subjects had long been ignoring their finances before they decided to pay down their debts—unwilling or unable to acknowledge the challenge they were up against. When they finally decided to get serious about paying their down debts, they went through the uncomfortable process of tabulating their debts, incomes and expenditures in meticulous detail, and coming to terms with the magnitude of their debt and exactly what they needed to do to pay it off.

Many Into the Black subjects developed their budgets with the help of personal finance guru Dave Ramsey and his books Total Money Makeover and Complete Guide to Money. Benjamin van Loon and his wife catalogued their 12 separate student loans in a spreadsheet before they started paying them off one by one. Kelsey Kronmiller, who paid off half of her $118,000 student loan debt in just a year and a half, used popular budgeting apps Mint and You Need a Budget to track her spending. Kyle Pendergrass used Mint as well. The most extreme budgeter was Air Force engineer Jason Lowery, who laid out his budget for the next 25 years.

The common thread was that they kept meticulous track of the money they had coming, the money they were spending and the money they had going toward their loans.

Stop going out for food and drinks

Making a budget almost always led to a decrease in spending. Creating one forced our subjects to acknowledge where their money was going, and in turn, find expenditures they could eliminate and reorient their lives accordingly. Kronmiller cut out creature comforts like video games and movies, for instance.

But the one line item everyone cut back on was going out for food and drinks. Pendergrass went from going out to eat for every meal to doing it once a week (at the most). Van Loon and his wife stuck to a “one night out per week” budget, too. They made lots of stir fry at home. Lorelei went out a little more often — two to three times per week — but mostly ate frozen pizzas at home. Lowery only went out when he was on a date. Kronmiller stopped going out to eat altogether. Instead of going out, Paige Trimble and his wife would host dinner parties at their house.

Learn to say no

The difficult part about sticking to a budget is that it necessitates giving up some of the luxuries to which you’ve grown accustomed. And that requires saying no to people. A lot.

Spencer Reese had to tell his new wife that they couldn’t go on the vacation she planned because it was out of their budget. Ryan took a second job driving Uber on nights and weekends and only saw his friends on special occasions.

Friends vs. Finances: How Saving Money Can Cost You Your Friendships

Frugality isn’t for social butterflies. In fact, Pendergrass lost several friends during his debt payoff process. They came from affluent neighborhoods, and didn’t understand why he turned down invitations to go out for food and drinks.

“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?’” Trimble says of his experience with debt. “Other people don’t care what your financial goals are. They just want to hang out and have you do what they’re doing.”

Sticking to a budget doesn’t spell absolute doom for one’s social life. It does, however, mean finding ways to hang out that don’t entail a $60 bar tab. Kate hosted game nights at her apartment. Trimble and his wife went to free concerts, hung out in parks and took up rock climbing as a cheap hobby, even recruiting some of their friends to join them.

Get a side hustle

There are only two ways to start saving more money: You can make more or spend less. Into the Black subjects were great at both; many of them took on a second job to contribute more toward to their debt payments.

Ryan worked three jobs simultaneously at one point: full-time as a marketing executive and part-time as a security guard and an Uber driver. Kronmiller moonlighted as a pet-sitter and opened an Etsy shop where she sold handmade Christmas ornaments inspired by video games. Bryan Rengel took what he thought was going to be a seasonal job dredging up gold from the ocean floor and turned it into a career.

Better yet, get a raise

Or you can work hard and get a raise. Ryan worked two extra jobs to help pay off his debt, but it was getting a $20,000 raise at his 9-to-5 that provided the most meaningful, sustained boost to his income. Reese got a $12,000 raise in 2012; rather than buying luxury items, he saved the new income for a down payment on a house so he could start building his capital. (His net worth is now $250,000.) And Kate has used her raise to establish an emergency fund and start contributing to her 401(k).

Frugal living put them on a path toward getting out of debt, but focusing on their careers so they could earn more money helped them achieve their goals sooner and ensure they’d thrive long after their debt was gone.

Avoid lifestyle inflation

By that same token, all Into the Black subjects have avoided the dreaded “lifestyle inflation” phenomenon, wherein a person increases their spending once they start making more money. Instead of living larger, they maintained their frugal lifestyles and put the extra income toward their debts or savings accounts.

Pendergrass got a raise toward the end of 2015, for instance, and rather put the extra income toward clothes or a new TV (as he had done in the past), he used it to attack his debt even harder. Lorelei doubled her salary in 2012 by lobbying for a raise to $80,000, but she kept her Spartan lifestyle. Having grown up poor, she was accustomed to a modest standard of living and was intent on using her raise to build sustainable wealth. “Each time I got a raise, I would make sure not to spend more and to put all that new money toward my debt,” van Loon says.

Find a life partner with the same financial values as you

It’s no mere coincidence that most of the Into the Black subjects are in committed relationships. Paying off your debts can be an antisocial, depressing, stressful existence, so having a life partner with whom you can share the financial and emotional burden makes it significantly more manageable. (And while “two can live as cheap as one” is a bit of an exaggeration, it’s not without some truth to it.)

Kronmiller cut video games and films out of her life when she went frugal, and her only solace was hanging out with her boyfriend. They’re now planning their wedding. Trimble and his wife were each other’s only source of social contact for much of their indebted period. Ray was fortunate enough to have a girlfriend who supported his working side jobs and being out of the house so much. And Kate was only able to start paying down her debt because her then-boyfriend let her live in her apartment rent-free.

“You have to learn to communicate [with your partner] about money like you would anything else,” Reese says. “[Money] is something you need to talk about if you’re going to be in a serious relationship, probably as early as the second or third date. Because it’s not easy spending having just $20 a month in spending money. But we got through it because we had each other.”