Shortly after we got married, my wife Andrea and I got serious about our finances and paid off all our debt.
This is the story of how we turned a profit on our wedding, combined our finances, and paid off $62,000 of debt in 7 months.
Where’d all the debt come from?
All the debt was mine. I was a dumb young kid and thought I’d always be able to out earn my stupid decisions. Until one day I couldn’t.
Despite a generous 3-year military scholarship at my pricey, private college, I had student loans to pay for:
my housing (~$12,000 x 4)
my freshman year’s tuition (~$30,000)
and a summer study abroad program (~$15,000)
Then shortly before I graduated, USAA, a military-member’s bank, offered me a $25,000 loan at the ridiculously low rate of 2% interest. USAA dubbed it a “Career Starter Loan,” but really it was their clever way of ensuring I’d be a customer for the foreseeable future. I used $15,000 to refinance my study-abroad loan, bought a new laptop, and put the rest in savings.
If you’re keeping count, that pushed my total debt upon graduating college up over $100,000.
So of course I immediately got serious about my finances, did a budget, and started attacking my debt, right?
I bought a sports car instead.
I was 22 years old, only 4 months into my Army career, and had racked up over ~$115,000 in debt. All I had to show for it was a fancy diploma, a 3 year old Mazda, and $1,100+/month in debt payments.
My wake up call
As can happen in the military, I got hurt.
I always knew it was a possibility, but never thought it’d happen to me. Ultimately, the Army decided it was best if they “retired” me. Just like that my once promising career was over only two years after it started.
Fortunately for me, the Army is a huge, slow moving bureaucracy and I had some time to prepare for my unexpected new life as a civilian. Unfortunately for me, I got hurt during the financial collapse of 2008 and I was entering one of the worst job markets of my life.
I didn’t know how long I’d be without a reliable income, but I knew I’d still be expected to reliably come up with $1,100/month for debt payments.
I opened an excel file and made my first crude budget, subtracting what I needed to spend each month from what I made each month. Turns out I had more money leftover at the end of the month than I realized. I saved as much of it as I could and set it aside as an emergency fund.
Six months after leaving the Army, and nearly draining my savings, I convinced a Fortune 500 company to put me in charge of a $15M/year operation. Now armed with a decent salary I set aside one month’s worth of expenses as a small emergency fund and attacked my debts with a vengeance.
I finally understood what a hindrance my debts were and I wanted them gone!
If you’d like, check out this article to get the exact tools and tactics I used to attack my debts. Following this plan, I would’ve paid off my remaining ~$80,000 and been totally debt free in 3 years.
There was just something I had to do first.
Will you marry me?
My debt was no secret to Andrea, and to her credit, she didn’t really care. She valued me more than my debt and saw how hard I worked to get through my career crisis and get my act together. In fact, we grew closer through all the craziness.
We’d been together for 5 years at this point and it was time to move our relationship forward. I paid off a couple more debts, kept current on my remaining balances, and used my excess cash each month to save for an engagement ring.
In September 2011 I asked Andrea to marry me, she said yes, and we were married a year later.
In that year, I paid the minimum payments on my remaining debts and we saved all our excess cash to pay for our wedding and honeymoon.
We made sure to stretch our dollars by:
Booking a daytime wedding, it was a lot cheaper to rent a venue during the day than at night.
We rented centerpieces (the vases all the flowers went in) instead of buying them. I’m not sure what we would’ve done with 20 identical glass cylinders after the wedding, anyway.
Made our invitations and programs using kits available from craft stores.
“Hired” friends and family in the industry we would’ve been willing to hire even if we didn’t know them
Andrea’s aunt is a seamstress and made all the bridesmaids dresses.
Our DJ/Pianist was a friend.
Our Photographer was a friend.
In the end, we had a beautiful wedding, a great honeymoon, and were able to pay for everything in cash. We even had a bit leftover.
After our honeymoon, we moved into a new rental house and started combining our finances. Then once we could see all our money coming into and going out of the same account, we redid our budget.
Andrea and I both earned similar incomes, but now our expenses were much less as a married couple than when we lived on our own. We only had one rent payment, one set of utilities, etc. Since our “married” expenses each month were pretty close to what each of us spent as a single person we had a lot of cash left at the end of the month.
By this point, the debt was down to ~$62,000 and it was time for us to attack it.
Andrea and I both wanted to pay off the debt quickly, but we didn’t agree on how. The main point of contention centered around the money we had leftover from our wedding, wedding gift cash, and some of Andrea’s savings from her years as a responsible person.
Even though Andrea had shown me incredible grace, I still felt ashamed of my debt. I didn’t want it hanging over our heads and was willing to take drastic action to to wipe it out.
I wanted to throw most of our savings at debt, leaving just enough to act as a small emergency fund. Then once the debt was totally gone, we’d rebuild our savings to its previous level.
That plan would have us out of debt really fast, but was risky as it would leave us with only a small emergency fund for a while. I didn’t love this risky plan, but I was anxious to pay off our debts and was already used to living with only a small emergency fund. Besides, with two incomes I figured the odds of us having a catastrophic emergency were quite small.
Andrea, however, hated that plan.
She wasn’t comfortable with the risk and did not want to drain our savings. Having a big emergency fund gave her a sense of security I’d never experienced before and the idea of only having a small emergency fund freaked her out.
Balancing speed with security was a new concept for us. We viewed risk differently and had to come up with a plan we’d both be happy with. The more we talked about it, though, the less our conversations centered on our finances.
Instead, we focussed more on building the life we wanted.
Debt freedom and a big emergency fund were just some of the ingredients.
We both wanted to travel. We both wanted to give to charity. We both wanted to pursue work we love.
Paying off the debt would give us the freedom to do so.
We never wanted to worry about putting food on the table. We never wanted to wonder how we’d pay our rent. We didn’t ever want to be tied to a job we didn’t like just because we needed the money.
A big emergency fund would help us avoid those things.
Our plan for paying down debt
So here’s what we came up with.
We agreed to use some savings to pay off a couple of my smaller student loans completely. This still left us with enough of an emergency fund to maintain Andrea’s sense of security.
We agreed to keep our expenses to less than half of our combined income. We could’ve afforded to rent a fancier house and eat lobster every night, but we chose not to. This way, if one of us lost our jobs we’d still be able to pay rent and keep food on the table. While we were both working, though, we’d use the leftover cash to attack the remaining debt.
We agreed to stay focussed and pay off all the remaining debt in less than a year. If by our first anniversary we still had some debt we’d tap into our savings to pay off whatever small amount was left.
Assuming everything went according to plan, we’d be debt free with a healthy emergency fund within the first year of our marriage.
FINALLY DEBT FREE!
Everything went according to plan and we’re done paying down debt!
Seven months later we were totally debt free. ~$62,000 paid off and we still had a healthy emergency fund.
Or to put it another way, we paid off ~$115,000 in five years, about a year faster than if we’d not gotten married and I just paid it off myself. I paid off ~$53,000 in 4 years on my own, slowed down my debt attack to get married, and together with my awesome wife wiped out the rest.
Even more important than paying off the debt, Andrea and I learned how to set the course of our lives and take action to get us there. We grew closer as a couple as we faced the challenge of paying off debt. Best of all Andrea and I learned to work together to achieve great things.
Now it’s your turn
Maybe you’ve never talked about hopes and dreams or set goals with your partner. Or maybe you’ve never even thought about it for yourself. This can be tough and tricky, but I’d like to help you out.
It’s pretty easy to articulate a “what” and a “how” for money and call it a day. Take for example “Let’s pay off our credit card/student loan debt by cutting our expenses.” That’s great and responsible, but boring. Instead, as Andrea and I learned, start with “why” you want to do something.
Think about or ask your partner:
How would it feel to have an extra $100, $500, or $1,000 leftover at the end of the month?
How would you approach your career differently if you didn’t have to trade your labor just to pay Sallie Mae or Visa?
How much fun could you have?
How generous could you be?
What new options would you have in your life?
Taking this approach, you’d come up with something like: “I want to take a job for the love of it, give more money to charity, buy that thing I’ve always wanted without feeling guilty, and/or stay home with the kids. So let’s trim our expenses to pay off our debt.”
With a solid “why” like that, the “what” and “how” are just details. You’ll also be much more likely to stick with your goals when, not if, something comes along to distract you.
Pessimism is practical
If you find yourself struggling to come up with a worthy “why” release your inner pessimist. Think about all the things you don’t want in life. Think about what you’re afraid of. Then flip it by stating the opposite.
Take “I’m afraid I’m going to work as a corporate slave forever just to pay off my student loans” and flip it to “I want to pay off these loans so I can afford to work for a non-profit.”
“We’re going to be too broke to travel or have any fun when we get older” flips to become “I want to travel the world with our friends and family, so let’s save up a bunch of money to do so.”
Once you have your “why” figured out, “what” to do with your money and “how” will come more easily.
You’ll be able to withstand temptation and not get distracted by shiny stuff. And by working towards a worthy “why” together with your partner, you’ll learn to talk about money without fighting because you won’t just be talking about money. Instead, you’ll be planning and working towards a better life together.
I hope you and your partner will face the challenge of your finances, decide what you really want for your lives, and work towards your goals together. Aggressively paying off our debts actually brought Andrea and I closer together and deepened our marriage. We learned how to talk about tough subjects, set goals, and work together to achieve them. You and your partner can do the same.
What’s your family’s biggest financial goal? Why is it important to you? Are you currently paying down debt?
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