How We Paid Off $100,000 in Debt in 40 Months: Marriage and the Military


We were incredibly anxious to get our lives started together. Fresh out of college and new to the military life, I convinced my wife, Erin, to marry me. Like most new couples, we both entered the relationship with plenty of debt on both sides. I was fortunate enough to receive a “career starter” loan of $35,000.

Erin represented the “normal” in America with over $40,000 in student loans. Then of course came the things you have to buy in a new marriage: the car, the house, and the puppies. On February 1st, 2012, we had accumulated over $100,000 in debt.

The reality didn’t really hit us until we looked at the bank account after getting our first house. When you see the summary page of your accounts and it says, “You Owe $297,000,” it is enough to make you realize that you have to make some significant changes.

It was on this day, that Erin and I realized we wanted to live a debt free life and were willing to make the sacrifices it would take to be successful.

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We dreamed together

Just saying we wanted to be debt free wasn’t enough motivation to get us going. To be successful, we needed to dream together. Right before my first deployment, we took a budget road trip to spend the holidays with my family in Texas.

One of our stops along the way was a couple of nights stay in Southern California. The warm December air and the gorgeous ocean views made us both want to spend the rest of our lives on the beach. Whenever we need to make a difficult financial decision, we visit those memories and are willing to sacrifice to get there one day.

Communication While Thousands of Miles Apart was Crucial

The first nine month deployment was essential in us gaining traction and we owe it to our communication. On this austere deployment, I was hardly able to get to a computer or phone to call Erin. So when I did get that opportunity, we had to set aside five minutes to discuss our financial progress and what goals we still needed to hit.

This first deployment also helped lay the foundation for future deployments. On deployments two through five, computers and phones became more accessible. Frequent communication about our financial situation helped us keep each other motivated and stay focused on our money goals.

Oddly enough, all of my multiple deployments has been the greatest thing for us to achieve our financial goals. Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely hate missing all of the special days being away from my wife. All of the Christmas’, birthdays, anniversaries, New Years’, and all of days in between—absolutely suck. But being apart only made the passion to achieve our dream burn brighter.


Both of us Contributed to the Success

A major factor in us being successful is that Erin never shied away from hard work. Three moves in four years prevented Erin from getting to focus on her career (something I can never thank her enough for).

So at each new location, Erin found work to offset her expenses while I was deployed. This allowed us to contribute almost ALL of my income towards paying off our debt, which at the time was around $4,000 a month.

Giving Back Along the Way

Although we were focused on getting out of debt, we never missed an opportunity to give some help along the way. Marrying Erin has improved so many aspects in my life, but one of the biggest improvements is my compassion for helpless animals. Even while I have been deployed, Erin has found several dogs and cats, made sure they received medical care, and found them an awesome home.

One of these success stories was a young lab mix named Jax. Jax was the longest resident in a local pound when Erin rescued him from death row. Jax needed significant veterinarian care, heartworm treatment, and plenty of time to recover from his illnesses. Over 18 months later and heartworm free, we found Jax a wonderful family who spoils him.

The feeling you get from helping others out, even when you are making sacrifices, helped us stay motivated and gave us something else to look forward to once we got out of debt. We knew that once we were debt free, we would be able to help more animals who needed it.

Accountability Tools

So I’ll admit it, I am definitely the money nerd in our marriage. I create all of the charts and track all of the money. Oddly enough, I’m also the spender in the marriage. So the charts were more a forcing function to keep me in check.

Every month, I’ll map out all of our monthly expenses. We will then create a zero-based budget, and on every pay day, I’ll put all of our extra income towards the loan we wanted to focus on paying off. Monthly, I’d update the charts to determine our payoff date to be debt free. The charts, along with not physically having extra money in the checking account, would be enough to keep me in check.

Creating a Sustainable Zero-Based Budget

Another key to our success was creating a sustainable zero-based budget. In the first couple of months, we were extremely focused on tracking every dollar in the month. I found this to actually be counter-productive towards sustainable budgeting. Have you ever tried an extremely restrictive diet? It is usually a fad that only lasts a few weeks, maybe a month if you are lucky. The same applies to your finances.

For us to be successful, we created a sustainable zero-based budget.

We categorized major groups and assigned a monetary value to that category. So for entertainment, we would budget $250 a month. It didn’t matter if we planned on taking a weekend trip and getting a hotel, or taking several date nights and getting dinner and a movie. As long as we stayed within the dollar threshold for that category, we were fine. We didn’t have to budget $30 for movies, $120 for hotels, $50 for dinners. We made a simple program and could sustain it for the entire 40 months.

Related content: Our Financial Detour: How Budgeting Freed us to Follow our Dreams

Making Extra Money with a Side Hustle

To help us make more progress towards destroying our debt, I started to figure out different ways to make some extra money. I found flipping free furniture from Craigslist to be extremely easy and consistent. I could spend two to three hours on a free afternoon or weekend scouring the free section on Craigslist and responding to multiple free postings within minutes.

With few resources and a little elbow grease, I could repair or improve the free furniture. About three to four hours later, I could have it all on Craigslist and sell each item for around $100 or more. I found that many buyers didn’t have a vehicle large enough and would pay me an additional $20-$30 to help deliver it.

I spent less than 20 hours a month, profited over $1,000 monthly, and if it wasn’t for another deployment, I was planning on scaling my side hustle substantially.

Always room for a little fun

Just because we were sacrificing to get rid of our debt didn’t mean we weren’t able to have relatively inexpensive fun. Living in Washington State allowed us to find plenty of things to do to have fun and enjoy being married.

On the weekends, we would drive the 3+ hours to the Washington coast and let our dogs run around on the beach. We had the opportunity to take a boat out to watch the Orcas in the Puget Sound. We would drive up to Seattle and hang out in the Pike Place Market. Or, we would choose one of the many mountain hikes to get a world-class view of the beautiful scenery.

Bottom line: if you want to keep the pressure on the debt, you can’t forget to have some fun along the way.

Achieving Victory

I’ll never forget it. We were driving across Oregon State. I was in a 26 foot rental Penske truck with my wife’s car on the trailer. She was patiently driving my car behind the trailer, trying to keep the puppies preoccupied on our 40 hour, 2,768 mile drive from Fort Lewis, Washington to Fort Benning, Georgia.

While driving this ridiculously large truck and trailer (please don’t do this at home), I was talking on the phone to the Sallie Mae student loan department paying off our last $24,000 from the proceeds we made from the selling our home without a realtor. Celebrating with each other on our walkie talkies (a preferred traveling caravan technique), we were debt free for the first time in our adult lives.

And from that moment on, we knew that we were one step closer to feeling the warm air and refreshing sun of our Southern California dream! We had paid off our $100,000 in debt in 40 months!

Author bio: Nolan is a military officer and graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY. He holds a Master’s Degree in Financial Planning and is currently pursuing his Certified Financial Planner designation. His experience in the military allows him to share incredible lessons he learned and apply them to the fundamentals of personal finance. His blog, BudgetChaos.com, was recently created on October 1, 2017. You can find his free eBooks, Military Retirement Dilemma and Making Sense of Retirement Investing, and more at www.BudgetChaos.com. Feel free to connect on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

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