Just about a year ago, I celebrated paying off all of my debt — over $28,000 in 21 months — with an unexpected confetti party while sharing my journey on The Dave Ramsey Show. To give you some backstory to my debt situation, I put myself through private college and by the time I graduated, I had about $25k in student loans. Then a few months later, my old car bit the dust and I had to buy a new (used) one, taking out a $12k car loan. Let's do some math: at only six months out of undergrad, I was looking at over $35,000 of debt. I was barely 23 years old, working two part-time jobs as a nanny and children's ministry leader, and staring at a crap ton of money I had to pay off that didn't seem possible at the time. So I just made my minimum payments for a while and life went on.
Fast forward a few years, and I found myself living in Nashville and working at Dave Ramsey's company, where an integral part of what they do is teach people how to get out of debt. If you've never heard of Ramsey, I highly recommend you check out his 7 Baby Steps and/or read Total Money Makeover. After working there for over a year, I found myself deep in prayer with God about what He really wanted to do with this life of mine, because I had a deep sense that there just had to be more than what it looked like at the time. Through prayer, I felt Him impress on my heart that He did have more, but that He couldn't take me there until I dealt with my debt... and that was what really ignited my fire to pay off my debt as fast as I possibly could, because I knew that I didn't want to miss out on what He had waiting for me on the other side. So 21 months later in December 2016, I made my last student loan payment, and shortly after shared my story on Dave's show (video below)...
At this point you might be thinking, "cool cool cool, Gennean, great story... but how did you pay off all of that debt?" Fret not, friends. I have so many things that I am going to share with you here in this post about how I paid it all off, which might seem a bit overwhelming while reading, but trust me, you can do this, too, no matter your season or circumstances.
MAKE SACRIFICES. In order to save money, I knew that I needed to change some of my spending habits in order to put more money toward debt. I stopped eating out as much, skipped a lot of fun things like movies and concerts, and attempted not to buy any clothing that wasn't absolutely necessary. This helped me save anywhere from $50-300+ per month. I also looked into any ways that I could cut down on my monthly bills. I switched from my previous cell phone provider over to T-Mobile, which increased my data and saved me more than $15/month. I canceled monthly subscriptions I realized I didn't really need and did research to find other ways to lower bills, helping me save even more. It wasn't a fun task, but was totally worth it in the name of paying off debt.
TAKE EXTRA JOBS. This was actually super hard for me, because prior to living in Nashville I was working every day of the week with my two jobs and it was exhausting. I burned out a few times and knew that I didn't want to do that again in Nashville, which made getting one full-time job pretty helpful. But when I got serious about paying off my debt, I knew it was something I was going to need to reconsider, but it made it easier knowing that there was a greater goal I was working toward. Since I didn't want another "official" job (aka. part time), my budget buddy recommended that I figure out things I enjoy doing and try to make money doing them. First thing I did was start babysitting. I connected with people at work, told friends to give my number out, and joined sites like Care.com and Urbansitter.com. I also began taking on more pet/housesitting gigs for friends and coworkers to make some extra cash. Other things I did to make money included: photography, tutoring, home organization, interior painting, and selling stuff whenever I could (clothes, electronics, books, etc.). There are tons of options out there for making extra money, you've just got to get scrappy and keep the end goal in mind.
HAVE ACCOUNTABILITY. As a single person, finding a trusted person in my life to hold me accountable was absolutely crucial to my success in paying off debt. I called this person my "budget buddy," and we met monthly to go over my proposed budget for the month, and then again at the end of the month to see how the month went by comparing my proposed budget with my actual. It was super helpful to have another person looking at where my money was going (and who could encourage/challenge me to put more toward the debt), because it meant that I couldn't spend money on something without her knowing about it. If you're married, you have built in accountability (yay!), but you also need to make sure that you and your spouse are on the same page about making debt payoff a priority for the foreseeable future.
BUDGET. All of the tips listed above mean nothing if you aren't working with a legit budget, which was the thing that kept me most on track when paying off my debt. At the time I started on my debt-free journey, Ramsey Solutions was beta testing their budgeting software called EveryDollar, so I was able to use it as my zero-based budgeting tool throughout my entire season of paying off debt. I actually still use EveryDollar to this day, simply because it's my favorite tool out there! It's beautiful, easy to use, syncs seamlessly with my bank for a yearly fee, and there's a mobile app. Making a budget can feel super overwhelming if you've never done it before, so I created a little video to help walk you through setting up a budget and paying off debt HERE.
THE THING ABOUT THE HUSTLE
I mentioned scrappiness earlier in this post, namely because I am a pretty scrappy gal who has been providing for herself for a long time, so I've always had the notion that if you need to make money, you do whatever it takes to make the money, and that's the mentality that has been with me for over a decade. It's the thing that kept me saying "yes" to all the opportunities that presented themselves to me on my debt-free journey... and I am here to say that is both a good and and a bad thing. It's good because it meant I was never above any job; I would take the gig if it paid me enough to be worth my time and helped me to put more toward debt payments. It's bad because it meant I almost never said no, which meant I was typically working 70 hours a week with my full-time job and all my side hustles (not including drive time between them!), all of which led me to burn out... many times, and it wasn't pretty. I do understand that some people willingly work 60+ hours a week, and good on them, but I am here to tell you that the hustle is not sustainable. Working that much is not healthy for many reasons, but especially with the amount of stress it puts on an individual. So I want to say: while I do believe you should get intense when paying off debt by taking on extra jobs or side hustles, I also believe you need to give yourself a break when you start to feel too overworked and/or overwhelmed. There is no shame in knowing when you need a breather, so please, in the name of all that is holy, give yourself the gift of space when you need it. And then once you've recovered, get right back into those side hustles with a renewed intensity.
REMEMBER GOD'S PROVIDENCE
I mean, this one is for real the most important thing you can and need to do, regardless of whether or not you are paying off debt. And I feel I can say this with some authority because: 1. I did not do this well during my debt payoff, and 2. God blew me away with an unexpected gift toward the end of my journey. I've already stated that I'm scrappy, but during much of my season of paying off debt, I can admit that I rarely sought God or asked Him to provide for me. No, my mentality for much of that time was, "I have to say yes to that job so that I can make the money so that I can pay off the debt so that I..." Notice how many times I said "I" in that sentence? Unfortunately, that was much my inner dialogue during that season. And yet God gave me the direction at the beginning to start paying off debt; He sent a person into my life to keep me accountable; He had given me the job (for real, I was unqualified at the time) to work at a company where we literally teach people how to get out of debt; and He really did, whether or not I acknowledged it at the time, provide every opportunity I had to make some extra money to get it all done. In the last month of paying off my final student loan, He blew me away when a friend gave me a check out of obedience not knowing that it was almost the exact amount I had left to pay off (read more about that HERE). So please, I urge you with everything in me, do not forget who is truly the Provider in your life. Do not lean on yourself, because I promise that only leads to stress, overwhelm, and burnout. Trust that God will provide for you along your journey, because paying off debt is an act of faithfulness and obedience to rid to shackles of debt and live in even more freedom, and in that place, God can and will do so much more with your life than you ever thought possible.
MORE TIPS + TRICKS
- PRAY. Take the time to pray about this journey you are on or are about to embark on, and ask God to give you direction, discernment, and intense perseverance to keep going when it gets hard.
- Do not cease your tithing, no matter what your financial situation looks like. I think that it is extremely important to give back to God what is rightfully His before ever using it for yourself. Consider setting up automatic payments if you have a hard time tithing regularly.
- Have at least $1,000+ in your savings account at ALL times for emergencies that pop up (because they always pop up). Note: that amount should be more if you are debt-free (3-6 months of expenses).
- If you have accrued consumer debt (a.k.a. non-mortgage debt), make it a priority to get rid of it as soon as possible by going whatever you can to take more money each month to pay off your debt using the debt snowball method!
- If you are in this boat, I highly recommend giving yourself a new "minimum monthly payment" to keep in mind and that, hopefully, you can exceed each month (i.e. if you car loan's minimum payment is $200/month, tell yourself it's $700+/month, this way you always pay off more than the minimum).
- With that, still leave room for fun. I made a point to have little incentives along the way of my debt-free journey, choosing to treat myself to one special thing after each debt that is paid off. After my car, I got a new laptop; after my first of two student loans, it was a new camera. These "treat yoself" incentives helped me to stay even more focused and intense.
- If you are married, you and your spouse have to be on the same page. Sit down together each month to plan your budget, and hold one another accountable to your plan throughout the month.
- Seek to learn the art of contentment (Hebrews 13:5-6) and remember that money is just a tool. It comes and it goes, and it will always leave us wanting more. Guard your heart against the love of it (because, hello, that's called idolatry - 1 Timothy 6:10) and always, always, always acknowledge it truly belongs to.
- Continue in prayer. Trust God throughout the process. Believe that He will meet all of your needs (Philippians 4:19).
I hope that you've found this post helpful, hopeful, and not too overwhelming. Believe me, I know the feeling of being burdened by the amount of debt that is staring you right in the face, but I promise that it is not an impossible mountain to climb and conquer. With God — and just enough grit — all things are possible, and I believe that you will be able to step into so much more once you get rid of your debt. It won't be easy (most good things aren't), but it will absolutely be worth it. Trust God, and get moving.