Yesterday I paid off one of my student loans (1 down, 3 to go)! It felt amazing and energizing. In the last two years we’ve managed to eliminate our car payments, pay off all our credit cards and medical bills. We’re learning to pay off debt and how to not take anymore on.
This has been quite a lifestyle switch for us. Actually, it happened even before we started to pay off debt. When Sam and I were first married we used to go out a lot and yes, spend quite a bit of money. Not crazy extravagant, of course, but we liked to have a good time.
I bought a new Subaru Crosstrek. Sam bought a used Toyota (but still in great condition). We were renting and looked at houses in Milwaukee, but with property tax we couldn’t find anything for less than $250k. We decided to move closer to Sam’s work a few towns over. So we settled on a cute little 1943 Cape Cod with a $170k mortgage, which seemed pretty reasonable, especially for the great location. (Cedarburg is an adorable town.)
We went out to dinner a few times per week. We both enjoyed wine and beer (a little too much). We had cable, Netflix and video games. We belonged to gyms we never used.
Then over the next four years, we made some major lifestyle changes. Surprisingly, these changes not only saved us money–they transformed our lives in all kinds of ways. We buckled down and got serious about our health, our life and our finances. Here are the changes we made to help us pay off debt (and live happier, healthier lives too)!
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1. Quit Drinking
Our reasons for quitting drinking were many. It wasn’t a healthy lifestyle for either of us. Both of us have a hard time with moderation and at the time simply “cutting back” just wasn’t working. It was making it hard to get up and have energy. It was causing me to gain weight. I could tell it was affecting my work performance. So we quit together. It wasn’t a big deal with a lot of fanfare. We just stopped.
Since we quit drinking, according to my I Am Sober app, we’ve saved about $15,000. It sounds like a ton, but if you figure 4-5 nights a week at $40/night it adds up very fast.
Not only that, but it’s given both of us a lot more time! I can’t believe how much more time I have now to do the things around the house I want to get done, to cook, to wake up in the morning refreshed and work out! Is it hard? Yeah, sometimes. Sometimes I feel kind of lame or left out. Sometimes I wish I could just have one, but I know I can’t. Quitting together really helped and I know I don’t ever want to go back.
Plus, I lost 20 pounds when I stopped drinking. I started working out more. My blood pressure went down (it used to be 140/110, now 108/68). I know cutting out occasionally moderate alcohol isn’t necessary for everyone, but I was amazed at how much it helped us save and how much better we felt.
Lesson: Give up bad habits and use the savings (money and energy) to pay off debt!
2. Went Vegan
Again, this isn’t something everyone is ready to do. I totally get that! But it was one of the big money-saving changes Sam and I made and it really worked for us.
Here’s the deal: meat is expensive. Dairy is also expensive. If you buy organic, free-range, local stuff (which we tried to) it’s even more expensive. The special eggs I used to buy at the local market were $4.50 a dozen! At some point, it was cheaper to just cut it out.
Of course, we didn’t necessarily go vegan for the savings, but it’s been a nice bonus and I can definitely say our grocery bill has gone way down since we went vegan. We joined a CSA and even though it costs about $400/year we easily save that amount on produce during the summer months. We grow vegetables in our garden too.
At this point, I think I can pretty much make any dish vegan. Chances are it will end up costing much less overall than meat. Additionally, I also felt much better–my cholesterol went from pre-hypercholesterolemia to “the best results” my doctor claimed she’d seen in months! “Whatever you’re doing–keep doing it!” Plus, vegan living is better for the environment. So, plusses all around!
Lesson: Cut back on meat and dairy to save on your food expenses.
3. Ate At Home (Almost Always)
I know, we sound so boring, right? You know what? We love boring (and honestly, I am NEVER bored)! So, one of our biggest pay-down-debt-and-save-money tricks was to stop going out to eat.
We used to love going out to eat so much that the local restaurants KNEW us. For real. They knew our order when we’d walk in and some of the staff knew us by name. La Chimenea would have our drinks ready before we’d even sit down. The takeout place down the street would know “General Tso’s Tofu” the moment they picked up the phone.
I started cooking at home and doing a big weekend food prep. At first it took me a few hours (2-3) on Sundays to prepare meals for the week. Now, I’ve got it down to a science and can prepare most of our dishes for the week in about 45 minutes. I spend 5 minutes at night packing our lunches and putting breakfasts in our bags for work.
The savings is HUGE. When I did the math, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that some months we spent $500 going out to eat. For a teacher and someone who worked for a non-profit, that is just ridiculous. We weren’t living within our means, and our budget was suffering. Plus, eating at home is healthier too. Between quitting drinking, going vegan and eating at home, I have never had more energy or felt better. I am NEVER sick (and neither is Sam, despite working with kids all day). I lost the weight I wanted to and I saved a ton of money.
Lesson: Eat at home more often and prepare weeknight meals on the weekends to save money.
4. Used the Debt Snowball Method
When we started paying off our debt, we used the Dave Ramsey Total Money Makeover snowball method. We took all of our bills and debt and organized it. I sorted it all out by amount-owed and then looked at our minimum payments.
Because we had organized our budget, I knew exactly how much extra I could afford to put toward our bills (at the time it was about $300, mostly cut out of our “going out to eat/drink” and grocery bills). I paid minimums on all my bills except the smallest one. I put the “extra” $300 toward the smallest debt, which paid it off in no time.
Then, the next month we put $300 + the minimum payment from that smallest debt toward the next debt. Once it was paid off, we kept rolling up. Eventually we were paying over $1500 per month toward our debt–which paid off all our credit cards, medical bills and vehicles in two years. Now we’re tackling my student loans (down to $20k from $40k) and then we’ll work on our mortgage.
The snowball method is the most effective debt pay off method I’ve ever found. It’s motivating, fast and satisfying. If you haven’t checked it out, I highly recommend it!
Lesson: Pay down debt fast, using the snowball method.
We also freed up money to put toward our debt and living expenses by simplifying. We went through our bills and cut out a lot of the “extra” stuff. We got rid of cable and opted for Netflix and Amazon Prime instead (we have a smart TV so we could stream without needing any special equipment).
We cut out gym memberships and classes that we rarely used. We didn’t renew subscriptions. We combined services wherever we could–like opting for a family plan on Spotify. We cleaned out our closets and our basement and sold items we weren’t using on Craigslist and eBay. We consigned some of our clothes too.
Additionally, we simplified our social lives too. When we were going out frequently, we had a lot of “bar friends,” and when we stopped going out, it was amazing how much some of these relationships dwindled. Yet, we had some very good friends, who we really focused on budgeting our time with. I made sure to cultivate and focus on my close friendships that really mattered. We also started to host friends for game nights, go on runs or walks together and have potluck get-togethers rather than going out.
Lesson: Simplify your lifestyle to what really matters–you’ll save (and even earn) money!
6. Started Running
Does running save you money and help you pay off debt? Yup. Running happens to be one of the least expensive ways to get and stay in shape. It requires no extra equipment, special classes or gym. You simply need shoes and pavement. That’s it.
I used to belong to a gym and paid for spin classes. Yes, it was motivating because I knew I was losing out on money if I didn’t go. HOWEVER, there were still plenty of times I put it off or let other activities get in the way. When we moved to Cedarburg, my gym wasn’t close by. If I felt like working out in the mornings, I’d have to get up even earlier before work.
Running is simple. I can run whenever, wherever. All I need is my running shoes (and a sports bra, because well, just because). Running helps me clear my head. It gives me more energy and I feel better whenever I run.
Lesson: Exercise doesn’t need to cost money.
7. Used Bikes & Scooters
Sam bought a vintage Honda Express moped. It’s a cute little motorized bike, and when he got it I thought he was completely nuts. It seemed like just another “toy” we didn’t need (he paid about $500 for it). It turns out I was completely wrong.
The Honda gets great gas mileage and it’s perfect for running errands. Sam teaches less than five miles from our house, so he can bike or ride the moped to work in the spring and fall. He pretty much only needs to drive his truck during the worst winter months. This saves a ton on wear and tear.
The moped is great for getting around town. We have free music in the park downtown and many festivals, where it’s easy to take the moped and go. In fact, it works so well, I got jealous and so we bought a pretty blue one for me too! Between our mopeds and our regular bikes, we almost never need to use our cars (except on my commute to and from work). We save on gas and only need to get our cars serviced a couple times per year.
Lesson: Bike to save on transportation–minimize wear and tear on your car.
8. Worked Side Jobs
One of the biggest helpers when it came to paying off our debt? Both of us work side jobs. Because we had more free time and energy, we were both able to pick up extra work. Sam started coaching golf in the spring. In the summers he got a job working for the pool across from our house.
I picked up a consulting job as a bookkeeper/VA for my previous employer. I could work online at night or on the weekends. Then, I also started to pick up some freelance writing gigs. The writing turned into an amazing full time opportunity and last May, I left my non-profit job and started as Creative Director for a content marketing company (that I previously freelanced with).
Sam started to do graphic design. He initially started it as just a fun hobby on the side, but he enjoyed it so much that he was able to turn it into a really lucrative side business. He was able to quit coaching and the pool and now earns a healthy extra income by designing websites, logos and fun shirts.
Side jobs aren’t always the most fun. In fact, it can seem daunting to pick up a part time gig, especially if you’re working full time. My biggest takeaway from my side job experience is to find a side job you enjoy, can do from home, or aligns with one of your hobbies.
Lesson: Find extra ways to earn money by using your talents and free time!
9. Focused on the “Important Stuff”
Our biggest lifestyle change was simply that we reprioritized. Our social lives changed, the way we spent money changed and we really shifted to keeping our eye on what really makes us happy. When we were spending money all the time, living beyond our means, going out…there was something missing. It was like, we were always chasing some satisfaction.
Slowing down, becoming healthier–exercising, eating better, simplifying–it sounds less dramatic, but it’s also way more satisfying. We both work hard but when I’m writing or helping a client plan their creative vision for their website? It doesn’t feel like work. When Sam’s helping kids living healthier lives by teaching fitness and gym, or when he’s working on graphic designs? It’s fun! None of it really feels like work.
My takeaway from all of this is to focus on what really matters. We’re both homebodies. We just like to work in our garden, hang out in our yard and snuggle with our pets. We enjoy spending time together and with our close friends. We’re passionate about finding ways to inspire others and help them live healthier lifestyles (and keep the the planet healthy too)! When we focus on what really matters, life becomes simple–easy.
We followed our plan to pay off our debt, and it’s working! We’ve stopped chasing “MORE” and started to find satisfaction with what we already have. In the end, that’s what really counts.
Lesson: Focus on what matters to you: find purpose and the rest falls into place.