How did you acquire $41,000 in debt?
Initially, when we decided we wanted to become debt-free our total debt was $25,000, which consisted of a $10,000 student loan, $10,000 car payment and 2 credit cards that amounted to $5,000.
Prior to really analyzing our finances we never considered ourselves in debt, because we had what seemed like “normal” debt. However, once we woke up and acknowledged that we were truly in debt, we immediately decided to formulate a game-plan on how to rid ourselves of that financial burden.
About 6 months later – and only $15,000 left to go – we learned I (Christina) had stage 4 Hodgkin Lymphoma. During the 16 months of medical treatments we accrued approximately $16,000 in medical bills, consisting of 2 ($5,000) annual health insurance deductibles and a ($6,000) IVF treatment to freeze my eggs – and that was with really good health insurance!
What did it feel like to have that much debt?
It sucked! Having debt feels like someone has you on a leash! You’re not really free to do whatever you want, such as a move to a different country or quit your job to start a business. Prior to my cancer diagnosis, we were feeling great and making awesome progress on our debt. We were on track to having it all paid off within the next 8 months. Dealing with cancer is tough enough on its own, but the financial burden that follows a cancer diagnosis can make things feel so much heavier.
How long did it take you to pay it all off?
In total in took us 18 months, which included the extra $16,000 of medical debt…Slow and steady wins the race!
What resources did you use to help you through this process?
For us, the whole journey began by listening to Dave Ramsey’s “Total Money Makeover” CDs. That’s what helped us change our money mindset and understand the difference between telling your money what to do vs. just spending and reacting. We also used Google spreadsheets and mint.com. But the best thing I think we did – besides creating & sticking to a budget – was creating a reward/goal for ourselves each time we paid off a debt.
We wrote out the debts (smallest to largest) and listed what our reward would be when we paid one off! We kept that list posted on our refrigerator door so we were constantly reminded of it throughout the day. That helped keep our motivation high and our goals are the forefront of our minds.
Did you face any challenges along the way?
Getting stage 4 cancer meant I had to undergo some pretty intense treatments (chemo, radiation & a stem cell transplant) for 16 months straight and then needed to heal from all that. So, I had to take a leave of absence from my full-time job and instead rely on disability insurance as my source of income.
Thankfully, I have been working full-time since I was 18 so I was able to receive about 75% of my “typical” income. Initially, it was a little disheartening to deal with such a financial setback, but we felt grateful that we had learned about proper money management and started this journey prior to me getting sick. We both feel it made that whole situation way less stressful because we knew we could handle it and not let it affect our financial future.
How did this affect your marriage?
My partner and I both feel it drew us even closer together. We never had any money issues/fights or disagreements before – probably because we never thought we were in debt. But, going through this process together was actually really fun since we kind of made it into a game.
We also feel really lucky because we now are 100% on the same page when it comes to: spending, saving, investing, budgeting, etc. A lot of couples we know either keep their money separate or have different ideas when it comes to financial health. We feel being in-sync – in all aspects of our lives – makes us a stronger couple than we were before our financial re-education.
What were you doing for a living while you were paying off the debt?
Until I got sick I was working full-time as a RDA/Clinical supervisor in an orthodontic office and my partner, Andres was working full-time as a travel specialist for an adventure travel company.
How did it feel once you paid it all off?
Ridiculously amazing!! We were so proud of ourselves and felt so free! The cool thing was we were so used to our new saving and spending habits that we kept the exact same budget to create a nice little nest egg.
After just 9 months of saving we were able to quit our jobs, start a travel company called, Boutique Japan, and podcast for cancer patients & survivors called, The Cancer GamePlan, all while traveling the world! The freedom from that comes from being debt-free and knowing how to manage your money is priceless!
What practical tips do you have for people looking to pay off their debt?
1. Read and listen to podcasts, blogs, books, CD’s about money management to keep yourself motivated, interested and engaged in attaining your goal. The road is long, so it’s important to stay encouraged.
2. Get creative with your budget. Look for ways to reduce your current expenses and/or ways you can increase your current income. Remember it’s not forever, it’s just until you reach your debt-free goal.
3. Write it down and put it in plain sight. Seeing your progress and goals every day is a great way to keep you motivated (and if it’s you and your partner working at this, it will keep you both on the same page).
4. Create a $1000 emergency fund prior to paying off your first bill. Unexpected things always come up, but this way you’ll have a way to pay for the new tires you need or that surprise dentist visit, without having to put it on a credit card.
5. Don’t let setbacks become derailments. Whether it’s losing a job, unexpected new bills, or illness, stay committed and focused on your new money habits. Just re-adjust, re-prioritize and get going again.
Note: This is part of a series called “Debt Success Stories” which features people who were able to pay off a significant amount of debt. If you have a Debt Success Story I would love to hear about it. Please visit the contact page to let me know the details.