I spent my early 20s working hard and clumsily throwing money out the window. Then, I fell in love with a man who’d done the same, and we decided to get married.

victory

The excitement of planning our future together couldn’t quite escape the one shadow that hung over us.

Poor money management.

We’d both worked so hard and had very little to show for it in the bank. It was a conversation I was dreading since I enjoy confrontation about as much as dumping hot tea over my head.

Taking the Risk to Talk It Out

According to a SunTrust Bank survey published on CNBC, the #1 cause of stress in a relationship is money. We weren’t even talking about it and I was stressed. Still, I was frightened to face a future that felt so uncertain.

Here are a few examples of my silent fears as I looked at my empty savings account, sloppy spending habits, and my fiancé’s $22,000 in student loans.

  • Would we ever afford a house?
  • How could we provide for a family some day?
  • Could I ever stay home with our children?
  • Would financial struggles eventually divide us?

Getting Educated

Three days after our engagement, I heard about a class called Financial Peace University. It covered topics like debt, saving, budgeting, insurance, investing, and communicating with your spouse over the course of several weeks.

I approached my fiancé, hoping beyond all hope that he’d agree to attend it with me.

He did. That one moment of united vulnerability was our spark. Taking Financial Peace University ignited our passion and equipped us with the tools to finally tackle our bad spending habits.

Here are the steps that fanned the flame into a blaze, chopped five years off our debt-free plan, and gave us the peace and unity we both desired in our marriage.

9 Ways We Fast-Tracked Our Debt-Free Journey

The average family income in the US when my husband and I began our debt-free journey in 2011 was $53,879, according to this Census ACS survey. Even with our two full-time incomes combined, we fell below that average by more than $15,000.

Still, we applied our budding financial habits diligently and made those dollars work for us. Here were the biggest triumphs on that journey:

1. Emergency “Budget Committee Meetings”

Let’s go ahead and skip the bullet point that says “Create a budget,” shall we? A written monthly financial plan is certainly a healthy step toward success, but you already know that.

What you may not realize is that it is 100% alright to call an emergency budget meeting at any point in your month. Thirty days is plenty of time for something to go awry or for an old habit to derail your plans. It’s important to touch base in those moments, discover the leak, and repair it.

2. The Mindset Reboot

If you wake up each morning telling yourself you’ll never lose weight or run that half-marathon next spring, I’m fairly certain you’ll be right. Our mindset is a powerful thing.

In my early 20s, my mindset told me that credit card marketing had no effect on me. According to Statista.com, Capital One, American Express, and Discover spent a combined $508 million on advertising in 2017. That’s a cool half-billion spent on studying you and me with the sole purpose of convincing us to use their credit cards more.

It’s one thing to be disciplined enough to use a small margin of credit that gets paid off each month. I had every intention to be that person, but the slippery slope of poor money management and impulse purchases eventually triumphed.

Instead, I gave myself a “mindset reboot.” I began focusing on things like:

  • Saying no to impulsive spending
  • Studying my bank statement or using a tracking app like Every Dollar or Mint.com to identify hidden “budget busters.”
  • Setting aside cash for large purchases like car repairs, furniture, or our next vehicle.
  • Ignoring the banner ads designed to entice me to shop online for things I didn’t need in the first place.
  • Building an emergency fund instead of relying on a credit card for that.

3. Establishing the “Four Walls”

During our time in Financial Peace University, we learned to set up four walls in our financial plan and always protect them. They are:

  • Food
  • Shelter
  • Clothing
  • Transportation

Knowing we could protect our house and make it safely to work above our debt-free journey gave us a lot of peace and confidence heading into the future. This was especially true a year into our marriage when we found out we were expecting our first child.

4. Setting a Date

A debt payoff date is the stake you drive into the ground. It’s the stand you take. You’re going all in and committing to this effort by saying you’ll pay off your debt by such and such a time. It truly is powerful and helped us shave five years off our original plan.

Pro Tip: Want a free way to calculate your estimated debt payoff date? Input your outstanding non-mortgage debt into this debt payoff calculator. Input what you realistically think you can pay each month, not just the minimum payment. Then push yourself to pay extra and speed up the process even more.

5. Living on One Income

As my husband and I grew more competent at budgeting, communicating, and actually sticking to our plan, we gained momentum. That meant we could use more and more of my paycheck to blast away the debt.

Eventually, we sent my whole paycheck to our creditors and lived on my husband’s income. It was hard, but it dove straight into the heart of our student loans. What waited on the other side wasn’t insecurity and fear of the future. It was freedom.

6. Pressing Pause on the Big Stuff

Saying no to impulse purchases helped wrestle our finances into submission, but pressing pause on some of the bigger things paved a long-term path for success. By that, I mean renting instead of rushing out to purchase a house we couldn’t afford. Another example was to hold off on any big travel plans, except to visit family.

7. Selling Used Goods

My husband is the natural spender and I’m the natural saver. Therefore, when we got married, one of us had several thousands of dollars invested in musical gear and equipment, and, well, the other had some used books on the shelf. Still, between the two of us (mostly my husband), we were able to sell quite a bit of our used goods.

Pro Tip: Back then, we used simple word of mouth, Craigslist, eBay, or Facebook, but now you can check out free apps like OfferUp, LetGo, or Cash4Books.

8. Reviving the Barter System

While we lived in an apartment during our first few years of marriage, we were able to make an arrangement with the landlord. He had a disability that made routine maintenance difficult for him. My husband stepped in to help in exchange for a discount on our rent. I also exchanged piano lessons for the landlord’s daughter for an added discount on rent.

9. Earning a Side Income

Besides bartering, my husband also had a knack for repairing and restringing guitars for coworkers and used that extra $20 to $50 cash directly toward melting more debt.

Bottom Line

If newlyweds like us who lived below the average family income level with zero experience budgeting together and had a track record of sloppy spending habits can crush debt, then so can you. It takes so much more than studying spreadsheets or comparing interest rates.

At the heart of this, each of us must challenge our mindset. Hit the big red “Reset” button as needed. Learn to say no. Set clear goals. Stay in open communication. And keep going.