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How One Couple Paid off $30k in Just 15 Months

This is the story of a rare occasion when it’s OK to hide things from your spouse ...

Andy is a pastor. His wife, Melissa, is a stay-at-home mom. Like with many couples, they haven’t always seen eye-to-eye about how to handle the family’s finances. But when their debt reached $30,000, for the second time, they knew they needed a new plan.

Tune in to this episode of Debt Stories to find out how the Christmas spirit and a jar of basil helped their family finally conquer their money problems.

Transcript

Welcome, everyone. This is Episode 3 of a new YNAB podcast series: Debt Stories: Real People Beating Debt & Winning Financially.

Today, I want to introduce you to Melissa and Andy, who live in The Southeastern United States. Andy is a pastor, and Melissa’s a stay-at-home mom.

Like with many couples, Andy and Melissa haven’t always seen eye-to-eye about how to handle money—and it wasn’t until their debt reached $30,000, for the second time, that they finally got on the same page.

Today, we’re going to hear how they paid off their debt, and the surprising secret ingredient to their success … a jar of basil.

Now, let’s flash back twelve years, to when Andy accepted his job in their current city.

Andy: Yeah, we live in the south east and we’re blessed to be in an area that has relatively high incomes and low cost of living.

Andy: When we came from Southern California we lived in a much smaller house because that was all we could afford. We actually made a lot of money coming out of Southern California. We didn’t hit the very peak of the market but we were just after the peak when we left. We owned for two years and made a pretty good chunk of change but when we got here, we kinda got wide-eyed because they were taking us around houses and looking at houses that man this is incredible!

Andy and Melissa were blown away by how much more they could get for their money. And, as you can imagine, extra square footage was enticing to their family of seven.

Melissa: We have five kids. Our oldest just started college; she’s 18. One is 16, one 13, one 9 and one 6, so we have a 1st grade to freshman in college.

They bought their first home in The Southeast and, bit by bit, began to rack up debt on their home equity line of credit. That debt was, ultimately, what attracted them to YNAB. Hey, maybe debt can be a good thing. Oh, wait …

Of course, living beyond their means wasn’t exactly a new problem …

Andy: I would say for us, throughout all of our married life, which is over 20 years now money has always been a point of difficulty and contention. And it’s kind of been something that we had a hard time talking about and it was always the hot potato that we would pass back and forth. One of us would deal with it for a while, get frustrated and then would hand it to the other one.

Hot potato—not fun, and much less effective than budgeting.

Andy: We had debt in excess of $30,000. It was all in a home equity line. It was the dumping ground where we would accumulate debt in other spots and then we would dump it in as it was smaller interest rate and made us feel a little bit better that we had debt but it’s the “good” debt.

“Good” debt, it turns out, looks a lot like … just, regular, old debt.

Andy: We bought some cars and those had been out of that home equity line. We had actually refinanced at one point and got rid of it and actually built it back up. So really, when we hit that 30,000 that was our second time around building it to that spot.

Now that their home equity line of credit had hit $30,000, for the second time, Andy and Melissa’s ears perked up when some friends mentioned their budget.

Andy: In the beginning of 2015, we had some friends that were using YNAB and they had been using it for quite some time and said, hey this is a little bit different; you might want to try this.

And they did, but it took a little trial and error to learn to love YNAB.

Andy: I have to be honest. My initial reaction to budgeting was very negative. My wife has always been the driving force of, make budgeting happen and make paying off debt happen. This was not something of me leading it; it was really her leading me and encouraging us to really think about how that would happen. We were paying it off when we started doing YNAB, and even in a slightly bigger way or faster way than we were doing it, but it was really about eight or nine months after we started doing YNAB that we really decided we’re going to take this much more seriously. It was actually some of my wife’s actions that made that happen.

Melissa, it turns out, was a natural budgeter. What prepared her?

Melissa: Well I think part of it was just how I grew up versus how Andy grew up. We, growing up, did not have a lot of money. How we spent it was just we were very, very frugal and so being in debt was very concerning to me. It felt very insecure. That was very difficult in how we were communicating. Whenever we would try to talk about money, we would start fighting about it.

This is the part of the podcast where we discover that leading by example is the best way to inspire others.

Melissa: In January 2015, I found a little savings challenge on Pinterest. I kept it a secret and I had a little spice jar in my drawer and just started socking away money. That was in January. In March, we started YNAB. After a fairly large fight, it was the point where we realized we had to do something.

Since they had started giving every dollar a job in YNAB, it became difficult for Melissa to keep her Pinterest savings challenge a secret, but she got creative. For example, if she was returning something to the store, she’d ask for cash back, and set that aside.

Melissa: Throughout the year, I thought what am I going to go do with this money. I wanted to do something at Christmas time. In the meantime, I’m starting to build up, what was for us, a fairly substantial amount of money.

Then Melissa had an idea. She’d heard about a website called mapyourprogress.com (that we featured in Episode 189 of the show) that offered coloring-book-style posters. The idea behind the posters is that, as you work towards a goal, you color in a new section of the artwork to visually represent your progress. Melissa liked that idea, so she made her own.

Melissa: Then at Christmastime, I wrapped up a canvass and I wrapped up my jars of money. … I want to say it was about $1300, a little over that. I was so excited. I’d been waiting for a year and I was jumping up and down in the living room, taking this to him.

Melissa’s gift was a turning point for their family.

Andy: When she presents this to me, I was thankful and dumbfounded and then a little confused.

Andy: After the initial shock wore off of, like, wow this is an amazing thing that she’s done and it’s not just she figured it out the beginning of December, but she’s been doing it all year.

Melissa: So we sat down that day after Christmas and did the math and started coloring. We did a big floral leaf design, and for every $100 that we paid off, we colored in a leaf. We went from paying off $30,000 what would have been 30 years paying the minimum down to $10,000. Then when we started coloring, we thought it would take us three years and it ended up we got really excited about it and cut back in a lot of areas.

Andy: And that picture that sat on the wall became a tradition for us every budget meeting of, okay, now we’re going to take this down. We’re going to have our budget meeting, we’re going to color and let’s see how many we can color in this time.

Melissa: So we established skinny January, that month right after Christmas, and we slashed every category that we could. Food got cut in half. Clothing was zero. Just stuff like that. All of our budget categories that could be cut, we slashed. We got our 30-year debt down to about 15 months.

Melissa: We were a team and we were communicating better than we had ever been before. We both might disagree about something but there were ways to compromise. It was so much better.

Imagine that! Not only were they communicating better, Andy and Melissa had found a way to cut their debt repayment from 30 years, to just 15 months. Incredible.

Andy: We started seeing that we could get control of what we had. Before we were using YNAB, where our money went was just a mystery. You’d look up sometimes and be like, hey, we got this amount, we can go and do this or we can buy this. And then a couple of months down the road, you’d come up against something like insurance and be like, oh well, I guess we can’t pay it all right now or we’re going to have to defer this. Why do we not have money in the checking account for this? There was no understanding about where our money was going or what our money was doing.
Once we started using YNAB, we had a much clearer picture and we had better communication about who was spending what and how that money was transpiring.

So, where did they cut back?

Andy: I think over the year of doing YNAB up to that point, we figured some things out. When we first started, things like eating out were much higher. We realized we can do this easier and cheaper if we have stuff at home. That was a huge adjustment, not only for me but for our kids too because they were used to … if it’s after church, or we don’t want to do something, then we’d just go out.

Andy: But with a family of seven, you don’t go out anywhere for under 60 bucks.

Predictably, getting their kids on board was an entirely new step in their family’s adjustment to budgeting …

Melissa: Well when we first started, they were not excited, especially about skinny January. They were not happy. But now they’ve got used to the fact that we have budgets. My son loves higher-end shoes, … if he wants a new pair of Nikes and we make him wait and we shop around. We say sorry, buddy, we have $1.50 left in the clothing budget, got to wait until next month of your work hard and buy them yourself. Our oldest has been doing her own YNABing for about a year now when she started working and it’s been great. It’s been great for her to learn how to budget. It’s hard when all their friends are getting their own brand new iPhones and they get to go to Cancun on spring break and stuff like that. Trying to help them realize that’s not necessarily the best choice for our family.

With their financial goals in mind, Andy and Melissa worked intensely at cutting back for short bursts of time—sometimes having as little as just $10 of spending money, each, per month. But, as we all know, budgeting is a marathon, not a sprint.

Andy: Well I think we wanted to try to figure out a balance of what we could throw at the debt and at the same time, make sure that we had enough to live. That was the constant push and pull of like, we could throw this much at it but we’ve still got to think about these things that are coming up. We were working as hard as we could but that didn’t mean that we were eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day. We still had kids playing high school sports. We still actually took some vacations. We still had a hot water heater break down in the middle of it.

Andy: We did have one fortunate shift with some things at my work and the way health insurance was handled that was a pretty significant help to us. But what I was grateful for was that we had the tools to manage that. Before, I think it would have just been oh well here it is, and then I don’t know if we’d have done a good job of saying what do we need to do with this.

This ‘balance’ thing was Melissa’s break-through—budgeting wasn’t just an exercise in cutting corners, it was an exercise in using money to create a life that her family loved:

Melissa: When we were on vacation, I remember stressing because my kids wanted to buy a $6 coloring book at a gift store. but then coming to the realization was like, wait, no, we have the money for this in our vacation fund and it’s okay to spend it. This is going to make our kids happy on vacation, let’s do it. That’s definitely been a lesson I’ve had to learn, realizing I don’t have to be super frugal all the time. It’s okay to spend this money and enjoy it because that’s what we’ve set it aside for.

Getting there wasn’t easy, but they’d finally found their financial stride. When I asked how they managed to stay motivated through those skinnier months …

Melissa: even in the most difficult months, try to make it fun. I did a lot of baking with the kids, watching a movie on a Friday night, just naming something skinny January, and I think also having our big 20 x 24 canvass on the wall in the kitchen, where it was a visual reminder where we were at. How far we’d come, how far we have to go … just the excitement, when someone would come over and say what is that!? And it was so fun to be able to tell them and they would get excited for us. And it was a good reminder for the kids too. When we would color in a whole bunch of leaves and then they would walk in and say, wow you guys did a lot today.

Financial peace is among the best gifts you can give yourself but, as Andy points out, their budget is about so much more than money:

Andy: Some of the fighting we had really wasn’t about the money; it was partially about our differences in the way we saw things in background. It was also my fear and my, just even shame, of the way that I had done poorly handling money and having to admit that. But there is such freedom in honest communication, being able to, both of you together, deal with it. It can be really, really scary, threatening even to your relationship, but it’s worth it.

I’ll leave you today with one final budgeting tip. Melissa says, if you try the spice jar Pinterest challenge, be sure to choose a spice you really like because that’s what your money is going to smell like.

Basil worked, pretty well, for her family.

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Do You Have a Debt Story?

Wanna know what’s better than an amazing debt makeover story? Several debt makeover stories! If you’re a YNABer and you’d be willing to let Jesse interview you for a future episode, write to us at debtstories@ynab.com. In your email, include a short paragraph or a few bullets about your financial hurdles and how you overcame them.

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How One Couple Paid off $30k in Just 15 Months