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Dealing with $263k in Debt, Job Loss & the Unknown

How Brittany reframed money “problems” as “challenges” and got her life back.

Brittany and Keith live in Marietta, Georgia with their two young children, and they’d racked up $263,000 of debt—a number that used to keep Brittany awake at night (and that was before her husband lost his job as a train dispatcher, and she quit her full-time job to freelance).

Still, in spite of major transitions, they’re keeping the trains going. They’re making progress on their debt, padding the bank account and prioritizing an enjoyable life for their family (a non-negotiable to get everyone on board with the budget!).

Tune in to this episode of Debt Stories to hear how Brittany and Keith have finally gotten their finances on the right track:


Welcome, everyone. This is Episode 5 of a new YNAB podcast series: Debt Stories: Real People Beating Debt & Winning Financially.

Today we’ll meet Brittany, who lives with her husband Keith and their young daughters—first-grader, Amelia, and pre-schooler, Charlotte—in Marietta, Georgia … a suburb just outside of Atlanta.

Between student loans, a mortgage and credit cards, Brittany and Keith were in debt to the tune of $263,000—a number that used to keep Brittany awake at night …

… and that was before she left her full-time job and Keith was laid-off …

Brittany: He works for CSX, for the railroad. Right now, he is a dispatcher, which is, kind of, like an air traffic controller but for trains. He’s worked for CSX for nine years. For the last several years, he’s actually been an electrical trainer. He’s the manager of the trainers essentially, or he was.

Very recently, CSX have gone through massive layoffs and he, unfortunately, was part of those waves of layoffs. Incredibly fortunately, we have continued to pay his union dues in the time that he has been working as a manager, for almost five years. So when he got laid off, it was incredibly easy for him. He had a one-week enforced vacation and then went back to dispatching.

Jesse: Just months before Keith lost his job, Brittany underwent a huge shift in her career, too.

Brittany: In February of this year, coincidentally about a month before the layoffs at CSX started happening, I quit my well-paying government full-time job with pension and benefits and salary and paid time off to start freelancing because I was miserable.

I am a freelance marketing manager/consultant/whatever project work I want to pick up.

Jesse: So, how did they wind up with so much debt, in the first place? Like with so many other people, it happened bit by bit …

Brittany: The easiest way to look at our debt and that build-up of debt was a slow uninformed creep. Really that’s what it was. It was not really being on top of the total. I’ll be perfectly honest, when I finished my Masters degree, I didn’t even know what my total student loan debt was.

And I didn’t know how common that was until I started talking about it, which no one does, and until I started getting that paperwork. Then there the middle-of-the-night panic attacks and how am I ever going to get out from under this and what have I done with my life, I’d graduated with a Masters degree in a field that I didn’t necessarily want to pursue.

While I think it’s opened some doors since then, I’m still not totally sure that it was worth all of the student loan debt that I have. But, you know, those were the choices that I made and we made those choices very incrementally.

It would be a vacation here or a car payment there and all of a sudden we were just building massive amounts of debt that we didn’t even realize we had.

At the same time, that there’s the large chunks of debt and then there’s that creep of credit card debt that I was really unaware of. Because I had a credit card, but for a long time we maintained separate credit cards.

Jesse: When Brittany discovered YNAB, those middle-of-the-night panic attacks made the decision to sign up easy. At that point, she had just started at her full-time job.

Brittany: In November 2015, when I signed up for YNAB, I was like okay I have to figure this out. I found a job where I was making pretty great money and came to this realization of Keith is making good money, I’m making good money, I know we’re going to have a lot of expenses in terms of daycare and that sort of thing but there’s no reason that we can’t start to really hone in on debt.

We were at a point where we weren’t putting any more debt with either our credit cards or those large expenditure car payment, student loan kind of things, but we weren’t getting on top of it. We were just paying those minimum payments every month; maybe an extra $50 or $100 here or there but we weren’t really paying anything that felt substantial or felt like progress.

Jesse: With Brittany’s $52,000 graduate degree complete, they stopped the slide into more debt, but the realization that minimum payments, alone, weren’t the way out from under their existing debt felt unbearable.

Brittany: In November 2015, we had our house, obviously, so that was around $190,000 in debt. We had a $21,000 credit card balance on one card. So the student loan, the car payment, the mortgage payment, all of those felt very within the realm of normal for me.

Jesse: It was the credit card that really had her worried.

Brittany: We were paying hundreds of dollars a month in interest. I was like, this is ridiculous. We’re paying nearly $300 a month to maintain this balance that I don’t even want.

Jesse: A balance that never seemed to go down for stuff they didn’t even care about.

Brittany: Dinners that we had many years ago, crappy Ikea furniture that we had thrown away a long time ago. It all felt very pointless a The balance wasn’t going down; we were paying I think $450 a month and something like $40 a month was going towards the principal of it. It was foolish!

My husband is a little bit more laissez-faire when it comes to our budgeting. He was not staring at the ceiling in the middle of the night. I would have a panic attack and not really understand why. Then all of a sudden realize I was worried about money. I was worried about buying groceries the next week and not having to put it on the credit card. That was where I was like something is not working.

Jesse: In November 2015, Brittany and Keith had been together for twelve years, and they couldn’t have had more different outlooks on their financial situation. That was before YNAB.

Brittany: When we started using YNAB, it was really interesting because it actually became a whole new way for Keith and I to, like, work through things in our marriage. Now we have these state-of-the-union talks, where we talk about money in a very concrete way, not just like, oh did you pay all the bills? Yeah, I paid all the bills. Okay.

Now we talk about, okay so what do we have coming up in the next year, what do we have coming up in the next quarter, where are we thinking about spending, where can we be saving, what can we eliminate that’s not necessary, what are our priorities. All of those kinds of conversations had never happened before.

We just spent money and we were like, as long as we can the bills it’ll be fine. Keith’s constant refrain is, “It’ll work itself out.” That was just infuriating.

YNAB became a tool for us to have those conversations within a framework that was like we’re being proactive and we’re doing things about it but we’re not getting on each other’s nerves. We’re not insulting one another. We’re not saying that your priorities are wrong just because they’re different from mine. And we’re still working through it. We work through it every day. It gave us the tools to be able to do that with a website. That’s the part that feels very revolutionary for our marriage.

We had used other tools. I can put together a heck of a spreadsheet but if it’s not getting used, it doesn’t really mean anything.

Jesse: Brittany and Keith’s budget gave them the framework to have meaningful conversations about what they really wanted their money to do. And that communication, and compromise, is how they got results:

After Christmas 2015 our total credit card debt was right at $21,500. We have since paid off 100% of that, which is really incredible

When we started using YNAB, my goal was debt pay-off. I want to pay off all of our debt. My husband’s goal was, “Let’s pay off our debt in a way that doesn’t make me feel like we need to be reusing toilet paper. I want to be able to take vacations. I want to be able to live our life. I want to go out for dinner once in a while, maybe not as often…”

So we’ve been able to pay off that amount of debt in coming up on two years, still being able to live our life, still being able to go on vacations and buy Christmas presents and all those kinds of things. We’ve paid off debt, not accruing any more debt and living our life, that’s where I feel like we’ve really succeeded in that.

Jesse: Not only did they manage to pay off the credit card without totally sacrificing their quality of life, Brittany and Keith wisely set some money aside …

Brittany: We had to take a really hard look after Keith got laid off. We have about a four-month emergency fund, which includes paying our other debt. Our student loan, our car payments none of that is in jeopardy. That also includes being able to pay for daycare and pay for all of the other things. Essentially, stripping out all the extraneous stuff, we could live for about four months with no income coming in, from either of us.

Jesse: Imagine the relief of knowing that, if you lost your job today, you could continue living, same as usual, for the next three months or more. That’s financial peace. And it’s a good thing that Brittany and Keith set money aside. Their next goal was going to be paying off more of Brittany’s student debt—now down from a total of $52,000 to $36,000—but with Keith’s transitioning employment, their priorities have shifted.

Brittany: We have found out that there’s a potential that Keith would be getting transferred back to Jacksonville. So there’s a lot of question marks there. And the only thing that we definitely know is that we don’t want to move Amelia in the middle of the school year. Right now, our goal is to save as much money and be as liquid as possible so that if we do end up having to maintain two households for a few months, we can make that happen.

Jesse: If you’re wondering where Brittany and Keith cut back in order to pay off so much debt while saving for the uncertain times ahead …

Brittany: The easy answer is Target. I love Target. Target is my happy place some days but it became untenable at some point to continue spending in the way that we were, so I just don’t go shopping that often. Unless it is an absolute emergency, if I can get by without it until the following week, when I already have a grocery store trip planned, I don’t go.

Even if the money is there in the budget at the end of the month, it feels a lot better to move that money either into the next month or into that pay-off category, instead of being like, okay well there’s technically money there, we can spend it, right?

Jesse: Panic attacks aren’t worth it and, at least for Brittany, they seemed to be the result of ignoring their money problems. Looking back, she offers this:

Brittany: Awareness was really important for me. There was a lot of fear in the unknown and letting that unknown of my own budget … Coming to terms with that was really step one and that was by far the hardest part. Once we got there, then you can do something about it. But that sticking-your-head-in-the-sand policy that doesn’t work.

And the simplest way to pull your head out of the sand?

Brittany: I wrote a list. I just listed out Brittany’s smaller student loan; Brittany’s larger student loan; Keith’s credit card; Brittany’s car payment. It was just itemizing it.

Jesse: The other tip she offers is to be realistic. Keith made it clear, and Brittany agrees, that stripping their lifestyle back too dramatically wouldn’t work. They needed to build a budget that got them ahead, financially, but that also provided for some of the things that make their life enjoyable.

Brittany: At the end of the day, what works the most is what’s sustainable for the long term. We’ve been doing this for almost two years. If I went off the deep end, I guarantee it would not have lasted for more than maybe three months. Moderation and mindfulness has been much more important than just attempting to not spend any money, ever.

Jesse: When it comes to paying off debt and getting ahead, I talk a lot about doing it marathon-style versus in sprints. While sprints can be a useful tool, I totally agree—the marathon mentality will keep you focused on the bigger picture, and it’ll pay off big. And if you’re budgeting with a partner, it’s an excellent way to find compromise in your budget.

Brittany: That was a lesson learned after many years of marriage and many years of negotiating skills and many tearful conversations. Those conversations about money, you know, it’s not easy. But it’s definitely given us a new tool deck of ways to have conversations about things.

Jesse: And, with all of the progress they’ve made under less-than-ideal circumstances, Brittany and Keith’s family has taken notice.

Brittany: They’re using YNAB too, which just makes the heart so happy. Yeah, my mom is using YNAB now. She works in real estate and my stepdad is a contractor so they’re variable income people. But they’re using YNAB now to great success, in a really different time of their lives. They’re focused on they’re going to be retiring in the next ten years and how do they get on top of their… their challenge at the time was where are we at in terms of that ten-year retirement goal, whereas Keith and I are where are we at in terms of saving for college for our children. And we can each use this tool in a way that makes the challenges of two very different financial situations with two very different sets of goals.

Jesse: In spite of major transitions, Brittany and Keith are keeping the trains going. They’re making progress on their debt, padding their bank account for the unknown and—instead of worrying—they’re just getting it done.

Brittany:  I’m on YNAB every day, and we have that framework to be able to rise up to these challenges. I don’t want to say it solves the problems because they’re not really problems; they’re just different challenges, and we have the tools to be able to rise up to those.

Jesse: What a great note to end our show on. If you feel overwhelmed by your money problems, reframe them. Find the challenge, make a plan and tackle it!

When you do, maybe we can have you on the show?

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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 In your email, include a short paragraph or a few bullets about your financial hurdles and how you overcame them.

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Dealing with $263k in Debt, Job Loss & the Unknown