11 Money-Saving Secrets From People Who Paid Off a Total $726K in Debt

A man and woman smile and pose together on a sailboat at a marina.
Ryan Deitrich and his girlfriend, Kelsey Swagler, turned not spending money into a game and also occasionally drove for Uber and Lyft. After paying off $50,000 of debt in 19 months, they kept up their frugal ways and saved another $30,000 to buy a sailboat. Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder

If there’s one thing people who become debt-free have in common, it’s their ability to get creative with making and saving money.

After all, it’s easy and fun to get into debt, but it’s a beast trying to get out.

We found 11 people who gave us 11 tips they used to pay off a combined $762,000 in debt. Hopefully, they’ll give you some fresh — and well-tested — ideas for ditching your debt.

1. Make Paying Off Debt a Game

Ryan Dietrich and his girlfriend, Kelsey Swagler, paid off $50,000 of debt in 19 months by turning it into a game.

“We played a ‘don’t spend any money on the weekend’ game,” Dietrich said.

Before the “game” started, they were spending about $80 to $100 each weekend on dinners out, drinks and entertainment. Just by cutting out weekend spending, they were able to put an extra $400 per month toward their debt and savings.


2. Get in on the Gig Economy

Dietrich and Swagler also took advantage of the gig economy, but they did it strategically.

For a year and a half, they both occasionally drove for Uber and Lyft. They made it a point to drive anytime there was a surge to get the most profit for their time and gas.

Once they became debt-free, Dietrich and Swagler kept up their frugal money-making games and saved another $30,000 to buy a sailboat. They now live on their boat and travel full time.

3. Ditch Your Car Payment

A husband and wife play with their little girl in the backyard.
Eloise Boorman, 2, enjoys a play break with her parents, Cody and Georgi, who lowered their expenses by switching cell phone carriers and getting rid of their monthly car payments by selling their vehicle back to the dealer and buying an inexpensive used car. Paul T. Erickson for The Penny Hoarder

When Cody and Georgi Boorman wanted to start a family, they knew they couldn’t afford kids on their income with $83,000 of debt hanging around. They determined that getting rid of their $465 monthly car payment would free up the right amount of room in their budget.

They owed $27,000 on their 2012 Honda Civic — $8,000 more than it was worth at the time. They paid it down to what they owed. Then, instead of continuing to pay it off, they sold it back to the dealer and bought a used Nissan Altima for $2,400. The move saved them over $16,000.

4. Try a Low-Cost Cell Phone Plan

With the car debt gone, the Boormans decided to pay off their student loans, too. They lowered their expenses even more when they switched cell phone carriers from Verizon, which cost them $120 per month, to discount carrier Republic Wireless, which now only costs them $34 per month.

And because they were living in Seattle, a city with lots of cell towers, they didn’t notice any difference in service.

5. Teach Abroad

Chris Polley took an unconventional path to paying off his nearly $80,000 debt.

When the recession put his job as a school counselor in jeopardy, Polley looked into counseling at international schools. He quickly ended up with three job offers and settled on one in Japan.

His net pay in Japan was a little over $6,000 per month. In addition to great pay, the company offered a housing stipend and free flights home every other summer. It allowed him to save money and become debt-free in four years.

6. Use Your Network to Earn Extra Income

Pete Sbashnig, left, and his wife, Maria Sbashnig, right, chat with their kids at home. They paid down their debt by finding ways to make extra cash and cut expenses. “He played offense, and I played defense,” Maria said. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

Pete and Maria Sbashnig had accumulated $332,000 of debt from their mortgages, previous divorces and poorly timed financial decisions.

To pay it off, Maria cut the family expenses, and Pete brought in extra income. “He played offense, and I played defense,” Maria said.

Pete used the network he already had to make extra cash. His son played baseball, so Pete umpired baseball games. Pete was a mail carrier, and he asked people on his route if he could mow their lawns. He also took on some tasks at his dad’s landscaping business.

7. Get the Kids Involved in Paying Off Debt

The Sbashnigs’ kids got involved, too, even if they weren’t big fans of the process.

They did more chores around the house to earn money and were limited on what they could pick out at grocery and clothing stores. They were all allowed to continue doing their sports and competitions — just without the frills. It could sometimes cause resentment.

“They didn’t like the fact that we’d go to the baseball tournament and everyone was going out to eat, and we’re like, ‘Sorry, we’re going home,’” Maria said.

But they cooperated, and after 10 years, Pete and Maria became completely debt-free — they’ve even paid off their house.

8. Sell Stuff Online

A couple kiss each other on their wedding day.
Deacon and Kim Hayes paid off $52,000 in debt. He took on a part-time job selling pizzas, and both found items at home to sell online. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Bowen

When Deacon and Kim Hayes finally sat down to figure out how much they owed in car loans, student loans and credit cards, they uncovered a whopping $52,000 debt load.

Their first instinct was to start selling stuff to make extra payments. Kim sold dozens of pieces of clothing and accessories; Deacon sold his gaming system. Instead of doing a garage sale — they’re notorious for being hard work for little profit — they sold things online.

“We went through closets and drawers to sell whatever else we could find,” Deacon said. “It seemed like every day I was shipping out something sold on eBay or meeting up with someone from Craigslist. It was great to finally feel in control of our money situation.”

9. Remember: It’s Only Temporary

Deacon also took a part-time job delivering pizzas. It wasn’t what he wanted to be doing, but he was motivated by the short-term gains.

“It wasn’t always fun or easy,” he said. “If business was slow, I had to clean the drain traps or change the oil in the fryers. I focused on the fact that it was a short-term job and that it would help us to get out of debt faster.”

10. Make Takeout Favorites at Home

A woman cooks chicken on the stove in her kitchen.
M.K. Williams, pictured with her husband, Jason, uses a Chick-fil-A copycat recipe she found online to make dinner at the couple’s home in Tampa, Florida. Being frugal is a lifestyle for the Williamses, who paid off $165,000 of debt in two years. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

Being frugal comes naturally to Jason and M.K. Williams. It’s how they paid off $165,000 of debt in two years.

One day, M.K. was craving Chick-fil-A. But instead of hopping into her car and heading to the drive-thru, she took a little extra time and found a copycat recipe online. After making it a few times, she found the tweaks to make it taste just as good as the original.

“I like to make it on a Sunday just to be really ironic,” she said.

11. Use Coupons and Groupons

And when Jason wants to take M.K. out to lunch, he waits for a Groupon email with a $10 off coupon. Then, he buys an $11-for-$20 Groupon for a burrito place near M.K.’s work. He’s figured out how to get the check to exactly $20.

So the next time you’re stressed and looking for ways to cut spending or make extra money, remember: There are opportunities all around you. Finding them just takes a little observation and creativity.

Jen Smith is a personal finance expert and the creator of Modern Frugality. She and her husband paid off $78,000 of debt in less than two years on two less-than-average salaries. She gives money saving and debt payoff tips on Instagram at @modernfrugality.