Here’s How a Newlywed Couple Paid Off $50K in Debt in Less Than Three Years

a couple stand outside on the wedding day.
Brittney and Ryan Lynn stand together on their wedding day in 2012. The newly married couple soon discovered that they had a combined debt of over $50,000. Photo courtesy of Brittney Lynn.
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After college sweethearts Brittney and Ryan Lynn got married in 2012, they began a challenging rite of passage many newlywed couples experience: Combining finances.

Ryan had always been a fan of tracking his finances (though not budgeting — and there’s a difference), but Brittney wasn’t as aware of her financial situation. With the wedding in the rearview mirror, the Lynns knew it was time to gain a true understanding of their finances as a couple.

Brittney and Ryan sat at their dining room table in Milwaukee, laptops handy, combing through their various bank and credit card accounts. The Lynns had amassed a little over $50,000 in debt — student loans, some credit card debt and one personal loan made up the damage.

“That night was not fun,” Brittney recalls. “I remember crying and being really upset. We began to ask ourselves, ‘What are we going to do?’”

While the amount they owned shocked them, the Lynns developed a plan and made major life changes, and less than three years later, paid off the entire $50K. They now live debt-free.

Aftershock: Formulating a Plan to Get Out of Debt

Brittney admits that even after learning of the $50,000 debt, she was still somewhat in denial about the gloomy finances. After all, until that time the couple hadn’t been tracking their money together.

“Seeing it down on paper made me realize we had to come to terms with our debt and do something different,” Brittney says.

With new vigor, the couple sprung into action. Their first move involved a somewhat controversial figure: financial guru Dave Ramsey.

Known for his abrasive personality and bold views on money (like not believing in credit card use), Ramsey has published finance books, runs live events and online trainings, and hosts a podcast.

Ryan knew of Ramsey, and asked Brittney if she’d be open to testing his methods. “In the beginning, I was kind of against it because from the outside, Ramsey doesn’t seem like the type of personality I’d mesh with,” Brittney says.

Ryan encouraged her to listen to Ramsey’s podcast.

She quickly became enamored by his “debt-free scream” segments, where those who had successfully followed his practices shared their financial story and got to physically scream that they were debt-free.

“I was so inspired listening to these stories,” Brittney recalls. “That really motivated us to get started.”

Making Changes

Brittney agreed to try one of Ramsey’s popular tactics — the debt snowball method.

With this technique, you list your debts in order — from the lowest total payoff balance to the highest, regardless of interest rate. The idea is to experience a small win, gaining a psychological boost and motivation to keep going.

“I know people have different thoughts on paying the smallest debt first,” Brittney admits. “But the way we think about finances isn’t always logical. If we had chosen a larger debt to pay off, it would have taken so long to reach a win. We might not have continued.”

The first debt the couple cleared was a credit card with a $300 balance.

“After paying that first credit card bill, we were so motivated,” Brittney explains. “I became obsessed with finding as much information as possible about paying off debt.”

The Lynns didn’t follow Ramsey’s method to a T, but they adapted it to work for their lifestyle. For example, the couple still uses a credit card that they pay off every month, treating it much like a debit card.

Brittney and Ryan made several lifestyle changes, too:

  • Instead of going out to eat, Brittney found a new hobby in cooking. They packed their lunches and followed a mostly vegetarian diet, which helped save money.
  • The couple skipped going out for happy hours and coffee.
  • Both Brittney and Ryan drove old cars with no payments.
  • For a period of time, the couple got rid of cable and used Netflix and Hulu.
  • They sold items in their home they no longer needed. Ryan sold cameras he didn’t use, and Brittney sold her bridesmaid dresses on eBay.

One thing the couple didn’t skimp on? Travel.

“We love to travel, and it kept us sane,” Brittney explains. The Lynns made long weekends out of weddings they attended in various cities and took a big trip to Ireland.

“I know we could have paid off our debt sooner if we didn’t travel, but it was important to us to stay excited and not totally dread life with some of the lifestyle changes we made,” Brittney explains.

Life After Debt

a man and woman together in coats and hats outdoors, water and mountains in the background.
Brittney and Ryan stand together while touring the Ring of Kerry route in Ireland during a vacation in 2014. The couple made several lifestyle changes in a quest to pay down their debt, but one thing they didn’t skimp on was travel. “We love to travel, and it kept us sane,” Brittney explains. Photo courtesy of Brittney Lynn

In September 2015, just 2 1/2 years after their financial journey began, the Lynns wrote their final check — for one of Brittney’s student loans — and became debt-free.

At the same time, Ryan was offered a new job, so the couple moved from Milwaukee to Dallas. Brittney, a public relations professional, used the move as an opportunity to start her own business.

“It was awesome!” she says. “I was excited to have the opportunity to start a business and move to a new city knowing we wouldn’t have any debt.”

Now Brittney runs a boutique PR agency working primarily with fellow entrepreneurs. In May, she achieved a financial milestone, earning more than triple what she would’ve made  in a month at her corporate job. On the side, she hosts her “Day in the Life” podcast.

To stay on track, the Lynns have a money meeting every month to look over their budget for the next month. Borrowing an idea from Chris Harder’s “For the Love of Money” podcast, they meet at a favorite coffee shop.

“[It] makes it more fun and special,” Brittney says, “something to look forward to rather than sitting on the couch talking about how much money we spent last month.”

Want to Be Debt-Free? Follow These Tips

If you want to eliminate debt and move toward financial security like the Lynns, Brittney offers four important tips.

1. Know your money story

It’s important to remember that everyone has their own financial story and background. “Everyone views money differently,” Brittney explains. “There are many feelings and emotions around money from growing up.”

If you’re discussing money with a life partner, Brittney recommends sharing your money story honestly, staying open-minded and talking through your differences. For instance, Britney’s more of a saver while Ryan’s more of a spender. “That knowledge helped me to better communicate with Ryan,” she says.

If you’re flying solo, it still helps to understand your personal money story. Consider writing it out, thinking through how your parents and family discussed and managed money, and the way you view it now.

2. Try not to get too emotional when it comes to money talk

Financial conversations can sometimes be fraught with tension — after all, it’s not necessarily the most fun topic.

For that reason, Brittney recommends having financial conversations with a partner when you’re feeling level-headed and in a good space to talk about money. “If you enter the conversation already feeling emotional or vulnerable, it’s likely not going to go well,” she offers.

3. Start by tracking your finances

It’s almost impossible to create a budget when you have no idea how much you’re earning or spending in a given month.

Start by tracking your finances for a few months, knowing that each month will be different. From there, you’ll be able to determine the recurring expenses that are the same month to month (like your rent or utilities) and the expenses that can range in amount (like groceries or entertainment).

After gathering this data, it becomes much easier to develop a budget you can actually follow.

4. Do your research and find the tools that work for you

It may take some time to figure out which budgeting tool, resource or app will work best for your financial situation.

To stay organized, the Lynns started with a customized spreadsheet to track their finances and budget. They experimented with other apps and tools like Mint and You Need a Budget, but found that the spreadsheet was simple enough and helped keep them accountable.

It’s important to note that the Lynns’ quest for zero debt is not for everyone.

“Know your own financial situation,” Brittney says. “For people who have significantly more student loan debt, your best option probably isn’t paying off all of that debt with the income you’re making. Our best bet was paying it off ourselves.”

Ultimately, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. For example, Brittney and Ryan were in a good position to pay off their debt because they lived in an apartment and had no children.

“There’s a way out of debt for everyone, and you can still live your life and have fun,” she says. “Find what works for you and your situation, and give it your best.”

Jessica Lawlor is the president and CEO of Jessica Lawlor & Company (JL&Co), a specialty communications agency. She feels inspired to dust off her old budget spreadsheet after chatting with Brittney for this story.