My husband and I started our married life with $13,000 in student debt.
My husband was a social worker and I was a nanny, so our net income only came to $26,000 to $28,000 a year.
But in our first two years of marriage, we paid off all $13,000 in student debt and had $4,000 in our emergency fund.
How We Got Into Debt
When my husband and I first started dating, he told me how much debt he had accumulated in school.
I was concerned, because I had a negative view of debt. It had seriously complicated life for many people I knew, and I was convinced that having long-term debt affected a family’s ability to pursue their dreams.
The only loan I had ever taken out was to finish my bachelor’s degree — and I paid it off within six months of graduating.
Before we met, my husband attended a private university with an enormous price tag. To his credit, he had taken two steps to rapidly decrease his loans from their original amount.
First, he’d paid off around $10,000 during his first year after graduation.
Then, he let his parents “buy” part of the loan balance off him. He borrowed $11,000 from them, interest free, with the promise of paying it back quickly and with another couple hundred dollars as a “thank you.” He carried another $2,500 with the loan company.
I told him why I didn’t want to be living on other people’s money and how I thought we could change it. He was on board, so we made a plan.
Saving Money on the Wedding
Because of the student debt, I knew our wedding needed to be as inexpensive as possible, but still have most of the elements we wanted.
People think you have to pay ridiculous amounts of money for weddings — one website I read considered $10,000 a “cheap” wedding budget! In reality, it can be so much cheaper than that.
Our friends and family were amazing, and gave us parts of the wedding as their gifts. One friend made our cake. Another did the table decorations. My aunt made my dress. My mom did the flowers.
In total, our wedding cost $2,000, which we paid for with those generous gifts.
Taking the Biggest Debt-Busting Step
We hadn’t actually dealt with the real problem, though, just avoided incurring more debt.
At the time, we lived in a small, economically depressed town in northern California where the average wage was about $10 per hour. Most people worked two to three jobs just to make ends meet — and it wasn’t easy.
There were pros — our rent was $565 — but there were also negatives — like paying $200 per month for utilities.
After about a year of marriage, we decided to move closer to family, to a town where the living wage was higher.
That’s when we took the biggest step to get out of debt: We moved in with my parents.
We paid them $200 per month to help cover utilities, and we all contributed to groceries. My food budget remained the same as when we had our own place, $250 per month.
Not everyone can do this, and it wasn’t always emotionally easy. I struggled with the embarrassment of what other people would think about us moving in with our parents as a married couple, aged 28 and 29. I also wondered how long we would have to stay to make a dent in our debt.
As it turns out, those fears were unfounded.
We had a lovely time with my parents. After 11 months, we successfully paid off almost $5,000 of what we owed my husband’s parents and moved into our own small apartment.
I felt better when I realized a lot of people in our age group make similar decisions.
I read several studies showing how other people used multi-family living to become financially stable. Another Penny Hoarder contributor, Kelly, also wrote about moving in with her parents to help pay off her debt.
Our Other Money-Saving Strategies
Although we paid off a big chunk of our debt by living with my parents, we made up the rest of it with a dedicated approach to cutting every possible extra cost.
We made a lot of sacrifices for a few years to get ourselves to a financially stable place, and it was worth it.
Here are some additional things we did:
We Got Dumb Phones
We cut our bill by $90 per month by getting rid of smartphones and going back to flip phones. Yes, flip phones.
Our bill is $54 per month, including taxes, for two old-fashioned phones. We save about $1,080 each year this way.
We Got Rid of Cable
No more cable for us!
Netflix is a much cheaper option for watching shows, or check out one of these other options for cheap or free ways to watch TV and movies.
Our Internet bill is about $41 per month.
We Rarely Ate Out for a Year
When I talk to friends, eating out is their single most expensive (and negotiable) line item.
Instead of heading to restaurants, I cooked delicious, healthy meals at home and invited friends. We still do a ton of entertaining, but now have more freedom to occasionally eat out.
Moving Beyond Debt
Although it takes a lot of commitment to get out of debt, especially on a small income, both my husband and I are glad we prioritized it.
We simplified our lives for a short time to have a higher quality of life for a long time, and we’ve never regretted our decision.
Your Turn: What strategies have you used to pay off debt, especially on a low income?
Eliyah Eells is a stay-at-home-mom, freelance writer and proofreader. Her hobbies include coffee shops, coffee and listening to interesting people.