How We Paid Off $100,000+ in Debt: Hitting Rock Bottom and Getting Back Up

It was March 2010. We found out in a few months we’d both be unemployed. We sat in the living room in silence watching the sun set behind the trees; wondering how we were going to pay the mortgage in a few months. Maybe even wondering how we were going to eat. What jobs could we even get? Our current careers were being decimated.

This wasn’t our absolute worst bottom yet, but it was what became our first rock bottom and what sparked the first glimmer of our frugal lifestyle.

For years prior, I had been saving my income to pay off my student loans and Chris was paying the minimums on his. We didn’t have a plan, but I wanted to be debt-free, even if it was just debt-freedom personally, but not as a married couple. The reimbursement I’d get in six months would be able to pay the last of my loans off (I was currently taking 3 post-masters courses and luckily the 1 year in my current position allowed me to get reimbursed for about 1/2 of it). Though, without a steady income that reimbursement would be important to just survive.

We sat there for days, stumbling along confused and worried. I didn’t sleep at night. We had little savings, just enough to get us through the summer. Our careers don’t pay in the summer, so we always save for those bills ahead of time.

Immediately we started applying to any and every job we could find. Chris planned to be a daily substitute in the fall at the very least and I was hoping to find something full-time with health benefits. In the months it took us to find new employment (I lucked out the last week of school landing a full-time position in another school) we started to pare down our lifestyle.

We hit another rock bottom 2 years later in December 2011. I was 7 months pregnant planning to be out of work for six months after birth. We had just enough savings planned to cover those months without my salary as long as Chris was working full-time through June. Chris lost his job in the snap of a finger. We were devastated. I wasn’t sure if I’d have to return to work 6-weeks postpartum or what we were going to do. I didn’t sleep for months.

Chris spent three months looking for work. He applied daily to jobs and found a part-time technology trainer position that took him across the country with plans to have him travel. That just wasn’t going to work with a new baby on the way and the income wasn’t steady.

Our Monkey arrived, and we were still on edge living extremely cautious of every penny. Another blow, we found out we had to supplement with formula; an unplanned high expense. Luckily, Chris landed a full-time job a few weeks after Monkey was born that he is still doing today, four years later.

When we hit rock bottom both times we went into survival mode. After our two experiences though, we learned that we could ultimately live on a LOT less and chose being frugal to be our newfound path.

What did we do?

Cut our cell phone plans (in 2008).

We didn’t have to hit a rock bottom to completely cut our cell phone plans, but it was the first step of many that helped us pay down, and ultimately off, our student loan and auto loan debt. We saved over $100 per month, especially now with smartphone plans, and currently our Tracfones cost us about $50-$100 per year depending on how much we use them.

Immediately cut cable television (in 2010).

Savings of $100+ per month. Six years later, (savings of over $7,000+) we still don’t pay for cable nor ever plan to again. We consumed less TV. We hooked up an old laptop to the computer to watch movies from Netflix DVDs at $8 per month (no streaming then!) and watched the free over-the-air channels. America’s Test Kitchen became our favorite show.

Lowered our use of heat and air conditioning.

We lowered the temperature in the house to consume less natural gas heating. We upped the temperature in the house or turned the air conditioning off entirely. Our house temp currently in the winter is now 64 degrees when we are home/sleeping, and only 60 degrees when we are out. We chose a southern facing home, in 2014, which helps with utility bills.

Became cautious of our electricity use.

When we first bought our townhouse in 2005, we switched all the bulbs to CFLs. We saved a chunk of change. Chris liked to light up the house for airplanes to land, so when we lost our jobs we were cautious of how much we used everything. We put the lights on timers. Chris had a habit of falling asleep on the couch with the light on all night. Recently, we updated all of our lights to LEDs in the house and have seen a change in our electricity bill again.

We only do full loads of laundry and dishes, plus lowered our fridge/freezer temps.

Watched our water use.

We had installed a low-flow shower head in our shower when we bought our townhouse in 2005, but we never used the money saving feature. We switched it on when we were showering to minimize the water use and cut our water bill in half almost. I remember a day where Chris said he was going to try to shower without hot water; that didn’t last too long.

We now are a bit more generous with our use, but our water bill has stayed somewhat steady even with two kiddos. I dislike waste, so even when we brush our teeth, we don’t let the water run. Monkey is great for turning things off now!

Sold our books and DVDs to Amazon (in 2010).

We needed money, as our savings was needed to cover those bills for six months or more at the time. Chris found Amazon had a trade-in program and this is where I learned to be completely detached from my “stuff” that I thought was so precious I could never part with. We cleaned off our book shelves and DVD collections and shipped it off to Amazon. I also sold a lot of our used technology (Nintendo Wii, Playstation 2, laptops, etc) on Amazon, too.

In 2012, we did it again but gutted our collections even moreso than before. And I take extremely good care of my technology so that I can resell it out. That’s my end goal.

We currently own few books (I love libraries!), and a handful of DVDs. We redeemed credit to Amazon for food, as we…

Cut our food budget to $40 a week (in 2012).

This budget included cleaning products and toiletries. This meant no eating out. We had to learn to cook if we wanted to eat. Prepared foods were expensive. We learned quickly, with many mistakes along the way.

One night we made a potato dish that never cooked after an hour in the oven. We crunched on uncooked potatoes before breaking down in tears and ordering a pizza. I was eight months pregnant, tears became a normal part of life. One quarter of our food budget was gone in that one meal.

Our food budget is now around $125 per week, including clothing or hobby purchases, which it will drop back down to $100 or $75 per week once we’re done using baby formula. This is actually below the SNAP program level for a family of 4. We don’t feel deprived though, as we cook a ton at home, freeze meals ahead of time with sales, and we use our allowances to pay for dinners out if we choose to do so.

Ate dinner “out” at our relative’s houses (in 2012).

Since we were on such a limited food budget, we strategically planned dinners out with our relatives. They knew we were struggling, but we didn’t ask for money. We wanted to save that option for the month, if it ever came, where we truly could not pay our bills.

We would suggest visiting for dinner one day at my in-laws and another day at my Mom’s. Two days of the week we didn’t have to find money for. If someone was offering free meals, we took them up on it. We still enjoy having meals that has become a regular occurrence, but now out of choice and not necessity.

Learned new useful skills.

When things broke, there was no option to call up a plumber or an electrician. Chris learned how to handle home repairs as they arose and we learned about ordering parts online that were less expensive. Learning new skills led us to start new hobbies. They have led to new ventures to make additional income and given us the confidence to continually learn more to offer more to the world.

Owned a frugal dog.

I’ll never not have a dog, so this is an expense we will always have. Keeping it frugal is important, too. This wasn’t the original plan when we adopted our first Chihuahua, Bambi, but she proved to be low cost and and low maintenance. She didn’t eat much; she was only 8lbs. She wasn’t easy to care for when it came to grooming, but we made it through and saved a ton on her care doing it ourselves.

Since she passed, we adopted another little Chihuahua Terrier mix, Ruby. She is about 12lbs, and again is pretty low cost and low maintenance to care for. We looked at bigger dogs, but all I thought was how much food would cost and how big the poop would be to clean up!

Started an Emergency Fund (in 2010).

At the time, we had just one giant savings account to help us make it through our rough patches and pay our summer bills. It wasn’t always full when we needed it and we often would raid it to do home improvement projects.

First it started with just $1,000 and now continues to grow. Our goal is to have 6-12 months saved of our living expenses. That’ll take a few more years as we work to pay off our mortgage, save for home projects, and invest in our retirement (all of which could be immediately diverted to Emergency Funds if need be).

That $1,000 made such a huge difference in our financial state that we kept adding to it. Now, when we’re hit with a bill such as a car repair that came in at $500 last month, we don’t sweat it. We don’t need to use credit cards for emergencies (I’ve had an aversion to them, so you’ll never find me talking about paying off consumer credit card debt – as I’ve never had it). We do use credit to get rewards, but I am sure the companies don’t like me very much.


This may sound like a lot of changes at once, but once you get started you’ll find it becomes a way of life. We don’t miss cable, even though Chris was worried about sports and I was with my reality tv shows. Instead, we spend a lot of time doing other things, like learning new skills. We don’t miss our cell phones, either. We use an iPod and a 1st gen iPad mini as our “smart” devices, as there is free wifi all over the place. So, we don’t feel we miss out.

When you hit a rock bottom, something’s got to change, or you’ll end up right back there again. We hit it once, but we didn’t change enough the first time to easily survive the second round. That second punch in the gut was needed to give us a huge dose of what we needed to do, and now as we prosper we never forget that bottom and how we don’t want to be there again. That guides our decisions financially and personally; which will lead us to the ultimate: financial independence and freedom.