While taking the train home from work last spring, Amber Hacker stumbled on a Facebook post that changed her life.
“It was one of my MBA classmates who had posted that they had paid off all their loans. I thought, ‘Wait a second, you can do that?’” she says. “I just thought paying off this debt for 10 years was just what you did. It didn’t occur to me that there was another option — you could pay off loans early and avoid all that interest.”
Intrigued, she began to do some research into what it would take to aggressively pay down her family’s debt.
“What really hit me was that at my organization, I’m in charge of finance and accounting. With finance, I would give myself an A-plus at work and a C-minus at home. I kept thinking ‘Why am I not bringing the same rigor to my home life?’” says Amber, who works at a Chicago nonprofit. Along with her debt from her MBA, her husband Jason Hacker still had loans from his Ph.D. They also still owed money on their car and had some credit card debt. (Read our comprehensive guide to debt management).
When Amber brought it up, Jason was a little more reserved.
“I wasn’t ready to spend our savings to kick-start paying off this debt or anything like that,” he says. But Jason was also frustrated, which meant he was willing to give it a shot.
“I was so fed up looking at our top line and our bottom line and wondering how in the world we could have such good salaries and weren’t living above our means, but we weren’t getting ahead on our debt,” he says. “We were good at keeping our financial stress from our kids but we knew eventually they would see it. I think that helped me overcome any fear I had.”
Crunching the numbers
The couple started by taking a full assessment of their finances and debts and figuring out what to cut. They dumped extras like cable and satellite radio that they rarely used. The next step was identifying where they spent the most money. For the Hackers, it was eating out at restaurants and household expenses (think major trips to Target and Costco).
“We found areas where we struggled and planned around them,” says Amber. “It really took about three months to get the hang of things — figuring out how many more groceries to buy because we were eating out less, and practicing making some hard choices. It’s tough to say no to the burgers with neighbors! But if you know your why, your North Star, it gets easier.”
Creating an emergency fund & budget
After building up a small fund for emergencies, the Hackers constructed an aggressive budget with the plan to put every spare dollar they could toward their debt. They made a budget check-in a part of their weekly routine.
“If it was my job to oversee a budget for a company, I would know it inside out,” Jason says. “So I approach our budget the same way. I look at it all the time, and we make sure to go over it together once a week.”
But living within their budget and spending thoughtfully doesn’t mean they’ve given up every little luxury. “You can still have nice things on a tight budget, but you have to be creative,” says Amber.
Making saving a habit
Amber buys clothes in the offseason to take advantage of discounts, and is an active part of a neighborhood exchange group.
“I once asked the group if anyone had a spiralizer they wanted to give away, and one lady did! Before I was on this journey, I would have just gone to Amazon and bought it for $50. Instead, I got it for free,” she says.
The Hackers directed their extra cash toward the smallest of their debts first, using the momentum from getting those debts paid off to tackle the bigger ones. (Related: Getting Married? How to Talk About Debt Before You Say I Do)
“Instead of thinking of it as one large sum, we separated them out and wrote out each total on the fridge,” says Amber. “It immediately seemed more manageable, and it feels so good crossing them off.”
“I was really nervous that we would try this and just be in the same place, but we made so much progress in the first six months,” says Jason. “All our consumer debt was gone, and we were plugging away at my student loans. I’m a numbers guy, so I started looking at our net worth and seeing that upwards trajectory was super exciting.”
Approaching the debt as a team was the key for the couple. “We’re really good at holding ourselves accountable. We don’t call out — we call in,” says Amber. “If I don’t realize I’ve eaten out three times this week, Jason will gently remind me instead of saying, like, ‘Oh my God, calm down on the lunches, Amber!’”
Their family’s journey has also impacted Jason’s professional life as a counseling psychologist. “Waking up to my own passive avoidance of finances influenced me to be more keenly aware about how finances interact with our mental health,” he says. Part of his practice now centers around helping clients with anxiety related to their finances.
In the last year, the Hackers have paid off about $47,000 in debt, including their car loan and all of Jason’s student loans. Their goal is to be completely debt free by the end of 2019. They’re looking forward to the financial freedom that will bring.
“Generosity is an important value to both of us, and we still donate regularly. But just the other day Jason mentioned that we’re going to be able to give a lot more after we pay off all our debt, and that’s going to feel so good,” says Amber.
“We’re going to be able to achieve our goals and set up our kids for their education so they can focus on their goals,” Jason adds. “Now those things feel real, whereas at the beginning they didn’t.”