5 Inspiring People Who Each Paid Off Over $100,000 in Debt

by Alaina Tweddale on 22 July 2014 10 comments

Americans today owe over $11 trillion in debt and that number is on the rise. On a household level, that averages out to $15,191 in credit card debt, $154,365 in mortgage debt, and $33,607 in student loan debt — per indebted household.

Carrying a large debt load may seem like a necessity for some, but for many it also keeps them from reaching their dreams. Bulky monthly payments to creditors deplete funds you could be using to fund your dreams for tomorrow. (See also: The Most Valuable Thing Debt Is Costing You Isn't Money)

Meet five inspiring people who made a commitment to paying down over $100,000 in debt and changed their lives for the better.

Cherie Lowe, Greenwood, IN

Blogger and author of Slaying the Debt Dragon: How One Family Conquered Their Money Monster and Found an Inspired Happily After

Paid Off: $127,000 in four years

What She Paid Off

In four years, Cherie Lowe and her husband, Brian, paid off $127,000 in debts including $80,000 for student loans, $16,500 in credit card balances, $12,000 in car loans, and an additional $12,000 in assorted medical and home expenses.

How She Did It

"We used the debt snowball method and followed many of the principles outlined by Dave Ramsey," says Cherie. Ramsey's methods are counterintuitive for many, she admits, but they worked wonders for her family. The Lowes also:

  • Took on extra work. Brian worked three jobs at very long hours.
     
  • Ran their home like a business. Cherie streamlined expenses by qualifying purchases with this question: "Will this choice help us save as much as possible?" If not, they didn't choose it.
     
  • Made temporary sacrifices to save money. "We didn't eat meat for about six months so we could continue to use every penny to fuel our efforts." Brian didn't eat at a restaurant — even for a cup of coffee — for 2.5 years. The two didn't exchange gifts for Christmas, anniversaries, or Valentine's Day (although they did buy gifts for their kids!)

Why She's Glad She Did It

"Paying off debt unified our relationship in ways I could never even describe," says Cherie. "We're on the same page with our goals, saving 15% of all of our income for retirement, quickly building college funds for our daughters (ages 11 & 6), and saving for fun things like vacations, a more elaborate Christmas, and a new car."

Unexpected expenses like the $600 car repair the Lowes faced the week we talked for this piece now have very little impact on their daily lives. "[I] like not having to worry anymore when we have a major repair," says Cherie.

How You Can Do It, Too

"So much of paying off debt has very little to do with money and math and more to do with personal behavior and your outlook on life," she says. "Live from a mindset of scarcity and you'll never be satisfied, no matter how much money you have. Live from a place of wonder in the wealth you've already been blessed with and you'll be much happier and more successful in paying off debt."

"When we began our journey, we thought it would take 15 years, seven and a half if we really hustled," she says. Instead, the Lowes' willingness to get creative and sacrifice even the smallest of luxuries allowed them to meet their goal in just under four years. "Success builds momentum, which fuels everything you do," she says.

Christine Sparacino, Walnut Creek, CA

Retiree and author of Energize Your Retirement: Stories of Passionate Pursuits (upcoming)

She and her husband paid off a mortgage on their California home in 21 years.

What She Paid Off

Approximately $245,000 in mortgage debt.

How She Did It

The Sparacinos are from California, home to one of the priciest real estate markets in the nation. Even so, they were able to find a bargain, buying a foreclosed property for $291,000. (Their home is currently worth between $850,000 and $900,000, according to Christine.) "[The house] was in a great neighborhood with excellent schools, but it was definitely the dog of the neighborhood," says Christine. "Since my husband is a general contractor and I don't mind helping, it worked out."

The Sparacinos refinanced their mortgage twice to take advantage of a lower interest rate but, says Christine, "We never took additional money out. That's one of the keys."

The Sparacinos also:

  • Paid extra toward their mortgage every month, even when money was short. They started with an additional $100 per month and bumped the extra amount to $200 — $300 once their kids graduated from college.
     
  • Did most home renovations and repairs themselves, saving on costly contractor expenses.
     
  • Used an inheritance to pay the last $105,000 of their mortgage.
     
  • Made conscious choices about how to spend their money, making saving and conscious spending a priority over buying new cars (they drove theirs for about 200,000 miles before replacing) or moving to a larger home.
     
  • Found a good accountant and built a long term relationship with him. "We've had the same one since 1984. We grew up and prospered together," says Christine.
     
  • Communicated with each other about spending. They always consulted the other before buying something that cost $100 or more.

Why She's Glad She Did It

Her two kids were each able to finish college without any student debt. "We were very disciplined about saving," she says. "Every month, even if it was only $50, we saved money."

Despite their disciplined approach, the Sparacinos never felt they were living frugally. "We spent a lot of money on our kids." Things like swim team, tutors, space camp, Boy Scouts, and family-centered vacations were their financial priorities.

How You Can Do It, Too

The key to financial success is in the prioritization of spending. "Many of our friends drove expensive cars — but we didn't. Our accountant told us to move up to a more expensive house — but we didn't," she says. Even so, she never felt that they scrimped. They bought what was important to them and passed on what was not.

Matt Kelly, Durango, CO

Personal Finance Coach and newspaper columnist

Paid Off: $165,000 in debt and saved $20,000 in 15 months.

What He Paid Off

In 15 months, Matt Kelly and his wife, Cheri, paid off $165,000 in credit card, medical, and student loan debt. At the same time, they also put away $20,000 in an emergency savings fund. Subsequently, they reduced their mortgage burden by an additional $100,000.

How He Did It

"We got very conscious about what's important to us," says Matt. "We started really tapping into what our dreams are." By using their dreams as a compass, the Kellys gained clarity about how their debt was holding them back from getting what they wanted out of life.

They also:

  • Sold their condominium and bought a smaller place. "We actually like the smaller, more connected feel than what we had in our larger, more lavish place," says Matt. "With that one move alone, we were able to take about $100,000 off our overall debt load."
     
  • Used a $40,000 inheritance to pay down debt, instead of taking a lavish vacation to Hawaii.
     
  • Focused exclusively on debt reduction at first, but also set up a budget for monthly expenses and irregular but expected expenses like routine auto maintenance or regular home repairs.
     
  • Budgeted for all expenses, not just the monthly ones, including a newspaper subscription, vet bills for their pet, and future car repairs. "These things stopped impacting our budget once we started planning for them," says Matt. "We were pretending every month would be a perfect month, and that the car would never break down. But, of course, the car does break down."

Why He's Glad He Did It

"We were sick of being stressed out and fighting about money," says Matt. "We still have a mortgage but it's been five to six years since we've had any consumer debt at all."

Soon after paying off their consumer debt, the Kellys were financially able to send their young son, whose dyslexia they had recently uncovered, to a specialty school. "We never would have been able to pay for private school if we were drowning in the debt that we were," says Matt. "We couldn't have helped our son that way if we hadn't gotten control of our finances."

How You Can Do It, Too

"I found it far more empowering to focus on what I want, rather than what I didn't want," says Matt. Thinking ahead about what you want, even if it's something small like a weekend getaway, gives you the power to make good financial choices. Like Matt says, "Focus on your dreams."

Edward Nevraumont, Seattle, WA

Chief Marketing Officer, A Place for Mom

Paid Off: $120,000 in student loan debt in just two years.

What He Paid Off

In two years, Edward Nevraumont paid off $120,000 in student loan debt.

How He Did It

Being a foreign student was an advantage for Edward. "I was a Canadian going to school in the U.S., so I actually got a better rate on the Canadian bank loan over a U.S. student loan," he says.

Edward also:

  • Was very cautious about any unnecessary spending until his debt was paid off in full.
     
  • Paid a hefty $5,000 per month toward his loan. "I had a job as a tax consultant and was making about $150,000 per year plus bonus," he says. "My Canadian taxes took about a third, which left me a little over $8,000 per month. My apartment was $1,400. I lived on the remaining $600 per month, plus the float from my annual bonus."

Why He's Glad He Did It

After paying off his debt, Edward decided to splurge. "I bought a nice racing bike," he said, "as a gift to myself."

How You Can Do It, Too

Get a job that pays a lot but keep your expenses at the same level they were when you were a student," says Edward. "Just because you have a high income doesn't mean you are rich."

Kate McKeon, New York, NY

CEO of educational consulting firm PrepWise.

Paid Off: More than $150,000 in small business loans and expenses in under two years.

What She Paid Off

While living in Dallas, TX, Kate McKeon paid off approximately $105,000 in nine months. The remaining $45,000 was paid off in the subsequent 12 months. She later moved to NYC.

How She Did It

As a business owner, Kate personally took on the debts necessary to expand her company. (A move she doesn't recommend, by the way.) After two poor performing years, she faced a mountain of personal debt which forced her to temporarily shut down her business.

Kate also:

  • Picked up two side jobs and worked around the clock. "I averaged 117 hours a week of billable time for eight months," she says, "and then a more manageable 85 hours a week for the following year."
     
  • Took on jobs with unreasonable clients.
     
  • Spent spare moments doing odd jobs. "I was very aware of the market rate for temp professional gigs and weighed every idea or possible cash flow opportunity against that hourly rate," says McKeon.
     
  • Calculated the rate she needed to earn on her time based on the hours she could dedicate to paying back her debt. "If I could make more teaching a bootcamp class than temping as a marketing analyst," she says, "then I taught a bootcamp class."
     
  • Accepted a debt forgiveness of 20–30%.

Why She's Glad She Did It

McKeon feels it was foolish to have taken the debts of her company on with a personal signature. However, she concedes, it was also the fastest way for her to get into business.

"A mountain of debt is a lot like having a hacking cough that no one understands," she says. "No one wants to be near a hacking cough."

How You Can Do It, Too

"Prepare to get dirty," she says. Only you can dig yourself out of your debt load.

Also, do excellent work. "When you have a client who pays you fairly and respects your work, go the extra mile for them. You want to keep them as clients, sure. More important, they are giving you the opportunity to right the ship," she says. "They may not realize it, but they are investing in you. Be grateful."

Do you have massive debts to pay off or have you successfully paid your loans in full? How do you plan to do it or what have you already done? We want to hear about your debt reduction plan. Tell us in the comments below.

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Guest's picture
Jen

I wish they were inspiring but I found that most of them were able to pay off more debt in under two years than I make in two years! Unrealistic.

Alaina Tweddale's picture

Some of the people profiled did make good money, but not all of them. Check out Cherie Lowe's story. She and her husband really hustled! He worked three jobs and they didn't go out to eat -- not even for a cup of coffee -- for 2.5 years. It's inspiring to me that almost anyone can sacrifice by taking on extra work and cutting down on expenses until they reach their financial goals.

Guest's picture
Susan

I'm about two months from paying off a credit card, then I will turn to paying down a killer HELOC ($48k). Lots of pressure: The HELOC matures in about seven years, plus I'm 10 years away from retirement and want to be reasonably debt-free (just the main mortgage) in retirement. The trouble is that our combined household income just isn't enough to allow us to do both pay down debt AND stock an emergency fund. I've made the calculated decision to pay down debt, while realizing that this means we're going to inevitably be sidetracked by this or that issue with the house or cars. For example, once the credit card is paid off around September, I'm going to stash a bunch of money in savings to deal with a car lease that's due. It's a continual juggle when you don't make enough -- and there's no inheritance windfall on the immediate horizon!

Guest's picture

Gonna echo Jen - some of this is inspiring (namely the first couple). But stuff like "Used an inheritance to pay the last $105,000 of their mortgage"? Most of us aren't going to be inheriting 100k.

Still, I like seeing these types of posts.

Guest's picture
Carol

I really liked this: "Live from a place of wonder in the wealth you've already been blessed with and you'll be much happier and more successful in paying off debt."

and plan to use it in my own debt reduction journey. However.....I'd like to hear the story about the two income couple who had it made (except the debt, of course), when suddenly, one partner was out of work long term, they were not able to sell the under-water house in the depressed market, and although they barely avoided bankruptcy, they did avoid it, and they managed to pay off their large amount of debt without an inheritance or ....

Guest's picture
Tiffany

It's nice to read, yeah. But when I read things like...

"Paid a hefty $5,000 per month toward his loan. "I had a job as a tax consultant and was making about $150,000 per year plus bonus," he says. "My Canadian taxes took about a third, which left me a little over $8,000 per month..."

I had to read that statement twice. That's not an everyday, average situation. I live in an area where the average hourly wage is about 8-12 an hour.

Guest's picture
Amanda

I don't feel like I can identify with most of these people in this article (and I usually love these kind of articles). Most of them received a hefty inheritance at some point, and a lot of them found great high-paying jobs. I have joined the ranks of people who have a useless but pricey degree - a degree I had to pay for myself. I also graduated from high school and college with high honors; I just wasn't outstanding enough to receive any of the amazing scholarships. I abandoned graduate school when I had unexpected medical bills. One of my parents fought an expensive but short battle with cancer while I was a dependent. I am the oldest of six, and my mom is not awesome with money; I don't ever expect to receive a penny from her. Needless to say, I like to read about people who conquered financial burdens by themselves - without handouts for school (you are at a huge advantage if you had your school & associated living costs paid for) or for just being born.

I appreciate people like Cherie Lowe; those are the kind of stories I want to read! The other ones just make me want to smack someone. If my husband or I received a $100 k inheritance right now, we would own our house and our cars (actually, we already own our cars), have our student debt paid off, AND have a significant amount of the money in the bank, especially compared to how much we spend. I'm sorry, but your debt story is not impressive if you were fortunate enough to just suddenly receive that kind of money. After reading the other comments, I feel like most people are in agreement about this.

However, rock on Cherie Lowe and family!! You guys are an inspiration :)

Max Wong's picture

Cherie streamlined expenses by qualifying purchases with this question: "Will this choice help us save as much as possible?" If not, they didn't choose it.

I am adding this quote to my arsenal of tools I use to combat debt. This is a GREAT way of clarifying what is a "want" vs. what is a "need."

Guest's picture
Olivia

The most universally practical example was that of Cherie and Brian, even if we don't know what everyone's salary was. Not eating meat or eating out is something I can wrap my head around. The average U.S. household makes around $50,000 a year before taxes. I would love to see more examples of frugal moderate or low income people making a dent in their expenses, not those with high salaries or windfalls. That is unrealistic.

Guest's picture
Noah BoardwalkSavers

Very inspiring. Those with student loans should first take into account the interest rates of their loans. If a loan tends to have a fluctuating rate, pay that one first before it goes up. Federal loans have fixed rates, so they can be saved for last. By developing small money savvy habits such as cutting cable, using public transport, cooking, having a roommate, and many more, you can save thousands of dollars every year. Getting all the help you need to get rid of debt is more crucial than ever nowadays.