“How I’m Paying Off $140k in Debt”

Life: Working It

This writer is doing it—and she's sharing secrets!

By Gemma Hartley
Above Image | Next-level wrist game.

At 22 I had a mountain of debt—$140,000, to be exact. My husband and I had married our junior year of college and taken out a house loan we couldn't afford; we could barely pay the mortgage, and we racked up credit card debt for textbooks. Then, after graduation, our son's birth left us with thousands in medical bills. I ignored collection calls and final notices—until one day, as I filed away yet another invoice, I looked at my son playing on the floor beside me, and it hit me: If I didn't turn my act around, I was setting him up for a lifetime of money struggles. So I sat down and made a plan. Realistically, it would take me at least a decade to pay off all the money I owed (I know—a long time), but the thought of living without that weight around my neck sparked a fire in me.

I'm not there yet (we still have $100,000 of our mortgage to conquer), but in five years, by 32, I will be totally debt-free. I've taken a few key steps along the way.

Just Start

The first bill I tackled was an overdue $12 medical fee. That's it. It was small, but I felt so accomplished. After that I was hooked. I was making only $30,000 at the time, but I looked for ways to reach my goal faster. My husband was reluctant at first, but then we put old furniture on Craigslist. I started a baking business to earn extra cash. We sold one of our cars. And within two years we'd paid off $15,000 in medical and credit card debt! Since then we've totally been a team and started to chip away at our mortgage.

“Little victories will keep you focused,” says Darla Pellersels, president of the Nevada firm Prosperity Financial Associates. Sure, you'll save money on interest over time if you tackle your most expensive debt first, she says. But if that's too forbidding, start small—it'll get the ball rolling.

Remember Your “Why”

A couple of years into our savings spree, I got pregnant with my daughter, and our payoff plans came to a halt. Shortly after her birth, my husband was demoted. We were left hovering near the poverty line—relying on food stamps just to put food on the table. It was discouraging to feel as if we were moving backward.

What kept me from giving up? I imagined the cabin we hope to build in the California mountains after we make our final payment, or the itineraries of future European vacations. Of course, my main incentive is wanting to send my kids to college debt-free. Those goals are powerful motivators, points out Chris Hogan, financial expert and author of Retire Inspired: “You need to see your dreams in high definition,” he says. “When you know where you're headed, it makes the sacrifices easier.”


It took my husband four months to find a new job. Now we bring in a combined $60,000—but we live on just 40 percent of that. We put a full half of our $4,000 monthly income toward our mortgage debt and stash another $600 for retirement and our kids' college funds. What's left goes toward items our family absolutely needs. We scrutinize every expense—from a pair of shoes to a tube of toothpaste. And we never eat out; I preplan our meals so I know exactly what I'll spend on groceries.

It might not sound like fun to live by a spreadsheet. And true, “having a budget means transforming your spending habits—and keeping it up for the rest of your life,” Pellersels says. But while I'll always be saving, in a few years, when our debt is zero, we can budget in the $7,000 road bike my husband has his eye on—and the Greek vacation of my dreams.

Gemma Hartley is a freelance writer in Reno, Nevada.