NerdWallet showcases people’s debt-payoff journeys in this series. Jae Bratton tells us how her husband and she set a goal to eliminate all debt. They were motivated by the desire to start a family.

My story of shedding more than $53,046 in debt on two teachers’ salaries was one of perseverance, pain, and cooperation. It’s also about love. After our 2016 wedding, my husband and I started paying off our debt. We made our final payment three years later right before our son was born.

I insisted that we would not start a family until the debt was paid off. My belief is that children are costly so I wanted to make sure we had enough money for medical bills, child care, and college funds.

This rumor was a cold fact.

These four strategies are a guideline for those who want to achieve financial independence.

1. Make a battle plan

You must defeat debt before you can progress to the next level. You need to have a plan of attack.

We first analyzed our opponent and identified our debts. Then, we organized them in a Google spreadsheet. There were seven different debts: student loans, car loans, home improvements loans, and the balance on my engagement rings. Each debt would be eliminated from my spreadsheet. Oh, the satisfaction.

The debt snowball payment method is where all extra money is used to pay down the smallest debts while still paying the minimum on the rest. To keep me motivated, I needed to win a few small victories before I could tackle larger, more daunting balances. In the first three months, we paid off $926 of our smallest debt.

You can choose to use the avalanche approach, which focuses on the biggest debts first. It is easier to choose the right approach than the method. There are two ways to achieve the same result: snowball or avalanche.

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Keep track of your spending and balances in one place. Get out of debt.

2. Consistently budget

After listing our debts and agreeing on a strategy, each month we created a budget. We first calculated our combined income. My husband and I earned $4,694 each month at the beginning of our debt-free journey. We knew how much money was left over for debt payments by subtracting out mandatory expenses like mortgage, utilities, groceries, and minimum debt payments.

We paid our minimum debts for a few months and that was it. When money became more abundant, we made additional payments. Some months, as high as $3500. Both cases, the budget governed how much we spent and helped us stay disciplined. Were we able to stick to our budget each month? No. We tried every month. We tried every month, and when the month ended, we began again, determined to do better than last.

There are many budgeting tools, apps and strategies that can help you create and keep a budget. Also, pen and paper are great. My budgets were written on sticky notes and dry erase boards. No matter what budget you prefer, whether you like the 50/30/20 budget plan or prefer cash envelopes to budgeting, any budget is better that none. You run the risk of forgetting to pay your bills, running out before payday, and delaying your debt repayment date.

3. Find extra money or make more to repay your debts faster

Send extra cash to debt

The majority of large cash influxes left our bank accounts before we were able to spend them: tax refunds and work bonuses, as well as income from second jobs. My husband was paid a stipend to coach basketball, and I taught summer school. Both of us sacrificed our time in order to make more money. But, in a way I got it back with interest. Now I can spend my days with my son rather than going to work. This time spent with him is priceless.

Increase your Income

Two years ago, I earned a professional certificate that increased my income by 12% and my take-home salary by $250. My car loan was $223 per month at that time, which was almost like an extra car payment.

Many jobs offer incentives for employees to earn certifications and credentials. Consider asking for a raise, or finding a job that pays more.

Modify tax withholding if needed

After filing your taxes, a refund means that too much of your salary is going to the IRS. This is interest-free. You receive smaller paychecks over the year, even though that money is eventually refunded in one lump sum.

To change my filing status to “married filing jointly” after I got married, I filed another W-4. I also adjusted my withholdings using the IRS tax mitholding estimator tool. This resulted in a $269 increase in my take-home salary.

4. Cut expenses

“Just skip the Starbucks trip every day.” This advice is now a common cliche. However, paying off thousands of debt takes bolder steps and more difficult sacrifices than grabbing a cup of coffee. Here’s what I did instead.

Some people may disagree with my decision not to give during debt repayment. It is up to you to decide when, how much, and to whom to give. My husband and I found that temporarily pausing charitable giving worked well for us. It’s up to you to decide if this is right for your.

Living lean

If you want to reduce or eliminate debt, it is inevitable. There are many ways to reduce or eliminate expenses. Look through your bank statements and credit cards to see if there are any opportunities to trim. These are just a few of the ways we can lower our living costs.

  • My husband was able to find a job that is closer to his home. This reduced his commute time from 31 to 6 miles, and saved on gas.

  • It took us a year to go on our honeymoon. Most of the cost was covered by cash wedding gifts.

  • We tried to save whenever possible. I began grocery shopping at a lower supermarket. To save $20 per week on fees, my husband, who is an avid bowler stopped playing in a league. He switched to a less expensive razor brand.

5. Strategically save

I have been building up my family’s fund , far beyond the $1,000 suggested by some as sufficient for people who are shedding debt.

Although this decision delayed our debt-free date by a few months, I was able to have a healthy emergency fund that gave me financial security and a sense of peace of mind. I was confident that I could pay for expenses in an emergency, without going back to debt.

Picture your life post-debt

Imagine a life that you can live after paying off your debts.

When I made the 2019 final debt payment, I felt lighter and more satisfied. Three years ago, I had been so focused on our progress. I found myself alternating between regretting my financial mistakes and complaining about the things I couldn’t afford. After I paid off $53,000 of my debt, I turned my attention to the future and began donating to charities and giving back to others. The best part was that I was able to start my own family.

Photo by Jae Bratton