Savings Secrets from People Who Have Overcome Enormous Debt
Photo: Courtesy of Melanie Lockert
Melanie Lockert, Founder of DearDebt.com and the author of Dear Debt: A Story About Breaking Up With Debt
Amount Paid Off: $81,000 in student-loan debt in under nine years
Her Debt-Busting Strategy: Become a side hustler
After limiting her budget to the bare minimum, personal-finance writer Melanie Lockert realized she wouldn't be able to put large payments towards debt without earning more. "That's when I started side hustling very seriously," Lockert says, who was making $30,000 a year at a non-profit.
Brand ambassador gigs became her most lucrative side job. She made up to $20 an hour giving away free samples and swag at concerts, sporting events and public venues. You can find brand-ambassador jobs on Craigslist in the gigs section and on Facebook (search "brand ambassadors of…" and fill in your city).
Lockert also was also paid to pet-sit—you can do the same by using apps like Rover, DogVacay and Wag. On the hunt for nightly and weekend jobs, Lockert turned to the Craigslist gigs section and TaskRabbit.com. The one-time gigs she took on include: selling water bottles at a dance party, transcribing a podcast, and watering plants for someone on vacation. It paid off: "Toward the end of my repayment, I was throwing $2,000 to $4,000 toward my debt each month," Lockert says.
Avoid This End-of-Year Tax Problem: Don't forget to you'll need to report and pay taxes on your wages as a freelancer, Lockert says. "I didn't understand how independent contractor jobs work. I just thought I'm getting all this pay and taxes aren't taken out. I ended out owing more than I thought," she says. Ask a CPA what percentage of your side-gig earnings you should be saving for taxes to avoid a surprising bill.
Photo: Courtesy of Cait Flanders
Cait Flanders, personal finance blogger and co-host of Budgets and Cents podcast
Amount Paid Off: $30,000 (CAD; or $23,000 USD) of consumer and student debt in two years
Her Debt-Busting Strategy: Trade in an $81 habit for a $5 alternative
Money writer Cait Flanders, based in Victoria, B.C., says that she was able to pay down her debt by wiping her social calendar clean. "Much of my consumer debt was created by going out for meals and drinks that I couldn't afford," Flanders says. The average "nightlife enthusiast" spends $81 per outing twice a week, according to an Eventbrite analysis of more than 10,000 events.
Cutting back doesn't have to mean skipping your weekly catchup with friends. Suggest a $5 coffee date when pals ask to go out. "On a monthly basis, it worked out to $1,700 on average that I was paying off," says Flanders, who budgeted around $50 each month for coffee dates.
Photo: Courtesy of Cherie Lowe
Cherie Lowe, Queen of Free blogger and the author of Slaying the Debt Dragon
Amount paid off: $127,482 in four years
Her Grocery Money-Saving Strategy: Effective meal-planning to cut waste
Money writer Cherie Lowe, based in Greenwood, Indiana, started her journey with her husband to pay off $127,000 of debt in 2008. For the next four years, the couple cut their grocery bill from $100 to $250 a week to $80 to $90 weekly by effectively meal planning.
One of the most important steps to eating on a budget is limiting waste, Lowe says. "Before I go grocery shopping, I will look anywhere food is stored to really get a good evaluation of what we already have on hand," Lowe says. Then, build the 1-item list: You may have all the components of a meal except for one1 ingredient—like pasta and sauce, but no protein. "After building the 1-item list, I look at the ads to see what's on sale and how we can build around that," Lowe says.
Eating the same thing for breakfast every day can keep money in your wallet. "When my husband figured out he could fix oatmeal for pennies a serving, oats with peanut butter and a bit of brown sugar became his go-to," Lowe says, who typically eats an apple with a spoonful of peanut butter while her eldest daughter prefers cereal.
The best money-saving ingredients that are versatile enough to use in several meals, like rice or large cuts of meat. Using what you have means being intentional; food prep begins immediately after shopping. "I chop vegetables like peppers and onions when I get home because they work well on pizza, salads, fajitas and pasta very quickly," Lowe says.
Photo: Courtesy of Cait Flanders
Her Savings Strategy After Paying Off Debt: Complete a shopping ban
We all dream of having a savings account big enough to swim in—but a broken air conditioner in the middle of summer or semi-regular Seamless orders can get in the way. Nearly 29 percent of Americans report having no emergency savings, according to a recent Bankrate survey. Flanders, in the same boat as a lot of us, aggressively saved money by starting a yearlong shopping ban in 2014—vowing not to buy anything that wasn't on an approved shopping list. She managed to save $17,000 (CAD) in the first year and $11,000 (CAD) the year after.
Here's how she did it: First, figure out what items you are allowed to buy. Flanders' approved list included groceries, basic kitchen supplies like plastic wrap and foil, basic cosmetics (only after running out), toiletries, cleaning products and essential items she would need during the year—such as a single dress for six upcoming weddings, a pair of winter boots and a new bed. Account for all upcoming events and tally up expected costs. During her shopping ban, Flanders cleared out 70 percent of her belongings—selling items like a barely used juicer, old laptop and camera for cash. In emergencies (when she ripped her only pair of jeans), she used the money she made selling clutter for replacements.