When Faith and Leo Jean-Louis tied the knot in June 2017, they carried a joint debt load of over $200,000 down the aisle along with them.
Even before their nuptials, the Atlanta couple decided to make paying off the balance a priority in their first few years of marriage, no matter what. Now, about a year into their debt payoff mission, the couple has already knocked out more than $100,000 of their debt.
It was no easy feat, and required a commitment to working longer hours and seeing less of their family, friends and each other. The couple recently spoke with MagnifyMoney about the lessons they learned in their first year paying down their debt, and their plan for how they’ll approach things differently in the years to come.
‘The biggest thing standing in our way was debt’
The Jean-Louises met back in 2014, when they were both newcomers to Atlanta. Leo, 30, who had moved to the city to begin his career as an occupational therapist, met Faith, 27, a nursing student at Emory University, at church.
They started dating a few months later, and in 2016, they got engaged. In premarital counseling sessions with their pastor, the couple was encouraged to think about the purpose of their marriage. They both agreed that giving to others — not just their money, but also their time — was a major desire.
“One of the questions we had to ask ourselves was: ‘What do we want life to look like in three years, five years, 10 years from now?’” Leo said. “The biggest thing standing in our way was debt.”
Choosing a strategy
Faith and Leo both earned undergraduate and master’s degrees, and together they owed around $194,000 in student loans. The rest of the $211,000 obstacle came from credit card debt, which included wedding expenses and their honeymoon to Greece.
The couple hired a certified financial planner to help start the process. At first, they tried to prioritize debts by highest interest rate, but it became too overwhelming, as some of their biggest debts had the highest rates. They switched gears and opted to use the debt snowball method instead, which involves paying off debts with the smallest balances first as a way to gain easy wins early and build momentum. This meant tackling the credit card debt before worrying about the mountain of student loans.
Their adviser recommended they use some of their savings to make a lump payment on their loans. They paid $10,000 toward that in August 2017, and things took off from there.
“That’s when we knew that this was really serious,” Leo said. “That really got us kick-started.”
Putting in extra hours
Working extra shifts and a part-time job were a huge part of the couple’s strategy to whittle away their debt.
Leo took on additional therapy shifts on weeknights and Saturday afternoons. Faith, meanwhile, kept her side job from graduate school, where she worked as an overnight nurse for new mothers. Pulling these night shifts five or six times a week was exhausting, she said.
“I’d go to my full-time job, leave around 5 or 5:30 p.m., come back home, take a quick nap and then wake up to go to my overnight job, and then leave for my full-time job again that morning,” Faith said.
Their second paychecks — other than the 10 percent they tithed to their church — went entirely toward the debt. Thanks to careful budgeting and self-control with entertainment and spending, the Jean-Louises managed to live entirely off the money from their primary jobs as a nurse and occupational therapist.
Spending little time with each other was a sacrifice for the newlyweds, but seeing their debt decline helped them keep focused.
“We just kept reminding ourselves: ‘Hey, life is not always going to be this way,’” Leo said. “We knew we’d have the next 20, 30, 40 years to live how we want to if we could just sacrifice for this short period of time.”
One side benefit was that they bonded more as a couple.
“We had to constantly be in communication: asking each other how we were doing, encouraging one another when we were tired,” Leo said.
Small savings add up
When they first started tackling their debt, the couple put together a budget by tallying all the money they were spending each month and looking for places where they could cut back. Leo said it was “trial and error” at first, but once they realized where they could save the most, they began to make major lifestyle changes.
They started carpooling to work, which saved around $100 per month. They saved about $240 every month by packing their lunches for work. They even saved between $50 and $60 each month by forgoing a cable plan, instead using an Amazon Fire Stick, which retails for $40, to watch TV shows online.
Instead of going out to restaurants and movie theaters on weekends, they hung out at their friends’ homes. Rotating houses each time, these potluck-style dinners helped them stay social without expensive nights on the town.
A long journey ahead
With half of their debt behind them, Faith said in June that she and Leo would be taking a month or so to relax. They’re planning a vacation to Costa Rica, exploring Atlanta and dialing back on their second jobs.
“I still think we want to be aggressive with it, because we don’t want this to last much longer, however, right now we are taking some time to have a break,” Faith said. “We still have our part-time jobs, but we’ve calmed down with the amount of shifts we’re taking.”
Still, the Jean-Louises are confident that they’ll stay committed to their money-conserving lifestyle, a big part of which involves the small, day-to-day decisions that have saved them so much over the past year.
The couple’s goal is to be debt-free by December 2019 — a task they think is easily attainable if they keep living this way. They also might receive help from Faith’s employer, which will allow her to enter a repayment plan that could help pay off as much as $50,000 of the remaining total. Faith will become eligible for the plan in fall 2019, and they’ll make their decision then.
“I think it’s just about remembering that this is temporary,” Faith said. “It’s not going to last — it’s just a season we have to go through.”
Faith and Leo’s tips for overcoming debt
The Jean-Louises don’t see their story as an anomaly. The couple uses Leo’s Instagram page to inspire others trying to conquer debt and offer advice.
“We want people to know that they can get out of debt, too,” Leo said.
Here are Faith and Leo’s four tips for tackling debt:
- Think about “the why”: Leo admits that the total can be overwhelming, which is why he suggests people first consider their reasons for wanting to be debt-free. “If you can dream a little bit about where you want to be, that should give you enough motivation to take the first step,” he said.
- Write down your debts: Actually look at the numbers, consider what you owe and what you could end up paying over a lifetime if you took a more conservative approach to paying off debt, such as if you were only making the minimum payment each month.
- Track your expenses: Life changes, whether small or large, are needed. Look at every aspect of your monthly spending and find ways to save, no matter how miniscule they may seem. “Let’s say you decide to go to Starbucks every morning. Is Starbucks that necessary? Or can you make your own coffee at home?” Faith said. “It’s just seeing what’s important to you and what you can decrease or cut back on.”
- Remember to enjoy yourself: Always make time to have fun, even if you have a rigid plan. “You can make a budget for the things you like to do, which will help you stay focused and not get so overwhelmed,” Faith said.