A string of bad choices after I got married led to the best financial decision I've ever made for my family

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Parent mum child summerThomas Northcut/Getty ImagesThe author is not pictured.
  • In 2009, Holly Johnson and her husband were about $US50,000 in debt – and they were tired of it.
  • They used the debt snowball method to eliminate their smaller bills first and “snowball” larger and larger payments toward their remaining debts over time.
  • They also started zero-sum budgeting, which gives each dollar earned a job.
  • Now, they’re completely debt-free and on a path to retire early, and their freedom is more precious than anything money can buy.

When I met my husband in 2004, he had some hand-me-down furniture, a closet full of clothes, and $US2,000 in credit card debt. But we married shortly after anyway because, well, I married for love. And I didn’t really care much about money anyway; when I uttered the words “for rich or for poor,” I absolutely meant it.

Fast forward a few years and we weren’t making the world’s best financial decisions. We took out big car loans and over $US20,000 in student loans, and we frequently spent all the money from our paychecks and more.

By the time we had our first daughter in 2009, we had around $US50,000 in debt. It wasn’t necessarily egregious debt since it was mostly car loans and student loans, but it sure sounded like a lot to me.


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There’s something about becoming a parent that makes even “normal” problems seem like a real emergency. One look into my daughter’s eyes told me I didn’t want to live a paycheck-to-paycheck existence. I wanted to take her on family vacations, to afford her every opportunity – and to help her reach her dreams.

That’s hard to do when you’re spending 20% of your take-home pay on car payments, which we were doing at the time. I knew something had to change, so my husband and I sat down with our bills and banking statements to figure out our next steps.

How we used budgeting to create a debt-free lifestyle

It’s pretty shocking the first time you sit down with your bills, your bank statements, and your pay stubs to see exactly where your money is going each month. When my husband and I looked at our credit card bills and tallied up our spending in regular categories, we were shocked to find out we were wasting $US1,000 per month or more on food, $US1,000 per month on car payments and insurance, and way more than we realised on entertainment, clothing, and random “stuff.” Considering we were forking over almost half of our take-home pay for food and cars, it’s no wonder we weren’t saving money each month!


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While the process was shocking and painful, learning this information was an essential part of our journey. You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge, after all, and we needed to admit our spending was out of whack.

Once we realised where we had gone off track, my husband and I figured it made sense to “spend” every dollar we earned on paper, including towards debts and savings. We later learned this budgeting method is referred to as “zero-sum budgeting” because the end goal each month is getting your bank account down to zero.


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Our new zero-sum budget took our regular, consistent income into account, making room for regular bills and estimating expenses in categories that fluctuate like food and transportation. We also made some adjustments – some big cuts – in areas where we had some control. We decided to limit food spending to $US500 per month, for example, which meant no dining out. We also went on a spending freeze altogether so we could allocate our extra money toward debt repayment.

We opted to use the debt snowball method to attack our debts – a strategy that asks you to allocate your extra funds toward your smallest debts first while paying the minimums on others. For us, this meant getting rid of our small credit card balances within a few months so we could focus on the bigger loans – namely car loans and student loans.

The benefits of a debt-free lifestyle

Because we earned a decent income at the time, it didn’t take us long to make serious headway toward our car loans. We started by paying off the smallest loan first – an $US8,000 car loan on my 2007 Dodge Caravan. From there, we focused on paying off the last $US12,000 in loans on my husband’s 2009 Toyota Prius. By the time our car loans were done, we were earning a lot more and demolishing our student loans at rapid pace.

By the time we paid off our final student loans, we hadn’t dined out more than three or four times in the previous two years. We didn’t have cable television, and we were shopping for clothing and thrift stores.


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But you know what? We were probably the happiest we had ever been. We were spending more time at home with our kids and with each other, and we were no longer stressed about money or bills.

We also had a sense of purpose, especially since we had been dreaming a lot about our debt-free future. My husband and I saved saving several hundred dollars per month while we paid down debt, so we had quite the little nest egg for security.

There’s something really amazing about living a debt-free lifestyle, and it didn’t take us long to figure out what it was. There’s so much freedom! When you don’t have any bills to pay each month and you’re saving a large percentage of your income, there’s nothing you can’t accomplish. You can dream about things you never could before – things like family vacations and paying for your children’s college education. But, more than that – you can actually follow through on those dreams and hatch a plan to make them come true.

Living the debt-free dream

While we were thrilled to become debt-free many years ago, that wasn’t the only financial goal my husband and I wanted to accomplish. With more money at our disposal every month, we wanted to max out our retirement accounts every year and pay off our home extremely early.

Fortunately, these dreams have come true for us. We started maxing out our retirement accounts several years ago, but we also paid off our primary residence in early 2018. For the first time in our lives, we are 100% free of debt and beholden to no one. All we have to pay for each month are taxes, insurance, and basic living expenses.

But, we’re still the same people we were before – even though we’re earning more now and don’t have many bills. My husband still drives the same 2009 Toyota Prius, and we even share it because we both work at home. We still don’t have cable television and we still dine out infrequently because it’s so darn expensive.


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The biggest difference in our life is the fact that we save significantly more than we spend every month, and we’re on the path toward a very early retirement. With no money stress to speak of, we’re also much happier and more present parents than we dreamed we could be.

Marrying my husband was probably the best thing I ever did with my life, and having children is a very close second. But choosing a debt-free lifestyle is without a doubt the third most important thing I’ve ever done – both for myself and for my family.

New cars, restaurant meals, and home upgrades are always nice, but a debt-free lifestyle is the best gift money can buy. I don’t have a new car or a lot of nice things, but I have one thing I would never trade away – the freedom to live life on my own terms.

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