How We Got Rid of $136,000 in Debt in 21 Months

getting out of debt
Courtesy Levi Ennis
By Levi Ennis, as told to Michele Lerner

When my wife, Jennifer, and I got married in March 2010, we thought we were OK financially, kind of like everyone else.

Jennifer was working two jobs, and I was working at one part-time job and looking for work. While Jennifer came into our marriage with a $20,000 car loan, I was the one who brought along a lot of debt: $20,000 for a car, $70,000 in student loans and $26,000 on a vehicle that I had co-signed on for my brother.

Yet even though we owed $136,000, we really weren't that concerned about our debt because it seemed normal to us to have car payments and student loans.

The Wake-Up Call

At our church, we signed up for a four-week mini introduction to Dave Ramsey's "Financial Peace University." At the first session we were asked to write down our total debt on a piece of paper.

There were five couples in the room, and the total debt for all of us was $300,000. We were pretty shocked that one-third of the debt in the room was ours.

I'd always been told that student loan debt was "good debt" and Jennifer thought that having a car loan was normal, but after this session we decided to get serious about paying it off.

The Plan

The first thing we did was write down a budget. We created two spreadsheets: one for our income and expenses and the other for our debt snowball. The snowball works by paying down one debt and then applying that payment to the next debt and so on until you're debt-free.

At first it looked like it would take us five to seven years to pay off our debts, but we decided to focus intently on it and eliminate it faster.

In the end, it took 21 months to pay off everything. That's because we devoted 70 percent of our income to paying off our bills.

First, we traded in both of our cars for one car. We carpooled for six months until we could save enough cash for me to buy a used car. Trading in those cars eliminated $21,000 in debt right away. That was a tough sacrifice for both of us because Jennifer loved her SUV and I loved my pickup truck, but it also got us off to a really big start.

Courtesy Levi Ennis
Courtesy Levi Ennis
Boosting Income

Jennifer and I have worked anywhere from two to six jobs at a time to bring in more money.

Jennifer works in human resources full-time and also serves tables at a restaurant for extra income. When we got married, I was driving a Zamboni machine, and then I got a full-time job in purchasing. I also teach private ice hockey lessons on the weekends to supplement my income, and coach a high school ice hockey team.

One of the more unusual things I did to bring in extra cash was to respond to ads on Craigslist looking for models. I was paid to be a "test dummy" so that techs could practice giving ultrasound tests.

We also started selling things that we didn't need, like a second computer, small appliances, and even my Xbox.

When we ran out of stuff to sell I started doing something a little more creative: dumpster diving for things we could sell. I would go around on trash pickup day and grab stuff that people had thrown out, like old TVs and a barbecue grill, and sell them on Craigslist to bring in extra cash.

Cutting Costs, But Not Fun

We made a pact to keep our expenses to less than 30 percent of our income, which meant we had to give up some luxuries.

We didn't have cable TV or smartphones. We quit going to the movies and started borrowing them from the library. For entertainment, we'd go to parks, hike, go to the zoo on free admission days, and search for half-off deals.

We limited ourselves to $200 a month for spending money and $350 a month for food, including both groceries and eating out. Jennifer became an expert at clipping coupons and watching for buy-one-get-one-free deals.

I traded private ice hockey lessons in exchange for hotel points and airline miles. One parent didn't have the cash for the lessons, but he had millions of miles from his work travel. We were able to go to Seattle for our first wedding anniversary using those miles and go on another trip to visit Jennifer's family in Minnesota. We also went to Missouri for a long weekend by agreeing to take a time-share tour. We got a free hotel room and meal vouchers, and only had to spend an hour touring the time share.

The Payoff

Since April 2012 we've been debt-free. Once we were debt-free, and with God's favor and blessings, we kept up with our discipline and put that income into savings.

Now we have a contract on a house that's being built and we project that we'll have $80,000 in savings for the down payment and an emergency fund by the time it's ready in November. We're amazed that we're living debt-free and that we can buy a house when we're only 28 and 29.

Even more important to us, though, is how good it feels to have the security of money in the bank to tide us over if anything bad happens.

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This is good is a proven way to clean your credit and decrease your debt. Not for everyone but, good for many!

November 27 2015 at 12:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Assuming they're real people, I'm glad for them, BUT the numbers don't add up. Paying off $136,000 in debt in 21 months requires a $77,714 annual income, assuming all those other fund-raising activities generate enough to pay their income tax and living expenses. That makes me skeptical.

July 24 2013 at 6:25 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

People will do anything just to be on media!!!!!!!!!!!!

June 08 2013 at 1:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply


June 08 2013 at 1:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Pretty impressive..It's taken me about 7 years to do the same thing, but since the banks saved me with cheap fixed rate cash advances when I was out of work and became disabled and my expenses didn't really decline much..I didn't feel I should walk on them. Of course I have a Honda Civic with almost 300.000 miles on it and have paid off my mortgage and home equity loan and my kid's college loans during this period (she's laid off too) and have not upgraded my house, there have been some issues, but I'm almost there. Of course I buy nothing except gas and food, but that's the breaks..Congrats to you two

May 30 2013 at 8:57 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Honestly, I am so sick and tired of hearing how people need to sacrifice living a comfortable life just to get by. I mean, I understand sometimes life throws one a curve ball, but these types of articles are nothing but doom and gloom. "We sold our first child to Chinese cannibals to pay off our student loans." "We ate dirt for 6 months and drank our own urine to save on food and water bills." I don't know how else to describe it...just lame!

May 30 2013 at 12:09 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

I love your comment healthmgr what they forget to mention is probably the $50,000 mommy and daddy threw them just for the hell of it. If its true good for them but this article just sounds bogus.

May 29 2013 at 11:27 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to mike103169's comment

Financial Peace University, and what people can accomplish if they follow the 7 Baby Steps, is NOT "bogus." I paid off $36,000+ in credit card and other debt in 27 months. Nobody had to give them any money. I've seen this over and over as a Dave Ramsey facilitator. Quit being jealous, get off your butt and do it yourself. It absolutely CAN happen!

May 29 2013 at 11:43 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to newmoonlmt's comment

You obviously didn’t read my post that Mike was referring to, NewMoon. We’re not saying that the program itself is bogus – just that the scenario outlined in the article is. I’ve shown fairly conclusively that IF this couple only had the resources they say they had, and IF they paid all the taxes they’re legally required to pay, then it’s simply not feasible that they could have accomplished what they said they did in the amount of time they said they did it.

Your own story is much easier to believe – and we congratulate you.

What I do NOT congratulate you for, however, is your choice of employment. I reviewed Mr. Ramsey’s program for a financial publication. Much of what he preaches is fairly sound, common sense advice. What’s unconscionable is what he charges for that advice, the bogus “testimonials” he uses to sell the program, and his advocacy for pushing people beyond their endurance.

Take the young couple in question, and forget for a moment that the numbers don’t add up. She works at least 12 hours a day. Adding commuting time and the time it takes to eat, shower and dress, she can’t possibly get 8 hours of sleep a night even if she does NOTHING else. With his schedule, sleep hours can’t total more than 4. A likely result of that is they’ll be stuck in the same dead-end, entry-level jobs for life, since they’ll be way too fatigued to function in a manner worthy of promotion.

So maybe they’ll be debt free, own a home and have money in the bank by the time they’re 35 or so. They certainly won’t have kids by then (even the wham-bang-thank you-ma’am type of procreation takes more time than these two have available!). Maybe, if they can get over their “saving obsession”, they’ll have time for that at 40. If they live that long, that is.

May 30 2013 at 12:43 AM Report abuse rate up rate down

I am so jealous.....

May 29 2013 at 11:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Oh yeah, Dave Ramsey’s plan sure worked a miracle here all right! If Levi & Jennifer actually exist, I’m inviting the IRS to take a nice long look at this young couple!

Here’s the way it lays out: They supposedly paid off $136,000 in 21 months, which works out to roughly $6,475/month, by devoting 70% of their income to debt repayment. That means their available monthly income is approximately $9,250/month or $111,000/year.

Now, exactly how much do they have to earn to net $111,000? Well, since they have no children and don’t own a home, they would file a joint income tax return utilizing the standard deduction and just 2 exemptions. Their employers would also be required to withhold Social Security, Medicare, and State income taxes of course. The article doesn’t say what State they live in, so I used Michigan – somewhat “middle of the road” rate wise at 4.25% - and gave them the benefit of the doubt assuming they didn’t have to pay any local income tax nor contribute any part of the cost for healthcare insurance (certainly quite rare these days).

So the answer is: $156,000 per year less $26,800 Federal Income Tax, 11,900 SS & MC, and $6,300 State Income Tax.

Now, where did they tell us their gross income came from? An entry level job in Human Resources as well as part-time waitressing for her / driving a Zamboni, giving hockey lessons, acting as a test dummy, dumpster diving, and finally an entry level job in purchasing for him.

Uh-huh. Even if we were to believe there are enough hours in the day for them to do all that, it doesn’t add up. HR assistants are lucky to gross $35,000/yr. A good waitress at an above average restaurant might conceivably bring in $100/night during a 4 hr shift. That’s another $26,000. His purchasing job and driving the Zamboni: $45,000 max. That still leaves about $50,000 for the hockey lessons, dumpster diving and test dummy gig.

He DID pay tax on all that dumpster diving, didn’t he? I mean, they got into this program through their church, after all – and the dumpster diving IS taxable income (he has no cost basis in the items, so it’s 100% profit). Oh, and I forgot – I only subtracted the employee portion of the SS & MC taxes from their gross income – the hockey lessons, test dummy, and dumpster diving would constitute earnings from Self Employment – which means he has to pay the employer portion on that too – another 7.65%. So he would really have had to earn about $4,000 more!

I think y’all get the picture! Saving and paying off debt are obviously good goals – it just unfortunately takes more than signing up for one of Mr. Ramsey’s seminars!

May 29 2013 at 10:07 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
3 replies to healthmgr's comment

being out of debt may not seem like such a big thing now. But when you want to retire and haven't saved a dime, you'll be wishing you had listened and followed Dave Ramsey's advice. He definitiely helped me re-prioritize my goals. I got hooked on him listening to him in the car on my way to work. Psychologically, it's very freeing to not owe anyone. Who wants to live paycheck to paycheck...not fun.

May 29 2013 at 8:40 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply