When Bernadette Joy Maulion and her husband, AJ, realized they were staring down over $300,000 in debt — the sum of her graduate school loans and two mortgages — the couple decided they needed an aggressive financial plan to get out of the red.
Bernadette and AJ decided to scale back their lifestyle for a few years by entertaining friends with board game nights at their home instead of going out, and foregoing new clothing and other discretionary expenses. But they knew staying home a few nights and avoiding the J. Crew sale section wasn't going to cut it; their budget needed a complete retooling if they were going to live debt-free.
What made the biggest difference, Maulion tells CNBC Make It, is that rather than budgeting by category, she and her husband agreed to budget by paycheck: The money he earned as an IT project manager was earmarked for everyday living expenses, and hers, from her recruiting job, went entirely toward paying off their debt.
"It made it very clean from an accounting perspective," says Maulion. "We knew which paycheck was which, and we didn't have to reallocate it. That's something that I think a lot of people messed up on, they make things more complicated than they need to."
Once they split expenses, Maulion and her husband started seeing immediate results. And watching the student loan total owed steadily decrease month after month encouraged them to look for other ways to make money. The couple picked up gigs as Uber drivers and extras on TV shows and movies, and while those jobs didn't pay much, it was all extra cash they could throw at their debt.
Eventually, they also put a portion of AJ's salary toward the debt when they realized they could live comfortably on less than he made.
"The conversation was a turning point in our marriage," Maulion said on a podcast about her debt-free journey. While they were accustomed to talking through major financial decisions, like buying their homes, together, discussing her graduate school debt felt different
"I felt like I had been really selfish," she says, noting AJ couldn't benefit from her MBA like he could from, say, owning a home.
Still, once she and AJ started talking through their options, he assured her that he would have her back, and the sacrifices they would have to make over the next few years to pay off their debt would be worth it. Knowing where each paycheck was going, and having that assurance of support, helped them get on track to pay off her student loans in a single year.
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Sticking to such an arrangement requires more than one conversation, of course. Maulion and her husband had monthly money meetings to keep track of their progress and make sure they were on the same page. They also sold off one of their two cars and unneeded clothing and furniture to make their frugal lifestyle work.
Now, the couple is in a much better place. They are completely debt-free (they paid off one home and sold the other), and Maulion runs her own financial consulting business. She would like to retire early, and the couple keeps a picture of a vacation home on their fridge.
Most important, Bernadette and AJ know that the other will always be there to support them.
"I needed to know I wouldn't have to do this alone," Maulion says in the podcast. "I felt really lucky that I had someone who was going to help me figure this out."
Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.