The pursuit of the American dream has been a part of my story from the beginning. If not for the courage of my family, I wouldn't be here. My mom sacrificed to have me stay in America so I could take advantage of every opportunity available.
As a first-generation Haitian American, education was always viewed as the gateway to a better future. So I did what many Haitian families tell their kids to do: Go to school, get good grades, then go to college so you can make good money and retire one day in a better financial position.
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At no point while I was in high school was there ever a conversation about the cost of college, how to plan for it, or the implications of borrowing money. No one told me that the amount I would have to pay back would be more than the amount I borrowed. It turned out that the path for success that was laid out for me led to six figures of student debt.
When my wife and I got married in the summer of 2017, we said "I do" with $211,000 debt between us. From student loans to credit card debt, and a personal loan, we had it all. We had no idea how we were going to pay it off or how long it would take us, we just knew we couldn't stay there.
In two and a half years, we have paid off $224,000 of debt (the $211,000 plus $13,000 in interest), without either of us having six-figure salaries. Now we're focused on building generational wealth, changing our family legacy, and working towards becoming millionaires. Here's how we got started.
When my wife and I first met, I had already been working a few years and was very aware of my student loan obligations. She, on the other hand, was pursuing her Master of Nursing Degree and had no idea what she owed. One day when we were talking about our finances, I recommended she look it up and write everything down. When she saw the total amount she owed the very first time, she was shocked.
Our conversations led to her applying for and receiving a scholarship that paid for her master's program, a program that would have added another $80,000 to her school debt.
We didn't just talk numbers. We knew that fights about money were one of the leading causes of divorce, so we were intentional even before tying the knot. We made sure to talk at length about our money values and how our approaches to money had been shaped. Those conversations weren't always easy but they were definitely a key part in us building a strong foundation.
Video by Helen Zhao
When we looked at how much we owed, we were overwhelmed. We decided not to start with the numbers, but rather why we wanted to pursue financial freedom. One of our biggest reasons was making sure that one day, our kids wouldn't have to dig themselves out of six-figure student debt like we did.
Another part of our "why" was my mom. She had been entirely supporting herself since my father passed away when I was 7. She once told me that she did not think she would ever be able to retire, and that stayed with me.
My wife and I wanted to travel more and become work optional in our 40s so we could spend more time with loved ones and not be stuck to a 9-5 job until the traditional retirement age.
Our "why" was the driving force behind the change we wanted to make. It was the core source of our motivation and a reference point whenever we felt like giving up or breaking our budget during our debt-free journey. By starting with the end in mind, we were able to reverse engineer and see exactly what we needed to do to get there.
Video by Mariam Abdallah
When we got married, our philosophy regarding our finances was to bring all of the income we earned to the table, and decide together as a team how to best use it.
We allocated our funds using a zero-based budget, a budgeting method where you give every dollar a purpose so you know where 100% of your income goes. The difference between a traditional budget and a zero-based budget is that a traditional budget allows you to carry leftover money into the following month. The zero-based budget forced us to earmark those funds for specific goals such as making extra debt payments.
With minimum student loan payments of over $2,000/month, it would have taken us 15 years to pay off our debt and cost us $125,000 of interest alone. Determined not to build someone else's wealth, in the summer of 2017 we decided to make some drastic changes.
In order to find more money to pay down our debt quickly, we started by focusing on what I like to call "The Big Three" — housing, food, and transportation.
We kept our housing expenses below 25% of our monthly take-home pay. We did not have any car debt, and we carpooled to work to keep our expenses even lower. We packed our lunches to work every day and cooked dinner at home 90% of the time. All of these were small actions that ended up saving us thousands of dollars every year.
After cutting back on our spending as much as we could, we turned our focus and attention toward the income side of the equation. Between the two of us, we had five jobs: our primary jobs and three side hustles. My wife's side hustles included babysitting and providing overnight infant care to newborns. I picked up a per diem job in my current profession as an occupational therapist at the local hospital.
If there was a shift available — overnights, weekends, holidays — we signed up for it. In time, our work started to pay off. During the first year of our debt-free journey, we made $66,000 from side hustle income before taxes. The second year we made $40,000. This was a big part of how we were able to accelerate our debt payoff goals.
We became debt-free, outside of our mortgage, in November 2019. My wife and I both work in the health-care field. When the pandemic hit, despite dealing with some reduced work hours and the uncertainty that came as a result of a global health crisis, we were able to save and invest $127,000 in 2020.
For the first time ever, we were able to build a six-month emergency fund and maxed out all tax-advantaged accounts including our 401(k)s, Roth IRAs, and health savings account (HSA). We also started investing for our son's future in a 529 plan. Now we're on track to do the same in 2021.
We just closed on our first rental property and have a plan in place to help my mom retire in the next 3 to 5 years. All of this was only possible because we were no longer making regular payments to Sallie Mae and Great Lakes.
Becoming debt-free has been one of the best decisions we've ever made. We no longer experience the stress and anxiety that once burdened us. Beyond that, it has opened up doors to opportunities far beyond our wildest dreams.
Now, at the rate we are going, we are on track to become millionaires this decade, and we have used our experience to help others become debt-free, through our finance platform Freedom Is A Choice Movement and our course The Debt Slayers Bootcamp. I truly believe that the life you live tomorrow will be based on the choices you make today. My wife and I often say, "So much more is possible when you're debt-free," and we're living proof.
Leo Jean-Louis is a first-generation Haitian American author and financial educator. After his post about paying off $104,000 of debt in 12 months went viral on social media, he and his wife founded the company Freedom Is A Choice Movement, and their signature course, The Debt Slayers Bootcamp, to teach millennials how to become debt-free without being miserable in the process. His money tips and personal finance journey have been featured on Business Insider, Yahoo Finance, "The Steve Harvey Show," Black Enterprise, and Bankrate.
The article "We Paid off $224,000 in 2.5 Years and Are on Track to Become Millionaires: Here's how we Got Started" was originally published on Grow (CNBC + Acorns).