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A millennial couple who paid down $250,000 of debt in their first 5 years of marriage share how they did it

CNBC Select spoke with a couple about how they worked together to meet their debt payoff goals.

Photo courtesy of LeVar and Reanne Harris

In the U.S., marriage vows often include the line "for richer or poorer," but many people don't consider how much debt their partner has before they say, "I do." College sweethearts LeVar Harris and Reanne Swafford-Harris, who got married in 2015, were open with each other about their finances from the start, and they made another vow to prioritize their quality of life while focusing on paying off their significant debt load.

As two young professionals with advanced degrees that meant getting a jump-start on paying off six-figure student loan debt and two mortgages.

In just five years, LeVar and Reanne have paid off roughly $250,000 of debt including:

  • Law school and undergraduate loans: $150,000 (paid off after graduation)
  • MBA school payment plan: $30,000 (paid off over a two-year program)
  • Mortgage: $70,000 (with about 20 years of payments remaining)

CNBC Select spoke with the couple about their debt payoff journey and how they manage to have fun along the way.

Here are some takeaways.

1. Have a plan before you borrow

The couple met as undergraduate students at University of California, Riverside, but they didn't merge their finances until four years, one mortgage and $150,000 in law school loans later. After their wedding, LeVar added another $30,000 bill to their household budget when he decided to attend business school. They made a plan to pay for the degree over his two-year program. And when the couple moved to Oakland, California, for Reanne's job, they added another mortgage to the total.

But as they took on new debt, they adjusted their plans.

"I'm a pretty strategic person," Reanne tells CNBC Select. "I knew I was going to be joining my [law] firm in the fall [after graduation]. And so I understood that what I was going to be making was more than what I was taking out [in loans]."

Before you borrow student loans to go back to grad school, consider your anticipated salary and the cost of living you expect post-graduation to see if loans will be worth it.

"It's an investment," says Reanne. "I think some people don't think of it that way. Then you could be taking out loans that aren't necessary, borrowing more than you need or getting into a career that wouldn't earn back that loan amount."

You should also be careful to make sure that the degree you're pursuing is necessary to your field, she says.

When LeVar decided to get an MBA, he opted for an online program to reduce the overall cost of the degree.

Though some might not want to pass up their dream school, LeVar leveraged his prior career experience and his new, less expensive degree to focus on building his resume — not his debt load.

And he has no regrets: "An MBA is nice to have just for business acumen, but it's not really required for my day-to-day job," LeVar says. "I ended up not looking at USC for example. That was $100,000. The school that I went to has almost the same name recognition in the U.S., but it's like a fraction of the cost."

2. Rely on teamwork

The bulk of Reanne's income went toward making aggressive payments on her six-figure student loans. That was fine by her husband, who took care of the household expenses and the lion's share of their long-term saving and investing goals.

The couple did the math to figure out what was the most aggressive payment Reanne could make consistently to pay off her debt plus interest in five years.

"We committed to that number," says LeVar. "We said, 'whatever it takes.' And then any additional income we had, like, a bonus or raise, we would just pay on top of that."

This divide-and-conquer strategy worked well for the couple. Both earned a healthy salary, and they viewed paying down debt, saving and investing as part of the same goal: to grow their combined net worth.

"We both contributed to our mortgages," explains LeVar. Meanwhile, they divided up the rest of their monthly budget like this:

LeVar:

  • Everyday spending (food, utilities, etc.)
  • Rental mortgage in L.A. (when not occupied by renters) 
  • MBA school loan payment
  • Savings
  • Investments
  • Portion of primary mortgage in Oakland

Reanne:

  • Student loan payment (around $4,000)
  • Majority of primary mortgage in Oakland

The biggest line item in the Harris' budget was Reanne's $4,000 student loan payments. She was paying about $2,800 more than her minimum payment each month and that represented about one-fourth of her pre-tax income.

3. Give yourself something to look forward to

LeVar and Reanne are proud of how they managed to preserve their quality of life while paying off $180,000 of educational debt and about $70,000 of their mortgage.

First and foremost, they decided to be honest and transparent. They spoke openly about money — a topic that friends and family may have once considered taboo — and worked through any negative feelings about their debt.

People in their inner circles found their attitude refreshing, so the couple started a YouTube channel and designed an online course to help others. This gave them a fun new project and another opportunity to help people.

Levar and Reanne Harris ask a friend to share his salary.
Photo from the Money & Marriage YouTube channel.

The couple also learned to maximize their credit card rewards so that they could take memorable vacations even while prioritizing debt payoff.

"We were able to travel because we had the Chase Sapphire Reserve® card and the Uber Credit Card," the couple says. Together, they earned thousands of credit card points that they used in combination with Expedia points to pay for big chunks of their trips.

"We were able to pay for at least 70% of our trips with our points," LeVar explains.

The travel helped make the $4,000 monthly student loan payments hurt a little less. "We were making these aggressive payments to my loans, but we were still able to feel like, 'Okay we have this big trip at the end of the year. It's something to look forward to,'" says Reanne.

Otherwise, it can kind of feel like all work and no reward, she says.

Over the years, the couple has visited Greece, Italy, France and more. Currently, they are taking a pause from travel as the world waits out the coronavirus pandemic.

"At least for this year, we don't see ourselves getting on a plane."

Many travel credit cards, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, are now letting cardholders use their rewards for other purchases during the coronavirus pandemic.

As of November 1, new and existing Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and Chase Sapphire Reserve Card members can earn 2X and 3X points on grocery store purchases, respectively, on up to $1,000 in purchases per month. New grocery rewards rates run for six months until April 30, 2021.

Chase Sapphire Reserve®

Chase Sapphire Reserve®
On Chase's secure site
  • Rewards

    10X points on Lyft rides through March 2022, 3X points on travel worldwide (immediately after earning your $300 annual travel credit), 3X points on dining at restaurants including eligible delivery services, takeout and dining out, 1X point per $1 on all other purchases

  • Welcome bonus

    50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening — worth up to $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®

  • Annual fee

    $550

  • Intro APR

    None

  • Regular APR

    16.99% to 23.99% variable

  • Balance transfer fee

    5%, minimum $5

  • Foreign transaction fee

    None

  • Credit needed

    Excellent

Terms apply.

 

The first step to pay off debt

If you have significant student loan debt, don't put off facing the numbers. Pull your free credit report and sign up for a free credit monitoring service to see just how much you've racked up.

Once you have a clear idea of where your debt stands, you can devise a plan for paying it off like LeVar and Reanne did.

Experian offers a free credit monitoring service that allows you to sign up without providing a credit card number and provides you with a look at your entire borrower profile. See all of your credit cards and loans, plus their balances, in one place. Keep track of your on-time payments and monitor your accounts for fraudulent activity.

Staying on top of your finances and accounts will help you protect your credit score and ensure that you have access to the right kinds of products at lower interest rates for years to come, whether that's to go back to school, buy a house or take out a loan for a car.

Experian Free Credit Monitoring

Experian Free Credit Monitoring
On Experian's secure site
  • Cost

    Free

  • Credit bureaus monitored

    Experian

  • Credit scoring model used

    FICO

  • Dark web scan

    Yes, one-time only

  • Identity insurance

    No

Terms apply.

Information about Uber Credit Card has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the company prior to publication.

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the CNBC Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.