Debt Amount: $154,947
End Date: March 10, 2018 — 34 months, start to finish
Total Amount Paid Off: $161,842.29 — including interest that accumulated, mostly on the student loans.
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THE END IS HERE!!! Today, March 10th, 2018 @djbanke and I are officially DEBT FREE!! - 34 months after embarking on the journey to free ourselves from DEBT, we have completely paid off all $161,842.29 of our debt and are finally DEBT FREE!!!! Our debt included, student loans, loans for our cars and our credit cards. We started this journey because we realized if we sacrificed for a short period of time, we would never have to sacrifice again. If we could tell our money where to go, rather than wondering where it went, we could create a bright future for ourselves. Most importantly, we embarked on this journey because we realized that we could place ourselves in a position to be a blessing to our family, that have sacrificed so much for us. - Throwing thousands of dollars a month at debt, declining invites from friends and family, driving a mediocre car, and some of the other sacrifices we had to make took a bit of getting use to. However, it was worth every sacrifice to watch what was once a dream of being debt free become a reality. - Most common question through this process was how: The honest answer is SACRIFICE and DISCIPLINE. We lived well below our means (we lived on 33% of my husbands income, and put the remaining plus ALL of my income toward our debt) and delayed on the things we wanted and only focused on what we needed. - The second factor that was important for achieving this goal was the power of US. We embarked on this journey while we were still engaged with the clear understanding that there was no “your loan vs. my loan.” It was OUR DEBT. When two people come together with a common goal, there is no limit to what they can achieve. - So why share something so personal to the public? The same reason we started the YouTube channel that we’ve used to bring you along on the journey. So many people have given up on the idea that living debt free is attainable. We wanted to be a source encouragement and a resource to those with debt and those working on becoming debt free. You, too, can turn your #DEBTFREE dream into a reality! #DaveRamsey #7BabySteps #DebtFreeJourney #BlackLove
It took about five months for [Heron] to convince me to do this.
Elijah Bankole: "I remember it very vividly: It was a Friday night; she came home, freaking out; and we sat down with her Excel spreadsheets. I felt — especially compared to our peers — that we were doing fantastic. There’s a saying that goes, 'Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good,' and in my eyes, we were doing fine. We weren't late with our credit card or our loan payments, so to me, it was so unnecessary and extreme.
"It took about five months of her consistently saying, 'It would just be better. Imagine us not having any of this debt, having all our loans paid off, and not making these payments. Think of what we could do in the long run.'"
What were your base salaries and how much did you earn from your side hustles?
Heron: "When we started, with my side hustle and our income, we were making six figures — about $110,000 (before taxes and deductions). I got rid of my side hustle to start planning our wedding; after that and with increases, we were earning around $150,000. Another big thing was tax returns. We never spent our tax returns on anything except debt, and any bonuses we got or any raises we got were put toward debt."
A lot of the information we used was free: Elijah did all the reading, and I did all the YouTube. - Heron
HA: "One of the things I discovered in my research was a lot of YouTube channels of people using Dave Ramsey’s Seven Baby Steps to becoming debt free and building wealth. We also found a couple of people on YouTube who lived on one income. (If you're lucky enough to have a two-income household, you pretend you only have one income and use that other income to focus on paying off your debt.)
"So, a lot of the information we used was free. I bought one Dave Ramsey book and watched a lot of YouTube. We did buy Rich Dad, Poor Dad, but to be honest, I never read any of the books — at all. Elijah did all the reading, and I did all the YouTubing."
EB: "Heron did all the research and discovery, and I became obsessed, very quickly."
What made you become obsessed when at first you were so reluctant?
EB: "When the light bulb went off in my head, I realized we didn't really need to live on two incomes. We weren’t overspending per se, but if we became more watchful of how we were spending our money, it seemed like it could make a difference. I read that Dave Ramsey book, Total Money Makeover, and started buying other financial books to better understand money. My obsessiveness came from seeing what we could do with our future if we got more intentional."
"It was about having freedom to do what you want with your time."
EB: "I got really excited about seeing that if we got intentional with our money, got out of debt, and could get good with our investments, we wouldn't have to strain ourselves. We could set ourselves up to choose what we want to do versus being forced to do things.
"Another thing Dave Ramsey preaches is 'Baby Step 7: Being able to freely give to family and to others that are in need.' Those were the top two things that got me really excited about getting out of debt and getting into a good financial position."
HA: "For me, it was about having freedom to do what you want with your time, and to really have options open to you. We are both blessed to have jobs and careers that we do love and are passionate about, but we don’t know where life will take us in the future. Anything can happen. I wanted to take care of our debt so that if we changed our minds and move someplace else, or out of the country, or changed our careers — whatever the opportunity may be — we wouldn't have to think twice about it.
"A lot of times, you think, Oh, I can’t really do this. I have student loans and I can’t up and leave or quit my job because I have monthly payments. Just having more freedom and opportunities is what I had in mind."
I was operating on autopilot and would just buy something because it was convenient.
HA: "When we first started, we were living on Elijah’s income and putting my income toward the debt. I had a full-time job and a side hustle and so did Elijah, but we weren’t using his side-hustle [money] to put toward the debt. On average, we lived on about $2,400 a month — that included our minimum debt payments and living expenses. We allowed ourselves to have an allowance — $50 every other week — to help us stay motivated.
"We labeled all of our accounts: Housing expenses would go into our checking account, and our 'snowball' money — all of the extra income we had — would go into that another account. At the end of each month, whatever we had left in that snowball account would go straight toward debt. At the beginning, we usually transferred that 'snowball' money to debt every other week because we didn't want any extra money in our account — just so we didn’t get tempted. Then, once we got the hang of things, we started doing it once a month. We also had budgeting meetings, usually weekly, to check in with each other. And every month, we would look at how we did."
Did your relationship to money change through this process?
HA: "Yeah. For me, that five months that I had time to research and bug Elijah gave me time to reflect, and think about how I spend money, and track my spending. I had a busy life: I was working full-time at multiple jobs, and I was in grad school, so I didn’t have any time to think about what I was buying. I was operating on autopilot and would just buy something because it was convenient, or swipe my card without even thinking about why I needed things.
"A big moment for me was a time that I bought a shirt. I had already bought the same shirt a few months before, but I lost it somewhere in my pile of clothes. I realized that I was not paying attention to what I have. I wasn't being strategic about how I was spending my money, in part because I didn’t really have time to think about it. So when we started doing those budgeting sessions and reviewing how much we were spending on certain things, I began to calculate the impact. I began to think more minimally — and I was okay having a minimalist lifestyle."
I was spending $125-$150 on coffee every month. In reflection, that could be a car payment.
HA: "My parents knew the details of my student loans, so I didn’t have any problems talking to them about it. Amongst my friends, we talk about having student loans but not really the details of it. It wasn’t necessarily embarrassment, but I did notice that people are not really willing to talk about debt. It’s like this taboo topic — debt and how much money you make.
"In terms of embarrassment with each other, not really. We’ve been together for a long time — we met in college. Elijah and I kind of grew up together, so there was nothing really to hide even if we wanted to. I grew up in a household that was really transparent about finances and money.
"There was one thing that I was constantly irritated by when we had our weekly or monthly budgeting meetings… Let's just say I like coffee. I have a problem! I’m pretty sure I’m funding someone’s education at Starbucks. This is embarrassing, but I was spending $125-$150 on coffee every month. Elijah was like, 'Uh… I cannot relate to this,' and at the time, I'd say, 'Oh, leave me alone.' That, for me, was such a touchy topic. I felt like I was being audited! I would try to justify it by saying, 'I needed it! I worked 12 hours!' But in reflection, that could be a car payment. The opportunity to sit back and really think about my spending gave me time to be more intentional."
EB: "$150 sounds like a lot now, but it was just so normal then. I was spending about the same on other things, so at least coffee has some kind of function."
In your Instagram post, Heron, you mentioned turning down invitations from friends. Did they think you two were being extreme?
Elijah: "I think a lot of our friends had the same mentality that we had — that we were fine. The ones who knew us [well] knew that we weren’t struggling to make ends meet so they didn’t really understand it.
"I remember a few times Heron would come home and mention that her friends would kind of laugh at her when she’d say, 'I have to talk to Elijah to see how much we can afford for me to go out to happy hour or for dinner.' They’d look at her like, Really…? You have to ask Elijah? People kind of struggled with that, but overall, a lot of our friends thought it was okay, even if they didn’t see the need for it.
"But once we did our first social media sharing of what we were doing, [that changed]. People who knew we were trying to pay off our debt would say, 'Oh, that’s cool,' but I don’t think anyone believed we would get it done. We made a post at our one-year mark and shared that we had paid off about $80,000, and that's when people said, 'Whoa. You guys are really doing this,' and they really became supportive."
When we talked to our friends, we realized, wow, this is kind of abnormal — being this transparent.
EB: "When we sat down and calculated it, based on how much we were making then and how much we thought we could put in with our side hustles and all of that. Our goal date was March 30, 2018. We thought if we got really intentional and really stayed on budget, even if we had some not-so-great months, March 30, 2018 was the goal.
HA: "Also, during that time, we were engaged and planning our wedding, so we ended up having to stop doing our debt-free journey in the middle for a little bit to pay for our wedding and went back to paying the minimums. So we could have finished earlier."
Looking back, what are some of the lessons you learned?
HA: "One lesson is that communication and transparency are key. We started this when we were about a year into our engagement, and one of the things my parents did is sit us down and say, 'We’re happy that you got engaged, but you really need to live together and figure out this whole student loan thing. When you get married, his debt is going to become yours, and your debt is going to become his.'
"At that point, we were just like, 'Yeah, yeah,' because we were focused on planning our wedding. Then when we stopped and talked about it, we realized it was so important — not to just talk about it and say, 'I guess I have debt,' but to write down how much debt we had currently and be transparent about it. Maybe a meeting is too much for some people, but at least sit down, grab coffee or wine or whatever, and really look at it."
EB: "It makes so much sense to me why money is the number-one reason for divorce. I feel so blessed that I found out all these great things about Heron, and to have a wife who cares about the future. If your biggest issue is coffee, that’s totally fine. Listen to your wife. What I came to learn about this process is that when you’re willing to work together as a team and you come together in one accord, great things can happen. The communication, the transparency, the sacrifice — none of that feels so hard when you’re on the same page.
"Like Heron mentioned before, we agreed that I would be the person to log into our bank account, but it took transparency and being on the same page for my wife to say from day one, 'Here’s my account number. Once the check comes in, here’s my login. Here’s my social security number. Here’s my password' — and from then on, we never questioned it. Every paycheck, I'd joke that she was essentially working for free because once the money hit her account, I was in there Friday morning and putting it toward our debt account.
"For us, that wasn’t really a big deal. Once we said we were going to do this, we hit it hard. It's when we talked to our friends that we realized, Wow, this is kind of abnormal — that we’re this transparent. So among other things for me, I think the ability to really work together is a lesson I learned. We’ve applied the things that we’ve learned here to other parts of our relationship — the sacrifice, the communication, the transparency. It becomes a lot easier when you can do something like that with your finances."
I started creating my *own* plan before I included Elijah's income. - Heron
HA: "That's a great question. One of the things that was really important was that it wasn't me saying, 'Hey, here’s my login and password. Go for it.' It was sitting together and having a shared plan and goal that kept both of us in mind, rather than just having one person’s goal in mind. Developing that plan and that goal together to determine where we wanted to go as a team was incentive enough — we both had an incentive to participate in the plan, instead of just one person leading it. I was so patient, and I waited for Elijah at the beginning. I didn’t want to force my ideas on him, though I could have said, 'We’re doing this!' five months prior when it first occurred to me. I wanted this to be something that we co-created and co-led.
"Another thing is, yeah, he had my login and my password to be able to distribute the money, but I also had a role: I took the money that was leftover, and I was responsible for paying off the debt. We both had access to each other’s accounts and we had a joint account together, but to maintain a sense of individuality, we had our own individual accounts."
Earlier, you mentioned the idea of being "fortunate" enough to have a two-income family. Do you think this would have been possible to accomplish if you were single?
HA: "The hardest part about this is sitting down and being honest with yourself and with your partner. Before we started this journey, we lived together, and we were engaged, but we had separate accounts and separate finances. The only things we shared were bills. We also had separate plans: He had a five-year plan to be debt free, and so did I. I started creating my own plan before I included Elijah's income. I think it’s important to do that, and I don’t necessarily think it’s impossible [if you’re single]. Knowing my debt, my income, and what I was willing to cut out of my extra spending motivated me to get a side hustle, and I was able to bring in extra income that way."
After saving money for so long, it's hard to go out and start spending.
EB: "When we started this, I would tell my buddies, 'Man, I can’t wait until the weekend we’re done to just go somewhere!' But the truth is, after saving money for so long, it’s really hard to just go out and start spending. Like Heron said, since we became debt free, nothing has really changed in regard to our saving or spending mentality.
"Our plan right now is to continue to save for the future, and our next big goal is purchasing a house in the next few months, so we’re pretty excited about that. But beyond that, frugality has kind of grown on us and is a normal way of living. We’re going to take our feet off the brakes a little and probably give ourselves a room with our allowances, but beyond that, we’re living fine. We'll continue to save and invest for the future, and hopefully enjoy life a little bit — maybe travel more."