How to pay off debt: Advice from a mom who paid off $35,000 in one year

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After graduating from college in 2005, Becky Guiles found herself with a mountain of debt.

The 42-year-old took out nearly $25,000 in student loans to pay for her tuition at a school in New York State and put her room, board and books on her credit card. To get around campus, Guiles also took out a car loan. Eventually, Guiles racked up nearly $35,000 in debt.

After years of living with it, the weight of this debt was causing her major anxiety, and she remembers having a recurring nightmare where she felt she was just beyond the reach of a terrible monster. This monster, she said, was a symbol of her debt and her inability to move forward financially.

As new parents living in New York City on a single salary in 2018, Guiles and her husband barely earned enough income to pay their current bills, let alone pay off the debt she had accumulated.

A trip to Target — in which the impulse purchase of a $25 set of silverware would have been the difference between paying his bills on time that month or not — was his breaking point. The couple knew they needed to start saving money and they certainly couldn’t afford child care. They decided that Guiles would stay home with their baby while he continued to work full time.

“I just got home that day and felt like if I just keep staying home with my son, if we don’t make drastic changes, then it’s over forever. “Guiles said. Fortune. “And I don’t want that.”

Between feeding her newborn and changing diapers, she spent all of her time over the next two months figuring out how to cut down on her expenses. She eventually devised an ambitious plan to pay off her debt within a year, using a method she dubbed the onion system.

“The idea behind it was to take things one layer at a time,” Guiles explains. “I started with the outer layer.”

This included “invisible” expenses like insurance premiums. From there, she worked layer by layer, starting with the exterior.

“I literally took out a notebook and wrote down everything that costs us money outside of our house,” Guiles says, including lawn care and their car. “Then once I got everything down to a minimum, I moved on to the next layer.”

After eight months of peeling the onion, she and her husband had managed to save enough to completely pay off the $35,000 debt.

One of the main layers of the Guiles family, like most families in the United States, was their grocery budget. Before she started taking her debts seriously, her household could easily spend $1,400 a month on food at home. To cut costs, she began following “BORED”, an acronym of her own making. Here’s what that means.

Budget

Set a dollar amount for each major expense category and stick to it, no excuses.

With inflation hitting grocery stores particularly hard, she admits it can be hard to manage, so she gives herself some leeway when she needs it and cuts back on the times when she doesn’t. But don’t go to the grocery store without putting up some guardrails.

Arrange

To that end, you’ll always spend more money if you’re unorganized, which means having a list and checking your closets before you go.

“I’m sure everyone’s had the moment when they go to the grocery store and they’re like, ‘Oh, I don’t have any flour. I’m just going to buy some,’ and they go home and have about four sacks of flour,” Guiles explains. Take a photo of your cupboards or pantry to help you remember what you already have.

Reduce waste and reuse

When you take your fourth bag of flour, you may notice that you have extra salt at the bottom of your bag of pretzels or chips that you can use to bread the chicken. Saving money in small ways adds up in the long run, says Guiles.

To deploy themselves

“People really underestimate what they can freeze,” Guiles says. Consider consulting a freezing chart to see which items can be frozen and saved for a later date. It can also extend the shelf life of your fresh produce.

Another trick is to use a vinegar solution on your fruits and vegetables to make them last longer.

Don’t complicate things

Avoiding complicated recipes almost every day can cut costs. One easy way is to simplify the recipes you cook. For example, many traditional Mexican and Italian dishes use the same basic ingredients. Choose a day of the week when you want to cook this meal and keep restocking these items regularly.

“Don’t try to make these elaborate meals with 30 ingredients and spices that you’ll only use once,” says Guiles.

Guiles and her family have continued to use the BORED strategy to keep their grocery costs low since 2018. Now she shares money-saving tips like these on her YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, and blog. Her hope for those who follow is that they can learn something from her that they can apply to their own lives.

“I’m not special,” Guiles says. “If there is a will, there is a way. You just have to be more stubborn than anything that gets in your way.

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