Married couple Brian and Lindsey Baldwin used to be among the 44 million Americans struggling with student loan debt. Now, the Massachusetts couple is debt-free. The Baldwins, both 37 years old, say they tackled $130,000 worth of student loans in four years by combining extreme minimalism with Dave Ramsey’s “debt snowball” method.
The Baldwins went to graduate school together in New Orleans, and graduated in 2010 with eight different student loans between them. The couple say they spent the next two years in deep denial about how much money they owed.
“We were living off loans,” Lindsey Baldwin tells NBC News BETTER. “We were paying for school with loans, we were paying for rent with loans, and we were just living the high life, I would say, because it hadn’t sunk in, the reality of it all.”
Instead of focusing on paying back their loans, they went on vacation in South America and lived in Hawaii for two years.
Brian says, “It didn’t feel like we were really in that bad of shape, and we didn’t think about what we were doing. We were just in denial of this growing snowball rolling forward.”
The couple moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 2012, with combined loan payments totaling $1,200 a month. Their largest loan was $35,000 at 9 percent interest.
Lindsey became pregnant with their first child, a son, that year, around the time the interest on one of their larger loans suddenly spiked. Paying back the debt felt impossible, but the Baldwins say they knew it was time to get serious.
The Baldwins lived as inexpensively as they could. They set a strict $500 biweekly budget for living expenses, not including rent and utilities.
“We lived really frugally,” recalls Lindsey. “We had one car. Brian biked to work.”
Lindsey quit her job as a social worker to take care of their son. Brian, a digital map maker, began working full time for the city of Milwaukee. A year later, the couple moved to Redlands, California, and their rent rose from $800 to $1,400 a month. Brian got a new job that paid a higher salary, and took on side gigs teaching at local colleges that earned an extra $3,000-$6,000 on average. In the time they spent paying back loans, their yearly income averaged under $72,000.
The couple had to get extremely minimalistic with their budget — no cable, no smartphones, no new clothing. They had basic internet, purchased Tracfones with prepaid minutes, and got an antenna for their TV. For their two young children, they purchased cloth diapers and received hand-me-down clothing from friends. For entertainment, they went to free concerts in the park. They bought food from their local farmer’s market and ate all their meals at home. They sold anything they didn’t use, and limited how often they went out.
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“We turned down many potluck dinners because I’m like we can’t afford to make anything,” says Lindsey. “And we had other friends who were in the same situation as us. That was key too, to have a community of other friends who were in the same situation.”
The couple used the popular debt “snowball” method, a strategy coined by businessman and author Dave Ramsey, to pay down their loans as fast as possible. The method requires you to contribute as much money as you can to a monthly loan payment instead of only paying the monthly minimum.
For example, let’s say you have multiple loans that total $1,000 a month. You pay off one of those loans, bringing your monthly payment to $800. Instead of paying the minimum, you continue to pay $1,000 until your loans are all paid.
The Baldwins focused on paying back their smallest loans first. When they were done paying off one, they focused on the next smallest loan.
“We had these multiple payments that we kind of chunk away and throw money and make payments to,” says Brian. “We were just going at those smaller loans to be able to just get rid of them.”
The Baldwins say they refinanced their largest, highest interest loan with SoFi, a personal finance company, which reduced the interest and saved them a few thousand dollars.
The Balwdins created a spreadsheet that tracked every detail of their loans, including the principal and interest on each, how much they paid off, and how much they still owed.
“It was great to be able to see each month as we updated it, change that figure for the principal amount, and see how much that dropped the interest that we were now going to be paying towards that each month, and each year, so you could see those savings slowly start to add up,” says Brian.
The spreadsheet also detailed their monthly budget and expenses “to the dollar amount for how much is coming in and going out each month,” says Brian.
They made their last student loan payment at the end of 2016, the same year their daughter was born.
“It felt like we were finally free,” says Lindsey.
Since then, they’ve been able to save $10,000 and purchase their first home. They still stick to a tight budget, but say they are able to spend more.
They say learning to be frugal and make sacrifices were key to quickly paying off their student loans.
“I never thought with what we were making that we could do it, with me being home with two little kids,” says Lindsey, “and we did. That’s amazing.”