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How a born spendthrift paid off $24,000 in debt in 15 months

Anna Newell Jones considers herself a “born spendthrift” whose desire for the latest fashions and gadgets has driven her into debt.

When she got married in May 2009, she had a big secret: she owed nearly $24,000 in credit card debt, student loans and money her parents had borrowed for her. She was living paycheck to paycheck and felt like she had hit rock bottom financially. So she shared with her husband, Aaron, a plan to reduce her expenses to the bone, repay the debt and become a financial adult. And she decided to blog about her efforts to stay motivated and accountable.

The first was make a list of desires and needs personalized for itself. Do-it-yourself hair coloring in a box was on the “needs” list, but salon services were not. Next, she did what she calls a reverse budget — she analyzed spending for the previous three months to see where her money was going to figure out what could be cut.

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Newell Jones declared a “quick spend” in 2010: spend the bare minimum and only on necessities. The Denver resident found it freed up time spent shopping, returning items and worrying about the financial hole she was digging. This extra time has helped her figure out how to increase her income, including photographing weekend weddings, writing a book and creating her website at andthenwesaved.com.

What was your total debt when you started? What is your debt today?

At the end of 2009, I [had] $23,605.10 in debt, and I managed to eliminate it all in just 15 months! I have a mortgage now. Other than that, I was able to stay completely debt free.

How did you end up in debt?

I am a natural spender. I like novelties. I used to live to find the perfect shirt or decoration for my house.…Even if I owed others money (like my parents for school), I was always able to find money when I wanted something. I was completely overwhelmed with my debt and thought I was going to die with it, so in many ways I decided, “Ah, shit! At least have fun! Basically, I spent money I didn’t have on things I didn’t really need. I was reckless.

What triggered your decision to get out of debt?

I wanted my financial life to be more than just covering my minimum balance each month or not bouncing a check. It got to the point where I was sick of feeling like crap about myself and the situation I had created for myself. I had, in many ways, reached my “financial bottom”. I was desperate enough to make sacrifices and do whatever I had to get out of debt.

What steps have you taken to reduce your debt?

I made very serious life choices…meaning I only spent money on necessities (rent, basic food, etc.) and nothing more. I started my blog as a way to hold myself accountable. I thought maybe if I went public with my debt and how much it weighed on me, I would be more likely to not immediately give up on the whole idea once things got tough.

How has your life changed for the better since you got out of debt?

Oh man, that’s so much better! Life without debt, shame, worry and anxiety centered around money is so liberating. Before, I was stressed and worried all the time, and it showed. Now I own several businesses, have money to save for my family’s future, and have the freedom to spend more time with my husband and son.

How do you stay debt free today?

I am very careful with my money and my expenses. I regularly reverse budgets [to watch for overspending issues that could crop up]. I also run a Spending Fast Bootcamp and connect with boot camp members weekly in Facebook Live videos. Helping them helps me stay aware and present, rather than mindlessly falling back into my old “spending” habits.

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How to deal with your own debt

Jones, who says her blog held her accountable, wished she had known of other people who were also struggling with debt and also feeling shamed and isolated. She has created such a community on her website. Support and accountability can help, she says.

  • Analyze your current expenses, to see where the money is going and identify expenses that can be reduced or eliminated

  • Identify your own wants and needs. Needs are non-negotiable, while wants can wait. But each person’s list will vary.

  • Save for an emergency fund. When you’re trying to pay off debt, seeing balances grow can be discouraging. But emergencies will happen. Be prepared with money meant for such occasions. An amount as low as $500 in reserve can protect you from an unexpected expense and safeguard your credit cards.

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