One Family's Journey Out of $26,000 Debt

Sacrifices and successes on the road to a debt-free life.

The word "Debt" on a chalkboard
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Back in 2008, Brad Chaffee and his wife were $26,076.75 in debt when they decided to pay it off and forsake all future loans. They're now living debt-free with their three children in Charlottesville, Va., and hope to put 100 percent down on a house. Chaffee's wife works part-time as a nurse and a top eBay seller, while Chaffee is building a T-shirt printing business and blogs about debt-free living at Recently, they've both become health coaches.

[See 10 Ways to Give Your Money a Makeover.]

U.S. News chatted with Chaffee about the sacrifices his family made along the way and why he's so determined to stay out of debt. Excerpts:

When and why did you get serious about paying off your debt?

In 2007, I reread The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey and it just pumped me up, made me realize that now was the time.

In the beginning, my wife and I struggled a bit to get on the same page. My wife was in nursing school and was really focused on that while I was the one reading the books and eventually completed [Dave Ramsey's] Financial Peace University. I was a little more hard-core about how I wanted to do it, but she wasn't quite ready for all that.

I became aware of the fact that I was being forceful when she hadn't yet had the time to hear why we should do it my way. I was just a bit too excited and couldn't comprehend why anyone wouldn't be on board. So I backed off, realizing that I was being a jerk about it. I decided to let our progress bring her to where I was at the time, which was absolutely excited!

Then what she wasn't willing to get rid of and sell suddenly became listed on either eBay or Craigslist. Watching the debt disappear motivated her and that's when we realized that we had to work on our communication and teamwork. Once we did that, we were high-speed locomotives on our way to debt freedom.

How long did that take?

It took us about 20 months but the first two months, January and February, we saved an emergency fund like Dave Ramsey suggests. We actually saved $2,000 instead of one because that made my wife feel more comfortable. It took us two months to save up $2,000 and then 18 months to pay off about $26,000.

[See That Elusive Emergency Fund: Why You Need It.]

What were some of the steps you took to get out of debt?

We kind of did it the hard way. I think a lot of people don't really want to do it the way we did it, but we cut a lot out. We almost became minimalists in a way. At the time, we really wanted to get out of debt, so we were pretty extreme in what we did.

We sold our $8,000 car so we were able to knock that big chunk out pretty quickly.

We sold stuff, we had yard sales. My wife is a big eBay fanatic, so she actually still does this stuff but we got a little more serious about eBay. To this day, my wife and I look back at that experience and we think, gosh, we learned so much and that whole debt-free journey changed us completely.

What were the hardest things to give up?

I've always been an avid gamer and I had an Xbox 360 and a bunch of games so I sold that and, of course, we got rid of our flat-screen television. That was hard for me, but I'd have to say that the car was probably the hardest. We didn't know what we were going to be facing once we sold that car that was so reliable for us. I ended up replacing it with an older car that looked like it came out of a junkyard. It was a crazy time for us, but we just decided to go and do it.

According to your blog, you're planning to buy a house without taking out a mortgage. How's that going?

We've had two houses since we've been married. We had that first house and we ended up making mistakes because we didn't know how to manage our money, we didn't know the implications of refinancing and spending your equity. We ended up doing okay, but not as good as we could have done. When we sold it, we did buy a second house and that one was the one that really kind of started to sink us a little bit. The second house, we got an 80/20 mortgage, interest only, nothing down. It was just stupid.