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Minimalism and Decluttering

Minimalism Guest Post: On Simple Living & Paying of $82,000 in Debt

We’ve been thinking about having a guest post for a while and when we read Mark’s instagram post  on paying of his debt we immediately knew it was a fit, especially since a lot of what we write about, (other than weddings), is on minimalism and our journey in trying to live a more simplified life. Mark, from Cluney Photo,  is a wedding and portrait photographer based out of Missoula, MT and we connected with him a few years ago when we hired him to mentor us on business related stuff. Since then, he’s become more than a mentor; an inspiration of all sorts and his recent accomplishment of paying off $82,000 in debt in 5 years was a huge encouragement to us and something we knew could be helpful to other people.

Mark went to the Academy of Art University for 2 years (2009-2011). When he finished, he had around $82,000 in student loan debt (not counting interest…half the loans were federal, half were through a private company with variable interest rates). The repayment plan they gave him, which lasted 20 years, had him paying a little over $950 a month. 5 years later, Mark and his family made the final payment on those loans and completely paid them off.  Mark and his family sacrificed a lot to be debt-free. They lived in a studio or one bedroom apartment the past 5+ years when they’d really like something with more space. They have one car when having two would be far more convenient. They haven’t indulged in a lot of the luxuries their income probably could have afforded them. And they still gave to others, even when they didn’t comfortably have the finances to do so. A lot of the time they felt hopeless and like they’d never be completely free of the debt. They had to put almost 50% of their income towards the payments, and weren’t able to make any payments for a whole year when Mark took a year off of work for personal reasons. But, even then, they rearranged their lives and finances with eliminating debt as a priority.

We asked Mark a few more questions to help expand on how exactly he paid of the debt in 5 years. We hope these answers inspire you, wherever you are in your journey, if you’re feeling overwhelmed or burdened by debt, (whatever the size),  just know it’s possible to make changes and sacrifice to get to the other side.

how to pay off debt

Photo By http://www.cluneyphoto.com/


1. In order to pay off your loans quicker (in 5 years vs the 20 year payment plan they gave you), how much extra per month did you have to put toward the plan?   We didn’t have a set amount that we paid per month .We just paid our monthly payments initially and whenever we could, we’d put everything else we made towards debt.  Sometimes that was $0, sometimes it was $5000+.  With our line of work (wedding photography), summers always meant a lot more cash flow, so we would put at least 50% of every paycheck towards it.  We always put our tax return toward it.   Eventually, we decided that we’d put 40% of our income towards debt, we lived off 30%, paid 20% in taxes, and made a point to give away 10% to people in need or causes we believed in.


2. Did you decide early on, (In the first year of starting the loan re-payment plan),  that you were going to pay off your loans quicker than the 20 years or is this something that you recently decided (In the last 4 years?)  We knew right away.  Once we got that first bill, we knew that we didn’t want to live the next 20 years (…which, with interest, would probably turn into much longer) with that kind of debt hanging over us.  Seeing that bill, especially at the beginning when I didn’t have an established business, literally gave me anxiety attacks.  We made up our minds early on to sacrifice what we could in the present, so we could live with the kind of freedom we envisioned for our lives in the future.


3. Besides living in a smaller dwelling and renting and having one car, can you give more specific examples of luxuries you gave up to work toward your goal?  There wasn’t really one thing, it was everything.  When traveling, I’d car camp or drive through the night instead of staying at a hotel, and if the whole family was with me, we’d sleep on friends’ couches or stay with family.  I’d make coffee at home instead of going out for that $5 single origin pour over every morning (or whatever people drink these days).  We wanted new things all the time (especially during seasons when we lost sight of our goal), but we just learned to say no to those things for the most part.
Honestly, one of the best things we did to not make the process feel like such a sacrifice was to exchange quantity purchases for quality ones.  When we did buy something, we’d buy with quality in mind.  I’d drop $200 on a pair of jeans, but almost 4 years later I still wear the same pair almost daily.  Having less luxuries meant the ones we did allow ourselves were higher quality, less expendable, and ultimately more satisfying.


4.Was their ever social pressure from friends and family to perhaps not pay off your loans as fast and instead do something else with the money? Not overtly. Living in our society, there’s always a underlying pressure to spend $ on superfluous things.  We’re supposed to show the world how amazing our lives are by our extravagant possessions and travels; wearing the trendiest stuff, having the nicest house or car or whatever…keep up with the Instafamous folks.  We were lucky not to feel much opposition from those close to us, just the unspoken societal pressures.  And both my wife and I are pretty stubborn, so we just set our minds on not living a lifestyle that was going to keep us in debt.  


5. Was there one thing that was the hardest to give up/say no to?  I think it varied.  Looking back now, it’s probably travel.  We did make a point to still see our families (mine lives in Iowa, Angela’s is in California), so those ended up as little vacations for us…but we didn’t do any real travel aside from that (and for business).  At the moment, everything seemed hard to say no to.  I like nice things and have expensive taste, so whenever I wanted anything and had to say no, it felt like the end of the world.  But, a week later, I wouldn’t even remember what it was that I wanted so badly.


6. What part of your lifestyle did you keep in the budget? We’d splurge from time to time.  There wasn’t one particular area where we said “We won’t give up this.”  We sacrificed in every area when it was necessary, and we splurged in every area when it was necessary.  We tried to splurge when it facilitated connection within our family and when we had a need.  We’d go out to eat on anniversaries, go to concerts, buy nice things to wear, (I have a minor boot addiction), keep current with our camera gear…but all of it with a healthy balance.  I mentioned it before, but we sacrificed quantity for quality.  And now, on the other side, none of it feels like much of a sacrifice.

7. Was there any useful tips you picked up along the way that helped you in your journey?  The most helpful thing for me in paying off debt was something I read in the book “Voluntary Simplicity.”  The author suggests “buying only what is used productively,” and when I read that, it changed my whole outlook on finances.  It made paying off debt far easier, because many of the things we wanted didn’t fall into that category.  And it helped us to gauge our purchases and budget based on that; what’s really important.  If we needed something, we’d get it.  But most of what we buy in our society isn’t based on need, it’s based on fleeting wants.  And this process killed a lot of that habitual, thoughtless spending in our lives.  


8. Now that it’s all paid off is there anything you would have done differently?  There isn’t a whole lot I’d change.  I think we did well, while still enjoying life during the process.  We’d splurge on occasion, and I think that’s okay.  I don’t think we’d have paid it off as fast had we not treated ourselves every few months.  I think it gave us a small glimpse at what life was going to be like post-debt, which kept us motivated. The one thing I regret is not taking at least one vacation (that didn’t involve visiting our families or as a tag-on to a business trip).  Having this paid off so early in my son’s life (he’s 4 1/2), it may have been the right decision, as he probably wouldn’t remember the trip anyway when he’s older, but that’s the one thing I’ll always wish I’d done a bit differently.  Sacrificing things and conveniences is imperative to being debt free, but sacrificing connection with loved ones and memories isn’t always worth the money you save.


9. Do you feel you’ll sustain this lifestyle of more simple living now that it’s paid off? Absolutely.  My wife and I have had numerous conversations throughout the process that we never want to live very far above our current material standard of living.  We have a lot more income now, but plan to use it for travel/experiences, someday buying a house, saving for our future, eating healthier, and (probably most importantly) being able to give/support people and causes we believe in.  There are certain things that we’ll likely do to make our lives a bit more comfortable (probably buying a second car someday), but I think we’ve learned how to be content with living below our financial means.

10. What do you feel are some of the most important things you learned from this experience?  Tons.  I can’t list all of it but we learned that we can be happy without excessive spending and material excess.  We’ve learned to live below our financial means.  We’ve learned that there’s an end to debt; that sacrifice is worth it.  We learned that quality > quantity.  We’ve learned that keeping longterm vision (and holding each other accountable as a family in maintaining it) can help you achieve seemingly impossible things.  We’ve learned that most of what we think we want, we don’t really need…and that when we get what we think we want at the expense of our financial independence, it’s always a giant let down.  There’s more…but it could go on for pages.  Really, this experience will shape the rest of our lives and how we live on a daily basis.  It’s a terrible thing to be $82k in debt, but what you get on the other side is priceless.


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