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When Ellie Kay married her husband, Bob, over two decades ago she knew she was marrying a hard-working fighter pilot. “I was starry-eyed,” she says. What she didn’t know was that he was carrying about $40,000 in unsecured debt.

Bob had been divorced and had two children. When his first marriage dissolved, he took on most of the debt he and his first wife had incurred. Ellie, on the other hand, had no debt and some money in the bank.

“It was really devastating when I realized how bad off it was financially,” she says. “Plus I felt a sense of betrayal that I didn’t know how much consumer debt he had.”

Then Bob took a $50,000 pay cut when he left his job in aerospace engineering to join the military full time. Ellie became pregnant right away and between children and the frequent moves required by Bob’s military service, she gave up her job in financial services. “We had five children in seven years and we moved 11 times in 13 years,” she says.

The result of all these financial pressures was that there were weeks when they didn’t have enough money for groceries.

Debt could have easily destroyed their marriage, says Kay. But instead it pulled them together. “He was tired of being in debt and he was tired of the lack of freedom because of the debt load he was carrying,” she says. “He was ready for a change. So we came together and said we would do whatever we needed to get out of debt.”

Joining Forces to Get Out of Debt

The first things they did was create a budget. It was tight. One-third of their income went toward taxes, one-third toward child support and 10% was tithed. They had to live on the rest, as well as use it to chip away at the debt.

The second thing they did was to make a commitment that any extra money that came in would go toward paying off debt. Their first tax refund? It went toward debt. The $50 birthday gift from grandma? Same thing.

Ellie even went on The Price Is Right game show, where she won a camper. Though the Kays wanted to use it, they never did. Instead they sold it and used the money to pay off more debt.

The third thing they did was to set up regular meetings (which she now calls the “Sixty Minute Money Workout”) where they talked about their finances for an hour. She explained the concept in an email:

This saved us from barking back and forth about money matters because we could table the topic until our Money Monday night where we would set the timer for an hour and discuss the matter. Our ground rules for the workout included: no condescending attitudes, no arguing, no throwing food and no accusations. We worked on our debt for an hour, then stopped.

Their efforts paid off and two and a half years later they were debt free. In addition, their journey opened a whole career path for Ellie, who became an author, speaker and writer who has written fourteen books. Her latest is Lean Body, Fat Wallet (Harper Collins, 2014). She now tells her audiences, “Your point of challenge may one day be your point of strength.”

Ellie also proudly notes that she and her husband have very high credit scores, in the top 2% of consumers nationwide. And while she doesn’t regret a thing, she says if she were getting married today she’d want to see a copy of his credit reports, “just like I would advise my millennial kids.”

You can get your credit reports for free once a year and you can check and monitor your credit scores for free at Credit.com.

Ellie now spends her time helping others find ways to overcome their financial struggles. “When you look at how we dug out of debt in two and a half years it bordered on the miraculous,” she says. Not everyone will have the same results, of course. “We can’t promise miracles. But we can promise if you set up a budget and make a commitment (to pay off debt), it will whittle down.”

More on Managing Debt:

Image courtesy Ellie Kay

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  • heavyw8t

    One of their rules was “no throwing food”? Good thing they couldn’t afford to buy any, eh?

    Great story of recovery. Like a wise man once said here, “Plan your work, and work your plan.” It took them only 2 1/2 years to lose THAT much debt. That’s a great story. I don’t know how much selling the game show prize helped, but when the waters are that rough, it really is “all hands on deck”.

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