This Couple Paid Off $224K in Debt in Under 3 Years

Faith and Leo Jean-Louis, founders of the site Freedom Is A Choice MVT, figured out a system to pay off massive debt fast. Here’s how they did it, and what they learned from the process.

Written by Nasha Smith / December 7, 2021

Quick Bites

  • Almost half of adults don’t have productive discussions about finances with their partners, according to a 2021 survey by Ally Bank.
  • The path to financial freedom doesn’t need to be paved with misery. Ensure your budget makes room for things you love.
  • The debt avalanche method entails paying off high-interest debt first while making minimum payments on all other outstanding debt.
  • In the debt snowball method, you pay off smaller debts of $1,500 to $2,000 first while making minimum payments on others.
Couple who paid off debt
Couple who paid off debt

Date night takes on many forms for most couples: a movie, a candlelit dinner at the latest upscale haunt or sharing strands of cotton candy at a carnival. On one memorable date, Leo and Faith Jean-Louis took a more practical approach.

The young Atlanta–based couple met up to pore over an Excel spreadsheet, trying to figure out the extent of Faith’s debt. Leo had just begun his career as an occupational therapist while his then-girlfriend Faith was still in school pursuing a nursing degree. But he noticed she would often offer to pay for date nights despite being unemployed.

Further probing revealed that Faith was sitting on $8,000 from a Sallie Mae loan.

“It was just sitting in the bank,” recalls Leo. “Not for tuition, not for books …”

“It was my fun money,” Faith laughingly chimes in.

“And so I’m like, You need to give it back,’ because I knew that $8,000 would have grown to $15,000,” says Leo, referring to the interest that would accrue on the loan.

That sobering moment led to the decidedly unromantic but necessary date night number-crunching.

By the end of the evening, they discovered Faith owed $144,000 to various student loan services and banks. She was floored. They immediately got to work applying for the scholarship that would eventually cover Faith’s master’s program, a move that saved them $80,000. But even with that huge break, the couple collectively owed $211,000.

Their calculations showed that with a minimum monthly payment of $2,200 shared between them, it would take 15 years to pay it off and accrue an additional $125,000 in interest.

In July 2017, newly married and back from their honeymoon in Greece, the duo decided to address their debt. After two and a half years, they were able to dig themselves out of a now $224,000 hole with only $13,000 extra interest.

Sound unbelievable? Read on to see how taking some practical steps and sticking to them helped Leo and Faith reach their goals.

The first step was being honest with each other.

Addressing the F word

A 2021 survey by Ally Bank[1] found that almost half of adults don’t have productive discussions about finances with their partners. But unlike many couples, Leo and Faith were not afraid to have the dreaded finances conversation early on in their relationship.

“I think having conversations early on just forced us to face the cold, hard facts,” said Leo. “We were completely open and honest with where we were. We were able to talk about money values and why that was important, how we grew up with money, how we saw our parents manage money, and whether we were savers or spenders.

“That led us to develop a plan to pay off our debt.”

Identifying their “why”

Tackling a six-figure debt can be overwhelming and daunting. Having a reason—a “why”—was motivating for the Jean-Louises. According to Leo, with the highs and lows that came with debt repayment, having a “why” grounded them in purpose.

For the couple, it was about their kids—“making sure that when we pass the baton in this relay of life that we’re putting them ahead, that we’re giving them privilege and advantage, and that they don’t have to dig themselves out of six-figure debt like we did,” says Leo.

Another reason was to avoid having finances—or lack thereof—dictate their life. They wanted to travel more and become work-optional earlier in life. Leo also wanted to help his mother retire; she once remarked in passing that she didn’t think retirement would ever be possible for her.

Creating a plan that works

Once they knew the number they were facing, how were they going to whittle it down? It’s simple: They created a budget.

The Jean-Louises opted for a zero-based budget that ensured every dollar earned was accounted for. They started out by using basic pen and paper before migrating to the Ramsey EveryDollar[2] app to stay on track.

They also reduced expenses by cutting extras like cable, packing lunches, carpooling to work and cooking at home.

Increasing their income

There’s only so much you can cut out of your budget without drastically altering your quality of life. Leo and Faith needed to bring in more money, so they picked up a few side hustles to earn more cash. Together they raked in $106,000 over two years.

“Between the two of us, we had five jobs,” says Faith. “So we had both of our primary jobs. I also babysat and then worked overnight as an infant night nurse. And then Leo picked up extra shifts on the weekends and every single holiday.”

Multiple jobs meant less time together for the couple, who were only in their first year of marriage. They knew the added pressure was temporary but still tried to find ways to connect.

“Communication was very key for us,” Leo stresses. “That was the lifeline of our relationship, making sure that we communicated because there were literally days when I would be walking out the door and Faith would be coming in because of our schedules.

“So we just had to make sure we communicated regularly, often via text or phone, whenever we got a chance,” adds Leo, “just to keep a pulse of where each other was so that we could pick up the slack when the other person was tired.”

Keeping things that matter in the budget

“You can’t be miserable on your journey or else it’s not going to be sustainable,” advises Leo. “So we’re very big on value-based spending; keep the things that you love and eliminate everything that you can do without or that’s a roadblock.”

For example, Faith wanted to go to Smoothie King at one point, despite having just bought the ingredients to make her drink at home. Her subsequent breakdown over being denied a small treat forced them to reevaluate some restrictions.

They realized the path to financial freedom didn’t need to be paved with misery and reintroduced some pleasures like travel. France, Spain, Chicago, Florida and Los Angeles were among the places they visited as they chipped away at their debt.

Deciding what to pay off first

Leo knew that, as a pediatric nurse practitioner, Faith was a candidate for a National Health Service Corps (NHSC) student loan repayment that would eliminate $50,000 of her debt. But he himself wasn’t eligible for debt relief programs. So they decided to start paying off his debt first.

“A lot of people, even if they’re married, they’re like, ‘OK, this is your debt. You pay off yours, and I’ll pay off mine,’ ” Leo explains. “But for us, it was all of our debt.”

Ultimately, they decided against the NHSC loan repayment offer because it would require Faith to work an additional two years at a job more than an hour away from home.

Monitoring progress

Leo and Faith employed the debt avalanche method, which entails paying off high-interest debt first while making minimum payments on all other outstanding debt.

Leo saw progress based on their agreement, but Faith was having trouble gauging their success. Her husband’s assurances were not enough. Needing something visual, she created a “Freedom Meter,” a thermometer-like chart based on a church fundraising campaign graphic. She colored in the chart with every payment and finally saw the bigger picture.

Faith also realized she wasn’t particularly fond of the debt avalanche method.

“Some of our loans were $15,000 and $20,000, where it seemed like it would take so long to actually pay off,” she says. “I needed some instant satisfaction.”

To help Faith see tangible progress, they switched to the debt snowball method, paying off their smaller debts of $1,500 to $2,000 first while making minimum payments on others.

Taking advantage of employer matching programs

People who have outstanding debt but have a bit of disposable income often face the dilemma of whether to apply it to the debt or focus on saving and investing. Both have advantages.

Paying down high-interest debt brings you closer to financial freedom and helps build your credit score. But an investment that could earn you more money than the interest incurred on your debt deserves consideration.

An employer matching program for retirement savings is essentially free money, where the company matches the amount that an employee contributes to their 401(k) retirement plan[3]. Leo and Faith both qualified for such a plan at their jobs so they took advantage of the opportunity and then funneled the rest of their money to their debt.

“There are some schools of thought that say don’t invest until you pay off your debt,” says Leo. “We believe you can walk and chew gum at the same time.”

Even at zero balance, the journey continues

Faith and Leo finally achieved their debt-free goal in November 2019, two and a half years after their commitment to pursuing financial freedom.

But the reality of the long-awaited moment didn’t hit them until December 2019, when they were able to reallocate the payments they’d been doling out religiously to debt. Instead, they were able to open a 529 education savings plan[4] for their son, born just six months prior.

“That just allowed us to see what’s possible when you don’t owe everybody else and what you can begin to do for your family to build your own wealth,” says Leo.

Shortly after their final payment, the pandemic hit, and the couple was prepared, financially.

Their net worth climbed as they built their emergency fund, and maxed out their Roth IRA[5] and Health Savings Account[6] contributions for the first time. They saved $127,000 in 2020 and are already on track to max out their tax-advantaged retirement accounts again. In another significant victory, they recently closed on a rental property.

They’re also sharing the wealth, by helping others get and stay out of debt through their financial education platform, Freedom Is A Choice MVT. So far, their coaching has helped clients pay off over $800,000 of debt.

“You don’t need to do it in two and a half years as we did,” assures Leo. “You just need to have a plan to get rid of it and a plan to be more financially literate.”

For Faith and Leo, the overarching “why” has always been about family and positioning them for prosperity. That family now includes a little girl born in early 2021. They’ve already invested in her future by securing her own 529 plan before the birth.

“We hope to eventually be millionaires this decade and multimillionaires in the decades to come,” Leo reveals. “But for us, it’s not about that [number]. It’s more so about the financial independence that we gain so that we could spend our time the way that we want.”

Article Sources
  1. Ally. “Ally Survey: Nearly half of adults aren't effectively talking about finances with their partners.” MediaRoom. https://media.ally.com/2021-08-23-Ally-survey-Nearly-half-of-adults-arent-effectively-talking-about-finances-with-their-partners.
  2. Ramsey Solutions. “EveryDollar: Make a budget and track expenses.” https://www.ramseysolutions.com/ramseyplus/everydollar.
  3. Internal Revenue Service. “401k Plans.” https://www.irs.gov/retirement-plans/401k-plans.
  4. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. “An Introduction to 529 Plans.” https://www.sec.gov/reportspubs/investor-publications/investorpubsintro529htm.html. Published May 29, 2018.
  5. Internal Revenue Service. “Roth IRAs.” https://www.irs.gov/retirement-plans/roth-iras.
  6. Healthcare.gov. “Health Savings Account (HSA).” https://www.healthcare.gov/glossary/health-savings-account-hsa.

About the Author

Nasha Smith

Nasha Smith

Nasha has written about budgeting, being frugal, and saving for publications including Business Insider, Travel Noire, Discover, and Fifth Third Bank. She also loves sharing relatable personal stories that revolve around money.

Full bio

Related Content