Modern & exceptional wedding photography.

Our Debt-Free Journey

Since our debt-free journey began in September 2016, life has changed drastically. I have throughly enjoyed sharing our process with you, steps to getting there, and each time we’d pay off a line of credit – it felt incredible to accomplish these goals! I wanted to let everyone in on the joy we were experiencing and our desire to change our family tree forever.

As much as it is an individual battle to overcome struggles in personal finance, it helps to seek refuge in others who are on similar paths. I joined Facebook groups, shared status updates, and watched hundreds of YouTube videos, all about other people who were working to become debt-free like Michael and me. All to keep the motivation up to continue.

Many of our friends and family began reaching out as a result of my sharing on social media. I got messages upon messages asking us how we did and what steps we took to get here. I was honestly so happy and overjoyed to share and encourage, and wished during our time there was someone out there like me to hold us accountable. It was after around the 10th person when I realized I was giving the same information over and over again and made the decision to write this post.

My hope for this post is to bring awareness to, encourage, and strengthen anyone who is interested in or currently in the process of eradicating debt for good. I believe living debt-free can solve many of the world’s problems, and it begins with taking control of personal finance. Changing someone’s money mindset can plant a seed for life and we are wholehearted advocates of this lifestyle change. Our marriage has strengthened beyond measure and I now know that if we can accomplish this, we can accomplish anything.

Our Debt-Free Journey | Michelle Whitley

We owe our financial success to Dave Ramsey

Every bit of credit for us becoming debt-free goes to Dave Ramsey. If you don’t know Dave, I encourage you to look him up. He’s a financial advisor and talk show radio host for more than 25 years. Dave and his team are based in Nashville and have coached millions of people into financial freedom over the last few decades.

I first remember Dave when I heard him talk on the radio in the car with my mom as a child. At the time I didn’t realize she was likely following his advice as well, and her money habits would later help mold me into the person I am today. Back then I thought Dave was very “mean” with his callers, but now I realize that tough love is necessary for success.

The next time I ever though about Dave was the summer of 2016. I was 26 years old and Michael and I had just completed a cross-country move from Mississippi to Maryland. We were newly married and hopeful to begin a wonderful life together in a new place.

Life After Marriage

It was only a few weeks after the move that I started to notice how high our living expenses were. I began to question if we even had enough money to pay for everything. One day I sat down to add everything up and compare it with my income. At the time, I was the only one working because Michael was enrolled in a full-time internship and was not permitted to work a job.

After tallying all our bills, I saw that we owed about $200 more per month than we could pay. My job alone would not support our new life, and I felt physically ill. I didn’t know what to do or even where to begin to solve this problem. I remembered Dave in those moments thinking, ‘His rough and tough advice helped people get out of these situations. Let me see if he’s still around.’

And he definitely was. After doing some research, I decided to purchase Dave Ramsey’s audiobook, The Total Money Makeover. I was able to get TMMO + a second book 100% free on Audible when I signed up for a new account. Over the next several months I continued to use my Audible account to purchase more DR audiobooks at discounted rates. I listened to them mostly during my commute to work in the mornings, and was even able to finish TMMO in under 24 hours. I recommend getting the audio version instead of a hardcover or paperback version. It’s so much more motivating to hear Dave speak out loud–he really got me fired up!


My Dave Ramsey Audible Library so far:

Our Debt Free Journey

Dave also offers a class called Financial Peace University, a 9-week course in which you attend coaching classes and complete weekly assignments. I reached out to Dave’s marketing team about potentially partnering with them to offer a discount on this product for my readers, but they did not respond. 

Our Journey to Financial Freedom

I distinctly remember finishing up the TMMO audiobook on a plane ride to shoot a wedding in Mississippi. After I arrived home a few days later I began to take a closer look at our finances. I discovered we had about $75,000 in student loans, $16,000 in car loans, and $22,000 in credit cards owed. Yeah. Can you believe that? According to Dave, we were “normal,” but we sure as heck didn’t feel normal. We were working hard and had literally nothing to show for it.

For years I always put my regular purchases on credit cards, sometimes not paying it off every month but always assuming we’d have enough to pay it back. My behavior finally caught up with us and we were $113,000 in the hole. A gut-wrenching problem I thought was impossible to fix.

In his book The Total Money Makeover, Dave recommends selling off items you own if there isn’t enough money to start the debt snowball. That’s exactly what we had to do. I sold a couple pieces of furniture, clothing, and a few other miscellaneous items to help kick our first and smallest debt to the curb – a PayPal Credit account totaling about $150.

Our next smallest debt was another line of credit with Synchrony Bank, a furniture purchase we made two years prior – two!! That account totaled ~$300 and we were able to get it out of our lives a month later with determination, focus, and lots of Facebook furniture sales.

The Snowball Continues

We had three additional credit cards to pay off, all totaling around $21,000. Credit card #1 was Chase Slate at ~$3500. Card #2 was Chase Freedom totaling ~$8,000, and the third was Discover totaling ~$8,000. We paid them off in that order and honestly, it was extremely difficult and tested our patience. It took us about 14 months to pay them down and gain momentum.

During the time we were making credit card payments, Michael and I were living in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Michael completed his internship and started working 20 hours per week in Hagerstown, about 45 minutes northwest of where we lived. I still held my full-time job in Germantown Monday-Friday while continuing to build my business at night and on weekends. To lower our expense on rent, we made a decision to move to Frederick the summer of 2018, about 30 minutes north and equally halfway between our day jobs. This saved us about $300 in rent per month and decreased Michael’s gas expense by 50 miles each day.


Michael also began having car trouble that summer. Due to stricter regulations, we were unable to get his vehicle registered in the state of Maryland and made the decision to sell it. Later that week, a family member had heard about our car struggle and wanted to help. They blessed us with an unbelievable gift and we were able to sell Michael’s old car for a $6000 profit a few months later. We immediately used that cash from the sale to pay off our last credit card.

During my time working in Germantown I received two raises totaling $4.50. After Michael started his part-time job that summer, we hustled for the next 8 months and paid off my car in November 2018. Such a surreal feeling!! Baby blue was finally mine.

Over the next 3 months, we applied nearly $4,000 each month towards debt. For “normal” people, that’s going on vacation every month. But for us, it was financial freedom. It was the freedom to do whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted, without having to worry about not being able to pay. Up until that point, we’d only been living off ~$2000-$2500 per month. Our rent was over half our expenses!

We completed Baby Step 2 of Dave Ramsey’s program in February 2019, 28 months after beginning the debt snowball. Our total payments were around $113,000, averaging $4,035 per month. Our income during that time ranged from $68,000-$98,000 per year.

One year later we have completed Baby Step 3 and are now saving for a downpayment on our first home. We’ve also begun investing in the stock market in 2020, and so excited to see our money grow!

Our Secret to Paying Off Debt

People always ask, “How did you do it? I can’t seem to get a handle on our bills.” Each situation is unique and everyone has different struggles, but one thing remains the same. Every person has the ability to create and follow a budget.

Dave talks about budgets so often on the radio show. It is a foundational part of paying down debt because you’re telling your money where to go instead of wondering where it went (another DR quote). We created our first budget in September 2016 when we began our journey and let me tell you – it. was. a. MESS. We had so much crap to sort through and iron out that I didn’t know where to begin. But we continued to sit down together each month to review the budget and stuck with it. We saw success by selling items we owned and were motivated because we could make bigger payments. We were determined to succeed because we were tired of living paycheck to paycheck. I wanted to enjoy marriage, not resent it. How were we supposed to build a life together on such an unstable foundation?

It took about three months of budgeting before we got the hang of it. Adding expenses became second nature, and it almost ended up being, dare I say–fun? Our budgeting app of choice Every Dollar was recommended by Dave Ramsey as well. It does have advanced features you can pay a premium for, but we have only ever used the Free version. We still use Every Dollar to budget for our retirement and savings.

Our favorite budgeting app, Every Dollar.

Final Thoughts

To conclude, I want to express how grateful I am that I was put through this process. If it wasn’t for our struggle and our teamwork to overcome it, we wouldn’t be where we are today. We wouldn’t be the same people. My husband had the biggest doubts about this when we began. Let me tell you, there were some days when I didn’t think it was possible because he told me it wasn’t. We fought about money, about bills, and even about not being able to go out to eat because we couldn’t afford it. We learned what was reasonable and necessary to survive, and got rid of the fat. Through hard times, we carried each other and through happy times, we celebrated. We’ve undoubtedly grown closer as a couple. I am so happy with where we are as a couple and have this journey to thank for being a part of that.

If you enjoyed this post, you might like seeing our fall family photos in the cotton fields!

View more personal posts on the blog HERE.

If you’d like to browse my wedding photography work, click here!