Feb 16, 2021
How One Couple Paid Off $200k in Debt
The cofounder of a personal finance website talks frugality and investing.
Julien, 40, and Kiersten, 36, met at work and were married in 2015. They claim to have paid off $200,000 in debt in just five years, quit their well-paying hospitality jobs to become “digital entrepreneurs.” And they plan on retiring for good by the time they are 45.
They credit the teachings of the Financial Independence, Retire Early (FIRE) movement for inspiration, namely extreme savings and investment with the hope of retiring decades early.
Julien Saunders spoke to personal finance writer Sarah Netter about overcoming obstacles, their path to financial success, and why they believe it’s especially important for Black middle-class Americans to break out of the traditional income-based mindset.
The following is an edited version of their conversation.
Managing money as a couple can be tricky
I was really passionate about building wealth. Kiersten, I would say, was passionate about income. We were passionate directionally about the same things, but we were addressing it and handling it in very different ways.
I had some credit card debt. I had student loan debt at the time, and a car note, and a mortgage. And I may have had a little bit of tax debt at the time. Kiersten didn’t have any student loan debt, but she had a car note and credit card debt.
When we first met, we [each] thought we had found someone [else] who was like-minded. It wasn’t until we got into the details that we realized we were taking very different approaches. Specifically, she was very much a gung-ho professional, wanting to earn as much as she could. She had set a lofty goal to earn six figures by 35.
I was actually at a point where I was pleased with where I was, but I knew there was a hard stop really soon because I was looking to replace my wage income with other means of income.
I was already starting to do research into real estate investing. I was scratching the surface about online businesses and learning about the FIRE community.
And so it really wasn’t until we started blending incomes and sharing the cost of being together that the details kind of forced the conversation which ultimately led to our first fight which led to us reconciling and getting on the same track.
We booked a trip to Panama. We said we would split the cost and she put all of the costs on a credit card. I came back and I was very much accustomed to, okay let’s pay this thing off and if we need to make any adjustments to my spending then we can do that. Little things like, I’m not going to go out when we get back from vacation because I just got back from a vacation.
But she was very much of a different mindset at the time. We had such a good vacation that when we got back she wanted to celebrate the vacation—“Let’s go out!” And that was like the opposite of what I wanted to do. That led to a pretty heated conversation—a huge yikes conversation.
Looking back it was one of the best things that ever happened to us, because it forced us to have a very early conversation about money. That was really the beginning of what ultimately became our blog and our story. We really wanted to help other people have better conversations about money.
The importance of being frugal
Saunders says they began paying down their collective debt in 2012, erasing it completely over the next five years. They launched rich & REGULAR in 2017.
I think the biggest thing for us was overcoming the [work] culture and social pressure [of the hospitality industry]. It’s a very, very real thing. You’re young, you’re doing well. There’s a lot of pressure to buy up, to get that new car, to move into that new neighborhood or, in some cases, you’re looking to get promoted so you’ve got to look the part to get the part.
We really resisted a lot of that. There was very little buying of new clothes, we drove the same vehicles. I just bought a new-to-me car, the first time in 12 years.
The other big thing for us was cooking at home. We were in the hospitality business so if there’s one thing we knew how to do it is to go out and enjoy food and beverage, and to have a good time. A huge part of [Kiersten’s] identity at the time was tied to going out with friends. She was in a sales and business development role, so there’s this natural inclination to go out and celebrate and network with people. And I was in a similar boat.
But we were focused on the long term which, for us, was building wealth, saving, and investing as much as we can, and giving ourselves the option to retire early. To do that we knew there was a social cost and a career cost as well.
Building wealth through investing
Once they tackled their debts, they shifted their focus from generating wage-based income to building their wealth through investing, real estate and continuing to live frugally. Their number one investing tip that anyone can start with is index funds.1
What we want more people to do is realize you don’t have to be an expert, you don’t have to know everything about investing. You need to know for sure how much it costs to invest, which is why we’re such huge fans of index funds.
Low-cost index funds, understanding what impact they have on your overall ability to build wealth. I don’t know anyone who, after a long day of working, especially if they are married and having children, wants to sit down and churn through charts and understand the details about their long-term investments.
That’s not to say that index funds are foolproof or recession proof. [Note: All investing involves risk and investments may lose value.]
I think the biggest thing is overthinking it. There’s a tendency for people to want to make sure they understand in depth every single variable in the equation. By the time you’re done thinking, the opportunity has moved on. And so, more than anything, what people need to get accustomed to is just starting and having the courage to move forward without having the answers to every single thing that might impact your ability to achieve a particular goal.
Consider starting your own business
In 2019, Julien and Kiersten wrote a letter to Black middle class America urging them to break free of a corporate business structure that holds them back.
I didn’t realize how much of a bubble I was in. I think what was most heartbreaking was seeing how many people just didn’t get it. And by people I mean Black middle class America —my peers—who were still of the belief that all they needed to do was outthink and out work their peers and everything would work out. I just found very little evidence that was true.
When we wrote that letter it was an open invitation for them to do essentially what [we] did.
Over the last 40 years, wages, factoring in inflation, have been relatively constant. You can be as smart as you want to be, as hard working, diligent, do all of those things. [I believe] unless you are starting a business, the chances of you reaching the goal that you are working for are slim to none, especially if you are Black.
It was a wake up call. I didn’t want to do it in a way that was shameful, because there’s certainly enough of that. It’s a dare to that community to be different. I dare you to think differently, I dare you to act differently and sit back and watch the result. The reality is that your money has proven to work significantly harder than you ever could. It doesn’t get tired, it speaks multiple languages, it earns money in a global economy. Focus on that.
Obsessed with excellence
The rich & REGULAR website focuses just as much on the “regular” as the “rich.” That’s because they know most people don’t want to talk about numbers. They want to focus on what makes them happy and what motivates them.
We know that our community is so obsessed with excellence and they use that as a badge of honor. What we’re arguing is excellence isn’t really lucrative. It’s just exhausting.
We don’t focus nearly as much as other people on financial education or the numbers because we know that’s not what’s going to motivate people. Math isn’t going to motivate you. What motivates you are the underlying beliefs that shape the way you act every single day.
For the people who are choosing to spend a disproportionate percentage of their income on things that depreciate in value—our goal is to invite them in and get them to think about money differently.
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1This material is not intended as investment advice and is not meant to suggest that any securities are suitable investments for any particular investor. Investment advice is only provided to Stash customers. All investments are subject to risk and may lose value.
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