Rachel Gause just wanted to give her three kids more than she had growing up. So, though she was receiving a secure income along with child support, she found herself living beyond her means every month—eventually racking up six figures in debt. With a whole lot of determination and almost a decade's worth of belt-tightening, she's climbed most of the way out. This is her story, as told to MONEY reporter Kara Brandeisky.
Occupation: Master Sergeant, United States Marine Corps
Initial debt: $179,625
Amount left: $21,456
When she started paying it down: 2006
When she hopes to be debt-free: November 2015
How I got into trouble
"I was just trying to keep up with everybody else. I’m a single parent to three kids, ages 10, 14, and 16. I was always spending extra on Christmas and on birthdays. Also, growing up, I didn’t have new clothes and new shoes at the start of every school year. But I wanted to make sure my kids always did.
Looking back, I wish I would have known not to rely on credit cards. I wish I would have known that it’s okay to keep your car for four or more years, as long as you maintain it.
I started going into debt when my first daughter was born, 16 years ago. I remember I had to get a furniture loan. By 2006, I had $55,848 in credit card debt and $76,711 in car loans. Then there were the personal loans. I had a consolidation loan that I used to pay off my credit cards. Altogether, it came out to $179,625."
My "uh-oh" moment
"I wasn’t aware of how much debt I was in. The turning point for me was when I hit the 10-year point in the Marines, and I saw other people around me retiring. I wanted to sit down and see where I was at. And that’s when I realized I didn’t want to retire in debt. I didn't want to be that person.
At the time, I had a Toyota Sequoia, and I couldn’t make payments on it. I knew I was in way over my head.
Even though I had three kids, we didn’t need that big truck. It was going to put my family at a financial challenge. So I spoke to a lady at my church, and I said, 'I have this truck, and I’m going to trade it in for something smaller.' And she said, 'I always wanted a Toyota Sequoia.' I sold it to her and got into a Corolla instead.
I realized buying that truck was a bad choice, and I knew I needed to develop better habits from there. That was my first step forward.
How I’m getting out from under
Now I put roughly $2,100 a month toward my debt.
For the rest of my income, I use the envelope system. Before I get paid, I do my budget. Then I have 13 envelopes—one for groceries, one for clothes and shoes, one for charity, one for dining out, one for gas, and so on. I go to the bank, take the money out, and divide it between the envelopes.
I don’t spend anything that doesn’t come out of those envelopes. Debit cards are nice, but swiping is less emotional. Cash makes me more aware of what I’m spending my money on. If I run out of money for something that month, I don’t buy it. But I’ve never run out of money for something important—now I’m more aware of how much I’m spending.
That's because I also got a small composition book from Dollar General to track my spending. Every time I spend money, I write it in that book. Then I compare that to what I’m supposed to be spending, according to my budget.
I also do a quarterly audit on myself to make sure I’m not spending too much more on my cable or cell phone bills.
But it's not all deprivation. We have a chart that we color in every time we reach a milestone, and we treat ourselves to something nice. For example, recently I went on a trip with my high school classmates to Atlanta—funded totally in cash.
My kids have been understanding about our debt-free journey. They know that mommy has made some bad financial decisions in the past. Now I teach them about needs and wants.
The other day, I was coming home from work, and I said, “Do you need anything from the store?” My son said, “We don’t need anything, but we’d like some candy.”
If they want a video game, they know they need to save their money to get that video game—and that means there’s something else they won’t be able to get. They understand if you have a big house, that means you have to pay big electricity and water bills. I’m teaching them to live within their means and not just get, get, get to try to impress people.
What I've learned that could help someone else
My advice would be to sit down, see where you’re at—first, you have to know how much debt you’re in—and then create a spending plan. (Some people are scared of the word “budget.") You have to tell your money where to go, or it’s going to tell you where to go.
The numbers may scare you in the beginning. It takes two or three months before you can get the budget right.
And you have to be consistent. If you don’t put 100% into it, it’s not going to work. You can’t be half, 'I’m trying to get out of debt,' and half, 'I still want to spend money.' You have to sacrifice.
My hopes for the future
Once I become debt-free, I plan to build up my emergency fund and then start actively investing and saving for retirement.
Then I hope to get my kids off to a better start.
My daughter will go to college soon. We’ve talked about student loans.
The main reason I joined the military was to obtain my college degree for free. I earned my degree in business administration from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington last year. But while I was there, I saw so many kids taking courses for a second and third time because they were failing and they weren’t going to class.
So I told my daughter, you’ll pay for that first year, and we’ll see how you manage. Then I’ll assist you with your second, third and fourth years. But first, I need to make sure you’re dedicated.
After I retire from the military, I want to become a certified financial counselor so I can help people break the vicious cycle of being in debt and dying in debt. My passion is to put together financial classes for non-profit organizations like women’s shelters, churches, and organizations for military service members. There aren’t that many in this area, and I see a real need. I see so many people struggling to survive, living paycheck to paycheck.
I’ve already started counseling some people who ask for help.
Every now and then, I get a message on Facebook from someone I helped that says, 'I just paid off another credit card' or 'I paid off my car.' That’s my motivation now. I don’t want to stop – the need is out there.
Are you climbing out of debt? Share your story of getting Out of the Red.