How This Former Zookeeper Paid Off Over $40,000 In Debt

Hey! Today, I have a great debt payoff story to share from Steffa Mantilla. She paid off $40,000 in debt so that she could be a stay at home mom and start a business. Enjoy!

My husband CJ and I have been married for over a decade.  You’d think with all that time married would come wisdom but it wasn’t until year 10 of our marriage before we really took stock in figuring out our financial life.

How This Former Zookeeper Paid Off Over $40,000 In Debt

How This Former Zookeeper Paid Off Over $40,000 In Debt

Like most people, we got into a routine and didn’t question what we thought was working.  We had surrounded ourselves with other couples who were living the same way we were. 

There was no impetus to change because we had created a comfortable echo chamber with a “Keeping up with the Jones’ mentality.”

Fast forward to today and we’ve paid off $100,000 in debt and are on track to pay off our mortgage within the next 3 years. 

While there’s no “easy button” on debt payoff, I hope that our story can help others see what’s possible and the steps we took to get there.  

More debt payoff stories:

Our Debts

In 2016, my husband and I were close to $200,000 in debt.  Around $165,000 was our mortgage, $12,000 in student loans, and $30,000 in consumer loans.  We were a dual income couple with no kids and lived like money was infinite.  Most of our friends had a similar lifestyle and seemed to be able to afford it.  

The problem was, we put our entire life on payments because we had the mistaken belief that we “deserved it” somehow.  Payments for already-experienced fancy vacations, new cars, and furniture ate up the majority of our paychecks.  

From the outside, we seemed like we were well off when in reality, we were one missed paycheck away from not being able to make the minimum payments on our bills.  

What Made Me Want To Change My Career

By the time 2016 rolled around, we had been married for 11 years and were ready to start a family.  I had also been in my zookeeping career for equally as long.

I had worked my way up from an Avian Intern all the way up through my ultimate goal of Senior Keeper for Carnivores.  While I had loved being a zookeeper all those years, I had reached the limit of upward mobility.  All higher positions were supervisory and were no longer working directly with the animals.  

When we were discussing our future family plans, it became apparent to me that my career wasn’t going to mesh well with my idea of motherhood.  Zookeepers work long hours, often starting at 6AM to get the exhibits ready by the time guests arrive.  They also work every weekend,  evening special events, and every holiday.  

I was also capped out on pay. 

Despite working a decade in this field, having advanced continuing education certifications, and the required degrees, I made merely $16 an hour (roughly $30,000/year).  The long, strenuous hours left me burnt out and wanting a change.

One day, my husband and I sat down to do our budget planning for a baby.  After looking at all of the costs, including childcare, if I continued to work in the same job, I would be making negative dollars

This, combined with rarely being able to have weekends or holidays off with my family, was a deal-breaker.  I’d essentially miss out on my child’s entire childhood if I stayed in this job.

I brought up the idea of becoming a stay at home mom and we set out to make a plan.

What Needed To Happen To Make This Work

In order for me to become a stay at home mom, our family budget had to be drastically altered.  Thankfully, while talking about finances was awkward in the beginning, we quickly set aside any embarrassment or feelings of guilt that we had.  

Open communication without judgement, finger pointing, or blame was the only way we were able to make a real plan that we could stick to.  While it was stressful since we were essentially broke despite both earning incomes, we instead used this to come together and strengthen our marriage instead of pull us apart.

By the end, we came to the conclusion that a few things needed to happen:

  • Pay off all our debt (except the mortgage)
  • Lower our frivolous household expenses
  • I’d need to get a job to make up the difference in our budget

Our Money Mindsets

As a wedding gift, we had received the book The Total Money Makeover.  Neither of us had heard of Dave Ramsey before and didn’t really have an interest in learning about him.  Thus, this book sat on our bookshelf for 10 years unopened.

It’s kind of interesting thinking back about how we had the tools for financial success right in front of our faces for literally 10 years without ever using them.  But, we weren’t mentally open to change at the time.  

I think the saying that “you can help someone who won’t help themselves” is especially true when talking about money.  Money is a personal topic that many people have hang ups about. In our case, I knew investing was good so we did that but never really had a problem with debt.  I assumed everyone had debt and all my friends confirmed that.

For CJ, he grew up in a household where you didn’t talk about money.  It was always a source of stress because there was never enough.  Then when he grew up and got his first adult job, there was a sigh of relief.  All restrictions were gone and he could spend how he wished instead of constantly being in a scarcity mindset.

Even though we came from very different money backgrounds, we both were missing solid financial knowledge.  Neither of us had been taught about building wealth or living a debt-free lifestyle.  

This was a huge paradigm shift that we each needed to overcome in order to truly get on the same page and work together.

How We Got On The Same Page As A Couple

I love reading so I quickly devoured The Total Money Makeover in one day.  But no matter what, I couldn’t convince CJ to read the book.  He thought of it as “work” and he’d rather read for relaxation.

So I used my training in operant conditioning to subtly leave hints and clues about.  CJ and I now joke how I “clicker trained” him into getting on board. 

During car rides together we’d listen to the Dave Ramsey Podcast. I’d talk about how neat it was hearing other’s debt-free screams and then we’d discuss what we’d do if that were us.  Could we ever achieve that?  How are these people able to do this and we can’t when we’re earning more money than them?  

The best persuasion was learning about others achieving their financial dreams.  Dreaming together and making plans for our financial future was instrumental in giving us an achievable goal.  

Now it wasn’t just some vague idea; we had concrete plans for how we wanted the next 20 years to go.  We could eliminate financial stress and truly live a life we never thought was possible.

Our Plan To Pay Off Debt

So back to the debt.  We had around $42,000 that needed to be paid off before I could become a stay at home mom.  We weren’t a brand new couple so we did have some savings and investments.  Everything was disjointed and not well organized though.

After looking at our current financial state, we saw that a lot of the debt could be wiped out fairly quickly with the money we had in various places.  

Here’s where we took money from:

  • Sold stock from my childhood mutual funds that my parents had set up as a teaching tool. (~ $2,000)
  • Sold company stock from CJ’s job that was bonus compensation. (~$3,000)
  • Emptied out our $15k Emergency Fund down to $1,000 ($14,000)

These were the immediate quick wins that we could do.  We now had $23,000 left in debt to tackle.  

Rearranging our budget was where we found our largest consistent monthly savings.  After tracking our spending for a few months, we saw that we were spending an insane $800 a month on eating out and for entertainment purposes.  This was on top of the $600 we already spent on groceries for two people.

While we do live in a city where things cost more, it wasn’t enough to justify hundreds of dollars every month.  We were going out for dinner or drinks with friends whenever we were invited.  We never said “no” and our bank account was weeping.  

I also started to take any overtime that was offered.  I’d either come in to work on my days off when coverage was needed or I’d volunteer to work extra evening special events.  This also made it easier to save because a lot of my free time was being used up so I couldn’t go out with friends.

After rearranging our budget and adding in overtime pay, we were able to free up around $1800/month to go directly towards debt. It took 12 months for us to pay off the remaining debt.  During this time I got pregnant and now had to figure out what to do about my soon to be eliminated income.

Making Up The Deficit In Our Budget

Fast forward to me having a baby and being out on maternity leave.  During this time I was still being paid since I had sick days accumulated from the past 5 years.  I was working with my boss to try and see if a part-time or few days a week position could be created.  

Ultimately, while they were willing to work with me somewhat, it still wouldn’t have been financially viable due to the cost of childcare.  

After switching gears, I started talking to other zookeepers who did pet sitting as a side job.  They mainly did weekend pet sits or before and after work drop-ins.  I picked their brains a bit and then decided to offer up my services on Rover.

The reason I chose Rover was that there was already a built-in client base.  I knew I could get clients by highlighting my experience with animals.  Who wouldn’t trust their dog with someone who worked with cheetahs and lions?  By using Rover, I didn’t have to do any outside marketing and ended up having a client wait list.

I also made it clear that I’d be bringing my baby along with me to all dog walks or cat sits so I only took on small or elderly dogs and cats.  I met all clients ahead of time to do behavioral observations and stroller testing to ensure it would be safe. 

In the end, I took on 2 mid-day dog walk clients and numerous cat sitting clients. Our budget was going to be $500 short once my maternity pay ended but with these pet sitting clients I was making $500 a month bare minimum.  And I didn’t need to worry about childcare.  

Paying Down The Mortgage

As I got into the hang of mom life and my child grew older, I started looking into creating my own business.  I was now a self-taught personal finance enthusiast  and Certified Financial Education Instructor (CFEI) so I started my blog Money Tamer.  I was able to write blog posts during my son’s nap time and learned as much as I could about online business.  

My blog is now monetized and the income I take from it goes directly towards our mortgage principle.  Any extra money that CJ earns also goes towards paying off our house early.  We’ve sold things we no longer want or need to consignment stores or used online marketplaces.  

Over the past three years, we’ve been able to put close to $55,000 towards paying down our home making our total debt payoff close to $100,000. 

Our next goal is to have our house paid off in an additional 3 years or so.  

Final Thoughts

Getting out of debt is possible even when you feel lost.  So many people grow up in households where money is taboo and many schools barely touch upon the subject.  Even if you think you’re too far gone, I’m here to tell you it’s never too late.

We had been married and spending with abandon for over 10 years before we got our act together.  The biggest factor in our success was our change in mindset.  We started seeing money as a way to build freedom into our lives rather than surrounding ourself with consumer goods.

If you’re in a couple, it’s paramount that you have meetings to dream together.  You both need to create a dream you’re both working towards so that you aren’t tempted to derail one another.  When one of you is struggling, the other is there to help keep you on course and vice versa.  

This is the route we took, and while it’s not complete yet, we’re well on our way to being able to reach our goal of financial freedom.

Author bio:  Steffa is a Certified Financial Education Instructor (CFEI) and founder of the personal finance website Money Tamer.  She is an online entrepreneur who built her business while being a stay at home mom to her toddler.  Steffa has paid off over $100,000 in debt and now teaches others how they can get their finances under control to do the same.

Are you trying to pay off your debt? What are your dreams for life after debt?

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Source: makingsenseofcents.com

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