debt-freeWhen a young married couple graduated from Martin Luther College in 2015, they were elated to be holding those hard-earned diplomas. What they also held, though, was substantial student debt.

Though one of them worked several on- and off-campus jobs all through college—jobs found on the MLC website—the couple graduated with $35,000 of debt.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is they will pay off that entire debt in a mere 18 months. Yes, a year and a half. Their story is an inspiration, reassuring other college students that debt doesn’t have to be a burden for years and years.

They started with MLC’s financial literacy coordinator, JoElyn Krohn.

She showed us one way to set up a budget, and she reminded us about quarterly tax payments. Then we just made it our goal to do everything possible to get rid of that debt as soon as possible.

Here are some of the couple’s choices during that 18 months:

Live on one salary. Use the other to pay off debt and maintain a savings account.

Rent, not buy, a house.

Make it with one car—a 2002 Toyota Camry with 230,000 miles. “It’s still reliable,” they say. “We’re going to drive it until all the pieces fall off. Right now we have an elastic string for one of the door handles, and that’s okay because we don’t have a car payment.”

Make a monthly budget and stick to it.

Write down everything they buy. “You really don’t know how much you spend unless you write it down.”

Pay with cash. “It hurts more when you see the cash leaving your wallet than if you just flash a card. At the start of every month, we put cash in different envelopes—food, gas, entertainment—and when it’s gone, it’s gone.”

Eat at home. “We eat out maybe once a month.”

Grocery shop once a month. “We plan meals for the whole month and buy the groceries we need for those meals. We might go back to the store for fresh produce and milk, but that’s it. We don’t stop every couple days. We don’t make impulse buys.”

Buy off-brand. “Food, household products—we never buy the name-brand stuff.”

Garden. “I love gardening,” the wife says. “We grow our own vegetables. I’m starting some perennials from seed—to save money, obviously. And I grow herbs in the house and dry them for cooking.”

Make homemade gifts. “I love to knit and sew,” she says. “Last year we wood-burned some cutting boards and made homemade candles for Christmas gifts. Everyone already has everything they need, so homemade gifts are nice.”

Go without cable TV. “We spend more time talking this way. We use Netflix, so we watch a movie every once in a while, but we really don’t miss TV.”

And yes, of course, they give regular offerings to church. That’s a priority.

When the couple was first married and the husband was still a student, they made use of the MLC Food Pantry as well. “We’re so grateful to the Ladies’ Auxiliary for the Food Pantry,” they say. “We always got toothpaste and paper towels and so many other things there.”

After graduation, they paid back their smallest loan first, and that helped build momentum and confidence. They knew they could do it. Today, they continue to keep their goals posted around the house, and they enjoy crossing off the payments, one by one. “It’s a matter of always keeping it in the front of our minds,” they say. “We’re so grateful that God is giving us the means to pay off these debts. Without his blessings, we wouldn’t be able to do it.”

The result of this careful stewardship? Freedom.

We don’t want to owe anybody anything, they say. We don’t want the interest to build up. We don’t want to pay more than we need to in the long run. We want to have freedom to do what we want with our money—to pay this off and then move onto the next goal.

What are the next goals? “A little nicer car might be next. Maybe in a few months. And then maybe we can save to buy a house.”

The point is it can be done.

It is possible to pay back your loans. All you have to do is set your mind to it.