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I'm a writer and personal finance expert from Halifax, Nova Scotia. I write about saving, budgeting, and debt.

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Can We All Stop Saying Paying Off Debt is Easy?

I’ve gone through two significant debt repayment stints in my lifetime. Round one started in 2011. My husband and I were young and newly graduated, and together we earned less than $50,000 per year. At that point, I owed about $38,000 in debt between my student loan and car loan. My minimum monthly payments ate up 25% of our combined net income.

Paying off that $38,000 debt was hard. I did everything I could to slash my budget to the bone. I lived in a 400 square foot cottage in the middle of nowhere for almost two years to send more money towards my debt. I had a bare-bones wedding that only cost $3,000. I ditched haircuts, contacts, yoga classes, and new clothes. It was the most anxiety-filled two years of my life.

Round two of debt repayment happened last year – four years after I became debt free the first time. This time, the debt in question was a $20,000 car loan. This time, my husband and I earned over $100,000 per year between the two of us.

Take a wild guess at which debt repayment stint was easier.

Even though our expenses had increased threefold during that time (having left the cottage behind in favour of a small home in the big city), paying off that debt was so much easier. Instead of cutting my budget to the bone, I hustled, tightened my budget a little, and got that debt paid off within a year.

There is a massive difference between those two debt repayment experiences, and it wasn’t how much I cut my budget or deprived myself of basic life necessities. It was how much we earned. Earning more money made paying off that debt so much easier. If this is the case though, why is most of the content online about debt repayment focused on slashing costs?

Take the latte advice, for example.

Stop Saying Cutting Out Lattes Will Help with Debt Repayment

Conventional debt repayment advice usually starts with slashing your budget, right down to cutting out your weekly (or daily) latte habit. It’s true that cutting your budget down to the bone can help with debt repayment, particularly if you focus on the big stuff like moving to a cheaper apartment, selling your car, or ditching that landline, cable, and internet package. Those changes can add up to thousands of dollars per month, which will have a real, measurable effect on your time to debt freedom.

But where this advice goes too far is when smaller expenses are targeted, like your daily latte. Telling someone to give up their daily coffee is useless advice for two reasons:

First, if you were anything like me when I was in my first round of debt repayment, lattes weren’t A Thing in your life anyway, because money was so tight.

Second, when you’re struggling under thousands of dollars of debt, adding $15 per week to your debt payoff strategy is not going to make a big difference.

I’m sorry, but it’s not.

Cutting your budget only goes so far. Eventually, you’ll hone your budget to the point where the only way to speed up debt repayment is to make more money. This is the debt repayment advice you never hear.

Stop Saying Anyone Can Just Up and Pay off $100,000 of Debt in Two Years

I know that “Couple Paid off $100,000 in Debt in 2 Years” stories are super popular, but I have a problem with them: most of these articles are written to give helpful advice to the average reader, but these articles often skate over one critical piece of information – how much the subjects earn.

Inevitably, once I get past the headline, I find out that this couple earns from $200,000 to $300,000 annually, and suddenly their debt repayment story doesn’t seem that impressive. In fact, the only remarkable part of the story is how the couple managed to incur so much debt on such a high income in the first place.

The budget cutting and money-saving tips offered in these articles only cover half of the story. The primary reason these families pay off their debt so quickly is because they earn a lot.

The Real Key to Debt Freedom is Making More Money

I’ve paid off copious amounts of debt precisely two times in my life. The time when my husband and I earned over $100,000 per year was vastly easier. This is why, if you’re in mountains of debt, wage growth needs to be your number one priority.

There are a thousand ways to grow your income, and there is no one-size fits all solution, which is why giving concrete advice on how to do it is difficult, and why articles like “7 Ways to Slash Your Budget” are so much more click-worthy.

My version of earning more money might look entirely different than yours. For example, I’ve doubled my income since 2011 by aggressively growing my responsibilities and skill set at my full-time job and taking on freelance writing clients on the side. I didn’t have to go back to school.

My husband was also successful in growing his income but hit a wall last year. The best way for him to continue his wage growth was to return to school and obtain additional training, an investment with an upfront cost of about $20,000, plus of the significant opportunity cost of 16 months of lost income.

Your version of wage growth might look different again, and might include switching careers, starting a business, or finally getting serious about your search for a more competitively compensated job with room to advance.

Telling someone they need to earn more money to get the life they want is not easy or sexy. It’s certainly not as clickable as “This Family Slashed Their Budget by 50% and Paid Off Their Mortgage in 3 Years!” But it’s the truth. If you want to get out of debt, slashing your budget will only take you so far. So get that budget until control, but then put your focus on increasing your income in whatever way makes sense for you.

It won’t be easy, simple, or comfortable, but you’ll get there eventually.


  1. Laura says:

    Great article. I think limiting has a place but you are right, at $30k a year in income no matter how much you cut your budget there isn’t much opportunity to cut your budget.

    The higher income gets to a deeper point. Investing in your education or training is likely a great investment even if painfully expensive at the time or while you are paying off your debt. I have a university degree and I earn significantly more than I would without it. The higher income has made paying of my mortgage so much easier.

    • Jordann says:

      That’s a really good point Laura, and part of the reason my husband bit the bullet now and went back to school. He’d maxed out his earning potential and even though it’s a pain to be on one income right now, it’ll be worth it in the long run.

  2. Tara says:

    Another thing those articles fail to mention is that many of these people who paid of their debt grew up with PRIVILEGE: they grew up middle class and attended great public/private schools, had access to mentors to get them the great job and lead them on the right financial path, never had any major setbacks in life, like having to give up schooling or the scholarship to the far-off university because they had to take care of a loved-one type thing, etc.

    I find those articles extremely condescending because I see that tripe over and over again online and, for many of these people, their success is in part to being born on third base and thinking they hit a triple. It’s not denying the fact that they worked hard to get where they are (I’m sure they did), but acting as if they succeeded all on their own when there was so much going in their favor in the first place (people really underestimate how much a quality education separates you from lower-income peers) really negates their argument.

    • Jordann says:

      I think the personal finance community has a whole struggles with the concept of privilege. We like to act like our feats are totally attainable for everyone, when in reality there are soo many people struggling just to not rack up credit card debt, forget about paying off debt and investing. There are some publications I don’t even read anymore because even to me, a college educated 20-something, they are completely detached from reality.

  3. Mark says:

    So true, I do usually turn to those I paid off $100,000 dollars of debt posts for motivation, but I can be extremely demotivating to find out their income completely dwarfs your own.

    • Jordann says:

      Or my favourite is when they don’t even report their income? That is a huge part of the equation and without it the story is basically meaningless.

  4. Thank you so much for saying this! I think a lot of people want to hear that it’s easy when they are embarking on a plan to get out of debt. It’s kind of like a diet that promises results in 7 days (even know we do get that there’s no way that’s gonna happen). I also agree – more money is the key. I am a fan of having multiple income streams. Great read.

    • Jordann says:

      I’ve come to hate those diet plans because I know that it doesn’t work! It takes at least a few months of sustained effort to loss weight, just like it takes years of sustained effort to pay off debt!

  5. Emma S says:

    Although you posted this blog a couple of months ago, it’s still a relevant read because paying down debt (unfortunately) seems to be always something people are dealing with.

    Kudos to you and your husband for sticking to your financial guns

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