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Saving that first $100,000 is a bear! It took hustle, grit, hard choices, fighting against the tide, and vision. We tracked every penny, and reviewed our budget every week. We were just starting out and the first $100k felt like a long battle. By contrast, I’m almost embarrassed by how easy this last $100,000 has been. But I say that to encourage you. The first 100k sucks. Then it starts getting much, much easier after you have some momentum, have learned a few frugal skills, and found a fulfilling life that doesn’t take a whole pile of cash to maintain. At 19, we shared $50,000 in debt. By 24, we were debt free and had a cool $100,000 in the bank. Here is how we made that happen.

Here is a rough tally of our $55,000 debt when I was 19 (Adam was 24).

Mine: $10,000

A hospital bill (I thought had been paid) from high school when I didn’t have insurance. But the debt was in my name, and my responsibility to figure out how to pay for it.

His: $10,000

Credit card debt. Whenever Adam came up short on funds during college he charged it. He used it like back up student loans (not smart!).

His: $35,000

Student loans.

Here’s what we did to pay off the debt and save that first $100,000.

1. Lived in a Travel Trailer

After we were married, we moved into student housing for a few months, but realized we could pay off our credit cards faster if we moved back into the travel trailer I owned (and had lived in for a year to go to school). That saved us about $200 a month that we could put straight to the credit cards. Despite only earning about $12,000 that year, we had paid off the first $3,000 in credit card debt.

For the record, this was 16 years ago. Tiny homes weren’t a thing. It was NOT cool. And it wasn’t even a nice travel trailer. It had sad burnt orange interior and fake wood paneling. A camper from the 80’s. Maybe 70’s. We looked poor. Oh wait, we were poor.

2. Joined the Army

They offered to pay off his $35,000 of student loans in exchange for 4 years of service. It was a scary time to join. 9-11 had happened a year before. The US military would deploy overseas heavily for the next decade. But we were both from military families and it felt like the right fit. They also offered an $8,000 bonus for joining.

This seemed like a great option and I told all our “we got a crap ton of student loan debt” friends about it! They all said, “Nah, we’ll pass.”

3. Moved in with Family

While Adam trained for six months, I moved in with family. I worked and we saved every single penny we were making. By the end of year two, we had paid off all the debt and bought a $3,000 car (which we drove the next 4 years). A year or two later we bought a used Honda Civic, which we still own 13 years later.

I still drive that Honda. It’s a beater with a heater if there ever was one. It’s maybe worth $500 bucks if I ever washed it. When I roll up in that car, I still look poor. (Except now I’m not!)

4. Rented the Most Affordable Home

We searched for a few months for an affordable house. We were living in the DC area and rent ain’t cheap there! We finally found a 4 bedroom for $1600 a month, and offered $1500 with a 3-year agreement. Adam had a housing stipend that covered this full amount plus some.

We really thought about buying. Houses were crazy expensive and rent was WAY cheaper. Oh, and the housing market crashed a couple years later.

5. Lived on One Income

Starting pay for E2’s in the Army isn’t high ($1800 a month now). But the Army covered our housing and healthcare, so we made sure we only lived on his income and saved all of mine (plus some of his!). I earned about $20,000-$30,000 a year while we lived in DC. So we saved $20k-$30 for 4 years. ($25,000 x 4 = $100,000)

6. Lived with a Roommate

When we moved into the four-bedroom house, we negotiated the option to have a roommate at some point. Then found one the very next week. Being that we were splitting rent, this wasn’t counted as taxable income (the Army housing stipend is also tax-free). He contributed about $700 a month. People complain its hard to save money in HCOL areas, but there are upsides as well, if your willing to make a few sacrifices. ($700 a month x 12 months x 3 years = $25,000)

It almost sounds easy, right? Except the Army is a simple bubble for comparison. All his peers had the exact same pay, benefits, etc. yet they were all still in credit card debt and flat broke each month. And we were debt free and sitting on that first and elusive $100,000.

We did it with modest incomes, kids and in a high cost of living area. When I was 25, we moved overseas to work and travel for the next 4 years. I was able to travel to 27 countries, study German for 2 years and take college classes in Rome, Amsterdam and St. Andrews. We traveled every month using either a 4 day weekend or some of the 80 banked vacation days plus 120 vacation days he would accrue over those years.

Now that I have made it sound so easy, next week I want to chat more about why this was actually so darn hard. And why I think more people ought to do it. =)

For Conversation: What’s one thing you think more people should consider doing to help save that first $100k? If you have that first 100k, what was something helpful in getting there?

Photo credit to my incredible friend and photographer, Craig. He took this image as part of my senior pictures. https://www.edwardsstudio.com/