Why We Didn’t Sell Our House When We Were $109,000 in Debt

by Travis Pizel · 26 comments

After having accumulated $109,000 in credit card debt, our finances finally reached a boiling point in June 2009. No longer able to meet all of our financial commitments, my wife and I enrolled in a debt management plan. This lowered the interest rates on our lines of credit, allowing us to finally make progress on the balances.

But that wasn’t good enough.

We needed to reduce our expenses. Each month, my wife and I examined every expense and cut everything we could to create more breathing room in our budget. But there was one thing that I promised my wife I would fight tooth and nail to keep.

I promised her we wouldn’t sell our house.

This statement would likely make many financial experts cringe. After all, our mortgage payment is our largest monthly cost, so downsizing our housing expenses would make a huge difference.

But to us, our house was more than just a structure. Sure, we loved the house we had designed and built just a few years prior, but it was the neighborhood that truly made it special. The families that lived in our cul-de-sac had become a close-knit group of friends who would sit out on the deck together until the late hours of the night and get together each Sunday to watch football games. We went to each other’s children’s sporting events and watered the plants when someone was away.

It was the picture perfect American Dream, and we didn’t want to let go.

I fully admit that when I made that promise to my wife, I didn’t fully realize how much our lifestyle would have to change to get our finances back on track. It took close to two years of struggling and scraping to really understand how much we needed to cut our monthly expenditures to avoid living in a constant mode of financial crisis. But, over time, we figured it out.

Here’s how we got our finances under control (while staying in our home):

I’ve become a master at getting the most for our money at the grocery store. I roam the aisles with my list and calculator resting in the child seat of the cart. After everything is in the cart, the number displayed on the calculator simply can’t exceed the target grocery allowance. Even if the total is within budget, I’ll sift through and re-evaluate every item before heading to the checkout line. I’ll make a second round through the aisles to put things back or exchange items for a cheaper brand.

I started doing mystery shopping, picking up $10-$15 per job. The time and effort often seemed not worth the pay, but when that $50 check showed up in the mail each month, there was no complaining.

I took up freelance writing, starting out as a customer blogger for my debt relief company. Over time, I picked up additional writing jobs, as well as work maintaining social media profiles. I go to bed late and get up early — as my blossoming second career will take up as much time as I let it.

When I was younger, I’d complain to my parents about how cold it was in the house during the winter months. I always said that when I grew up, I’d have the heat set so high that you’d mistake my home for a tropical island. Now that I’m the one paying the bills, I sit on the couch bundled up in a sweatshirt and blanket — because I’d rather see a record low utility bill.

As we reduced our expenditures and increased our income, a sustainable budget finally began to take form. We held onto my promise that we wouldn’t sell our house, but not because of some statement I made in brazen naiveté. Our home had become our rallying point and our anchor. In our fight against debt, our home had become one symbolic object we wouldn’t let debt take from us.

We could eat pasta three days a week, work our fingers to the bone, and be huddled up under blankets to keep warm — but as long as we kept our home, we were winning.

We are now less than four months away from completely eliminating that $109,000 of credit card debt. It’s been a difficult four and a half years full of hard work, determination, and tears. Having something that my wife and I could focus on and rally around has been invaluable in pushing us towards the finish line.

Not to mention, it makes the phrase, “Home, sweet home” so meaningful.

Are you struggling with debt? Do you have something that you’re focusing on that helps push you forward?

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • Barbnocity says:

    Hi Travis,

    We were in a similar situation (but less debt…$16,000 in credit card debt) that we finally paid off after 2 years of hard work. Now our trouble seems to be saving again…we are not falling back into debt, but the cars broke down, the 18 year old dishwasher broke, etc. so on and so forth. Are you guys paid off now? How is saving going? We really want to save up for a new car (our minivan is 10 years old and starting to need repairs every few months) but it seems like every dime goes back into the house or cars…any helpful tips to move in the savings account direction again? So thankful to be out of credit card debt, though!! Thank you!!

    • I know exactly what you’re going through, Barbocity. We have indeed finished our program, and we also found ourselves with a 10 year old minivan, and a bunch of improvements and repairs that we had been pushing off in order to rid ourselves of our credit card debt. The first thing we did was make a list of things we needed to take care of. We’re still making our way through that list, but we’re almost done. Once those things are complete, we should find it much easier to start saving again!

  • Farah Kim says:

    You are one great example of, “wise spending”. Very often, we waste all our hard earned money for pursuing luxurious needs rather than requirements. I’ve never been in debts, but yes, I could never really save money and the main reason was the compulsion to spend. After realizing this as a potential problem, I’ve started analysing my expenses and have cut down on quite a lot. I still have a long way to go and your article just showed me how being focused, determined and sensible with your money can give you a relaxed life. Thankyou!

    • I’m glad the article gave you a little bit of extra motivation, Farah Kim – keep working on your financial goals. With determination and hard work, I know you can achieve all your goals! Thanks for reading, and your kind words!

  • roza says:

    BRAVO I know how hard it is. Me and my husband pay off 45 000 euros woth os debit. Our last payment is next month and it feel so good. My husband took a second job at MC donald’s his familly was kinda ashame from it. But he brought money and free salads every week end. That was the healthier we’ve been lol. For the people still in debts keep hope and set yout target; time goes faster when yu can sleep at night 🙂

    • I admire your husband, roza – he did what he had to do to get out of debt and make a better life for your family! Congratulations to you and your husband on making that last payment next month – enjoy your freedom from debt!!!

  • Well done! Try not to get credit card debts, etc. and instead try to pay off your house a little faster. Anyone who is debt free is living a happier and harmonious life with his family.

    • Travis Pizel says:

      Thanks property marbella….Paying off our house extra is certainly a goal of ours. Looking for ward to my life being happier and more harmonious for sure! 🙂

  • Travis, that’s an amazing journey and thanks for sharing it on here. I love how you kept plugging away, because getting rid of the house is just taking the easy way out. By toughing it out with home ownership, you are still a home owner after a few years, and just about got rid of all your credit card debt.

    Sure, there are some sacrifices, but there’s no question this is a better path looking back right?

    • Travis Pizel says:

      I’m absolutely happy that we took this path looking back, David. I’d do it again in a heartbeat if I had to. Having three payments left, walking through my front door each day gives me the satisfaction that we still have our home. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    • Phil says:

      Well said.

  • Phil says:

    In the last few years, I have really gotten into hunting. $1500 dog, $1100 Browning A5, sold old Land Cruiser, bought newer Land Cruiser (heated seats are nice). Bought pop up camper for dirt cheap, but the kids and I love it. This summer I plan on either starting my own business, or buying a boat, or both. I continue to fly fish, and every weekend is some sort of adventure for me.

    More than anything, I really enjoy the financial peace. We continue to max out our Roth IRAs every month, live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood where our kids get a great education from the nicest elementary school in town (My 7 year old is reading Harry Potter, fluently). House has 14 year mortgage left on it, but I think we can knock it out in 7-8 years.

    Life is good. I lived like no one else so that one day I could start living like no one else.

    Did I mention that my wife and I are school teachers 😉 Summers off baby! YEAH!

    Now if I could just afford the $7000 hearing aids I really want. Obamacare going to cover that for me, or am I just going to continue to pay for everyone else’s eye glasses and cholesterol medicine? LOL!

    • Travis Pizel says:

      Wow, Phil, it certainly sounds like you’ve managed your money well. I didn’t know hunting was such an expensive hobby….but hey, if you’ve got the cash saved up for it, and that’s what brings value to your life then I’m all for it. I’m a big supporter of spending your money (if you can afford it) on things that bring you happiness and value. Kudos to you!

      • Phil says:

        Thanks! Nothing I can’t resell later, except for the dog. My wife won’t let me :-0. Something I personally do is drive older cars so that I can afford to do my hobbies. Bought my previous Land cruiser with 190k miles, and sold it with 280k miles. Bought new one with 220k miles. High miles equal less expensive car, but neither have ever left me stranded. First land cruiser cost me $42 per month for the time I owned it. That is including repairs.

  • Julien says:

    Having a network of friends is very precious so it was not a bad decision to stick around! Managing to get rid of such a debt is very impressive, it’s inspiring! Like Phil I’m also wondering what you will do with your freed up money 🙂

    • Travis Pizel says:

      Now that we’re almost done, Julien, I can absolutely say that I’m glad we fought so hard to keep our home. Our friendships have only grown stronger, and we have memories and experiences that will last a lifetime.

      As mentioned, above we’ve got those funds marked for retirement savings, college funds for the kiddos, and just a little extra in the monthly budget. No need to get all crazy again. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

  • Phil says:

    So what was the average per month payment? $2000 or more. Wow! That is just awesome. I wasn’t in the pickle you guys were in, but when things started to get tight around here I, a teacher with a two college degrees, put on a Pizza Hut uniform and got to work. My wife was shocked.

    Not being afraid to do what you have to do is what makes this story so great.

    Now, what are you going to do with the extra $2000 each month? 😉

    • Travis Pizel says:

      I admire you for taking on another job to improve your financial picture, Phil – You’re right, sometimes you have to do what you gotta do. There’s no way I was going to roll over and let my finances go the rest of the way down the tubes.

      Our exact payment is $2489 per month….and I can’t wait until that money is back in our pocket each month! My wife and I have discussed this quite a bit…some will go to play “catchup” with our retirement accounts, a small amount will go to increase our monthly budget, and rest goes to the kids’ college funds.

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

  • Joseph says:

    I can not tell you how many times I feel “stupid” and “spoiled” when I read some of your incredibly human posts. This post belongs to these lump-sum “some.”

    May you and your family (and, possibly, your children) be blessed forever -though I am not by any means religious!!

  • Jonathan says:

    I love hearing about life changing stories like these where people pull things back from the brink. So proud that you managed to get the most from your finances and fight off the circling banks who were probably ready to snatch your home away. 🙂

  • dojo says:

    To be honest, I don’t think giving up your house is that smart after all. I mean you’re already in debt for it and made a huge effort to pay for all the stuff (not to mention buying a house doesn’t mean just the mortgage). So it doesn’t make sense to me to lose tens of thousands of bucks and still remain ‘homeless’.

    What you did makes more sense to me: you cut your spending and made a huge effort to kick off the debt and not lose the house in the process. It’s surely VERY difficult, but at least you stop losing money and get yourself out of the problems.

    • Travis Pizel says:

      Thanks for the support, Dojo! The other circumstance which didn’t initially factor into our decision but eventually was another motivating factor, was that selling our house would have been very difficult. Houses weren’t selling when the housing bubble popped and house values dropped significantly. We would have had to short sell it…if we could sell it at all. We could have also defaulted on our mortgage, but both of those actions would have had significant credit implications – which we were trying to avoid. That was one of the reasons we entered our debt relief program instead of declaring bankruptcy.

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