When Chicago couple Lisa Dell and Cory Tiffin tied the knot three years ago, they had $10,000 in credit card debt spread across four cards—a common problem among their peers in debt-ridden Gen Y.
But the newlyweds, who had already been practicing frugal tactics for months to pay for their wedding, decided to apply their methods to a new goal: erasing their debt. The move is likely to offer emotional as well as financial dividends: MONEY’s survey of 1,000 millennials and boomers found that 70% of millennials and 77% of boomers say properly managing debt repayment makes for a healthy relationship.
To tackle the problem, the couple took a systematic approach.
“Once we got to the point where we could afford to pay more than the minimum on our credit card balances, we made paying off that debt our top priority,” says Tiffin. Initially the couple, now 31 and 29, started paying the minimum on their lowest-rate cards and double the minimum on the highest-APR ones. “But we kept feeling we weren’t making progress,” he says.
That feeling of stress and frustration is why many financial experts recommend starting with the smallest balance. Enjoying an early success can be a big motivator to stay on track with your payment plan.
But Dell and Tiffin took another approach. The two moved their remaining credit card balances onto a single card with a 0% APR for balance transfers and agreed to pay $900 a month to vanquish the debt in just 20 months.
Making such large monthly payments did have its drawbacks. “Money was so tight it caused some stress and bickering between us,” says Tiffin. To end the money disagreements while keeping focused, the couple kept detailed spreadsheets and analyzed their spending regularly.
“The numbers don’t lie, so that makes it easier to have an objective conversation” advises Tiffin. “It is always more stressful when there is less money, but if you communicate regularly and keep good records, it keeps you from having a major falling out.”
Indeed, credit card debt is tied for third among the most common sources of conflict for both boomers and millennials, the MONEY survey found. And debt not only increases the frequency of money arguments, but can also affect couples’ feelings about the union. Utah State professor Jeffrey Dew found that marital satisfaction is tied to assets, so that as debt increases, happiness wanes.
The good news? Paying it off can bring a couple closer together and instill smart money habits going forward.
“The good thing about that experience was we got accustomed to living without that money,” says Tiffin. “So now we just put that same amount in savings.”