How This Family Paid Off $120,000 in Debt to Become Debt Free

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Aja McClanahan and her husband Kelvin were your typical middle-class American couple. They had college degrees, a cozy home in the suburbs, and dreams of raising a family together. There was one thing holding them back: over $120,000 in debt.

Aja McClanahan and her husband Kelvin were your typical middle-class American couple.

They had college degrees, a cozy house in the suburbs, and dreams of raising a family together. There was just one thing holding them back: over $120,000 in consumer debt.

That figure isn’t that unusual, considering that the average American household carries $90,460 in debt.[1] Still, their debt weighed at them more with each passing day.

“It was overwhelming,” Aja told me. “When I had my first child, I knew that I wanted to stay home with her. By the time my second child came, I felt the urge to also homeschool our kids. With debt, it would be next to impossible to do these things.”

So Aja and Kelvin made a decision that few would even consider; they would tackle their debt and pay off their loans early so Aja could stay at home with their girls.

The plan worked. They paid off all $120,000 of their original debt. Along the way, they traveled as a family, learned how to leverage their skills to make more money, and overcame the inevitable challenges on the road to debt freedom.

The 3-Step Process They Followed 

Aja McClanahan and Family

Getting out of debt was no accident for this couple — it was intentional. Here’s how they made it happen.

1. They came up with a plan 

Planning was a crucial element for Aja and Kelvin’s success. Part of learning to manage their money wisely meant tracking all of their spending and creating a budget.

Organizing their finances meant becoming painfully familiar with their debt, including total balances and interest rates. The couple’s debt consisted of $60,000 in student loans, a $30,000 car loan, $20,000 in credit card debt, and about $10,000 in other miscellaneous debt.

With a full financial picture in front of them, Aja and Kelvin quickly realized their debt payments accounted for a large chunk of their take-home pay.

“Part of decreasing our monthly expenses would have to be eliminating debt payments and interest. It was the only way I could stay home and homeschool my girls,” says Aja.

Led by a shared vision, they got to work.

Related: 11 Steps to Achieving Financial Freedom at Any Income Level

2. They took side hustling to the next level

Aja looked for ways to bring in extra income. She began by selling things online using sites like Craigslist and eBay. She picked up sporadic consulting gigs for language tutoring and translation.

“I ran into a translation company that needed help with sales, and I ended up installing their first CRM (a sales database),” Aja recalls. “From here, I actually worked with a number of other companies, and built a home-based business implementing databases for small businesses and nonprofits.”

Aja used the profits from her new business to expedite the couple’s debt payoff plan.

“Once extra money began to come in, we had to be very intentional about how we spent it,” Aja says. “The budget was our roadmap to allocating additional payments towards the debt.”

3. They made enormous sacrifices

Increasing their income wasn’t the only strategy this couple used to pay off debt. In order to accomplish their goal as quickly as possible, Aja and Kelvin knew they needed to tackle their debt from both ends; so they started looking for ways to start saving more money.

First, they looked for quick wins. They ditched TV, stopped eating out as much, shopped secondhand, reduced their insurance rates, and used hand-me-downs whenever they could. But none of this was getting them to their goal as quickly as they wanted.

So they took drastic measures.

“Our ‘claim to fame’ is that we moved to the inner-city of Chicago (where we still live) to kick our debt repayment into high gear,” Aja said.

At first, the idea of moving their children to a high-crime neighborhood was off-putting. However, the more they thought about it, the more it made sense for them. With the lower cost of living, Aja and Kelvin would be able to put even more money toward their debt.

“We took the deal and paid the last of our debt three years after moving in,” Aja said. “Our plan was to pay off debt then move. However, we got really connected to our community and neighbors.”

The McClanahan family still resides in inner-city Chicago, where they enjoy a higher quality of life than in their former suburban neighborhood.

Dealing with Setbacks

On the road to debt freedom, Aja and Kelvin experienced a fair share of unexpected setbacks. When they began their journey, they were learning to live on one income.

They also faced the challenge of learning to say ‘no’ to things like dinner outings or travel.

“It just wasn’t in the budget,” she said. “Many people didn’t understand why we had to say ‘no’ to some invitations and took it personally.”

But in the end, they were too focused on their mission to be deterred.

Moving came with its own set of difficulties. Shortly after relocating to inner-city Chicago, the couple’s outdoor air conditioning unit was vandalized. Although temperatures were at a record-breaking high that summer, the couple wasn’t willing to pay the $3,000 to have it replaced.

It was a grueling sacrifice for Kelvin, who worked outside at the time. However, the couple found a temporary alternative.

“My father brought over a window unit, and we all piled into one room at night that summer,” Aja says. “It was not comfortable, but we were able to pay off our debt about a year later.”

Related: How One Woman Paid Off Almost $10,000 of Debt in Eleven Months

The Freedom of a Life Without Debt

Paying off their debt has given Aja and Kelvin the time and resources to pursue what matters most to them: creating the best life possible for their daughters.

Aja McClanahan and Family at the Beach

Nowadays, Aja enjoys raising their two girls at home as a work-from-home parent. They have the opportunity to travel as a family and have even begun investing in real estate, paying for their most recent property in cash.

Although they went back into debt to finance the property’s renovation, Aja says the couple has a plan in place to pay off the loan in five years or fewer.

“The last time we were in debt, it was all consumer debt without an asset to speak of,” Aja says. “This time, we will be building equity in an asset and cash-flowing through rental income. I’m okay with this trade-off for now.”

Today, Kelvin and Aja are able to save for their own projects while also setting aside funds for their children’s education. Aja said at their current rate, their daughters will have money to pay for college and additional savings to put toward their first home.

“To have choices with your time and life can be a freeing thing and change your family for generations to come,” Aja said. “I wish everyone could experience this. It’s been an amazing journey.”

Related: Here’s What People Mean When They Talk About “Good Debt vs. Bad Debt”


[1] DeMatteo, Megan. “The Average American Has $90,460 in Debt—Here’s How Much Debt Americans Have at Every Age.” CNBC, 9 June 2021,

Megan Robinson

Hi! I'm Megan. I'm a personal finance enthusiast on a mission to help millennial men and women understand and make more money. Along with writing and editing content, I work one-on-one with individuals as a financial and behavioral money coach.

Brenda Karakowski
Brenda Karakowski

My biggest goal is to pay off debt and be able to save money at the same time. Then, on to saving money for emergencies and future goals.

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