After paying off $300,000 of debt in just 3 years, financial expert Bernadette Joy shares the tips that helped her reach her financial goals and become debt-free

Bernadette Joy
Berndette Joy/Insider

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  • In 2016, Bernadette Joy was in debt over $300,000 with student loans and two mortgages. 
  • She used four main strategies to pay it off, including living beneath her means and working side hustles.
  • Joy paid it all off in 3 years and has been debt-free ever since. She started a financial academy to teach others how to get out of debt and take control of their money. 

Getting out of debt and saving money is at the forefront of most consumers' minds. Becoming debt-free may seem out of reach for some, but there are steps you can take to get started and get on the path to financial freedom. 

The average American consumer is carrying $96,371 in debt, according to a recent Experian study. That's a 4% increase from 2020 when factoring in inflation, rising interest rates and a lingering pandemic.

Bernadette Joy is a nationally recognized financial expert teaching many how to get out of debt and develop a mindset around money that can lead to a secure financial future.

Joy has learned a few things about getting rid of debt. Not too long ago she was in debt to the tune of $300,000 including student loans and mortgages. Within three years of accumulating this load, she paid it all off and became debt-free. Since then, she's made it her mission to help others curb their spending and eliminate debt, starting Crush Your Money Goals, a financial academy where she teaches others how to get out of debt and take control of their finances. 

After graduating from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill with her MBA in 2016, Joy had borrowed $72,000 in student loans to complete the program. Plus she and her husband owed $181,000 for the mortgage on their primary residence and a $57,000 mortgage for a rental property, according to documents viewed by Insider.

Realizing the heavy debt load they were carrying, Joy admits that there were times she dealt with bouts of anxiety and doubt because she thought it would be impossible to pay the debt off quickly. It was holding her back from her goals and living the kind of life she wanted. 

While trying to find a way out of debt, Joy learned she would have to make her own rules about saving, spending and debt repayment. She started reading everything she could find on money management and even watching YouTube videos.

"My husband and I chose a less traditional route to getting out of debt and even handling our money," Joy told Insider. "If we had only worked our full-time jobs or simply paid the bills on time, we would still be in debt. It took an aggressive approach to become debt-free."

Detailed below are the four tips Joy used to get out of debt and ultimately reach her financial goals.

(1) Live beneath your means

While Joy was paying down her debt, she did not spend unnecessarily.

"We didn't take vacations or upgrade our car, we were even laughed at because we kept using a broken iPad," she said.

Living beneath your means is when you spend less than what you make in income. Take the time to learn the difference between a need and a want and consider downsizing your lifestyle for a while. You cannot pay down debt and continue to spend the same amount of money. Track your spending and record each purchase. This will make you think twice before buying something and develop the mindset of thinking before you spend.

(2) Don't let debt linger. Pay it down as soon as possible. 

Carrying a debt load can make it impossible to save money or grow wealth. The best position to be in when saving money or building your net worth is debt-free. After completing graduate school in 2016, Joy had $72,000 in student loans and two mortgages.

"I wanted to start a business, but was afraid of the risks with that amount of debt," Joy stated. She further revealed that during this time she and her husband were living paycheck to paycheck.

"I decided I didn't want to pay my student loans off in the 'normal time' but wanted to finish paying them off in two years so that I could start my business," she stated. 

If you find yourself in debt and living paycheck to paycheck, this is the time to set a plan in motion to pay that debt off as quickly as possible. Start cutting back on spending and the amount you are able to save will go right to debt repayment.

(3) Create a working budget and stick to it

None of what's already been mentioned will matter unless you create a budget — doing so will be one of the most important steps you make in your financial plan. Creating a budget not only helps you track your spending, it also shows you how to use the money you have to pay off your debt. Identify all of your income sources and compare that with your monthly bills and expenses and cut out anything that takes you over your budget.

"You have to use the debt as a motivating factor," Joy said . "Looking at that debt and knowing that it was preventing me from starting my business and moving on with the life I wanted made me want to repay it faster," Joy stated.

(4) You are probably going to need a side hustle

While Joy and her husband were paying off their debt, they worked full-time jobs and had multiple side hustles.

"It was the side hustles that really helped with paying down the debt. We could never have done it if we only worked our full-time jobs," said Joy.

If you find that towards the end of the month, you have more month than money left, think about getting a side hustle.

"Try to utilize the skills you already have," said Joy.

Examples of side hustles are: resume writing, editing author manuscripts, food delivery, teaching a college course, freelancing — anything that can be done in addition to another full-time job. This will bring in extra income to pay off debt and save money. Joy and her husband worked several side hustles including driving for Lyft, writing resumes and were even extras for movies and television shows shooting locally in Charlotte.

Joy states that it was using these strategies, getting rid of the debt and saving that put her on track to becoming debt-free and growing her net worth. She makes it clear that she did not grow up saving money and budgeting.

"I set a financial plan, a financial goal and stuck to it," she said.

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