How One Mom of 3 is Paying Down Nearly a Million Dollars of Student Debt
Shannon Cairns remembers watching her parents struggle with money when she was growing up. They were 18 when they got married, and her father battled addiction. When Cairns was in middle school, her dad moved out.
"I definitely watched my mom try to be both parents and still try to give us everything that we wanted or needed," recalls Cairns, who grew up in an affluent area of north Texas.
At the same time, she felt she needed to keep up with her classmates. "I always wanted to have the clothes and the look and the car and all these things that the other kids had," says Cairns.
The combination of not wanting to struggle with finances when she got older and admiring her friends parents who were doctors inspired Cairns to pursue medicine. Although her mom warned her about the cost of medical school, she assumed, "I'm going to be a doctor, and I'm going to have money, and it'll be so easy to pay my student loans back."
She soon learned it wouldn't be that easy. Cairns was 18 when she took out her first student loan of $250,000. Eventually, as interest accumulated, she had almost $400K of student loan debt, and her minimum payments with an income-based repayment plan started out at almost $3K a month.
In 2012, she got married after graduating from medical school, and had her first baby about a year later while she was in residency. Cairns desperately wanted to spend more time with her kids. "But I had this weight of $400,000 of student loans, and I thought it would be ridiculous for me to just quit my medical career and stay home with my kids," she says.
At the same time, she and her husband, also a physician, decided to start their own medical practice, which meant more debt. "On top of our almost half a million dollars of student loans that we had, we took out another $200,000 to buy a practice, and then another $150,000 for the startup capital to get the business going," says Cairns.
This meant the couple was closing in on almost a million dollars of debt. "We didn't even know because we're just looking at the monthly payments," says Cairns. "Again, we were thinking we're going to own our own practice. It's going to be easy to pay it off."
But eventually, without a budget, they got to the point where they couldn't even pay their own salaries. "All of our money was going to debt and student loans and daycare and all of these other things," says Cairns. "We were just coming up short every month until it felt like we were a month away from bankruptcy at one point."
At the end of 2018, Cairns came across Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace University. She told her husband that they needed to do something that would spark communication and help them get on the same page about money. "We took that at the beginning of 2019, and that's when we got really serious and started doing a lot of crazy things to cut our expenses," remembers Cairns.
The couple moved out of their rental, sold everything in that house, and settled into a smaller home that cost less per month. "It felt a little bit overwhelming at first, but our utilities are lower," says Cairns. "It's easier to keep clean."
They sold the car they owned for $13,000 and turned in the lease on their other vehicle. They used the $13K to buy two cars with cash so they wouldn't have any automobile payments. Health insurance had also been a huge expense, so they ended up switching to Christian Healthcare Ministries, which is a health cost sharing plan that's only about $200 a month versus the $1,500 a month they had paid for traditional health insurance. They also used Ramsey's debt snowball method, in which you pay debts down from smallest to largest.
It took the couple three or four months to get into the groove and planning ahead so that they weren't busting the budget. "Then, we were also making sure to still budget for a few fun things," recalls Cairns.
Since starting their debt-free journey in 2019, the couple has paid off $479,000 of debt. "We're really in the home stretch, and one of the things that I really attribute that to is that we are able to live on less than $50,000 a year while growing our income," says Cairns, who, inspired by her financial journey, started a blog called Making Frugal Fun, which she has since monetized.
"We're hoping to be debt free before summer of 2022," adds Cairns. "I think we'll do it much sooner."
Here are Cairns' tips for other parents hoping to find their own best version of work-life balance while boosting their financial health.
Consider Working From Home
"If you're really struggling to find a balance with child care—even being a physician—there's a lot of things that you can do from home," advises Cairns. "There are a lot of ways that you could change your career and still be doing what you love and just change the way it looks."
If that's not possible, she recommends finding a way to even do just a portion of your work from home to cut down on child care costs.
Opening up about what she needed helped Cairns and her husband begin to pay off their debt. "I didn't know how to communicate with my husband," she explains. "I was feeling like I didn't want to practice, and I really wanted to stay home. And so it wasn't until I was really having a hard time with my mental health and having a breakdown that he was like, 'OK. Why didn't you tell me that?'"
For that reason, she believes it's so important to sit down and tackle a challenge like theirs. "Actually look at the numbers, see your budget on paper, and decide what makes the most sense," says Cairns. And maybe you can't work from home right now because of child care costs, but down the line you'll be able to. "A lot of things are just for a season. Maybe you can work for six more months so that you can pay down debt," adds Cairns.
Ask for Help
Parents can benefit from asking for help, especially when it comes to child care. Cairns advises parents reach out to those close to them to help with part-time child care. For example, friends may be willing to pick up your kids from school if you aren't able to. "We all are afraid to ask for help sometimes. And so I think trying to build that village can be really helpful—not only for child care help but also for your mental health," adds Cairns.
Remember There's No Time Like the Present
Many parents may have a business idea but push it to the side rather than starting it. Cairns did that too. "I kept telling myself, 'When we make money, then we'll start our budget,'" she says. "In actuality, if we had just started our budget, then we would have had more money because we would have been budgeting."
Cairns notes that a lot of people are afraid to dive in because they're afraid they're going to fail. "But a lot of the learning and success comes through the failures," she says. "You just have to push through those failures, and eventually, you'll come out on the other side, and you'll be like, 'I'm so glad I started when I did.'"