This Black History Month we’re highlighting young men and women of color making history in the present. Enter the motivational couple behind Pennies to Wealth, DJ and Dannie. At one point they owed more than $90,000 in student loans, credit cards, and other debt.

Despite having an awesome website, they actually landed on our radar because of their inspirational Instagram stories at: PenniesToWealth. After all, who among us doesn’t know a regular 20-something couple that paid off $130,912 in debt in about three years, amirite? Inspired, I reached out  — perhaps begged — in the DMs because a young person told me that’s where it goes down.

They agreed to share their story with our reading (and listening) audience. Here’s an abbreviated version of our discussion.

From $131,000 in Debt to Building $100,00 in Net Worth

Marcus: How’d you pay off $130,912 and what inspired you to start?

DJ: Our financial journey started shortly after my mother took her own life. We were financially unprepared for the unexpected expenses that came with her death in the summer of 2015. We had about $200 in the bank and a few maxed out credit cards, so we had no idea how we were going to get from California (where I’m stationed in the Air Force) to North Carolina. This experience woke us up to the fact that we needed to get rid of all of our debt and always keep an emergency fund in place. We never wanted to feel helpless because of money ever again.

We were living paycheck to paycheck for the most part so we had to figure out how we could make progress when it seemed like we never had enough money. We found a budgeting method that helped us manage and eventually escape the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle. We created a one-month buffer in our checking account, moved into an RV for 9 months and steadily paid off our debt over the course of about 3 years. We paid off the last student loan in November of 2018.

Related: Living Paycheck to Paycheck On $500,000 a Year

Marcus: In full disclosure, DJ and Dannie are DINKs (Dual Income, No Kids). To me, this in no way invalidates their debt free journey, but I also know how the internet has the potential to work. A few additional factors to consider for current and expecting parents: know the math – a NerdWallet study found new parents underestimate the costs of baby’s first year by almost $15,000. For more specifics on financial planning for families, check out: How the Certified Financial Planner and Father Behind “Building Bread” Approaches Financial Family Planning; and the awesome couple who completely paid off their mortgage while raising a family, His & Her Money.

Marcus: What was the hardest or most surprising lesson learned?

Dannie: One of the hardest lessons we learned during our journey is that money has a tendency of changing the people around you. We struggled for a long time before we really got our stuff together. What surprised us is that after we started making progress, other people started asking us for money!

It was odd, because no one was asking us for anything when we had nothing, but after we did the hard work, we started getting looked at as “saviors”. It’s almost as if achieving financial freedom became a burden because we had to learn how to say NO to people in order to protect what we worked so hard to build.

Related: The Redefining Wealth Podcast with Patrice Washington – The power of saying “no” (with tips for improving your own financial literacy while keeping more money in your pockets)

Marcus: We saw that you recently celebrated reaching the $100,000 in net worth milestone — can you tell me a little bit about this journey?

Dannie: Crossing the $100K net worth threshold was huge for us because it felt like we were truly breaking a cycle of financial insecurity that has been prominent in both of our families. Becoming debt free was a big achievement as well, but to continue building on top of that has been really exciting. We’re happy to show the people around us that it’s actually still possible to successfully manage your finances no matter what background you come from.

Turning Your Financial Life Around

Marcus: What’s the *most important* money-tip for people who want to be like you when they grow up?

Dannie: The most important money lesson we learned is that “every penny matters” during your financial journey. That’s actually part of the thinking behind the name “Pennies To Wealth”. Most people are under the false impression that you can’t win with your finances if you don’t make a lot of money. We’re an example of why that isn’t true because we paid off $130,912 worth of debt mostly on DJ’s military salary alone. Every penny you’re able to put towards your goals counts and is worth being celebrated!

Marcus: Is there anything you wish you knew in the beginning that you now know in the end?

Dannie: I wish we knew that your budget is meant to be a fluid process that you constantly work on. When we first started out, we would beat ourselves up for going over budget or not planning for things perfectly every month. Later on in the process we realized that it’s actually okay if things change because that’s simply how life works.

Every month won’t be the exact same so your budget probably won’t either. It’s more important to have a place to track everything so that you can make your best estimation of what you’ll need each month. Realizing that fact made it a lot easier to cut ourselves some slack and roll with the punches.

Marcus: We read and reviewed the top 15 personal finance books according to the experts. Is there a specific book or ‘money philosophy’ you followed?

DJ: When we started looking into ways of getting our financial lives together, we came across all types of books and money gurus. Of course, Dave Ramsey was one of the first people that was suggested to us, but after we listened to his show for a little while we realized his advice just wasn’t really for us (Why We Don’t Follow Dave Ramsey’s Baby Steps (You Shouldn’t Either). Instead, we opted for advice from people like Suze Orman, Mr. Money Mustache and Budgets Are Sexy. Our money philosophy most closely aligned with Suze Orman’s no-nonsense but practical approach to paying off debt and saving money.

Related: Suze Orman’s The Dos and Donts of Money: Paychecks & Balances’ Review

Financial Independence from Pennies To Wealth

DJ: Our goal is to achieve FIRE before I retire from the military. I would be eligible for retirement in 12 years so that gives us plenty of time to make this goal a reality. The plan is to use my future pension, our investments and other passive income sources to live a truly financially independent life. We think it’s a realistic goal but hopefully, we’ll get there even sooner!

Related: Has the Financial Independence Retire Early (FIRE) Movement Burned Out?

Marcus: What’s next for Pennies to Wealth?

DJ: Honestly, we’re pretty focused on growing our reach right now. We feel like our voice in the personal finance space has really grown to a point where people are actually starting to notice us. We don’t take that fact lightly so we want to keep making connections to help us get in front of even more people. We started Pennies To Wealth with the sole purpose of helping others win with their finances so we just want to make the maximum impact we can.

Marcus: Last but not least, we believe strongly in “investing in yourself.” Do you offer any courses, seminar, etc for people who want to repeat your journey to financial independence?

DJ: Dannie created some pretty amazing spreadsheets to help people manage their “paycheck to paycheck budgets” and “monthly budgets”. We have a few other ideas in the works, but they’re still top-secret! Our goal is to only release things when they are 110% ready and actually useful for our audience. We care more about being helpful than we do about making money, so we’re never really in a rush to push things out.

Thank you so much for having us on Paychecks & Balances! Your podcast is in my commute playlist so this has been awesome!

Still haven’t gotten enough of all this awesome financial wisdom? We don’t blame you! Be sure to follow and support PenniesToWealth.com and follow them on Instagram (PenniesToWealth) and Twitter (@PenniesToWealth). You can read their personal finance contributions to GoBankingRate.com’s ‘Smart Money Squad.’

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