How Paying Off $50,000+ in Debt Inspired a New Business

US News

Carrie Rocha estimates that she and her husband had somewhere between $50,000 and $60,000 in debt in 2006, including student loan debt, a car loan, and tax debt, in addition to their mortgage. After getting serious about eliminating their debt, the couple paid it off in 30 months, and Rocha started Pocket Your Dollars (www.pocketyourdollars.com), a blog where she shares tips on living within your means. Ten months after starting the blog, the Minneapolis-area mom got laid off from her job as chief operating officer of a nonprofit and made the website her full-time business, which now supports her family of four.

Rocha's forthcoming book, Pocket Your Dollars: 5 Attitude Changes That Will Help You Pay Down Debt, Avoid Financial Stress, and Keep More of What You Make, comes out in January. U.S. News chatted with Rocha about her journey out of debt and her strategies for creating behavioral changes that last. Excerpts:

What steps did you take to get out of debt?

My husband's Brazilian, and we had gone on a trip to Brazil. We wanted to live in Brazil one day, but Brazil's a cash-based society. They take cash for cars and houses and big things. That seemed just insurmountable to us at the time. So we did some real soul-searching, recognizing if we don't change our financial habits, then we're going to forgo this dream of ours. It really gave us a new context and a new frame around money.

[Read: 50 Ways to Improve Your Finances in 2013.]

So we decided to get out of debt and stay out of debt for the rest of our lives. It was 30 months between that decision and when we paid off the last of our debts. We changed a whole bunch of our attitudes about money in this process. I grew up with this mindset about money that "when we get our tax refund, then things will be different. When I get the next raise, when we make this last car payment, and I don't have that debt, then something will be different."

But it's always pushing your change into the future every single time. And so on that day when we made those decisions, we said, "we're not waiting for something to happen to us. We're going to change today." Then we went through the process of figuring out a budget, and we addressed a handful of other changes. We've been able to stay out of debt since [then]. We're still paying off our mortgage, but we'll be done with that in several years.

When did you start the blog, and what steps did you take to make it profitable?

I started it in March 2009, and I did not know when I started it that people made money online. I just started it as a community service. It was the beginning of the economy tanking, and we had just finished getting out of debt, and I felt literally compelled to do something to help my friends and family that were losing their jobs and losing their homes.

I live in the Minneapolis area, and it was the first of its kind in this area, and so within two weeks of launching it, I had already gotten several media mentions. It just snowballed. Within the first 12 months, I did 100 media appearances.

Somewhere along the lines, I stumbled into affiliate marketing, where I mention a product on my website, and [when] somebody buys that product after clicking on my link, I refer them to the vendor, then I make a commission. I started to dabble around in it and then was able to figure out how to integrate it into what I was doing without losing the integrity of my site. Half of my blog's revenue comes from advertising and half from affiliate marketing.

Aside from thinking things will improve with a tax refund or a raise, what are some of the other faulty mindsets that get people into trouble?

Lots of people deal with "I deserve a treat." We buy things as a pick-me-up. I'm not against buying things, but they need to be planned for. Different studies show the chemicals that are released in our mind when we buy something new--even a pack of gum or a cup of coffee. It does make you feel better, but then we regret it later because we couldn't really afford it.

[Read: 10 Signs You Shop Too Much.]

We need to recognize why we're doing it, and then we need to deal with whatever that real issue is that you have going on. My husband and I switched from thinking "I deserve it" to telling ourselves, "I work too hard for my money to let it leak out of my life on things that don't matter to me."

Kids can be very expensive. How do you manage their expectations this time of year?

I have younger kids (3 and 5) and I've been able to start them young. One, our kids don't make wish lists. In fact, I said to my husband, "Christmas is not like a restaurant, you don't place an order, these are the eight things I want." We're glad we get gifts, but we don't set up an expectation that you make a wish list and you hope those things come. I don't want to set that precedent for when they're 12 and 13, and the items go from then being $10 each to being $75 each and I can't keep up, so I'm not.

In the middle of November, my kids said they wanted a Dream Lite, which is a popular toy for littler kids. So many parents would have just asked them to put it on the Christmas list and bought it for them. But I wanted them to learn that they have the ability to work for things that they want.

[Quiz: Are You Spending Too Much on Your Children?]

They do not have to be solely dependent on my husband and me to provide the niceties that they want to buy. We told them we would [pay for] half. It was $30, so they had to earn $15. They helped rake leaves, they helped move some landscape rock we had. I found some things with my business, my daughter was able to help me scan in some documents that I needed scanned. They earned like $12.50, and I found a coupon for $5, which covered the remaining part. They were thrilled to bring their coupon and their money and we went to the store and they were able to buy it.

What would you like readers to know about money heading into the New Year?

Financial change is possible, but it's not going to happen by making a New Year's resolution to live on a budget or to stop your morning trips to the coffee shop. Those changes are all focused on external behavior. Lasting change only comes from the inside out. So if you're willing to stop and pay attention to what's happening inside of you related to your money, the behavior that you want to see on the outside will come much more easily.

I'm not saying it's going to be a walk in the park, I'm just saying it will come more easily. I'm proof of it. We've known we should have a budget, we've known we should be setting aside money for Christmas gifts every month of the year. We've known all this but I could never do it. It was once we started to tune in and change our beliefs and our mindsets about money that we were actually able to implement those behaviors that we've longed to do for so many years.



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