The following conversation was conducted over email and edited for flow and clarity.
Acquania Escarne of Wealth Noir: Hey DJ and Dannie! I am so glad to have the opportunity to share your story with Wealth Noir readers. Before we dive into how you paid off $130,000 in less than three years, please tell our readers a little more about yourselves.
DJ from Pennies To Wealth: We’re DJ & Dannie, a millennial married couple living in the San Francisco Bay Area in California. I’m currently serving on active duty with the U.S. Air Force and Dannie is a technical trainer for a software company. We’re both vegan, huge introverts and avid theatergoers.
WN: Awesome intro. So, how did you get started in the personal finance space?
DJ from Pennies To Wealth: We got started in the personal finance space on a whim. I’ve been a blogger for a long time and in 2017, Dannie came to me with the idea of creating a site where we could talk about some of the lessons we’ve learned while fixing our finances. Neither of us grew up in households where money was discussed or specifically addressed, so we wanted to create a platform where we could share the information we didn’t have exposure to while we were growing up.
We’ve always been interested in helping people, so we thought creating Pennies To Wealth was a natural way to use our experiences to help others find success with their money.
WN: On your site, you admit that you didn’t share the full story with your followers about how your personal finance journey started. What was your original goal for Pennies To Wealth and why did you come clean about the tragedy that happened and accelerated your personal finance journey?
DJ from Pennies To Wealth: Our main goal for Pennies To Wealth was to share quality personal finance information with our audience. We take a lot of pride in creating educational content rather than just pretty pictures for our website and Instagram page. When we first started sharing online, we didn’t use any pictures of ourselves or share our detailed story because we wanted to remain completely anonymous (remember, we’re introverts) and we didn’t care about becoming “popular.” We hid behind our logo and just shared basic financial principles and other general concepts.
Eventually, we realized that telling the full story of why we started working on our own finances and sharing the intimate details about our lives would be more impactful to our audience because it would make us more relatable and show our authentic experience.
My mother’s suicide was the catalyst for our financial journey. Due to her unexpected death, we needed to book plane tickets at the last minute and that’s when we realized we only had about $200 in our bank account. That was definitely not enough money to get us from California to North Carolina, so we were at a complete loss. All of our credit cards were close to their limits as well, so we had no idea how we would be able to get across the country for my mother’s funeral.
This moment truly opened our eyes and highlighted the importance of becoming debt-free and having a fully-funded emergency fund. We never wanted to experience the helpless feeling caused by a lack of money ever again. A lot of people have experienced that feeling, so sharing our story helps show that you can change your trajectory going forward.
WN: OK, so now for the million-dollar question. How did you pay off $130,000 in debt?
Dannie from Pennies To Wealth: We were living on only one paycheck for the majority of our financial journey, so our first step was to figure out how we could make progress when it seemed like we never had enough money to go around. I’m a huge numbers girl, so DJ and I started by going through all of our finances to figure out just how bad things were. First, we listed out all of our income, expenses and debt payments and then we reduced or got rid of any expenses we could. Just by doing the math, we realized that a reduction in expenses has the exact same effect as an increase in income.
Next, we created a monthly budget. This was the key that helped us eventually escape the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle because we were finally able to grasp where our money was going each month. We also saved up a one-month buffer in our checking account that we pay our bills from and moved into an RV for nine months to help us pay off our debt even faster. Then, we sold a few of our financed items plus all of the things that we were no longer using around our house. We then paid off our debt with the highest interest first (credit cards) and the remaining debts (student and personal loans), from least to highest balance, until we became debt free!
WN: Cool. So now that you are debt-free, are you also full-time bloggers or entrepreneurs?
Dannie from Pennies To Wealth: We aren’t full-time bloggers at the moment, but hopefully one day we’ll be able to make Pennies To Wealth our primary source of income. Our 9-to-5 jobs take up the majority of our time, so we have to try and create content when time allows. We usually try to plan our content out one month in advance and then set everything to auto-post. This works really well for us, but when we get behind we tend to just post whenever we have time. We admire the full-timers, though, because it takes some serious dedication to take that leap!
WN: Keep moving forward on your journey and you’ll be full-time bloggers in no time. Are you followers of the Financial Independence and Retire Early (FIRE) movement?
DJ from Pennies To Wealth: We’re absolutely followers of the FIRE movement! I’m in the military and I’ll be eligible for retirement at 42 years old. We’re currently saving all of Dannie’s income with the hope that we can be fully retired whenever I leave the military. Our ultimate goal is to become work optional. Neither of us is opposed to having a job, but we’d love to get to a point where work is a choice rather than a necessity.
WN: What does financial freedom mean to you? What steps are you taking to achieve financial freedom in your life?
Dannie & DJ from Pennies To Wealth: To us, financial freedom is simply getting to the point where you have complete peace of mind when it comes to your money. We’ve reached a version of this already because we don’t have to struggle anymore or stress about what’s going on with our finances on a day-to-day basis.
Each month, we have monthly budget meetings to fill in our budgeting spreadsheet and discuss how the month went and if anything needs to be changed for the upcoming month. Also, we keep one month’s worth of expenses in our checking account so that we are always one month ahead in our finances. This money can also act as a buffer if we go over on something.
All of our bills are on auto-pay. In addition, we track our variable expenses using the Goodbudget app and use credit cards for all of our planned spending.
When it comes to retirement, we automatically invest in a 401k and Roth Individual Retirement Accounts (IRA).
Last, we have a fully-funded emergency fund and life savings in a high yield account.
WN: Great tips for how to handle your finances, and especially as a couple. Who are you trying to reach and empower financially through Pennies To Wealth?
Dannie & DJ from Pennies To Wealth: We speak to a broad audience due to the fact that so many people have been able to find us online. Our ideal audience consists of people that are just getting started with their financial journey or are in the midst of paying off debt and following a budget. The things that we share are helpful for them because we provide multiple viewpoints and examples of ways people can work on their finances. We don’t believe in a “one-size-fits-all” approach to personal finance either, so we also try to teach people (who are open-minded and interested in multiple options) to address their financial situations in ways that might be seen as contrary to the most popular ideas.
WN: What is the most common question you get asked or you see come across from your community/following?
Dannie & DJ from Pennies To Wealth: One of the most common questions we get asked is “How do I get started?” We wrote a whole series called “The Basics” where we explain our ideas of what someone can do to get started with their financial journey. We explain that the first step is simply sitting down with your finances and laying everything out to assess where you are.
Next, you’ll have to build a budget that you’ll begin to follow each month. Having an actual plan for your money will help set you on the path of reaching the end of the month with money leftover. The last things we explain are a few different methods for paying off debt and a quick explanation of how credit works.
Understanding the basics of financial readiness is the first step towards changing your life, so we always try to point people in that direction whenever we can.
WN: If you could flip a switch and get everyone to do one thing related to their personal finances, what would it be?
Dannie from Pennies To Wealth: We would want to flip a switch that would make everyone realize that personal finance is PERSONAL. It’s irresponsible to think that the same approach can be used for every single circumstance. The biggest thing we try to express to people is that they need tools and advice that is appropriate for their specific situation.
When DJ and I first started our journey, we found a lot of different steps and methods that could be used to address our financial concerns. We learned that we needed to modify the information we found in order to build a plan that was more suitable for our position in life.
WN: Is there any particular childhood memory you remember that helped influence the person you are today?
Dannie from Pennies To Wealth: When I was 10, my mom left my abusive dad with only what she could put in her two-door Saturn. We slept on a family member’s couch for months until she was able to get on her feet. Although we were low income before the split, I watched as she continued to struggle financially and I vowed to do all that I could not to have the same fate. Luckily, I’m naturally frugal so the debt I accumulated allowed me to obtain an education and make it through hard times to get me and DJ to where we are today.
WN: Are there any exciting products or offers you have coming up?
Dannie & DJ from Pennies To Wealth: We’re really excited to start up our 1-on-1 coaching service so we can directly help people make plans to reach their financial goals. We also have a variety of budgeting spreadsheets available on our site for all types of budgeting styles (by paycheck, weekly, biweekly, monthly, etc.). They are all derived from the spreadsheet we used to help us pay off our $130,912 worth of debt so we know they’ll help other people track their debt and make significant financial progress as well!
Acquania Escarne is the creator of The Purpose of Money, a community of women building generational wealth for their families one dollar at a time. As an entrepreneur, real estate investor, and licensed insurance agent, Acquania has always been passionate about financial literacy. On her website, Acquania blogs about ways to help you improve your money habits, create wealth, and invest in real estate. Follow Acquania on social media for daily tips.