Former Olympic Rower Turned to Minimalism to Pay Down $82,000 in Debt

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By Mandi WoodruffFormer Olympic rower turned to minimalism to pay down $82,000 in debt

Rachel Jonat spent most of her young adult life dreaming of Olympic medals and crossing finish lines.

But the games came and went and she began a new chapter as a wife and mother. Both roles forced her to take a hard look at the debt she and her husband were facing: $82,000 in total.

They clawed their way out one step at a time, attributing most of their success to the practice of minimalism.

"I've Always Lived with Debt"

Since opening her first line of credit at 17, Jonat says she's been in a constant state of debt.

The bills only piled higher as she did everything possible to fund her dream of rowing professionally in the Olympics. She eventually qualified in 2003 – with some collateral damage along the way.

"I had financed my Olympic dream with credit cards," she says. "My mom stepped in and took out a second mortgage on her home to help me with that. I've always lived with debt. It just seemed normal."
wedding dress
The Newlyweds Kept the Debt Cycle Going

Jonat married in 2007. The wedding expenses went straight to plastic, but it was when they started renovating their new home in 2009 that things started to get scary.

"That's when we really hit the big numbers," she recalls. "We decided to tally up our debt and start paying it off. That was our scary moment. It was a huge number but we decided to do whatever we could."

At the time, her husband's income was erratic at best and she was on maternity leave from work at a bank. Then her sister started sending along links to articles on Minimalism.

From what Jonat could tell, it looked like nothing but 20-somethings backpacking across some developing nation or another – not exactly the ideal lifestyle for a couple with a newborn. But something about the idea grabbed her. "It was definitely very new to me, this idea that your stuff 'owned' you," she says.

The Jonats started small, laying out budgets and focusing all their attention on paying down their debt. Their first victory was paying off a $3,000 credit balance.

"It was hard because I was subscribed to all these daily deals sites for all this baby stuff," she says, along with her affection for window-shopping. "But I unsubscribed from all of them and committed to not buying stuff."

Entertainment consisted of free movies earned with points they'd racked up back in their credit days, and they stopped turning down gifts of clothing for their son.

A Turning Point

One of the first things Jonat got rid of was her beloved wedding gown, which she sold on Craigslist.

"That was a really rewarding experience because it was a beautiful dress, and for the woman, it was exactly what she wanted," she says. "I think it was the real turning point for me when I realized this stuff I had sitting there wasn't being used. Why not put it back in the world and give it to people who are actually going to use it?"

After that, she was willing to sacrifice just about anything.

Her friends couldn't believe it when Jonat sold the torch she'd carried in the 2010 Olympic Relay for $1,000 on eBay. She also made a couple hundred bucks off the tracksuit she'd donned that day as well. "I had a lot of people tell me I would regret it, but I still don't," she said. "I have some really great memories from the experience."
Over the next five months, the couple started the real purge – everything they didn't use at least 90 percent of the time, which included their:
  • DVD collection
  • Books
  • Car
  • Most furniture
  • DVR ($100/mo)
  • Newspaper service
  • Cable
  • Phone bill
"(Minimalism) is about living comfortably with less stuff," she says. "We're not sitting on the floor eating dinner, but we've really rethought everything we own."

Staring down tens of thousands of dollars of debt is no small burden to bear, and the stress started to wear them down. "We decided last minute to go on a sun vacation and that set us back a couple thousand dollars," she admits. "But we were really stressed out. (Our journey) wasn't as linear as you'd hope for when you're paying off debt, but it just slowly built momentum."

swimmingTaking Their New Lifestyle Overseas

When her husband scored a job in the UK, they jumped at the chance to start fresh.

They're about to celebrate their first anniversary since moving to the Isle of Man, and Jonat says it's even easier to cut back now that they've adopted the small town life. They can still walk most places and there certainly aren't shopping malls around every corner. "I think living here has actually helped us stay on track," she says. "When we moved, we got rid of our cell phones and now we have really cheap phones. Combined, we pay $300 Canadian Dollars over the year."

With an army of doting aunts, uncles and grandparents wanting nothing more than to lavish their son with gifts, Jonat found herself struggling to turn them down gently – especially during the holidays. "It has been a bit tense ... but I feel like they've seen how serious we are about it and they're really respectful of that," she says.

At Christmas, they'll agree to donate to charities rather than dole out presents, and Jonat stopped feeling guilty about giving many of her son's gifts away. They're careful not to spoil him. "Once you go down that road, you don't come back," she says.

Crossing the Finish Line

As a former Olympian, Jonat knows a thing or two about crossing finish lines. Just 19 months after beginning their debt-free mission, the Jonats signed their last check and paid off their debt.

"It felt great," she says. "You don't realize when you're in a lot of debt how stressful it is. It makes you not sleep well and ... there's always that looming guilt of 'I can't really afford this.'"

To celebrate, they took a vacation to the Dominican Republic (paid in cash) and whittled their credit down to one card.

Jonat's not modest when she attributes much of her financial makeover to her husband's hard work as much as hers. "I think it helped that I was doing it in a team," she said. "Of course, we weren't going out for steak dinners but we could talk to each other about it and have our little moment in the sun."

"For the most part, we just put our heads down and just did whatever we could to get our debt down."

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