Q&A: How Cherie Lowe slew her debt dragon

Rather than hiding behind their $127,482 debt, the Lowes went public with it

When Cherie and Brian Lowe realized they were $127,482.30 in debt, it wasn't easy to admit it to themselves, let alone go public with their problem. Many people would have "slain the debt dragon," as she calls it, first -- and then told the world what they had done.

Cherie had a different strategy, however. She started emailing her friends about how they could get things for free, which led to a blog called Queen of Free. (She calls Brian the King of Free.) She began to include other tips for frugal living on her blog, and to share her personal journey of trying to get out of debt. Soon she had readers sharing their own stories and rooting for her success. Cherie and Brian were no longer alone in their war on debt.

In four years, they not only paid off their debt, but they learned a new way of living and were sharing it with others. Cherie's book, "Slaying the Debt Dragon," was released January 2.

Q&A: How Cherie Lowe slayed her debt dragon
Slaying the Debt Dragon

It took four years and some crazy budgeting, but "Slaying the Debt Dragon" author Cherie Lowe and her husband, Brian, were able to pay off more than $27,000 in debt -- of which $16,500 was on credit cards. Her unusual advice? Name your debt and treat it like an enemy you need to go to battle with.

CreditCards.com spoke with her about her journey out of debt and what she has learned.

Q:  How much of your debt was from credit cards?

A:  We had $16,500 in credit card debt. We had nothing to show for it. They say, "Did you buy shoes in every color?" Or, "Did you go on vacation?" There were no clothes or fancy vacations. There were just brakes or groceries. We didn't have a plan. It was very boring. I never felt like it was someone else's fault. It just climbed and climbed and climbed, and we just didn't think about what would happen next.

Q:  Do you think a fear of scarcity affected your spending habits?

A:  Definitely. We begin to buy into the lie that there won't be enough for us. Scarcity can drive people to buy on Black Friday, to empty the shelves when they find a good deal. Or they buy into the lie that everybody else is going to have all the fun, the trendy new items, or that frugality is going to make us miserable.

Once we got into the journey, that couldn't have been further from the truth. It really takes very few things not just to survive, but to thrive. If I focus on things we truly love, those impulse buys fall by the wayside.

Q:  Had you tried to pay down debt before?

A:  We had tried once before, before we had kids. We tackled one of our debts that had a very high interest rate, but because we tried and hadn't really seen success, we gave up.

Q:  How did your attitudes to budgets change?

A:  I always viewed budgets as something out to steal my joy and keep me from having fun. As we progressed, I realized that budgets were a safety net. They gave me the security of knowing when we went to spend money that it was actually in the bank. I used to get to the checkout and watch the total climb and panic because I couldn't remember the balance when I left that morning. The budget was a breath of fresh air, just knowing the money was there.

Q:  Why do you need a written plan?

A:  If you don't have something written down, it won't happen. Anybody that I've ever known that has chased after a great goal, no matter what the goal was, has not gotten there without a written plan. Marathon runners need a training schedule, a chef needs a recipe. You need to write down what you're trying to do in order to achieve it.

Q:  You tell people to give their debt a name. Why?

A:  It's easy to let debt become a neutral force that you think doesn't really affect you. We might say that debt wants to destroy our marriage, or debt wants to say whether our kids can go to college. That can make us a little disturbed, but not angry or motivated enough to change.

Replace the word "debt" with "Fred Johnson," for example. Fred Johnson wants to destroy our marriage. Fred Johnson wants to say if our kids can go to college. Fred Johnson wants to say if I can be generous. It makes me angry! For my husband and me, naming our debt "the dragon" helped us focus on it rather than fighting with each other. It helped us have a common enemy, instead of picking each other apart.

Q:  Did you ever hope God would miraculously pay off all your debt?

A:  Yes! Certainly in the early days, when it was really difficult to know how long it would take, and all the sacrifices were brand-new and painful, I prayed, "God, send us that check in the mail for the exact amount that we need. We won't know who it's from, and we can give you all the glory and say, 'What a miracle!'"

I always viewed budgets as something out to steal my joy and keep me from having fun. As we progressed, I realized that budgets were a safety net.

After we had worked so hard, I began to pray the exact opposite. Because we had seen God work, and we knew that his plan for us was to live through the experience so that we would never go back to borrowing again. In fact, we had a contingency plan that if someone gave us money, that at the end of our journey, we were going to give it away. We knew God would provide, but not with an anonymous check in the mail. He provided work through learning about how to live frugally. It was still a miracle

Q:  Would you say that in a way it was even more of a miracle?

A:  It was a four-year miracle instead of an instantaneous miracle. We learned so much, not just about managing money, but also about contentment. If we had received a lump sum, we wouldn't have learned. We would have fallen back into the same unhealthy financial patterns.

Everybody's looking for the quick fix. They want it to go away so quickly. I tell them, "If you don't feel it you're never going to learn from it. You'll fall back into the same habits."

Q:  Most of your debt was from student loans. Did you wish you could just wipe out student debt?

A:  I figure we pay for our education, that's how the professors get paid, the lights stay on. I respect that. We got a service rendered, we pay for it.

Q:  What's a zero-based budget?

A:  The goal of a zero-based budget is to give every dollar you own a place to land, whether that's expenses, debt repayment or savings, so that you leave zero in your checking account at the end of the month. If you want to leave a cushion of $50 then that's OK, but don't be surprised if you spend it and don't know where it went. I joke that if you leave any extra money in your checking account, it will grow legs and walk to Target.

Q:  What do you do when you feel discouraged?

I joke that if you leave any extra money in your checking account, it will grow legs and walk to Target.

A:  When I need extra encouragement, I turn to God first. I'll typically read Ecclesiastes, because of the refrain that there's nothing new under the sun. It gives me hope. I realize what I'm facing is nothing new. Second, I turn to somebody I know who has traveled a similar road.

Q:  Any other ways you encouraged yourself?

A:  Setting small goals was a huge part of our journey. If we set a time frame to go without restaurants, we'd pick a date it would be over and we'd choose the restaurant we'd go out to.

Our daughter, Anna, who would have been seven or eight, got to choose what we'd do when we paid off our credit card debt. It was a lesson for both her and us -- sacrificing something temporarily for something really awesome down the road. She chose an indoor water park. She had her moment, when she pulled something off the shelf in Target, and then she put it back and said she wanted to go to that water park more.

Q:  What was it like when you realized you had enough money to pay off the last debt?

A:  A little surreal. Then it was exhausted relief, a moment of "this is it, it's really over." Then pure joy. The house was a wreck, and it was still very much real life. We cleaned one spot in the kitchen and took pictures.

The picture on the cover of the book was taken that day. People who know my husband say it doesn't look like him. There's so much relief on his face, we couldn't recreate that if we tried. It was just that moment. On my face you see this frenzied joy. On his face, you just see peace.

See related: Family effort sheds $38,000 debt, Stretching a food budget to the extreme

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Updated: 01-20-2018