How to pay off debt: tips from mom who paid off $35,000 in one year

After graduating from college in 2005, Becky Guiles was left with a mountain of debt.

The now 42-year-old took out nearly $25,000 in student loans to pay her tuition at a New York state school and put her room, board and books on her credit card. To get around campus, Guiles also took out a car loan. Eventually, Guiles ran up nearly $35,000 in debt.

After living with it for years, the weight of that debt caused great anxiety, and she recalls a recurring nightmare in which she felt out of reach of a horrible monster. This monster, she says, was a symbol of her debt and inability to get ahead financially.

As new parents living in New York on a single salary in 2018, Guiles and her husband barely brought in enough income to pay their running bills — let alone pay down their cumulative debt.

A trip to Target — where an impromptu purchase of $25 silver cutlery would have made the difference between paying her bills on time that month or not — was her turning point. The couple knew they had to start saving money and they certainly couldn’t afford childcare. They decided that Guiles would stay home with their baby while continuing to work full-time.

“I just went home that day and felt like if I continue to stay at home with my son, if we don’t make radical changes, then it’s going to be like this forever,” says Guiles wealth. “And I don’t want that.”

Between feeding her newborn and changing her diaper, she spent all of her time over the next few months researching ways to reduce expenses. She eventually came up with an ambitious plan to pay off her debts in a year, using a method she called the onion system.

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“The idea behind this was to work things layer by layer,” says Guiles. “I started on the outer layer.”

This included “invisible” expenses like insurance premiums. From there she worked shift by shift, starting from the outside.

“I literally took a notepad and wrote everything on the outside of our house that costs us money,” says Guiles, including lawn care and the car. “Then when I had everything as good as possible, I moved on to the next shift.”

After eight months of peeling the onion, she and her husband had saved enough to pay off the $35,000 debt in full.

One of the most important levels for the Guiles family – like most families in the US – was their grocery budget. Before she started taking her debt seriously, her household could easily spend $1,400 a month on groceries at home. To cut costs, she started following “BORED,” an acronym she made up herself. Here’s what it means.


Set a dollar amount for each key spend category and stick to it—no excuses.

With inflation hitting grocery stores especially hard, she admits this is hard to swing, so she gives herself a little leeway when she needs it and cuts down times when she doesn’t. But don’t walk into the grocery store without putting up a few guardrails.


To that end, you’ll always be spending more money on groceries if you’re not organized, and that means having a list and checking your closets before you head out.

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“I’m sure everyone has had that moment where they went to the grocery store and thought, ‘Oh, I don’t have any flour. I just buy some and they come home with about four sacks of flour,” says Guiles. Take a picture of your closets or pantry so you can remember what you already have.

Reduce waste and reuse

As you reach for your fourth bag of flour, you might notice that you have some extra salt in the bottom of your pretzel bag or chips that you can use to coat chicken. Saving money in small ways adds up in the long run, says Guiles.


“People really underestimate what they can freeze,” says Guiles. Consider checking a freezer chart to see which items can be frozen and saved for later use. This can also result in your fresh produce having a longer shelf life.

Another tip is to use a vinegar solution on your fruits and veggies to help them last longer.

Don’t make things complicated

Avoiding complicated prescriptions most days can reduce costs. One easy way is to simplify the recipes you prepare. For example, many traditional Mexican and Italian dishes use the same basic ingredients. Pick a day of the week to cook this meal and replenish these items regularly.

“Don’t try to make those elaborate meals with 30 ingredients and spices that you only use once,” says Guiles.

Guiles and her family have continued to use the BORED strategy to keep their grocery costs down since 2018. Now she shares saving tips like these on YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, and her blog. Her hope for those who follow her is that they can learn something from her that they can apply to their own lives.

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“I’m nothing special,” says Guiles. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way. You just have to be more stubborn than anything that stands in your way.”

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