Cheeseburger Economics

A year and a half ago my wife and I determined it was time for a life change, but one major thing stood in the way of our goals:

$50,000 of debt

We had accrued that massive number by a variety of means: Credit cards, student loans, car loans, and several other unnecessary things. The worst part was that between the two of us, we were making $100,000 a year but the debt kept growing.

How were we making that much, yet continuing to dig deeper into debt?

What was happening, is that we were woefully unaware of just how unhappy we were with our lives, and that we were trying to find happiness through material possessions. Our jobs at the time were unfulfilling, so we needed new shiny objects to fill the void. Unfortunately, the void can never be completely filled until you focus on the true issue at hand.


This Kayak for Example: Over $400 and used four times in two years. The beer was good though.

Let’s go back to October 2015 when we finally “woke up”:

Wella and I were newlyweds, and I was on my way to Afghanistan to begin my 9 month deployment. I had been doing some reading regarding financial planning, when the realization finally hit me: I was 1 year out from the end of my contract with the Army, and an AT Thru hike was possible in 2017 if we got our finances figured out. We had to get our shit together to make this happen. 

Our debt became an emergency

Though we had never failed to make a payment, we weren’t making any real progress on debt reduction, because we were only meeting the minimum required payments. Upon “waking up”, we made a battle plan: Kill the highest interest rate line of credit first, and make minimum payments on everything else. Once the highest rate loan was done, put the next highest  on the chopping block.

To assist with this, we created a monthly budget plan with all of our expenses, debt, and earnings. Putting everything onto that one document was an enlightening and sobering experience. Our irresponsible spending had manifested itself into a big ugly beast, but we were set on killing it.

To increase funds to pay debt down with, we adhered to the Big Three Money Saving Questions:

1. Do I need this?

Will my life cease to function if I don’t have this? The answer is probably no. This question eliminated the majority of our potential purchases. Some of the examples included:

Starbucks Coffee – Costco beans and a grinder go a long way

Bottled Water – Re-use your water bottle. It’s better for your wallet and the environment!

Restaurant Meals – Convenience is cited as a major factor here, but a Crockpot at home is just as effective

Cell Phone Contracts – Flip Phones. We saved money and the difficulty of texting meant we called people more, eliminating potential miscommunication and improving personal relationships.

Manicures/Pedicures – DIY kits can be found on many sites online for $30

Basic Vehicle Maintenance – YouTube combined with your local parts store will make you a DIY Master!


With our powers combined, we will destroy debt!

2. Can I borrow it?

Perhaps the greatest expense borrowing was applicable too, was entertainment costs. Whereas previously we would purchase a book, movie, or DVD new, we found our local library had an excellent selection of all of these for just a few dollars a year. We immediately freed up a significant amount of income and cut fuel costs by walking to the library!


Your key to learning.. and saving money!

3. Can I get it used?

Craigslist, Ebay, Thrift Stores, and local Facebook sales pages are your friend. Just this winter I was able to snag a pair of snowshoes for $3 at the thrift store. The cheapest new option would have run me $80. Guess what? They worked just fine!


$3 in action!

Cheeseburger Economics

As we approached the six month window for our Thru Hike, we began following Cheeseburger Economics. We looked at money as food we could have on the Appalachian Trail. This meant that whatever unnecessary junk we spent money on was literally taking food out of our own mouths on the AT. Try it the next time you make a run to the store. That $3.99 latte you were about to buy? That’s a quarter pounder with cheese in a trail town, put it back!!

What did we do to “cut loose”?

I must admit, we didn’t go totally cold turkey with our spending, and I think that is what kept us on track. About once a month we would “splurge” and explore a new brewery in our local area (Anchorage has an excellent beer scene).

Additionally, nutrition and high quality food is extremely important to both of us. Fortunately, we were armed with a Costco card and had a huge variety of organic options to choose from (Seriously, check it out sometime!). Food was easily our highest expense in the past year, but we look at it as an investment into our bodies.

Our snowball had turned into an avalanche

With rigorous adherence to our budget plan and strict application of The Big 3, our debt began to vanish. Within eight months we had paid off $40K in debt, and were giving the middle finger to my student loans. By October of 2016, we had erased our debt and had a comfortable savings.

We became happier with less

With our debt erased, we were able to leave our careers behind. We both took new jobs making half of what we previously made, yet contributed more to savings than ever. Additionally, we began selling unnecessary things we had accrued which contributed additional income to our savings. We had learned a simpler lifestyle through frugality and found we were happier with our new lives. Now, all we have to do is hike two thousand miles!


Financial Freedom 

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Comments 7

  • Dano : Mar 4th

    Congrats! Really great article – everyone should learn just what “debt” means, and how to get out of its grips! Question though – during the 6 months you paid off $40K, were you paying rent or mortgage?

  • Justin and Wella Jay : Mar 4th


    Thank you for your kind words! We were paying rent on our moldy apartment lol. We also had the added benefit of combat pay to help us along though

  • Lou Eckert : Mar 5th

    Wow guys, that’s putting your heads together. You earned a great AT hike, stay safe and teach your story to others. Check out Dave Ramsey with Financial Peace University for similar stories. Have fun out there!

    • Justin and Wella Jay : Mar 5th

      Thank you Lou!

    • Justin and Wella Jay : Mar 5th

      Wella followed the Dave Ramsey plan and had great success. It is definitely awesome financial advise

  • Annie : Mar 5th

    The math confuses me. You were able to save 80% of your gross pay? No income taxes there?

  • Justin and Wella Jay : Mar 6th


    Our stated income was after taxes (And we estimated it on the lower side to be safe), but you are still correct – My half of our income was tax free as I was in Afghanistan. I apologize for the confusion!


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