People who get out of debt are driven by a variety of motivations — either wanting to eliminate the stress of monthly payments, take control of their finances or have more cash to do what they want. For Melissa Thomas, these reasons played a role in her desire to wipe out her $43,544 in consumer debt — but they weren’t the driving force.
“I became debt-free so I could meet Elton John,” Thomas said.
Now, that’s not a motivation you hear every day for getting out of debt. But for a superfan like Thomas, being able to afford Elton John concerts so that one day she might have the chance to introduce herself to the British rock legend gave her a reason to pay off what she owed and remain debt-free.
How a Love of Elton John Led to Debt
Thomas got hooked on the music of Elton John as a teenager. Going through a box of her dad’s cassette tapes in the 1980s, she found John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and was intrigued by the cover. “From the moment I pressed play, it was an instant connection,” Thomas said.
She then became that kid who needed to be at the music store every time a new Elton John album was released. She bought every cassette, then every CD and vinyl record, even though she didn’t own a record player.
When she was a 19-year-old college student, Thomas went to her first Elton John concert. “At that concert, I decided I was going to go to as many Elton John concerts as possible,” she said. She also decided she wanted to get a front-row seat someday. Then another notion popped into her head.
“I had a crazy idea that I wanted to meet him in person,” Thomas said. “That has been the driving force behind everything I have done over the past 25 years.”
And it’s played a big role in the debt she racked up over those years. “I put Elton John trips on credit cards,” Thomas said. Over the years, she’s spent more than $11,000 on tickets, travel and backstage passes (not all of it charged on credit, though). Her thought process was, “What can I do to get one step closer?”
How Her Debt Grew
Thomas got her first credit card when she started college in 1991. “At that time, there were no rules around giving credit cards to college kids,” she said. “All I had to do was walk up to a table, sign my name on the line and get a Discover card with a $5,000 limit.”
When the first bill arrived, she discovered she could make a minimum payment rather than pay off what she owed entirely. But what Thomas didn’t realize was that making only minimum payments was keeping her in debt and forcing her to pay a lot more than what she originally charged thanks to the interest that was racking up on her balance.
On top of her credit card debt, Thomas graduated with $30,000 in student loans. She got a job teaching special education at a high school with an annual salary of $19,500. But that wasn’t enough to make ends meet.
“I had a very rude awakening about how was I going to make $19,500 and pay all of my bills,” she said. She was living paycheck to paycheck, so she got a second job with a tutoring service and made extra cash babysitting on the weekends. But she didn’t end up using that extra cash to pay off her student loans or credit cards any faster. Instead, she spent it.
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She Sank Deeper and Deeper into Debt
Because she was spending most of her money, Thomas relied on credit cards even more to keep her afloat. “I didn’t know how to stop,” she said. “It was normal for me to live this way because everyone else did.”
When Thomas and her fiance Jack married in 2001, the debt kept growing because they had three credit cards and a desire to keep up with the Joneses, she said. They bought a home with a $125,000 mortgage, and they had two car loans with monthly payments totaling $700.
She Hit Rock Bottom
In 2007, a friend called Thomas and asked if she wanted to go to Elton John’s concert at Madison Square Garden in New York. Thomas’ family had only one income because she had stopped working to take care of their two sons. Her credit cards were maxed out, so she had to tell her friend she couldn’t go.
“That was the beginning of me taking a step back and realizing this is ridiculous,” Thomas said. “All I wanted to do was see Elton John concerts.” But she couldn’t afford to go.
She started working with a direct sales company to earn money to see Elton John. As she made more money, though, Thomas spent it. It took hitting financial rock bottom in 2009 to finally make Thomas change her ways.
Her boys were ages 4 and 5, and Thomas wanted to give them a Christmas to remember. She was sitting in front of her computer with four credit cards that were almost maxed out trying to figure out how to divide charges among them to pay for gifts. “I hear this voice in my head, ‘You’re doing it all wrong,'” Thomas said.
So she made a bargain with herself. Thomas bought the gifts but promised that she would do something by Jan. 1 to ensure she wouldn’t be in the same situation the next year.
She Took a Dave Ramsey Course
Thomas turned to financial guru Dave Ramsey for help getting out of debt. She bought his Financial Peace University course for $99, which actually sparked an argument with her husband because he didn’t like the idea that she was spending money to get out of debt.
Using Ramsey’s debt snowball method of tackling debts with the smallest balance first then building momentum, Thomas started by adding up all of her debts. They owed $43,544 on six credit cards, two car loans and her student loan.
She had to create a budget to pay off her debt. Because her husband wasn’t on board, she opened a separate checking account for him and put $500 a month in it. “I knew he wasn’t going to spend the $500 every month — which he didn’t,” she said. “He needed to know the money was there.”
But after 18 months of sticking to a budget and chipping away at their debt, Thomas showed her husband how much she had paid off. And she pointed out that he was only spending about $150 to $200 a month and not the $500 that was going into his account. So they took all of the money he had accrued and wiped out what they owed on two credit cards.
“It was a very exciting moment for us,” she said. “Since then, he’s been on board.”
She Dramatically Reduced Spending
To come up with the cash for debt payments, Thomas eliminated all unnecessary spending. “We had no life for four years,” she said. They didn’t go out to dinner or take vacations. She even pulled her boys out of every extracurricular activity to save money.
Thomas also mastered extreme couponing to save money on groceries and have more cash to pay down debt. She got to the point where she wouldn’t buy anything without a coupon. “Couponing became an obsession — more so than Elton John,” Thomas said.
She also started making money by teaching couponing classes. Then people started asking her for help with budgeting because she was discussing the benefits in her coupon workshops. That eventually led to the launch of her financial coaching business in 2012, Melissa the Coach Financial Coaching. That extra income helped accelerate debt repayment.
She Set a Timeline for Getting Out of Debt
In addition to wanting to be out of debt to see Elton John concerts, Thomas motivated herself by setting a goal of being debt-free by her 40th birthday. Her student loan — which was her largest debt — was the last thing Thomas paid off. She made her last payment at 9 a.m. on her 40th birthday in September 2013.
Then she, her husband and their kids called into Dave Ramsey’s radio show at 2 p.m. that day to do their debt-free scream. Ramsey interviews people on the air after they’ve gone through his course and paid off their debt. He then counts down, and they get to shout that they are debt-free.
“It was such a cool moment,” Thomas said. “The boys remember that. They don’t remember the Christmas I was so concerned about.”
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She Changed Her Mindset
To stay out of debt, Thomas no longer uses credit cards. She also has a new mindset about money. “Now we have the money, but we don’t spend it,” she said.
Instead of buying whatever they want, they ask whether it’s the best use of their money. And if it’s something they really want, they’ll save for it. “I don’t want to put myself in a position where I miss out on something because I don’t have the money,” she said.
She and her husband save 15 percent of their income for retirement. They’re saving for their sons’ college. They have an emergency fund. And Thomas sets aside money for Elton John concerts.
Finally, She Shook Elton John’s Hand
Thomas averages about three Elton John concerts a year and has been to a total of 38 concerts over the past 25 years — 20 of which she sat in the first three rows. She’s even been able to buy backstage passes and has met every member of Elton John’s band.
This October, she finally got the chance to see Elton John in concert in Las Vegas — actually two concerts that cost $540 each. During both performances, she was able to go on stage because she was sitting in one of the first five rows. It wasn’t until the second night, though, that she stuck out her hand to Elton John for a handshake.
“He actually shook my hand instead of giving me just a high-five,” she said. “To me, that’s one step closer.”
But she’s not settling for a handshake when her goal is actually meeting Elton John. That would be like paying off only $40,000 of her debt rather than the full $43,544, she said.
“What I want is to stand in front of him and say, ‘Hi, I’m Melissa and I’ve been a huge fan for 25 years,'” she said. “Once that happens, that will be my dream come true.”
She hopes that having the money to pay for concerts rather than debt will help put her in the right place at the right time to make that dream a reality.
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