Shelby and Austin Pierce

Shelby and Austin Pierce stand in front of their Sioux City home in October. When the Pierces got married, they owed a collective $101,000 in student loan debts -- they've managed to whittle that figure down by more than half. 

SIOUX CITY -- When Shelby and Austin Pierce got married in June 2014, their combined student loan debt totaled roughly $101,000. 

Perhaps surprisingly, neither was a recent graduate: Austin, now 32, had graduated from Morningside College in 2008, and Shelby, 34, graduated from Colorado Christian University in Lakewood, Colorado, in 2006. They'd been paying on their loans for years by that point. 

The staggering number wasn't a surprise to the couple, however, as they had dated for several years and had discussed their student loan situation at length before tying the knot. 

"We knew it going in, it was one of my concerns about getting married in the first place was attaching her to my debt, because I had more debt," Austin Pierce, who writes and edits as an independent contractor, said. 

Just before they got married, Shelby suggested they "build a premarital counseling program." They took Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace program twice, first when they were engaged and again after they were married. 

"We picked different things to force us to talk about the important issues before we got married," Shelby Pierce, an employee of investment advising firm Pecaut and Company, said. 

Ramsey, a legendary financial guru who commands his followers to live a life of thrift and to avoid debt, made an impression on the Pierces. 

"Up until then, we were like, 'Oh, we'll just have our student loan debt forever!'" Shelby Pierce said. "That's when we really got serious and were like, 'The biggest priority is getting rid of this (debt).'" 

During their period of debt reckoning, they consulted sources besides Ramsey, including Napoleon Hill's 1937 book "Think and Grow Rich," and George S. Clason's 1926 work, "The Richest Man in Babylon." Both make the case against debt, further steeling the Pierces' collective will to overcome their loans. 

To tackle their debt, the couple employed Ramsey's "snowball" debt-repayment method, where you pay the minimum balance on all your debts, while making far larger payments on the debt with the smallest balance. Once that is paid off, you roll the previous debt's payment into the next-smallest debt, which you then proceed to pay off with more-than-minimum payments.

The process concludes once the largest (and final) debt is paid in full. 

But the Pierces' lifestyle for the past few years wasn't all "beans and rice, rice and beans" (to borrow a phrase from Ramsey) -- it was more about budgeting, making thoughtful financial decisions and the so-called "envelope" system, whereby a fixed dollar limit is dedicated to each expense, with no more doled out once that line item's budget is depleted. 

"It's less about having complete austerity," Austin Pierce said. "In your budget, you could have a line item for roller coasters. But you have, like, a plan and you're working toward something." 

So have the Pierces been able to make a dent in their student loans? Yes, actually -- so far they've whittled their balance down to roughly $49,000, which is Austin's remaining student loan. They expect all the loans to be paid in full by March 2021. 

Shelby, who maintains what seems to be a laser focus on the couple's highly organized finances, has also mapped out other scenarios where the loans are paid off earlier. 

"If we wanted to have it done by October 2019, we'd have to paying $2,241.90 (per month)," she said. Currently, they're paying about $1,500 per month. 

What happens once all their loans are paid off? Jewelry shopping spree? Move to a villa in the south of France? 

Probably nothing like that. They're in the process of paying for a home on contract, and it would be nice to build some actual personal wealth. 

There's a lot the Pierces don't like about debt -- in particular, how binding it makes the debtor feel, and how money a person earns is earmarked for someone else. 

"It restricts how much freedom you have, you have to make more, it's this thing that you constantly have to work for," Austin Pierce said. 

Looking back, would the Pierces have done it differently in college? Both said yes: In Shelby's case, she wishes she'd applied for more scholarships and grants, and in Austin's case, he might have given more consideration to cheaper colleges. 

"I can tell you, state schools don't seem as bad as they were made out to be," Austin said with a laugh.  

Karen Gagnon, an associate vice president for institutional research at Morningside College and the school's director of student financial planning, said most students -- about 75 percent -- leave the school with some amount of debt. The amount the school reports its graduates typically owing, $34,225.20, is quite a lot less than Austin Pierce owes on his education there a decade ago. 

Significantly higher student loan balances, Gagnon said, are sometimes seen in students that hopped around from college to college, or graduates with advanced degrees. That being said, neither Pierce has an advanced degree: "Too afraid, because of the debt," Shelby Pierce joked.

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