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How these gym instructors went from $50,000 in debt to being fiscally fit

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Samantha and Michael Bahil had about $50,000 of car and student debt between them when they took out a $20,000 loan for their wedding.

After the wedding, they wanted to buy a house but had no idea how. So, they got serious about paying off their debt.

Now the fitness instructors are homeowners, and debt-free aside from their mortgage.

Samantha, 33, who goes by Sam, and Michael, 38, met at a Gold’s Gym in Albany, N.Y.’s capital district. Sam was training with Michael’s roommate at the time, and she and Michael started taking fitness classes together.

Sam was about to graduate from college and working as a waitress when she bought a new car: a 2012 Honda Civic. That added five figures of debt to her loan balance from SUNY Albany. 

Michael had a bachelor’s degree and his own student debt from SUNY Oneonta and had moved to Albany to work for an entertainment company headquartered there. The company was hit hard by digital music streaming and closing its stores, and Michael was doing email marketing and web merchandising there before he got laid off. 

Realizing he’d put on weight and needed to make a change, he joined a Gold’s Gym. He got a job there too, earning less than $10 an hour at the front desk.

From there, he shifted completely to fitness and became a certified personal trainer. Sam, who started working at the gym herself, got certified too. In 2015, Michael bought a new car, a Subaru.

Fast forward to their July 2016 wedding. The couple took out a $20,000 loan to cover a little more than half the cost of a “big, standard American wedding,” despite their existing debt.

“We weren’t financially literate,” Michael admitted. “We made mistakes.”

They covered the rest of the wedding themselves, setting aside money from every paycheck they could.

Just before the wedding, Michael got sick, and wound up diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. The regular treatments he needed would have cost $10,000 apiece, the couple said, if not for Michael’s health insurance and an assistance program. 

After the wedding, they used their cash wedding gifts to pay off most of the $20,000 wedding loan. Two months later, they buckled down to pay the rest of their debt. 

Michael had gotten into gym management, and the couple was making about $100,000 combined while they chipped away at their more than $50,000 balance.

Sam said she learned debt payoff techniques from YouTube videos and books like “The Total Money Makeover” by Dave Ramsey. She joined the debt-free movement on social media.

The Bahils analyzed their expenses and made a budget, cutting expenses where they could. They dropped their grocery budget from $1,000 a month to $700. When friends invited them over, they would bring pre-made meals to avoid ordering out. After a few months, they cut their cable subscription.

“We had to focus on not using boredom and weekends as an excuse to spend money,” Sam said.

Living “intentionally” helped them become debt-free in less than two years, in May 2018.

The next year, they said they saved $40,000 toward buying their first home, a 1,500-square-foot Colonial-style house in the Albany area. They made a 10 percent down payment.

They got a puppy, increased their emergency fund, replaced Sam’s car with a used car they bought in cash, and started new jobs at Orangetheory Fitness teaching classes and training clients. The jobs offered flexible hours and higher pay per hour. For extra income, they both spend a few hours a week training clients outside the gym, and Michael has a second side hustle as a DJ. 

The Bahils recently celebrated five years debt-free aside from their mortgage. They titled the post on their blog, A Financially Fit Life, “Shedding the weight and keeping it off.”

Their main goal has been investing for retirement, and in recent years have maxed out their Roth IRAs. 

“We don’t have access to 401(k)s [through a job], so we take that burden on ourselves and make sure we’re responsible for it,” Sam said.

Life is more laid-back, with time to work out, read, watch TV (they still do not have cable), and play with their pit bull mix, Max. If one of them has to wake up before dawn to teach a class, they have room in their schedules to nap.

And they travel, including an anniversary trip every year, usually to the Caribbean, always paying in full to avoid taking on any debt.

As a couple without kids who already own a home, Sam said the main question now is what else should they do?

“It is very cool that we can look to our future and look forward to it and really be excited about it,” she said. “We could pick up and move if we wanted, we could go on a long vacation if we wanted. It’s a totally different place from where we were before when we started.”

Julia Barrett-Mitchell contributed to this story.

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