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When Leo and Faith Jean-Louis started dating, they had no idea how much debt the other person held. But it didn’t take long to realize they were both holding onto a lot of debt. Combined, they owed $212,000 in credit card and student loan debt, as well as for a heating and cooling system for their home.
“Faith borrowed money from Sallie Mae, I believe, to finance not only her college but her apartment and her lifestyle,” Leo, 30, said. “She had $8,000 like sitting in the bank. I was like, ‘Faith, this is going to affect us when we get married, so I need you to give it back.’”
“And I was like ‘give it back?’” Faith said.
After the first 12 months of aggressively tackling their debt, they had paid off more than $104,000. The couple said they had frank conversations about money pretty early on. When Faith, 28, was still in school, one of their dates was spent writing an essay to submit for a scholarship.
“The scholarship that I applied for was through the National Health Service Corps, and it’s for people like nurse practitioners or doctors or physicians’ assistants who are interested in working in underserved communities,” Faith said. “The scholarship pays the cost of your master’s or doctorate program,” but participants have to work for at least two years.
“You commit to at least two years of full-time service in exchange for a full or partial year of scholarship support,” according to the NHSC’s website.
Faith works in downtown Atlanta as a pediatric nurse practitioner, and as an overnight nurse, where “moms hire nurses to come in to take care of their newborns overnight.” She says she naps between her two gigs and only gets a few hours of sleep a day.
Faith isn’t the only one putting in extra hours. Leo works as an outpatient occupational therapist, and he has a side gig too, working as an inpatient occupational therapist at an Atlanta hospital. He says he has worked every holiday so far this year.
The couple said they’re pushing hard to pay off their debt so they don’t have to scale back other things later in life, particularly when it comes to starting a family.
“We’re doing this with our future children in mind,” Leo said. We’re doing this so we don’t have to say no to extracurricular activities because finances are limiting us.”
Despite their debt, the Jean-Louis family still gives back. “One of the purposes of our marriage is to give,” Leo said. “Even while we’ve been paying off our debt, we still have a giving budget. We still put money aside every month.”
They’re not just giving money, Leo and Faith have recently launched their own movement, the Freedom is a Choice movement. The goal of the movement is to help inspire others to pay down their debt.
“We chose that term just because it’s a decision to want to get out of debt, and we want to inspire everyone everywhere to choose a life for freedom,” said Leo.”It’s almost like you’re in bondage and slavery when you’re required to go to work just to pay off you know all of these loans.”
The couple has cultivated a large following on Instagram, with more than 7,800 followers between them. They post photos and videos as they pay off their debt, and their posts gather dozens of comments from people asking questions and cheering them on.
“So many people are in debt,” Faith said. “A lot of people don’t even know how much they owe, so we are here to just motivate people. A lot of people have been really excited and really into our chart, so we are creating a visual for people.”
The duo have a hand-drawn thermometer chart they use to track how much they have paid off, pulling from their church’s fundraising efforts for chart inspiration. They’re creating a “nice poster people can buy to track their own debt.”
This isn’t a forever plan for them; they hope to taper off the grueling hours soon as they try to start a family. Faith knows the lack of sleep isn’t healthy, but she said knowing it’s temporary has helped her get through it. It’s all building toward a debt-free future.