Weather Alerts

DOWNSIZING YOUR LIFE: $260,000 Disappearing Debt

This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.

The bigger, the better, the newer, the nicer. It's not about what we need, it's about what we want. And we want it now! Connie Capehart, of Des Moines, had a motto for it: "Champagne tastes on beer income."

That's what Connie and her husband, Gene, did for 30 years. The high life is out there, they figured, so, why not live it? Capehart explains, "Growing up as kids we were both kind of from poor families."

So they made up for it. Connie had her precious moments collection, a lifetime of them filling their Des Moines home. And she collected dozens of Aladdin lamps, which can sell for hundreds a piece. Connie said, "I love to to shop whether it's for me or someone else. He (Gene) had his, camping."

Then there were the Capeharts' classics: the 1957 Chevy and the '38 Ford and the others. When they went to car shows back in those days, let's just say they weren't just kicking the tires. They were collecting.

The Capeharts are like many of us who became super spenders instead of savers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics showed the adult savings rate plummeted from near 8% in 1985 all the way down to 1.5% when the economy starting tanking in 2005.

For the Capeharts, a few bucks in the bank weren't enough when Connie lost her job. Bankruptcy became unwelcome but necessary. And the Capeharts had to sell off many of their cherished collectibles to pay the bills. But Connie lost something even more cherished: her friends. She recalls, "It just hurts that they were there and they partied with you and had a good time. And then you file bankruptcy and then you find out who your friends really are."

But no one we found in central Iowa had those "gotta haves" like one man we met in the Ames Public Library. Trent Hamm, of Huxley, admitted, "My weakness at the time was DVDs."

Movies, TV shows, he had them all. He estimates he had thousands of them, so many that he never even watched many of them. Hamm said, "We reached a point where we couldn't pay our bills. We had student loan debt. We had car debt. We had all sorts of different credit card and consumer debt."

He and his wife both worked, but their debt reached $260,000. So he threw the book at his family's problems. That is what brought him to the library, where hope stacks high in every aisle. Hamm read book after book with debt reduction ideas and found so many he started blogging about his experiences. The more he wrote, the more ideas others sent him. Hamm said, "Well, there are some things that when you look at them by themselves, they may seem kind of crazy."

Hamm said he makes his own laundry list (which saves $150 a year he estimates). But his laundry list offers many more money savers.

1. Grocery shop from the ads and cook plenty for leftovers.

2. Sell those things you once wanted but don't really need.

3. Cancel subscriptions like cable and Netflix.

4. Find cheap entertainment like the local park.

The simple dollar became his life's mission and his website. So many people started following his ideas, he got his own idea: Quit his job and write about saving money for a living. was born.

Hamm writes mostly at the library, because, of course, it's free, but it also gives him a quiet place to work away from children. And now when you look through the self help books here, one stands out. Hamm's "365 Ways to Live Cheap" has now sold more than 100,000 copies. And that $260,000? Gone. Every penny. Hamm said, "Many of my friends, they almost don't understand it. They just kind of shake their head. I'm not even sure they believe it."

But there seem to be fewer non-believers these days in his way of thinking. Americans' savings rate has now upped to near 5%, a sizable job from the start of the Great Recession.

A change jar now sits waiting for more at the Capeharts home. And coupons now control going out to eat. That old motto of hers, "Champagne taste on beer income", is just a memory. Now it's just an occasional Pepsi. Capehart admits, "It gets boring."

Boring now makes sense. Downsizing her life has changed her life. She said, "It's tough but it can be done. I did it."

That's because she better understands the value of a simple dollar.