CLEARFIELD — They lived paycheck to paycheck almost from the moment they were married, but it wasn't until Cassie and Alex Michael were expecting their first child that they admitted to themselves that $100,000 in consumer debt is problematic.

Even then, change didn't begin until they had fallen behind on payments and were so strapped that they had to borrow money at steep interest rates from a payday loan company for a simple car repair. That got their attention.

But when you're young and consumed with consuming — and really, really good at it — how do you begin to fix things?

They started with the groceries because they had no choice but to eat. A change there, they figured, would be a lifelong pursuit. And that search for savings has been refined and just keeps growing. Now debt-free except for the house — "We're going after that next," says Alex — they're gifted thrifties who blog about the journey at the Thrifty Couple (www.thethriftycouple.com), offering lots of advice to others who'd like to dig out from under debt.

And seven years after they decided to change their lives, they've been named "Deal Pros" by popular Savings.com, which says the Michaels are some of the most frugal, financially responsible people in America.

The learning curve was steep at first, says Cassie Michael. They were making a little progress here and slipping backward there. They only managed to dump $15,000 in debt the first three years, she said, because they weren't in step with each other. They decided they had to work together to succeed. The next three years, they dropped $85,000 in debt.

By learning to coupon and shop sales, they brought their groceries down from $600 a month to under $200. Then they started applying the same tricks to dining out, traveling and clothing. He started taking lunch to his job as a software engineer. They learned to pay for almost everything with cash.

They are now parents of four kids, ages 1 to 6. And they've folded the kids as much as possible into the thrifty lifestyle. Since just cutting back was never enough to conquer that kind of debt quickly, they took on other paying jobs, like delivering newspapers and phone books as a family. That money adds up. And while the recession has cut into some people's jobs, most of the type of side jobs they were seeking didn't go away.

On the good-deals side, they note, a recession brings lots of good sales.

It has also freed them to be more generous themselves. When there's a food drive, they have bounty to spare in the pantry. They can afford to carry a box of goods in the car in case they meet someone who needs help. They can plan generosity with purpose.

Among their top tips for getting out of debt:

Sit down as a family and develop a budget. It will give you the "numbers to beat" as you streamline your budget and find ways to save.

Open up communication with all family members and work together to meet financial goals. Cassie Michael talks about a friend who carefully clipped coupons and squeezed pennies, but was defeated when her husband brought home a large-screen TV he'd bought at full price. "She was heartbroken. A family that can work on goals together and be accountable to one another "can see true change occur and will remain even more committed for the long haul."

They suggest meeting weekly and focusing on one or two spending habits at a time, to avoid being overwhelmed and caving in to old habits.

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They also recommend using the many resources available, such as guides that explain how best to use coupons. Free and well-conceived resources are abundant, but some of the skills have to be taught. They're not all intuitive.

Start, they say, with those areas that bring the most return on investment. Then expand to capture savings and good habits in all aspects of your life. For most people, saving on groceries provides real found money.

And stick with it, they add. They had false starts and faulty methods before they came up with a plan to subdue that $100,000-plus in debt.

e-mail: lois@desnews.com

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