By Katelyn Newberg Las Vegas Review-Journal
While living in a city known for extravagant spending, Sunethra Muralidhara conquered her $200,000 debt in just over two years.
With the help of her husband, Michael Mohan, Muralidhara repaid all of the money she owed from loans taken out for undergraduate and law school. After moving to Las Vegas for work in August 2014, Muralidhara and Mohan, her boyfriend at the time, lived off 25 percent of their incomes.
After 26 months, Muralidhara was debt-free.
“If we can inspire one person, then that’s our goal,” Muralidhara said. “It feels so financially freeing to not have that debt hanging over your shoulders anymore.”
The idea to tackle the debt came from Mohan in Feburary 2014, when the couple’s relationship was getting serious. When Mohan realized the extent of what Muralidhara owed, he began researching.
At first, Muralidhara didn’t take it well.
“I felt like I had done something wrong,” she said, describing the first fight the two had after Mohan approached her about the debt.
But Mohan, 30, said he wanted to prepare for their future: marriage and owning a home. So the two started planning.
Muralidhara, 28, stopped getting her hair and nails done and gave up shopping. They used only cash, and every dollar was carefully budgeted.
Instead of going out after work, they biked together near their apartment in Centennial Hills. At most they gave themselves each $15 a month to dine out.
“Were basically decided and prioritizing where our money is going, so it goes to things that are important to us,” Mohan said.
Muralidhara said the hardest part was not allowing others to “spend your money.” When friends or co-workers asked them to go to a bar or restaurant, she would either say no or go without ordering anything.
“It’s uncomfortable and it’s awkward and I hated doing it,” she said.
When it came time to marry in August 2016, the two said they spent about $35,000 in cash for every aspect of the wedding, which included plane tickets to Chicago and hotel rooms for their family. They bought rings in Las Vegas after negotiating prices.
“Vegas is such a money town,” she said. “It’s upfront — they just want the cash.”
For date nights, the two rented cheap movies or bought one drink and walked down Fremont Street. They took advantage of national parks surrounding the valley with free admission on government holidays.
“We found the pleasure of just hanging out one-on-one,” Muralidhara said.
The couple said neither has a large salary — Muralidhara works as an assistant federal public defender with Las Vegas’ office of the federal public defender, and Mohan works in the same office as a financial administrator — but now that the debt is gone their future feels secure.
Christie O’Melia, chief operations officer for the Financial Guidance Center in Nevada, said Muralidhara and Mohan’s plan is possible, but expensive for the average person under debt. O’Melia said the majority of the center’s clients have the ability to pay off their debt in five years.
“A lot of it is sacrificing,” she said. “It just depends on the client and their ability in their financial lives to pay their debt off.”
O’Melia said that Muralidhara and Mohan’s strategy of paying for everything in cash is the way to go, and that the center’s program to pay off debt calls for the same thing. She said those with debt should explore all of their options instead of assuming bankruptcy is the only way out.
“Every situation is case by case,” she said. “For some, there’s the option of tackling a little debt at a time.”
In order for clients to rid themselves of debt, O’Melia said they have to start sacrificing small expenses, or put more time into saving money. People could track what they spend each month, decrease entertainment and dining out costs, or shop for cheaper alternatives for things like car insurance.
“Anyone can do it,” she said. “It’s just really understanding the money coming in and the money going out.”
Muralidhara said now that her debt is gone, she and her husband won’t go back to spending the way they used too.
“I don’t really feel the need to go back to the hair and the nails,” she said. “Because now I have this dream of owning a home.”
Mohan said millennials in similar situations with student loans or credit card debt need to start planning.
“Sacrifice now for your future,” he said. “You want to take care of it as soon as possible.”
Now that Muralidhara’s debts are paid and they’re saving to buy a home in cash, they’re looking forward to one “unnecessary” expense: traveling. Their destinations include the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park and San Diego, Muralidhara said.
“We really don’t need much to be happy,” she said.