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debt diaries

Wedding ceremony.Getty Images/iStockphoto

Sonja Frohberg and Matthew Kitchen's February wedding will cost $24,646.06, a large amount for a young couple already wrestling down $35,000 in consumer and student debt.

"It seems crazy to spend that much money on this one day," said the 27-year-old bride-to-be, who works for the federal government in Ottawa. "But I have it budgeted down to the penny. We are saving for it and ... our plan is to have every dollar of our wedding paid for by May."

Ms. Frohberg and Mr. Kitchen got engaged this summer. They knew that before they could start building a life together, they needed to get their finances in order. Ms. Frohberg owed $6,000 on a line of credit, mostly from trips she took to places like Japan and the Philippines, but also from "living a lifestyle outside of my means."

Still, her debt was minor compared to that of Mr. Kitchen, who had $24,000 in student debt (down from an original $40,000) and owed additional money for a custom-made engagement ring.

Despite these financial obstacles, the couple decided that having a wedding, surrounded by all of their family and friends, was too important to pass up.

"We want to get married and weren't willing to sacrifice a wedding or wait – he is military so there is always a chance of a forced move or deployment – so we are trying to get married as cheaply as possible, without sacrificing the big things," Ms. Frohberg said.

In order to keep costs in check, they are getting married in February, a slow time for weddings. That allowed them to score deals on the venue, the DJ and the photographer. Ms. Frohberg bought her wedding dress online for a steal and they've decided to skip the fresh flowers. The $24,646.06 wedding tally includes the honeymoon in Barbados.

And how is this couple managing to both make debt payments and set aside money for their big day? "We spent a lot of time crunching numbers and making spreadsheets, trying to figure out how much we were spending and how much we needed to save," Ms. Frohberg said.

So each month, they put $500 toward her debt, $500 toward his, and set aside $2,000 for the wedding. "We are lucky, we both have good jobs," she said, adding that although they'll need to borrow a little when it comes time to pay for the venue, they plan to be free of wedding debt three months after they get married.

And if everything goes according to their bigger-picture financial plan, the rest of their consumer and student debt will be gone by May, 2015, at the latest. That will leave them debt-free, except for the mortgage on their condo and their car loan, which they will tackle after that.

To keep tabs on their daily spending, Ms. Frohberg has a little book where she writes down every single thing they purchase, from a cup of coffee to the weekly groceries.

"Tracking your money is an amazing experience. It really makes you think twice about whether things are worth buying," she said. "And on those days you don't spend anything, you feel so good."

Here are some ways the couple are curbing their expenses:

1.) They are living in their affordable, "slightly-cramped" condo on the outskirts of Ottawa, instead of buying a house or moving to a more central neighbourhood.

2.) For all of the things they need to buy, like winter tires for the car, they shop on Kijiji,, Groupon and other discount sources.

3.) They grocery shop on the weekend and cook all of their own lunches for the week. Often, their weekly food bill comes in under $80.

4.) Sonja did her teacher training for yoga, which means she works out for free. Because Matthew is in the military, he pays very little to nothing for hockey.

Rona Birenbaum, a financial planner with Caring for Clients, said that from a financial point of view, there are more productive ways to spend money than weddings.

"But there is an intangible value to things people spend on – whether is it travel or a wedding – and these things add value to life," Ms. Birenbaum said, adding that in the case of this couple, what is noteworthy is that they have a debt-repayment plan.

"With their extreme focus and discipline on how to repay it, and the lifestyle compromises they are making, this wedding will likely not be the financial anchor for them the way it might be for someone else."

Sonja says she is sharing the details of their debt-reduction journey in the hopes that it will inspire other young Canadians to get active about tracking their finances and attacking their debt.

"Our generation spends way more than they can comfortably afford and if they don't stop now, we will all be in big trouble," she said.

"This is not a story of extremes – it's perfectly average. I won't be cutting my own hair and I will buy clothes and get pedicures from time to time. Nonetheless, we will find great deals and innovative ways to save money on essentials and we will pay off this debt by May, 2015."

She's confident the couple will reach that goal, noting that "so far we have done as well or better than my financial projections."

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