Expert Interview with Tabitha Philen on Getting Out of Debt for Mint

Tabitha Philen has been where many of us are: in debt and not sure what to do. How she got out of it, and continues to improve the family finances through savings, couponing and other tricks, is documented on her fascinating blog, Meet Penny. She spoke with us about how to save even when it feels like you can't get ahead.

You had a pretty tough financial situation back in 2009. How did it feel to be that far in debt?

When we were in severe debt, my husband and I felt completely helpless. Our misplaced priorities and selfish habits had us in a deep pit, and we were clueless about how to overcome such a crazy amount of debt on a limited income. As Christians, we believed that God would take care of us, but at the same time, we realized it was our choices that had placed us in this extreme situation. Truly, each day was an emotional roller-coaster because we had no idea where to start paying off the bills since we did not even have enough income to make minimum payments while still paying for groceries and gasoline.

When did you first realize you could use saving strategies to cut down on the bills?

My husband and I visited with a financial advisor because we were considering bankruptcy. On the way to the appointment, I remembered that we needed to have a budget to present at the meeting and I quickly took notes, guessing at the majority of our expenses. As I wrote down the amount for groceries, I hesitated and lowered the figure by $100. Then, as we sat in front of the advisor, he recommended that I cut our grocery budget. I gasped in shock because I knew that I had already lowered what we were actually spending.

Within the next week, I was watching morning news television and saw a woman buy over $100 in groceries for $0.25 by using coupons on sale prices. I was determined to learn as much as I could about how to stockpile with coupons, and I became a student of the stockpile-coupon method. The first time I saved over 50% I was amazed. The first time I saved over 90%...I cried.

What are some challenges of budgeting for a family people don't anticipate?

The unexpected incidents try to kill our budget! My husband and I often joke that every time we think we have our finances planned, something happens, and it feels true. Just last week, we were setting a plan in motion for purchasing new work clothing for him, and he reached to turn on the ceiling fan...only the ceiling fan did not respond. Yes, his clothing money now has to pay for a new ceiling fan.

There are always going to be unexpected expenses, and that is why having something...anything...in savings is extremely important.

What makes a good deal for you? What does it have to offer to stand out and have you share it?

The ingredients for a good deal must include something I truly love, because I am picky about the brands I represent and use; a rock-bottom price; and a special way to use the product to make the lives of my readers easier. If there is a coupon or rebate to add on top of the offer, all the better!

My readers are like family to me, and I know that many are struggling with that pit of debt and despair. That is why I want them to be aware of great deals. However, I also remember the temptation to spend unnecessarily as my husband and I were just starting to make changes in our habits. So, I am cautious about trying to sell something to my readers that might be unnecessary or frivolous.

Conversely, when might a coupon or deal just not be worth it?

If you risk your moral integrity to use a coupon or to make a deal happen, the match is never worth it. I am often dumbstruck to hear of people who twist the rules to save a few cents. Really? Is your integrity available at such a low price?

Also, even when we can get a great deal within the rules, I find it incredibly important to remember that my time is valuable, too. If life is stressful and something more demanding is vying for my attention, or if I just need to turn off the calculator in my brain for the night and rest, I will let a deal slip away.

What's the future of couponing and saving? What trends to you see becoming more commonplace?

I was just discussing the trends I am noticing in couponing and saving with a customer service manager at a large supercenter in our area. As our society becomes increasingly digital and paperless, I think we will see more digital offers and coupons where printing a coupon or having an advertisement in hand as proof to match a price will not be necessary. I also think we will see a rise in stores carrying different sizes and models of products that vary from other stores in order to avoid matching the lowest price available from the competition.

For deals, thoughts and strategies from Tabitha, follow her on FacebookTwitterGoogle+ and Pinterest.