For most people, rapidly paying down hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt is pure fantasy. Filling a six-figure hole is usually a multi-decade endeavor. Not for Bernadette Joy.

Despite having $300,000 of debt, Joy cleared this balance in just three years.

That's right: $300k in debt gone in 36 months. She must be rich or have had help from wealthy parents, right?

Absolutely not. Joy took a conscious, disciplined approach to her financial health, reducing expenses and building debt-destroying capital.

So, what’s her secret? It’s not rocket science.

Joy applied four simple and powerful rules to shrink her balance. These financial heuristics offer an entirely different approach to budgeting.

The $1 rule

Joy permits herself to purchase items that cost $1 or less per use—items that will be used frequently or are simply low in cost.

For example, imagine you’re considering purchasing an Xbox for $500 and you anticipate using the console once a month for the next three years.

The system would cost nearly $14 per use ($500 / 36 months). For Joy and her $1 rule, that’s an obvious “no.”

The $1 rule makes most transactions quick and easy; no grueling deliberation, emotion, or mental strain—just a straightforward cost-benefit analysis.

“If an item comes out to one dollar or less per use, I give myself the green light to buy it. The $1 rule allows you to buy things you use frequently while preventing impulse purchases that might seem like a good deal,” Joy says.

The real power of this rule comes from preventing the purchase of items that appear to offer good value.

Imagine the Xbox was on sale for $300, down from $500. That $200 savings seems like a great deal. However, for the frequency of use, it’s still too expensive. At $300, it would still be more than $8 per use.

According to Joy, her strategy helps her overcome price anchoring, the phenomenon where people attach too much weight to the original price.

In our example, the video game console started at $500, so the $300 price reduction seems like a great deal and hard to resist.

Retailers are well-versed in this psychological tactic. That’s why discount signs are prominent and bright. They want you to believe you’re getting a good deal, whether you need the item or not.

The 80/20 rule

The 80/20 rule is often mentioned, and you’ve probably heard a version of it.

For Joy, when it comes to financial health, 80/20 means sticking to items used 80% of the time or more.

Need a new set of dinnerware? If you eat in most of the time, Joy would likely say it makes sense to make the purchase. If you eat out a few times a week, she’d recommend skipping the purchase.

Next time you’re considering a new purchase, ask yourself: Will I use this 80% of the time or more? If yes, you’ve been greenlit for the purchase. If not, put the plates back and move along.

Zero-based budgeting

When Joy discovered zero-based budgeting, it was a revelation.

With traditional budgeting, all expenses are accounted for, with any money left over typically going into savings or investments. With zero-based budgeting, every incoming dollar is accounted for ahead of time.

Why is this distinction important?

Zero-based budgeting offers a clearer picture of where every dollar will go. There’s no guessing about how much money you’ll have left to spend.

This approach often emphasizes the importance of cost-cutting measures. During months when income is lower, you’ll be accurately aware of the belt-tightening requirements in advance.

While it may not always be pleasant, zero-based budgeting is effective. That’s the point.

Prioritize what you genuinely cherish

This rule helps humanize Joy’s approach. While an Xbox might be nice, if you’re not a big fan of video games, you likely won’t miss it.

Instead, if you love sneakers more than anything else, that’s fine. Don’t torture yourself. Identify what you value most, and keep some cash available for those purchases.

Money is limited, so why not spend it on items you truly want, love, and will use often?

Psychologically, this is a potent strategy. It frees you from the constraints of temptation. You can forgo the Xbox relatively easily, but you know sneakers are a different story.

Be honest with yourself, identify those special items, and allow yourself more flexibility when encountering them.

What's next?

These rules may be simple, but they aren’t particularly easy. It’s like exercise. Most of us know exactly what to do, but few of us are regular practitioners.

If the rules seem overwhelming, start small. Pick one rule to follow in the beginning. You’ll likely be motivated by success and watch the momentum (and savings) build.