How I paid off $200k in debt in 3 years

There’s a life I want to live that doesn’t have me shackled to debt, and I couldn’t keep waiting for someone else to get me there.

Paid in Full

For most of us, debt is a necessary evil. Paying it off can be one of the most freeing, empowering accomplishments in the world, worthy of celebration. Mic's series Paid in Full tells the stories of these triumphs, and just might help you figure out how to get to balance zero, too.

Name: Nika Booth

Age: 40

City/state: Washington, DC

Amount of debt paid off: $211,313

Type of debt paid off: 15 credit cards, one car loan, four outstanding tax bills, nine student loans

How long it took to pay off: 3 years (Started in September 2018)

Jobs held while paying the debt: Primary full time job, Instacart shopper, front desk at boutique cycle studio

I grew up with a single mom. Money was never openly talked about: how it came in, how expenses were prioritized, or even what a budget and setting money goals looked like. All I knew was when I wanted McDonald’s my mom would snip: “Do you have McDonald’s money?” Of course I didn’t. But I never starved and I don’t recall ever struggling, but that’s because we didn’t talk about money. Looking back, I’m certain my mom made a lot of sacrifices and money was a stressor for her.

I got into debt with a lack of education or any role models for responsible money and credit management. I didn’t understand at a young age what signing a promissory note for student loans meant. I’m a first generation college graduate and I was driven to make my grandparents proud. I now have degrees in Biology and Biotechnology, but loans were my only option for higher education. My very first credit card was a Capital One Mastercard and I got it my freshman year of college. They were on campus enticing students who were barely adults with a shiny card and a t-shirt. Taking on that debt wasn’t hard because being in debt was normal, and I thought making payments was the only way to have anything. Everyone I knew had debt.

The interest on my credit cards wasn’t bad but the interest on my student loans should be a crime! To date, my loans accrue $25.15 per day in interest. This is from years of delaying payments because they weren’t a priority (student loans were “good” debt) and I didn’t know how to budget. The 2018-2019 government furlough was a big turning point in deciding to get on top of it. I never again wanted someone to be in that much control of when I got paid. I also didn’t want to wait for the government to maybe forgive my student loans under PSLF. The approval rate was so low. There’s a life I want to live that doesn’t have me shackled to debt, and waiting on someone else for me to get there just didn’t make sense to me.

Surrounding yourself with people who have similar goals is a game changer. You realize you’re not alone and that the journey to debt freedom is not linear.

To get on top of my debt I started reading, listening to podcasts, and searching for ways to pay it off. The more educated I became, the more confident I was in taking control of my money and making healthy money decisions. I found the Debt Free Community on Instagram and decided to create a page to document my journey and for accountability. Surrounding yourself with people who have similar goals is a game changer. You realize you’re not alone and that the journey to debt freedom is not linear. I also talked to my friends about my goals for support. The invites were still impromptu but the invitation was more geared toward, "Is this in the budget?" Because I budget for fun while tackling my debt, I was able to still enjoy some of those invitations.

I did a combination of things. I definitely made extra debt payments, as often as I could. I picked up a side hustle, first Instacart then working at an indoor cycle studio. I minimized unnecessary spending and found ways to reduce my monthly bills — like getting new quotes on my car and homeowner's insurance, and changing my cell phone plan to lower that monthly bill. I started to consistently plan meals and meal prep every Sunday for the entire week so that I ate more food at home. I started selling things I no longer needed or couldn't fit on Mercari and Facebook Marketplace. I created sinking funds for known expenses like Christmas, car insurance, car repairs, and annual fees. That way, I could stay on track to paying off debt without having to worry about where I would find the money to pay for certain things at the same time.

To date, there has been only one time where I felt like giving up, and that was in June/July of 2019. I had paid off about $16,000 in credit card debt but I had also filed all of my outstanding tax returns. When that tax bill finally came, it came in the form of $21,946 (including interest and penalties) and it felt like a gut punch. I felt like I was starting all over, because that tax bill essentially wiped out all of the credit card debt I had paid off and put me over my starting debt amount. I got depressed because of it. But I also remembered that I had given up a lot of times before. Having paid off that much credit card debt, I proved to myself that I could do it — so I treated the tax debt like it was just one other hurdle to get over. To date, it's been paid in full.

Now, I feel empowered and definitely lighter carrying around less debt and financial stress on my shoulders. I’m much more responsible with my money and credit card use, too. Everything I do is budgeted and I make adjustments where needed. Budgeting for fun has been a game changer in terms of sticking to the budget and my debt payoff plan. It feels more like permission to spend than a restriction. If you need to pay off debt, start today. The longer you wait, the longer it’ll take you to get to the life you want. The hardest part is laying all of your debt out in front of you, but it is a crucial step.