How to pay off your debt, according to 7 people who actually did it
Being saddled with a massive amount of financial debt can be a very isolating feeling. But unfortunately, it's a reality that tons of people deal with, whether it's due to student loans, medical bills, mortgages, or something else. No matter the reason that you owe money, figuring out how to pay off your debt is never an easy task — especially considering just how much debt Americans currently have.
According to Debt.org, approximately 300 million U.S. households share the burden of $13.21 trillion in debt. When it comes to credit card debt alone, ValuePenguin reports that almost half of U.S. households carry at least some, and the average credit card debt for those households is $9,333. Those are some jarring statistics, but the silver lining is that in most cases, it is possible to pay off your debt. Here's what worked for seven people who managed to get it done.
1. Track your spending and find unique ways to stay motivated
"[My husband and I] paid off $45,000 in 17 months. Our debt consisted of $6,000 in credit cards, $14,000 in a car loan and $25,000 in student loans," says Ashley Patrick, financial coach and owner of Budgets Made Easy. "Our journey really started when my husband lost his job and had a 401(k) loan, [which] ended up costing us thousands of dollars in taxes. We put what we owed onto a zero-percent credit card for 18 months. I then realized I didn't have a plan to pay it off in 18 months, before the interest would accrue."
When researching payoff options, Patrick came across Dave Ramey's "debt snowball" plan, which advises paying off debts in order from the smallest to the largest amounts. In addition to following the plan, Patrick started tracking her expenses, and was shocked to find out how much money she was actually spending.
"I immediately started cutting [out restaurants], fast food and all the little things that add up at the end of the month," she recalls. "I cut my grocery budget in half to $600 for a family of four; [and] I sold everything I could, including all my household decor. My walls were empty, and it looked like I just moved in — but I was making a dent in our debt. My husband worked a ton of overtime and extra jobs to help speed up the process as well. We were able to shave an entire year off our debt pay-off plan."
It wasn't easy, Patrick says, but the couple "found lots of ways to stay motivated, including making visuals, listening to podcasts and joining Facebook groups. I even calculated how much interest I was paying every single day on my student loans; it was nearly $5 every single day. I would calculate it all the time to see the number drop, and that helped me want to pay it off even faster. Not only did we get that credit card paid off within the 18 months; but [we also paid off] all our debt, except the mortgage!”
2. Make a long-term plan and re-evaluate as needed
“My wife and I paid off $22,000 in credit card debt within the first three years of our marriage," says J.R. Duren, personal finance analyst and senior editor at HighYa. "We each brought about $11,000 in debt into the marriage via spending we did when we were single. We paid off our debt by taking a methodical approach that included acknowledging all the debt we had, creating a budget that could regulate our spending and free up money each month for card payments and setting a deadline for paying off our debt."
Since getting rid of that debt was their main priority, Duren "wrote out a list of all our credit cards, what their balances were, what their monthly payments were, and what their [annual percentage rates] (APRs) were. Then, we made a budget that freed up about an extra $1,000 a month. We committed to using whatever extra we had at the end of the month to pay off our debt."
After about 18 months, however, the couple had only "managed to cut our debt in half when, in theory, we should've been able to pay off around $18,000," says Duren. "At that point, I was frustrated with our progress and came up with a nine-month plan that would eliminate our debt. Part of the plan included throwing our tax refund money at our debt, transferring a high-APR balance to a card with a 15-month intro [no]-APR offer, cutting back different areas of our budget and then throwing all our extra money from those measures [at our debt]. We were able to pay off all our credit card debt at around 27 months, and it was a huge relief."
3. Use the "envelope system"
“Back in our early 20s, my wife and I accumulated $33,000 in debt. The debt consisted of $31,000 in car loans and another $2,000 in credit card debt. We were living on a military salary of about $35,000 per year at that time and drowning in...debt," says David Pipp, personal finance blogger at Living Low Key. "We were struggling to make the minimum payments and still be able to put food on the table. After a couple really stressful months, we decided enough was enough. We finally hit the breaking point when the bills were due and we didn't have money to pay them. This was an eye opener and caused us to start doing research online on to figure out how to get out of this mess."
What they found, says Pipp, was Dave Ramsey's "envelope system," which tells users to "create [a] budget... and you use cash to pay for everything." Pipp and his wife "wrote down our income and subtracted every bill we had from that income… [With the remaining amount], we...created a mini budget for food and miscellaneous spending. Anything left over went toward debt."
He notes that "there was a lot of checking and adjusting our first couple budgets; it takes time to get used to it ...We [also] sat down and listed out every single thing we had spent money in the last month. It was really a sad picture to see; we spent a lot of money on stuff we didn't need. We made sure to not factor any of those expenses into our budget."
They became "so focused on paying off this debt that we chose to make some big sacrifices during those two-and-a-half years," Pipp recalls. "I don't think we went out to eat once, there [were] no stops at the coffee shop and grocery lists were a must when shopping. We called our utility companies and negotiated our bills down, and we even got rid of cable TV. ...We didn't spend a dime on anything except the necessities to live and paying off debt. The sacrifice is totally worth it; because the lessons we learned helped us get rid of that debt before we turned 24, and now at 30 we are still debt free!"
4. Get creative
“It took me close to a year to pay...off [$6,000 in credit card debt]," recalls Lou Haverty, Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA). "I built up the... debt during the first year after I graduated from college. I funded my budget shortfalls with my credit cards... but the next thing I knew, I had close to $6,000 of credit card debt — which was close to my combined credit limit of my two credit cards."
Haverty "only managed to pay of the credit card debt after I took the issue seriously," he says. "Since I wasn’t making much money with my first job out of school, I had to be creative. Some of the things I did included: negotiated with the cable company to lower the monthly bill, I learned how to cook, sold things I didn’t need on eBay, and picked up a part-time [bartending] job on the weekends that was fun. The experience turned out to be good in the long run because it taught me how to budget, but it also made me realize I needed to find a longer term plan to earn more money. This led me down the path of pursuing the CFA designation, which has been a real asset in my career [and] led me into corporate banking.”
5. Prioritize your “wants” and find ways to get them for cheaper
“My husband and I paid off $175,000 in debt in the first four years of our marriage so we could finally buy our own place," says Sylvia Wu, personal finance blogger at Keeping Up with the Changs. "The debt consisted of $50,000 remaining on an investment home (which was taken out as a home equity line of credit on my parents' home) and $125,000 on a traditional mortgage that my husband was helping his parents pay on their home."
"To pay off our loan while also maintaining a lifestyle that we were happy with," says Wu, "we followed three main principles. First, we prioritized what we wanted (such as to have children and travel) and also listed what we were willing to compromise on (like not eating out as much, cutting cable for Netflix [and] buying secondhand gear). Second, we figured out ways we could get the things we wanted for cheaper. For example, we took advantage of travel rewards credit cards to earn points... for airfare and attended free community events or social activities for entertainment. Third, we figured out ways we could increase our income, which my husband did in the form of cleaning a restaurant at night, and I did by starting a blog.”
6. Ask about debt forgiveness options
“[I had] medical debt [that] was owed directly to hospitals and physicians, and totaled over $30,000. I count myself blessed to have had very little credit at the time, such that I couldn’t amass debt on credit cards and further worsen my situation," recalls Janet Alvarez, personal finance expert at Wise Bread. "It took me about a year to pay off the debt, but about 80% of it was forgiven within eight weeks. The first step was contacting the hospitals and physicians to communicate my financial difficulty and request help. It’s essential to inquire about debt forgiveness and modified repayment plans; most hospitals offer full or partial debt forgiveness on a sliding scale for most lower and middle income earners."
The debt forgiveness application, says Alvarez, "is fairly standard, requiring evidence of income, family size, and so forth. Once completed, a decision is usually issued within weeks, and any debt forgiveness offered is applied quickly thereafter. In my case, approximately 80% of my debt was erased. My next step was to place the remaining debt on a payment plan. Most hospitals and physician groups will allow you to repay with zero interest, so take your time and formulate a repayment plan that is realistic and affordable. I was... able to repay the remaining 20% within a year."
Alvarez advises that "if your debt is relatively small and you’re able to make a one-time payment in full, most hospitals or physicians groups will take 20 to 50% off for full payment. The same also applies for uninsured patients; communicate that you’re without insurance, and request a reduction in your balance repayment accordingly.”
7. Celebrate wins along the way
“Back in 2009, I began the challenge of paying off over $55,000 worth of consumer debt. My debt consisted of three credit cards, a line of credit, a car loan and a personal loan (funded by my credit line) that I made to someone that they never repaid," says Kassandra Dasent, Gen X financial consultant and owner of Minding your Money.
Dasent planned to pay off the debts in five years, but she "was able to pay it off faster and did so in about three-and-a-half years" by using "a multi-prong strategy which included using the debt snowball method, but I considered the interest rate and type of debt [when] prioritizing [which to pay first]. I negotiated an increase in pay and I also secured additional income through side hustles which included singing as a back-up vocalist for artists and performing as a soloist."
Dasent adds that she also "slashed expenses, learned to become an emotionally-aware and values-based spender, gave up my condo, and lived as a roommate for the first year to save on housing costs. All of these efforts combined helped me to make considerable headway on my debt payoff goal."
These days, she encourages "those who are still in their debt payoff journey" to "take a moment to celebrate their financial wins, such as when they pay off a debt [on] their list. Paying off a significant amount of debt over a long period of time, and making financial adjustments and sacrifices in service of that goal can lead to feeling discouraged at times. I do suggest treating [yourself] on occasion to small pleasures, or taking a short break in making extra payments at times if that helps [you]...go the distance.”