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I have been in debt, got out of debt, and been back in debt for all kinds of reasons.
The first time I was totally oblivious.
I had just graduated from college and was more than excited to finally be making real money.
But that didn’t last long.
Having zero savings as a down payment for a new car after totaling my first one got that out of me real quick. And I was motivated to get out of debt. 10 months later, I had paid off around $12,000 in credit cards, saved up $5000 in an emergency fund and was doing pretty good with my finances.
But life has a way of happening to you.
And after getting married, upgrading the lifestyle to a more beautiful apartment than buying a house, getting a new car to replace the old (but paid off) one, having kids, paying daycare, starting businesses, etc. and I was back to having some debt.
But I’ve conquered debt before.
I know it was doable and concocted a plan that would have me out of credit card and student loan debt in 1 year (while maxing out my retirement and HSA contributions) if I’m feeling very aggressive — or comfortably paying off everything in 2 years.
I started it on January 1st, and after 4 months, I had already paid off over $10,000 in credit card debt.
Here’s how everything is laid out to have gotten me this far.
Step 1: I laid out ALL my debt
I tracked down who I owed, how much, when the minimum payment was due, how much the minimum amount and if applicable, how much longer I had the debt for.
Step 2: Analyzed my debt
I did some soul searching and asked myself a bunch of questions.
- Where did my debt come from?
- What did I get out of it in return for the debt? i.e. what was I able to do/buy/acquire because of the debt.
- What percentage of my paycheck is going to paying off debt?
- How much of my minimum payment is actually going to paying down the principal?
- What could I do with that money if it wasn’t being used to service debt?
All of these questions helped me understand my debt. Come to terms with it. I appreciate it for what it provided. And use it as motivation to stay the course.
I no longer felt that I was trapped or enslaved by debt. I started to see it as the best option I had at the time. And even when some choices felt like mistakes, I could get past them.
Step 3: Decided I was done with debt and stopped the bleeding
The most significant part of my success so far with paying off debt is finally deciding that it wasn’t worth hauling it around with me anymore.
After laying out and analyzing my debt, I found that some of the debt – like my student loans and even some of the credit card debt – had been with me for years. Slowly accumulating until it hit this crazy 5 figure mark.
And it answered the question on where my money went – a good chunk of it was being used to service my debt month after month, year after year. That’s when I decided that I had had enough.
The thought of adding one more dollar to my debt disgusted me, and immediately, I was done using my cards.
I don’t care if it’s the same as cash, zero % down for 3 years. If I don’t have the money to buy it now, then it means I didn’t plan for it, so I’m not buying it.
Step 4: I removed the temptation
I emptied my wallet of all my credit cards except one for emergencies. I removed it from my online accounts and forced myself to have to dig up the card to use it. No more convenience.
No more impromptu Amazon purchases.
Step 5: Automated the minimum payments
Once I got a clear picture of how much I owed, I opened a bank account specifically for paying off my debt and automatically made the minimum payments from my bills account.
That way, at least I knew my payments were always on time – that made sure my credit improved while I was getting out of debt.
Step 6: I paid more than the minimum & made new rules for myself
Every extra dollar, an unexpected windfall, side hustle income, company bonuses all or at least a portion went to paying down debt. I also used Qapital to round up my spare change, and the extra savings went straight to my debt.
Then it was time to make more because let’s be real, the only way to pay down debt fast is to put down more money, and your paycheck can only go so far.
I opened bank accounts, took on as many surveys and product testing gigs as I could to make more money to put on my debt. I didn’t care if it was $500 or .50 cents I made a payment to my debt.
Always making payments all the time helped me watch the graph decrease every day, and it got me in the habit of focusing on paying down the debt.
I also made a rule, that any money under $100 would go directly to my credit card debt. So once money came in, I didn’t have to think about it. I had my own rule to live by that it’d go to the debt.
Step 7: Saved up my emergency fund
The best way to avoid having to use my credit cards is to have the funds to pay for an emergency when it came up. Some folks are okay with having $1000 in an emergency fund, but I have two kids, and a high deductible insurance plan and I feel more comfortable having access to at least 6 months.
Of course, I don’t have that saved up right now, but I do have access to it – savings, HSA funds, credit card limits etc. will get me to that 6-month expenses if I did need it.
That’s good enough for me at this point.
Step 8: Got good terms on all my loans.
What do I mean by attractive terms? I’m talking about having a fixed interest rate (under 8% is preferred, but under 15% is still acceptable for credit cards). So first things first.. All debts must be in a manageable interest rate range so that I can pay down more with each payment.
I worked on my student loans back in 2014 when I found my amazing lender Sofi.
I’m going to break here for one minute to just say how much I love my lender. They treated me with respect and dignity when everyone else treated me like a leper. I love them so much, I have investment accounts with them, have used their financial advising and will sample anything they offer at least once…. #IHeartSofi.
Anyway, moving on :).
So I’m at a 5.875% fixed rate there with Sofi. My credit cards have all been consolidated down via balance transfers to 4.99% (down from as high as 28.99%) for the next 18 months.
I had the option for a 0% interest rate for 12 months transfer, but I preferred to have more time at a low rate for a longer time, in case life happens or I find an opportunity I can’t refuse.
I also talked to my bank about refinancing my HELOC into a fixed lower rate for 10 years. So all my minimum payments and extra payments were paying down even more of the principal.
Step 9: Used some apps to help
I said earlier I used qapital to help me save a little more and used Personal Capital to keep track of my spending and my progress.
Step 10: I put my other goals on the back burner for a little while
I don’t believe in abandoning all my goals just to meet one. So in the beginning, I dropped my 401k contribution down the minimum of 5% for the company match, knowing I could increase back to the max contributions later on in the year.
But I kept my HSA (tax-free growth) contributions the same because there was no chance to catch up later in the year.
Step 11: I track my financial health
I’m a visual person, and I need to constantly check my financial health quickly in order to stay motivated. Sometimes I need to see how my debt is decreasing, sometimes I need to see how my networth is increasing. Sometimes I need to see that my credit score is improving. All of these factors help me stay the course.
I’m able to keep track of my networth and debt progress with one look using the free personal capital networth tracker. It makes it easy to see my progress in a visual chart, and even shows me the progress of each of my debt levels. Very cool.
And I use the free credit score app, Credit Sesame to monitor my credit score and watch for changes.
Whenever I feel like I’m not making progress – I check my net worth chart and see how I’ve been doing for the last 90 days.
Whenever I’m thinking of doing something stupid like buying the $10,000 sleep number bed on credit – I can check my net worth chart and remember I’m on a plan.
So far, I’ve paid off over $10,000 of my credit card debt. Since all my debts are under 6%, I’m able to save over 20% of my income while getting out of debt.
I’ve gotta tell you, it feels great!
I still have a ways to go, but at $10,000 in 4 months, I’m doing exceptionally well and still on track for multiple goals and most importantly, I’m not overwhelmed by it.
So now it’s your turn.
What are you waiting for to pay off some of the debt? If you’re debt-free already, then tell me in the comments what has opened up for you now that you aren’t making debt payments