That escalating figure on your student loan bill or credit card statement makes you cringe every month. You pay when you can, but it feels like you’ll never pay it off. Don’t despair — with dedication, patience and some lean living, you can whittle down the bills. The evidence: Eight former debtors share their stories of triumph over debt.
Success story #1: Set a deadline
J.R. Duren, 39, Jacksonville, Fla.
Payoff time: 27 months
These days, J.R. Duren is a personal finance expert at HighYa.com, but when he and his wife married, they had $22,000 in credit card debt between them. Paying off the debt as soon as possible was a priority, so the couple created a handwritten list of each card and its balance, interest rate and monthly payment. “Doing so gave us tangible evidence of what we were facing, and gave us the motivation and courage to try and tackle it,” Duren said.
From there, the newlyweds created a detailed budget to determine how much money they had left over at the end of the month. “Knowing what you’re earning and what you’re spending is key to paying down debt,” Duren said, “whether it’s $22K or $220.”
After paying down $1,000 per month for 18 months, the Durens were only about halfway closer to their goal thanks to interest rates that continued to drive up their debt. To speed things up, they transferred the balance to a 0% card and used the sign-up bonus to pay off the balance transfer fee. They gave themselves a deadline of nine months and met it. Altogether, it took them a little more than two years to wipe out the debt — 27 months to be exact — but they learned a lot about financial responsibility along the way. “Deadlines are key because they give you a finish line for the race,” Duren said. “Something to shoot for and a tangible end to the fight.”
Success story #2: Absolute discipline
Matthew Burr, 32, Elmira, N.Y.
Payoff time: 24 months
Matthew Burr used a 15-year-old TV, delayed buying a new car and bypassed big cities for his first job in order to pay off his six student loans. He prioritized the high-interest loans first and worked his way down. “I set small goals to pay off one loan at a time, by making multiple payments per month, and kept the interest low instead of allowing significant accrual,” he said. Because Burr had no other debt and his rent was low, he was able to put extra funds, including holiday bonuses and tax refunds, toward the debt. He focused on needs vs. wants, and set achievable goals, but he stressed that the process took serious discipline. He even wrote a book about his experience, “$74,000 in 24 Months.”
Success story #3: The snowball
Ty’Lisha Summers, 32, Houston
Payoff time: 8 years
Ty’Lisha Summers and her husband racked up $100,000 in debt after they graduated college. They became debt-free with the help of a financial planner and the debt snowball method from popular author/radio host Dave Ramsey. The snowball approach is similar to Burr’s — prioritize debt from the highest to the lowest interest rate. “Once the first debt was paid off, we would use the monthly allocated amount and roll it over to the next debt on the list, paying above the minimum required until the next debt was paid off, and then we continued down the list until we were debt-free,” Summers said.
She and her husband began helping other people become debt-free with SpenDebt, an app that adds a set amount to every debit transaction, then sends that money to the creditor.
Success story #4: Using a home equity loan
Katrina McGhee, 37, Minneapolis
Payoff time: 22 months
Katrina McGhee’s MBA left her with $60,000 in student loan debt. Although she landed a solid corporate job right out of school, she initially wasn’t rigorous about paying off her loan. McGhee paid the monthly minimums and applied her annual bonus and tax refund to the balance, but was primarily saving for a big trip. “I had saved up $40,000 and quit my job to travel around the world for 20 months,” she said. Her student loans went into deferment.
Despite earning 25% less at her new job upon her return, McGhee set a goal to pay off the remaining $42,000 of her loan in 22 months. She accomplished this by creating a budget spreadsheet and tracking everything she spent. She paid more when she could — a lump sum every few months and any extras, including tax refunds. “I still traveled internationally and had fun, but I was very intentional about how I spent my money. I made trade-offs and lived significantly below my means.”
Down to about $30,000 in debt, she rolled it into a home equity line of credit and continued to pay aggressively. The interest rate on the equity loan was less than half the rate of her student loans, and it’s tax deductible. Today, McGhee is a certified life coach. She helps others “find the courage to pursue their own unconventional path to freedom, including … financial freedom by paying off their own debt.”
Success story #5: Accountability is key
Danielle Desir, 27, Bridgeport, Conn.
Payoff time: 4 years
When Danielle Desir realized that the student loan interest from her graduate degree cost her more than $10 per day, she was determined to pay it off as quickly as possible. She lived at home with her mom — her “biggest champion” — to save money. “Despite the long commute to work, I kept my living expenses low and made extra payments, which shaved years off of my loans,” Desir said.
She also started The Thought Card, where she gives travelers advice on how to plan and save for their trips. “My blog kept me accountable and helped me connect with other like-minded people who wanted to gain financial independence while pursuing the things they loved,” she said.
Success story #6: Living on a shoestring
Phil, 27, Germantown, Md.
Payoff time: 12 months
Phil moved into his dad’s basement, lived on $500 a month and poured the rest of his $3,000 monthly take-home pay into his student loans. Living rent-free made all the difference. “I did not pay rent while I was paying off debt,” Phil said. “Instead, I added value by being an on-call babysitter for his young kids, cutting the grass, doing the dishes etc.” He also brought his lunch to work every day except Friday, which he called “Yum Yum Friday.”
Today, Phil shares his experiences at Young Adult Survival Guide.
Success story #7: The student mindset
Kevin, 30, Minneapolis
Payoff time: 2.5 years
Kevin’s first step in paying off his student-loan debt was to increase his income with side hustles, including dog-sitting via Rover and making bike deliveries through Postmates. “The great thing is that every extra dollar you earn is a dollar you don’t need, which means you can use it all toward debt,” he said.
Next, Kevin kept expenses low by living like a student. He rented an apartment that was well below his budget and didn’t buy a car. “I biked to work to avoid the cost of a car or parking, or I used the bus on really bad weather days.”
Kevin blogs about personal finance and side hustles at Financial Panther.
Success story #8: Conquering your demons
Jon Dulin, 38, Philadelphia
Payoff time: 1 year
Jon Dulin began accruing substantial credit card debt in college, trying to impress a girlfriend. “I thought, in order for her to love me, I had to buy her things. So I showered her with gifts and dinners out. This quickly led to debt,” he said.
After graduation, Dulin had trouble finding work during an economic downturn. He became depressed. His fix: Shopping. “I turned to buying things, clothes and electronics, mainly. This made me feel good,” he said. He thought that he had everything under control and that he would soon find a job.
In the meantime, he opened two additional credit cards to take advantage of free balance transfers. Dulin initially used only the new cards, but soon was using all of them. It took an “aha moment” for him to realize that shopping only made matters worse.
He sought professional help for depression and for his spending, and started temp work. Taking care of his emotional and mental health helped Dulin focus on his debt. Soon, he landed a full-time job and eventually took an additional part-time gig. He put himself on a strict budget and paid off his debt in one year. His personal experience inspired a blog, MoneySmartGuides.