Digging out of deep debt can seem like an insurmountable task, and for some people it is. More than a million American households filed for bankruptcy last year in an effort to put their debt behind them.
But bankruptcy court isn’t the only way consumers shed debt. These five people have paid off very large amounts of debt using just about every strategy in the book. Here’s how they did it.
Travis Pizel: $100,000+
In February of this year, Travis Pizel and his wife will write their last check to complete a debt management program they began in July 2009. When they do, they will have real reason to celebrate: They will have paid off $109,000 in credit card debt.
Early in their marriage, Travis and his wife got into the habit of buying whatever they felt they needed, even if that meant putting it on credit cards. As the balances grew, Travis began hiding the debt from his wife. “I didn’t like to say no to my wife,” he said in an interview last year. He counted on increases in their income to make the increasing minimum payments. But when one of their credit card companies where they had five credit cards decided to change the formula for calculating minimum payments, they were in trouble. There was no way they could handle the higher monthly payments.
He finally had to come clean with his wife. They sat down together to figure out how much they owed. After the initial shock of discovering they owed more than six figures in credit card debt, they looked at various options, including debt consolidation (their bank offered no help there) and bankruptcy (which they wanted to avoid).
They ended up calling a credit counseling agency, CareOne Credit Counseling Services. The first phone consultation took about an hour and a half. The Pizels answered a lot of questions about their spending and debt, and were offered a debt management plan (DMP). Still skeptical, it took them another week of research and soul-searching — and a second in-depth call — before they decided to enter the program. Due to the large amount of debt they owed, they send $2,489 a month to the counseling agency which then pays all of their participating creditors.
When they make that last payment on Feb. 28, they won’t be completely out of debt; there was some debt they couldn’t enroll in the program that they will have to finish paying. But they’re not worried. “Vonnie and I are communicating very well about our finances through twice-a-week budget discussions . . . I never thought it would be so liberating to talk about money,” notes Travis.
Top Strategy: Don’t be afraid to reach out for help. “If you’re struggling with debt, know that you are NOT alone, and that you have options,” says Travis. “Investigate those options, educate yourself, and then make the best decision to get you on the right path and take your life back!”
Grayson Bell: $50,000+
Ironically, Grayson Bell started a business in college in order to pay off debt. But when it came time to shutter that business, he still faced a mountain of debt.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. Grayson started an e-commerce company during his junior year of college and grew it himself from $0 in revenue the first year to over $1 million in sales in the fourth year. After graduating from college, he also held a full-time job. He would come home from his day job and spend hours on his own business at night, often working until the early hours of the morning.
But instead of rolling in dough, he was digging the hole deeper. He says he was “using my credit card to continually fund extra things that I needed to do for the business — pretty much just betting on my future of revenue growth.”
During that time he also got married, and soon found the long hours were creating a strain on the relationship.
When he finally decided to shut the business down, he was able to sell off pieces of it, and by doing so paid off some of his debt. But he still owed about $50,000.
He purchased a whiteboard, where he listed all his credit card balances. He decided on the “avalanche” method because he had debt at high interest rates. He paid the minimum on all of his debts, except the one with the highest interest rate, which he paid down aggressively. When that one was paid off, he moved onto the one with the next-highest rate, and so on.
But there was a twist to his approach. He described in this way in a recent interview:
“I didn’t pay 100% of my extra income into my debt repayment. I actually created an allocation method where I would pay 90% into debt and then 10% into savings. And then as my debt got lower, I would slowly switch it.
“By the time I was almost done paying my debt, I was saving 70% and paying 30% against the debt.” As a result, it took him four years to eradicate his balances, but it also got him into the habit of saving. “So when I was out of debt, all I wanted to do was save. I was used to it.”
One of his strategies was to bring in extra income by freelancing for other e-commerce websites. And once he paid off his debt, he started his blog, DebtRoundUp.com. He’s been credit card debt-free for over a year now.
Top Strategy: Earn extra income. “It will take longer if you don’t,” Grayson says.
Deacon Hayes: $50,000 +
As newlyweds, Deacon Hayes and his wife, Kim, wanted to combine their finances and get off to the right start. But when they sat down and put everything on paper, they discovered they had more debt than they realized — $52,000 including her student loans and his brand-new car — and needed to make some drastic changes.
They decided on the “snowball” method where they paid the minimum on each debt except for the one with the smallest balance, and put everything they could toward that debt until it was paid off. Then they tackled the one with the next smallest balance, and so on. They did factor in interest rates; if there were debts with similar balances they paid off the one with the higher interest rate first, but by and large they stuck with paying them off smallest to largest.
“It gave us momentum,” he explained in an interview. “It made us feel like we were succeeding, like we were getting somewhere.”
Deacon also got a second job delivering pizza at night, and he and his wife cleaned out their closets and sold what they could in order to raise cash they could use toward debt reduction. And they reduced expenses wherever possible, including canceling their gym membership, cutting back to a basic Internet package, and selling their upside-down car even though it meant paying cash to make up the difference.
They paid off $52,000 in debt in just 18 months, and now have set a goal to pay off their mortgage by the time Deacon turns 35. In addition, he’s been able to quit his job and run his blog, WellKeptWallet.com full-time. There, he offers coaching and free worksheets to help others who want to pay off debt.
Top Strategy: Have a plan. Working together to create a written plan had the most impact. “We had a sheet on our fridge where we tracked our debt,” Deacon says.
Beverly Harzog: $20,000+
In 2011, while watching the movie Confessions of a Shopaholic with her then 20-year-old daughter, Beverly Harzog started having flashbacks to a time in her 20s when her financial life began to implode. Like the star of the film, Becky Bloomwood, Beverly was getting calls from debt collectors. In one month, she says, she bounced 12 checks.
She worked in corporate finance — her career as a financial journalist was yet to come — and felt she needed to dress the part. Plus she loved to shop. Her first retail card was from her favorite department store, Rich’s. One card led to another, and before she realized what was happening, she had seven credit cards that were maxed out and she was in over her head. She started missing her minimum payments, bounced checks and even stopped opening her mail.
She first shared her story on the Credit.com blog, and received more positive feedback than she ever expected. She expands on that story in her new book, Confessions of a Credit Junkie: Everything You Need to Know to Avoid the Mistakes I Made, where she talks about her turning point.
She was trying to buy a pair of Ralph Lauren jeans at Rich’s and the purchase was declined. “I never make a scene, so I left the store, went home, and called customer service. A service rep was blunt and told me my last check had bounced. And not only that, it showed up late and they’d had enough of it. Rich’s had canceled my credit card account. I couldn’t believe it. My favorite store. . . . That was the turning point for me. I was finally ready to take back my life. That day I stopped using credit cards.”
After that “rock bottom moment” as she calls it, Beverly realized she needed to make a change. She set up a budget and cut every expense she could. “I ate a lot of peanut butter and jelly,” she said in a recent interview.
First, she made it her goal to make her minimum payments on her cards, then she worked on doubling and tripling those minimums. She also earned her CPA designation and got a better paying job, putting the extra money she earned toward her debt.
It took her about two years to pay off those credit cards. She’s still not sure exactly how much she owed, though she estimates the balances added up to about $20,000.
“It’s a little depressing at first,” she said. “But once you get going, you feel momentum. I started feeling lighter, I mean physically lighter.” She now profits from her credit cards, and shares how she does that in her book.
Top Strategy: Cut expenses to the bone and use the money you save to pay off your debts faster. “Even $5 makes a difference,” says Beverly.
Sandy Smith: $100,000+
For Sandy Smith, it started with student loan debt. By the time she completed graduate school, she had $75,000 in student loan debt.
Then she became an entrepreneur and opened a boutique. It went well the first year, but then the recession hit. By the time she closed it, she had over $100,000 in debt and didn’t know what to do.
She only toyed with bankruptcy for “about five seconds” because a large amount of her debt was student loan and tax debt, which could not be discharged. Plus she felt responsible for the debt and wanted to do everything she could to pay it back. But figuring out how to do that wasn’t easy.
“Initially I felt like I was drowning in debt,” she recalled in an interview in the summer of 2013. She was making her payments, but she felt like she was getting nowhere. In fact, in the first couple of years, she made very little progress.
Sandy decided she needed to work smarter, not necessarily harder. The first step, she says, was to stop thinking of her debt separately. “I used to think, OK, I owe this student loan company this much, and I owe the other student loan this much and I owe Visa this much and MasterCard this much… But when I started thinking of my debt in its entirety . . . when I thought of it as $100,000, my mindset kind of changed. I decided to tackle the whole debt head-on instead of trying to tackle individual pieces that got me nowhere.”
She wrote down all her debt and started to track it every month. She mainly relied on Excel spreadsheets, though she points out there are now many free programs that will do this for consumers.
She also decided to stop using credit cards. She literally froze them (in the freezer). She then took a drastic step: She went all cash. For three months, she cashed her paychecks and then used the envelope system, which meant she divided that cash into envelopes. She even paid her credit cards bills in cash by going to the bank branch of the card issuer. It worked. “Once the money was gone, it was gone.”
The one thing she didn’t do was stop her contribution to her 401(k). She continued to contribute enough to at least earn her employer match.
In the first year of her new approach, she paid $25,000 off in one year and that was a huge change from the $2,000 she paid off the old way. She still has a way to go, but she’s working on it. And while she was first ashamed by her debt, she eventually decided she would “air my dirty laundry,” and documents her progress on her blog YesIAmCheap.com.
Top Strategy: Use cash for everything to get a handle on your spending. “It really opened my eyes to where my money was going,” Sandy says.
Concerned about how your debt could be impacting your credit? Check out Credit.com’s free Credit Report Card. It uses letter grades for an easy to understand overview of your credit standing along with your free credit scores, tips for how to improve and lots of insight about how credit works.