More than four in 10 credit card holders have over $15,000 in credit card debt, according to our recent survey. With an average interest rate of 15.32%, according to the Federal Reserve, you could be on the hook for more than $111 in interest alone every month as you pay off the debt.
Paying off that much debt can be a daunting task, but it’s possible if you create a good plan and stick to it. That’s what two people did successfully. Krystel Calubayan, a personal finance blogger, and Mark Durrenberger, a financial planner, shared their stories, including how they got deep into debt and what they did to shed it. Here’s their advice for folks who are going through the same thing.
How 2 free round-trip flights turned into $15,000 in debt
Calubayan got her first credit card while she was in college, but quickly added a second one when she graduated. “I thought it was the adult thing to do once you graduate from college,” she says. “I was dating someone long distance and was often traveling. I wanted to get the points.”
She was approved for an airline credit card that gave her two free round-trip flights worth about $500 total. But she didn’t realize that she’d pay for those airfares several times over in interest charges.
“I used that card all the time,” she says. “I was putting things on it. I wasn’t managing my spending at all. I was shopping ridiculous amounts, eating out, traveling. It just kept adding up.”
A year or two after she got the card, the bank increased her credit limit, which triggered a snowball effect. She maxed out that card and then resorted to using her first credit card to spend even more.
It wasn’t until her then-boyfriend caught on in 2013 that Calubayan realized the enormity of her situation. “We would go out on dates, and I’d cover the bill,” she says. “He didn’t necessarily know how much I made, but he knew it wasn’t enough to cover whatever we were spending it on.”
Every time he’d ask her where all the money was coming from, she’d blow him off. Finally, he sat her down and told her she needed to come clean.
“I will never forget the look on his face,” she says. “I thought he was going to break up with me on the spot.” He didn’t do that but told her that he didn’t think he could see a future with her if she didn’t fix her finances. She had amassed a total of $15,000 in credit card debt by that time.
How the blogger paid off debt
The first thing Calubayan did was to start tracking her spending using budgeting app Mint. She had had no idea where her money was going, so she didn’t know where to cut back.
After a month or two of tracking expenses, she realized she was spending too much on shopping and eating out. So she set a goal to spend less on these discretionary items and other unnecessary things. She also took on two side jobs: working as a receptionist at a local hair salon and as an event planner at weddings on the weekend.
By increasing her income and decreasing her discretionary spending, Calubayan says she paid off the $15,000 in debt in just 11 months — that’s $1,364 per month on average.
The road to repayment wasn’t always easy, though. “It’s hard to just automatically change your spending,” she says. “You go from going on trips all the time and eating out all the time to doing none of that. Changing your mindset is a huge roadblock that you have to battle.”
Calubayan says her boyfriend helped her stay focused by reminding her of her financial goals when she was tempted to overspend.
Another key to her success was getting rid of her cards. “I think cutting up my credit cards and not having them available to me was one of the best things I could possibly do,” she says. “That was my trigger. If it was in my wallet, I was going to use it.”
To this day, Calubayan doesn’t use credit cards, opting instead for cash and a debit card. She understands that some people can use cards responsibly and enjoy their benefits, but she knows she’ll likely get sucked right back into a vicious cycle of debt. “It takes time to recover from that,” she says.
Calubayan blogs about her experiences of paying off debt and saving money on the All She Saves website.
How an irregular income and no budget turned into $25,000 in debt
As Calubayan was paying off her credit card debt in 2013, Mark Durrenberger was just getting started. He was a financial planner working on commission and had a couple of good quarters of high income, so he started spending more money.
“That ended up being an aberration,” Durrenberger says. “My income dropped, but I kept spending on credit cards at the level that I had gotten used to spending.” Eventually, he racked up $25,000 in credit card debt.
He used to monitor his finances with Mint but stopped keeping track because he knew he wouldn’t like what he saw. As a certified financial planner, he might have even felt like an impostor.
“I was helping people put their financial lives in order,” he says. “But based on how I was getting paid, I was ignoring my own situation.”
Durrenberger realized gradually that he needed to make a change. “I just started feeling guilty every time I spent money,” he says. “Going out for dinner with a friend — it took the enjoyment out of it.”
Finally, in June 2015, he decided to do something about it.
How the financial planner paid off debt
Over the next two years, Durrenberger paid off a little more than $1,000 in credit card debt per month. The first step in that journey was changing his job situation.
“Getting a steady income so that I could have a budget and stick to my budget was key,” he says. He essentially was doing the same work, but for an employer that paid a steady salary rather than getting paid on a commission-only basis. To avoid the temptation of overspending again, he opened a second checking account and requested his employer to split his paycheck.
His spending money went into his main account and his debt payoff money went into the second. By automating the repayment process, he made sure that at least a minimum amount went toward paying off his credit card debt each month.
Durrenberger also used a few balance transfer credit cards to decrease the amount he was paying in interest. Many such cards offer 0% APR promotions for 12 months or more, during which no interest is charged on outstanding balances. For the most part, he paid off the card balances before the 0% APR promotion period ended. But he didn’t pay off one card in time.
“That was a kick in the pants,” he says, but he thinks he likely saved money on the debt he paid off during the promotion.
Like Calubayan, Durrenberger also stopped using his credit cards. “Credit cards make it so enticing with the points and the miles,” he says. “If you can handle it, that’s great. But if you’re in debt, you can’t worry about that.”
Durrenberger uses credit cards now, but he doesn’t rely on them as heavily as he did, opting to pay in cash half the time. “I’m more diligent about staying on top of things, checking how much I have on my credit card,” he says. “I’ll spend some and pay it off each month.”
Since paying off his credit card debt, he has published a book called “The Modern Day Millionaire” and blogs about money management at MarkDurrenberger.com.
What’s next for you
If you can learn anything from the experiences of Calubayan and Durrenberger, it’s that there’s no one best way to pay off credit card debt. The key is to find out what works best for you.
There are some common elements, however. For example, if you keep spending on your credit cards while paying them off, it can feel like you’re taking two steps forward and one step back. So, consider cutting up your cards or sticking them in a drawer until your balance is down to zero.
Adopting a budget is crucial to any debt repayment strategy. Without knowing where your money is going, it’s hard to figure out which areas to cut back. And if you don’t budget regularly, you could easily fall back into your old spending habits.
As you consider your own credit card debt situation, take some of the tactics that Calubayan and Durrenberger used and come up with a few strategies of your own. Consider using tools such as balance transfer credit cards or debt consolidation loans to help you get rid of your debt. Then stick to your budgeting and repayment plan. It might take time to get there, but the freedom of being debt-free is worth it.
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