Americans owe more than $11 trillion in consumer debt, including almost $857 billion in credit card debt. For many households, all those monthly payments and skyrocketing interest rates are crippling — making it hard just to purchase necessities, much less save for the future.
But just because you’ve accumulated debt doesn’t mean you have to live with it forever. Jumping off the hamster wheel of debt may seem impossible, but those who make the commitment to pay off their debt can attest that it’s well worth the effort. Arianne Fisher, a single mother who paid off more than $40,500 in the past year and a half, went from feeling “completely defeated” to having “a beaming outlook on life.” she says. “I feel proud of my accomplishments and optimistic for the future.”
Here’s how Fisher and five other women broke free from the debt cycle and paid off a total of $440,500.
Arianne Fisher, 30, Topeka, Kan., Paid Off $40,500
Debts paid off: The single mom of a 2-year-old daughter, Arianne Fisher paid off $40,500 in 16 months. The debt included $35,000 in student loans, $4,000 in credit card debt and personal loans and $1,500 in medical bills from a series of health issues her daughter had.
Getting motivated: “After getting divorced and becoming a single mother, I made a decision that I would do whatever it took to become financially responsible,” Fisher says. “I was determined to support my daughter and myself independently and someday maybe even provide her with a home we could truly call ours.”
How she made it happen: In October 2012, Fisher started “chipping away” at her credit card debt, paying off about $3,000 in four months. In January 2013, she joined HOPE (Helping Ourselves to Prosper Economically), a financial stability program offered by Housing and Credit Counseling, Inc. Working with her HOPE mentor, Fisher “learned the basic concepts of a successful budget and how to use an envelope system to hold myself accountable,” she says.
Fisher started using coupons for expensive necessities like diapers and switched from an expensive cell phone contract with a name-brand provider to a month-to-month plan, downgrading her data and text services. She eliminated all unnecessary expenses, such as cable and magazine subscriptions, and sold unwanted items on Craigslist and eBay. She traded her daughter’s outgrown clothes for store credit at secondhand stores to purchase items in her current size.
“Any excess money that came in from extra paychecks, bonuses or account dividends went straight toward my debt,” Fisher says. “I included a small amount of fun money in my budget so I could splurge on something for myself occasionally, eliminating the urge to justify overspending other places.”
After one year in the program, Fisher had paid off her remaining debts and increased her credit score by 126 points.
Learning lessons: “I learned that living within my means does not have to be miserable and lonely,” Fisher says. “It may be challenging at times, but nothing truly worth something is ever easy. Challenges can be exciting and fulfilling if you choose to rise to the occasion instead of being smothered by it.”
Jackie Beck, 45, Phoenix, Ariz., Paid Off $147,000
Debts paid off: Along with her husband, Jackie Beck paid off more than $147,000 in debt over nine and a half years. Those debts included credit cards, a student loan, a car loan, a home improvement loan and a mortgage loan.
Getting motivated: “I was frustrated and stressed out by debt,” Beck says. “I hated seeing all my money going to pay what I owed. I felt like I couldn’t even keep my head above water.” After she began making progress, Beck became even more motivated, she says. “I realized that the most important reason to get out of bed was freedom,” she says. “That became my goal: being free to make decisions based on what we want to do, not on what we have to do to pay the bills.”
How she made it happen: To pay off $17,000 in credit card debt, Beck turned to Consumer Credit Counseling Services, where debt counselors reviewed their debt and finances and developed a customized payment plan. The cards were paid off in about three years. “We also made the critical decision to never carry a balance on a credit card again,” Beck says. “That decision was huge.”
Beck had just come off a long stretch of unemployment, so she had already cut back as much as she could. In a new job making $2,100 per month, Beck says she “felt rich” and applied as much money as possible each month toward paying off debt. When she did need to buy something, she asked for discounts and tried to pay as little as possible. When the toilet or other household items broke, the Becks learned to make repairs rather than calling a plumber or other service professional. They got rid of their land line and gym memberships, but because their budget was already cut from the years of unemployment, they “came up with most of the money to pay off debt by getting raises and better jobs,” she says. In addition to their full-time jobs, both Beck and her husband brought in extra income on the side — he took odd jobs, and she earned money in her home-based business.
Beck and her husband tackled one debt at a time, “focusing on the target until it was gone,” she says. By the time Beck and her husband decided to pay off their mortgage, she had created a mobile app to help others pay off their debts as well, “so we obsessively tracked our progress in that,” she says. “Being obsessive turns out to be a great way to pay off debt, because it means you focus.”
Learning lessons: Beck says she learned that she'd been making excuses. “I'd borrow money for emergencies, never thinking that I had another choice,” she says. “There's always a choice. When I stopped assuming that life would go perfectly and started finding alternatives to borrowing, things got a whole lot better. That quote about ‘Expect the best, plan for the worst, and prepare to be surprised’ is a good financial motto.”
Kandy Hildebrandt, 47, New Richmond, Wis., Paid Off $123,000
Debts paid off: In four years and four months, Kandy Hildebrandt and her husband paid off about $123,000 in debt, which included 11 credit cards and a private, unsecured loan.
Getting motivated: When the Hildebrandts learned that the interest rate on one of their credit cards was increasing to 27 percent, even though they’d never missed a payment, they decided it was time to assess their debt load. After a closer look, Hildebrandt realized they were accruing more than $1,500 a month in new interest fees across 11 credit cards. Hildebrandt says she was most motivated to make a change because the debt was causing severe stress for her husband, and he was fighting depression as a result.
How she made it happen: The Hildebrandts used a debt management plan offered by a consumer credit counseling service. The plan reduced their monthly payments, the annual percentage rate and stopped or reduced late fees and overlimit fees. Once they determined a monthly payment through the debt management plan, the Hildebrandts never lowered it, even after paying off a card. For instance, if they were sending in $400 each month to cover payments on six different cards, after one was paid off, they continued to send $400 per month, allowing them to pay off the next one faster.
“We teamed up as never before,” Hildebrandt says, describing her husband’s role as “offense,” as he took a second job working 12am to 4am five days a week and her role as “defense,” cutting the household budget drastically. “We purchased only the essentials, barely,” she says. “That was food, gas and clothing, with the exception of our commitment to regular giving, which was to our local church.”
Although very few family members were aware of the Hildebrandt’s situation, they graciously received any gesture — food, money, gifts — that were offered. “There was no room for pride anymore,” she says.
Learning lessons: Hildebrandt and her husband celebrated paying off the last of their debt with a trip to the beach — Hildebrandt’s first ever. She says she felt relieved that they’d finally learned to live within their means and to delay gratification. Other lessons learned: “You can do just about anything when you know it’s not forever,” she says. “And when life is tough, a husband and wife cannot afford to both be down at the same time. If he was 'down,' then I had to be 'up' and vice versa. In tempering one another, we forged ahead, steadily, one day at a time."
Stephanie Mar, 34, Santa Monica, Calif., Paid Off $10,000
Debts paid off: Stephanie Mar took a year to pay off a $10,000 student loan. Ever since she racked up some credit card debt as a teenager, “debt felt like the norm,” she says. “So taking on two student loans to go to graduate school overseas seemed like a small sacrifice to pay for an incomparable experience.”
Getting motivated: Mar wanted a home. “It was time, but I couldn't plan for it until I got serious about my debt,” she says. “I made a promise to myself and to my boyfriend of seven years, Ivan, to pay off the student loans and work toward buying a house at the same time. It was a tall order. It meant saving aggressively, contacting Sallie Mae regularly [and] being actively engaged with my bank and my debt.”
How she made it happen: For the entire year she devoted to paying down the $10,000 student loan, Mar allowed herself only six shopping splurges, a drastic reduction from her typical one or two splurges per month. “If there were a ton of birthdays or weddings during one month, I used that as my splurging month,” she says. “I set a limit on each of those splurges based on what the finances looked for the month.”
Mar also opened a savings account to be used solely for loan payment and set up an automatic deposit from her checking to her savings account. “Set it and forget it,” she says. “Eventually, I had enough in the savings account to pay the remainder off all at once.”
Learning lessons: “I learned I could live with less, and that living with less is liberating,” Mar says. “There are fewer things to clean, fold, hang and pack away. Now it's easy to go without shopping; in fact, I'd rather take a jog or hang out at home.”
Mar stresses that if you decide to make a larger payment than the due amount one month, “make sure you tell them that the overage must go to the principal,” she says. “Otherwise, they put it towards future interest.”
Sonja Fisher, 44, Los Angeles, Calif., Paid Off $80,000
Debts paid off: In less than four years, Sonja Fisher paid off $80,000 in credit cards and personal loans.
Getting motivated: After getting a divorce, Fisher ended up with a large amount of consumer debt, a majority of which was her ex-husband’s, she says. But because they had merged their finances as a married couple, she shared the responsibility. She decided to get serious and pay it off “so my money was my money,” Fisher says. “I didn’t want to pay interest anymore.”
How she made it happen: When Fisher got serious about paying off her debts, she began using coupons for groceries and other necessities, cut out unnecessary spending and looked for creative ways to further trim her budget. For instance, she took on odd jobs for extra money, such as tutoring students in math and fixing computers for friends and acquaintances. She started an Amazon business to sell household items she didn’t need and bartered for services when possible: For instance, she would repair a hairdresser’s computer in exchange for a free haircut. In addition, Fisher paid closer attention to her tax deductions to ensure she was writing off everything she could, and used credit card reward points to get things she needed for free.
Learning lessons: Throughout the process, Fisher says she learned two big lessons: “Credit cards are awful. And if you are in a relationship, you should keep your finances separate, under your own control.”
Laurie Ferrer, 46, Fairview Heights, Ill., Paid Off $40,000
Debts paid off: Over five years, Laurie Ferrer paid off more than $40,000 in credit card debt, including major credit cards, store credit cards and gas cards.
Getting motivated: When she was about to give birth to her youngest son, Laurie Ferrer didn’t have money to buy diapers and formula or pay the electric bill. She was behind on every household bill, including the mortgage. “I was unable to sleep at night,” she says. “I worried constantly about what bill was coming in the mail, who was calling on the phone, what would get cut off next. I was miserable. My children started telling each other, ‘We can't do that because we're poor.’ I knew I had to make a change.”
How she made it happen: Ferrer started by visiting Clearpoint Credit Counseling Solutions, where she joined a debt management program. And immediately, she made drastic changes. “My family didn't take trips, we didn't go out to eat, we fixed lunches for school and work,” she says. “We turned off all the lights and decreased our electric bill to the bare minimum. We took public transportation, I took a second job, I shopped at re-sale shops and couponed like that was my third job.”
Ferrer saved more money by becoming the “queen of DIY,” making her own lotion, soap, washing powder, deodorant, lip balm and shampoo, she says. Any possession that wasn’t being used she sold online or at a yard sale, or donated it to Goodwill to claim it as a tax deduction.
Learning lessons: After getting out of debt, Ferrer has adopted a new way of life. She has three credit cards, but “I’m very careful with them,” she says. “There are no impulse shopping trips. If I buy it at the store, I have the money in my account. The cards are for unforeseen emergencies. Now, instead of getting excited by the latest Coach bag or Ugg shoe, I get excited by my rising credit score.”