Ready to learn how to pay off credit card debt? Then you’ve likely been doing a bit of reading and searching the internet. (It’s probably why you’ve landed here!) Personally, I've read lots of debt payoff stories over the last seven years of blogging about money and personal finance. Some are really great and inspiring; others are really annoying because they don't actually share any real numbers or advice for how to get it done.
In fact, these types of posts are so predictable, they often follow a formula: the more outlandish the amount and payoff timeline, the less information there is in the post. Here's what this post will cover:
I wanted my big guide on paying off debt to be different AND actionable, so here's the step-by-step plan for how I paid off $8,000 of debt in under 90 days and tips for how you can pay off credit card debt fast and on your own timeline.
How to Pay Off Credit Card Debt – Step 1 – Choose Your Strategy
Not all debt pay off plans are created equal. If you’re still reading, by now you know that you have a debt problem. First, you have to choose how you’d like to pay off debt. There are two main ways to do this:
#1 – Snowball
debt snowball: Made popular by Dave Ramsey, (tutorial here) this is where you list your debts smallest to largest and pay off the smallest first – then move along to the next. Once you pay off a card, you still use money for that card’s minimum payment to add onto your payment for the next one (and so on and so on).
#2 – Avalanche
debt avalanche: Make all of the minimum payments on each account, and then put the remaining money you have to pay off debt with towards the account with the highest interest. This will help you reduce the amount you pay on interest over time.
If you’d like to mimic my $8k in 90 day challenge, I did the snowball method and I like this one too. I think it’s awesome to have good, quick wins when paying off debt.
How the 8k in 90 Day Challenge Started
Here's how the “$8,000 in 90 Day Challenge” came about:
- In early 2015 I came clean to my blog readers that I was in serious credit card debt.
- How'd I get into so much debt after famously paying off $10,000 while I lived in NYC? I'd racked it up in 2013 during my big home remodel.
- I was devastated to be back in that much debt after all my hard work getting out.
- In January 2015 I promised I'd pay off the debt in the first 90 days of that year, come hell or high water. And I did it!!
- See my progress: Day 30, Day 60, and Day 90.
Three Months. No small feat! It’s easily the most aggressive goal I’d ever set for myself (before or since), and one of the few that I’ve actually kept and completely smashed.
How to Pay Off Credit Card Debt – Step 2 – Calculate How Much You Owe
Because I'm a finance person, I knew exactly how much I owed because I was tracking it in my Net Worth Spreadsheet and in the Debt Tracker that are now in my Financial Best Life Starter Set.
If you don't already know how much you owe, calculating it up is the first step.
I know it isn't easy to take a good, hard look at this type of number, but I promise it is worth it. You can’t create a plan without knowing what you’re working with.
First, pick a timeline works for you
Before attempting the challenge, I knew I needed to do something drastic in order to get rid of all my debt, once and for all, but making significant sacrifices for an entire year felt like a real drag (spoiler alert: paying off debt is ALWAYS a drag, which is why you should avoid getting into it in the first place.)
Twelve months to pay it off seemed like forever. A whole YEAR before I could jump up and down about being debt free? Puh-lease. I have a very short attention span.
I'm also the type of person that likes to get the painful bits over with right away, so I started brainstorming ways to help me accomplish my goal in a way that felt good and authentic to me as a person.
I wanted a process that would work for me rather than against me.
- Could I pay all my debt off in a month? No, it just wasn’t realistic.
- What about six months? I could, but even that still felt like a lifetime.
- What if I got really serious and paid it all off in three months? Maybe.
Start at the top of the new year, and with my birthday being in March, being debt free seemed like a great thing to gift myself. Once I began running the numbers, I found it was possible.
After calculating up how much you owe on all your credit cards, I encourage everyone to think of an ideal timeline.
- When would you like to be debt free?
- Is this realistic?
- If no, then when could you reasonably accomplish this goal?
Then, work backward to figure out how much you’d have to make/save to get it done
Here’s my example:
With a target date of three months in sight, I then began to work backwards.
$8100 divided by 3 (for # of months) = $2700 in debt payments each month.
$2700 a month felt really, really tight.
Contemplating what I could do, I moved $1,000 that I could spare from my savings and put it toward my credit card debt. I don't recommend raiding your emergency fund, but if you have the money to do this and still have at least $1,000 left over for an emergency, consider it. I encourage this because that money would likely serve you more by reducing balances you owe money on, rather than sitting in an account accruing negligible interest.
Contributing $1,000 right off the bat brought my total each month to roughly $2400, which is still high, but more achievable.
- It was $1200 every two weeks
- …or an extra $600 a week.
So, $600 a week. That was the goal.
How to Pay Off Credit Card Debt – Step 3 – Find Ways to Save More
Look at your budget
There's also no better time to tighten the ol' belt than when you're trying to figure out how to pay off credit card debt super fast. Here are the first things I did to try and save money.
- During my 90 day challenge, I took a hard look at my expenses and started slashing left and right. “It’s just for 90 days,” I reasoned.
- I also implemented a no spend challenge and only gave myself $100 each month in “play” money.
- Negotiating my bill payments to lower the amounts I had to pay each month. I did this on my own, but you can use companies like BillCutterz who do the work negotiating with companies on your behalf.
The Five Things to Cut From Your Budget First
Let me slap you in the face with this bit of honesty— cutting back is one of the biggest components to successfully paying off debt. You know it, and I know it.
Even if you're not in debt payoff ninja mode; maybe you want to contribute more to your retirement fund, your emergency savings, or just live more comfortably within your budget…cutting back costs is the best, fastest, most immediate way to make all of those things happen.
But when it comes down to paying off credit card debt, what do you cut? Where do you start? It can be hard to discern between the things you love, wants, and needs.
I've done a lot of research on this, and here are my first five things to snip (read: the easiest to live without) when you're trying to live skimpy:
- Nights on the town
- Take out
Read the full post on easiest things to cut, here.
Try a No Spend Challenge
“What kind of salary were you working with in order to pay down that much debt?” was a big question I got when my original $8k in 90 day post when live back in 2015.
Back then, I didn’t make six figures or anywhere close to that and my salary was, by and large, about average for what marketing copywriters can expect to make in Atlanta.
The only way I was able to rocket through my debt payoff on my average salary was by following Anna Newell Jones' “The Spending Diet.”
While frugality isn't something I preach, write about often, or even enjoy – I'll admit being uber-frugal can come in handy when you're trying to pay off debt.
Having wanted to try the Spending Diet for a few years, I figured now was as good of a time as any. The basic gist of it is that you only allow yourself a SUPER SMALL amount on “non-needs” spending each month. Like Anna, I gave myself $100 on non-needs spending a month during the $8k in 90 day challenge.
It’s also worth it to try a no spend challenge for one month and see the savings stack up. Similar to the spending diet, a no spend challenge means you’re trying to have as many “no spend” days as possible in a calendar month. Read more here.
Tips for Your Own No Spend Challenge
- Anytime I felt extra out of control or frustrated by my lack of funds, I just reminded myself it was for a good cause (being credit card debt FREE) in the end.
- It was a great way to get competitive with myself and see if I could restrict my spending. When you only have $25 to spend on non-expense items, the gray area disappears and everything budget-wise becomes black and white.
By doing these few things: cutting the budget, lowering bill payments, and doing a no spend challenge for 90 days, I calculated I could allocate $800 from my full-time paycheck (or $400 every two weeks, of my roughly $2,000 bi-weekly paycheck) to my debt repayment each month after my living expenses and automatic savings withdrawals.
But even after all that hacking and slashing, I still needed to come up with an additional $1600 each month in order to meet my goal. This is where it gets exciting.
How to Pay off Credit Card Debt Fast – Step 4 – Earn More
Leverage Your Side Hustle
After finding as much money for debt repayment as I could within my budget, I turned to my side hustle as a freelance writer and marketing gun-for-hire to ramp up extra income. Here are a few things I did to drum up work:
- I hassled a few clients I hadn’t heard from in months.
- Logged on to Upwork and found a handful of new (and surprisingly not terribly paying) clients.
- Brainstormed new streams of revenue for my business, and so I started offering blog coaching for beginner bloggers and businesses. (Notes from these sessions eventually becoming the course, Beginner Blog Accelerator and the Blog Yourself Rich Workbook.)
- Started offering more “sponsored content” to brands.(Here’s my full post on how I’ve made over $150,000 blogging.)
In short, for 90 days I focused exclusively on earning more income and the change was profound.
One-Time Side Gigs
Besides starting a small side business, if you don’t have the time, there are a million low-time and low-cost ways to make extra cash to pay off credit card debt. Here's a few more that I tried:
- I sold some of my old stuff on Ebay.
- Did little voice over work for a video my friend was making for her business.
- Opened up two new checking accounts just so I could get $300 in bonuses, which went to credit repayment and helped out a lot.
- You can earn $3 per survey with Swagbucks. (Here's the other top survey sites we recommend.)
- Or look for jobs on Fiverr or TaskRabbit.
- 10 side hustles for busy people.
- 8 ways to hustle $100, $500, and $5000 dollars.
- Money earning apps (every little bit helps!)
How to Pay Off Credit Card Debt – Frequently Asked Questions
How hard is it to pay off debt fast?
It isn’t hard, it just isn’t fun, which can make it hard for people. It’s also hard to scale back on a lifestyle you’re used to living. Most don’t want to make the sacrifices necessary to pay off debt, let alone do it quickly. One of the biggest criticisms of my story back when it came out was that people assumed it was easy for me to pay off a large amount of debt because I was a single, childless woman making around $60,000 dollars a year.
People want to hear debt payoff stories, but they often don't want to accept that paying off debt isn't super fun. It's not glamorous, or sexy, and it's often boring and frustrating. It's why a lot of people fail and give up and live their lives in debt.
But if I can do it, so can you.
Are there other options for paying off debt?
- Good news: There are many ways to pay off credit card debt fast.
- Bad news: You’ll still be in debt to someone, but (hopefully) with a lower interest rate and more manageable payment.
Investigate these in the order I’ve listed them below.
Balance Transfer Offers
At the time I was doing this challenge, I wasn't eligible for any balance transfer offers and since I wanted to be done with debt fairly quickly, I didn't feel taking time to lower my interest rates (plus any balance transfer fees) was worth the money.
Still, a big component to paying off debt quickly is figuring out how to get your interest rates as low as possible. This is because interest compounds, so the higher the interest rates – the more you pay and it'll take you longer. No bueno.
- 0% interest on a debt for a certain amount of time – great way to make progress!
- Can often get these offers through your current credit card companies – without opening a new account or having your credit scrutinized.
- Easy to forget about if you don’t use the credit card often.
Debt Consolidation is a means to get rid of your debt fast by combining all of your debts into one big loan.
Typical debt consolidation loans work where you take out a loan at a different interest rate with a separate company from other creditors, and you use those lower interest funds to pay off your other creditors, thus “consolidating” your debt into one monthly payment on the loan. Here’s the difference between debt consolidation and debt refinance. Debt refinance is for loans, not revolving debt like credit cards.
Again, it's (typically) a lower monthly payment at a much better rate – meaning you'd save on interest, and have more money in your budget for additional payments. These are a really strategic tool to use in any debt payoff journey.
- This helps you pay less interest, which helps you get out from under your debt faster.
- While it might seem backward to take on debt in order to get out of the debt you've gotten yourself into, it can actually help you save a lot of money in the long run.
- While this can be a great option for many households, it's important to remember that this is still a loan.
- You're still subject to monthly payments and interest rates, and you'll still experience credit issues if you miss a payment.
Debt management companies work with creditors to help you reduce your interest rates and monthly payments (Sometimes referred to as “debt settlement.”) Most debt management plans take 3-5 years to pay off. These companies create plans that help you pay off unsecured debts like medical bills, student loans, and credit cards while allowing you to regain control of your finances.
- Pro: Many of these companies will help you create a plan that works around your needs and income.
- Pro: You'll know ahead of time what monthly payment you need to make on your debts.
- Pro: For those who aren't familiar with budgets, or who don't have a lot of experience in managing your finances, working with these companies is a great way to create realistic budgets and goals.
- Pro: Credit collectors are also less likely to call you, as they can see that you are working on paying them back.
- Con: However, you'll want to be careful when deciding to work with a debt management company. Make sure there are no complaints against them from the Better Business Bureau, or the state Attorney General's office. You'll also want to make sure the company is licensed to help you. Watch out for hidden fees along the way.
- Con: One of the biggest downsides of using a debt management company is that your credit score is likely to drop. Because these companies renegotiate your financial obligations, they can create late payments or close accounts that you have a good history with. However, this change isn't usually long term and may help you improve your credit in the long run.
How can I stay motivated while paying off debt quickly?
There are five big ways to keep motivated while figuring out how to pay off credit card debt. I like to recommend:
- Tracking your progress – Using a debt tracker or net worth spreadsheet (like the ones offered in the Financial Best Life Starter Set.)
- Making a Vision Board – Here's a great tutorial on how to create a vision board of your own.
- Keep a gratitude journal– Writing down what you have instead of what you don’t can be a powerful way to reframe your money mindset.
- Select rewards before you start– What will you treat yourself to once you reach this massive goal? What about the smaller milestones along the way? You can record your rewards on my free debt tracking printable.
- Visualize life after debt – Honestly, paying off debt is hard, hard, work. Like most things, there will come a time (or two, or three) where you feel like the rewards you have in place just don't feel worth the frustration or the long way you have to go. This is why having an ultimate fantasy to imagine in those rough moments will go along way.
- Try other challenges as well – Use the energy you have for your debt journey to try and simplify other aspects of your life as well. Try cleaning out your house (and selling gently used items for extra payoff cash) or eating-in for 30 days.
How can I pay off credit card debt fast and then live debt free?
It isn’t just about paying off credit card debt. You have to live debt free in order for all of this work to make any difference to your financial health and well being. The key to remaining debt free once you’ve paid off credit card debt (or student loans, or any kind of debt) is to break the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle. This means, you have to spend less than you earn and save the difference.
Set up an emergency fund
It’s one of the biggest money questions – do I save or pay off debt? And trust me, I’ve been there: you pay off all your debt and work hard to do so, and then your car breaks down. Or your dog needs a stitch on his paw, or you break up with your long-term boyfriend and need cash to move out.
This is why it helps to have an emergency fund. Even a small one can go a long way to helping people stay out of credit card debt. Even though experts recommend 3-6 months pay in an account, I suggest starting small. I did this with my $1000 in 45 Day challenge (ha! I love challenges!) and recommend it to all. It’s ideal to have $1,000 saved up before you start paying off debt, but after works too.
$1000 can go a long way to fighting off those unforeseen budget-busting expenses.
- So $1,000 in an e-fund
- Pay off all your debt fast
- Then save up 3-6 months expenses
- Move on to other financial goals.
Live within your means
Hopefully, after doing a big debt payoff challenge you’re used to living within your means, and even a little bit under what you can afford. Moving forward, in order to avoid debt you’ll have to be okay with living within the lifestyle you can actually afford.
- Pay for vacations in cash
- Avoid financing when you can
- Haggle for the lowest interest rate possible when you do need financing
- Don’t spend more than you earn each month
- Figure out ways to earn even more and stash away the difference
Accelerate your savings
I’m all for having a little fun. And lord knows, you can’t do a no spend challenge all 365 days of the year. But, after paying off debt on a tight timeline, you should know where you can and can’t save and how to spend in alignment with your values. Now that debt is out of your way, you can focus on other savings goals like retirement, or putting enough away to afford a down payment on a house!
And for those who are stumped here’s 82 ways to save more money this year.
My life changed once I paid off all my credit card debt and I know the same will happen for you.
The benefits of paying off debt are numerous:
- My credit score went up (check yours for free here.)
- I have more money and freedom in my monthly budget ($600 worth in minimums was what I was paying. It is awesome to have this money back in my budget!)
- And it is four (yes, FOUR!) less monthly payments to worry about.
Even though I only had to sacrifice my high-falutin’ lifestyle for 90 days, it still taught me new things about what I can (and can't) live without.) But seriously, go do something you think can’t be done, whether it has to do with money, fitness, relationships….whatever.
Sure it may seem tough at the beginning, but do it anyway. Your future self will thank you.
*this post was originally published on July 10th, 2017* This post was updated in February 2019.