Ready to learn how to pay off credit card debt fast? 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 great and inspiring; others are just plain 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.
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 (bonus) on your own timeline. Here's the overview of how to pay off debt fast:
- Choose your debt payoff strategy
- Calculate how much you owe and your debt payoff timeline
- Find ways to save more
- Hustle so you can earn more
- Accelerate your debt strategy
- Debt – Frequently Asked Questions
- How hard is it to pay off debt?
- How long does it take to pay off debt?
- What is the fastest way to pay off debt?
- How can I pay off debt with no money?
- When paying off debt which should I pay first?
- Is it better to pay off debt or save money?
How to Pay Off Debt Fast – 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. 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.
Step 2 – Calculate How Much You Owe
Because I'm a finance person, I knew exactly how much I owed because I tracked it in my Net Worth Spreadsheet and in the Debt Tracker that is now in my Financial Best Life Blueprint.
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. 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 timeline 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
With a target date of three months in sight, I then began to work backward.
$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.
Step 3 – Find Ways to Save More
The First Five Things to Cut from Your Budget
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Only gave myself $100 each month in “play” money.
- Negotiated my bill payments to lower the amounts I had to pay each month.
Try a No Spend Challenge
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.
The basic gist of a no-spend challenge is that you only allow yourself a SUPER SMALL amount on “non-needs” spending each month. 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.
Like Anna, I gave myself $100 on non-needs spending a month during the $8k in 90 day challenge.
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.
Step 4 – Earn More
Get a 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.
- 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.
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Do Gigs for Extra Cash
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 are a few more that I tried:
- I sold some of my old stuff on Ebay.
- Did a 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.
- Drive with Lyft.
- You can earn $3 per survey + a $5 sign up bonus with Swagbucks. Click here to get your $5 bonus .
- Here are the other top survey sites we recommend.
- Look for quick side 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!)
Step 5 – Accelerate your payoff
Paying off debt requires a diligent strategy. Paying it off quickly requires being strategic with your efforts, and the best way to do be strategic with your debt is to pay as little interest on your debt as possible. There are a couple of ways to lower the interest rates on your debt, but these depend on your credit score and your individual circumstances like how much you owe and your current interest rates.
- 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 to figure 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 the longer it will take you.
- 0% interest on a debt for a certain amount of time – a great way to make progress!
- Can get these offers through your current credit card companies – without having your credit scrutinized.
- Easy to forget about if you don’t use the credit card often.
Consider Balance Transfers if:
- The interest rate on the card is lower than your current one – try to get 0% if you can.
- Factor in balance transfer fee (Usually a flat fee or 5% of the balance transferred) when calculating if it's a good money move.
- You feel you can pay back the balance before the promotional APR ends.
Debt Consolidation (Payoff)
Typical debt consolidation loans (like Payoff) work by allowing 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 (like student/school loans), not revolving debt like credit cards.
A debt consolidation loan is offered at 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.
- A lower interest rate than your credit cards, so you can pay off debt faster.
- You can check your rate in as little as 3 minutes.
- It has no effect on your credit to check your rate.
- 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.
- If you have multiple cards, this allows you to pay them off and have one monthly payment.
- 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.
- Need to double check the interest rates to make sure it's really going to benefit your debt payoff plan.
You should consider debt consolidation if:
- You consistently make payments on your debt but feel you can't make any real progress.
- Your credit card interest rates average above 15%
Debt management companies, work with creditors on your behalf to help you reduce your interest rates and monthly payments. (Sometimes this is 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.
- Many of these companies will help you create a plan that works around your needs and income.
- You'll know ahead of time what monthly payment you need to make on your debts.
- 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.
- Credit collectors are also less likely to call you, as they can see that you are working on paying them back.
- However, you'll want to be careful when deciding to work with a debt management company.
- Watch out for hidden fees along the way.
- 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.
You should consider debt management if:
- Your debt has become unmanageable.
- You'd like professional help getting out of debt.
- You're getting a lot of calls from creditors.
What about debt refinance?
- Debt consolidation means you take multiple loans/ debts and pay them off with one larger loan.
- Debt refinance means you take your existing loan and get a new one at a lower interest rate.
You still shop for interest rates for a consolidation loan the same way you do a refinance offer.
You can't refinance credit cards since they're not loans technically, but you can refinance student loans, private loans, and home mortgages. I'm mentioning the difference here because you'll probably see the terms as you're out there exploring ways to potentially lower interests on your existing debt.
Frequently Asked Debt 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. Still, 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.
How long does it take to pay off debt?
Figuring out how long it takes to pay off debt depends on three factors:
- how much debt you have
- the amount of extra money you have (after bills) to pay it off
- if you're good at not adding anything to the balance
So, it's hard to answer this question because it depends on each individual's circumstances. This article from Debt.com shows how it can take five years to pay off $1,000 if you only make minimum payments. Student loans are often calculated on a ten-year repayment timeline, but again, it often takes borrowers twice as long.
TL:DR – How long does it take to pay off debt? Decades if you only pay the minimums. And play with your own debt payoff timeline using a handy online calculator. This way you can visualize how extra payments can make a difference.
What is the fastest way to pay off debt?
The fastest way to pay off debt is a simple two-step process.
- First, cut up your cards and stop using them. (Seriously, STOP USING YOUR CARDS)
- Then, do whatever you can to make extra payments.
- Get a side hustle. Here are 9 that pay $1,000+ each month.
How can I pay off debt with no money?
You can't, really. But here's what you can do when you're trying to pay off debt with no money.
- Consolidate or refinance your balance (Click here to check what lower rate you can get in under 2 minutes with Upstart.)
- Try and find money in your existing budget by cutting your expenses.
- Stop using your credit cards to float your lifestyle so at least the debts don't get larger.
But eventually you'll have to pay all debts back and that takes real money. This is why I emphasize earning extra cash via side hustles so much. It's the key to any successful debt payoff strategy.
If I want to pay off debt fast which should I pay first?
There are many schools of thought on this, some of which I covered in the first section of this article. Many will tell you to pay off your highest interest debt first, but it's up to you.
Personally, during my “$8k in 90 Day” challenge, I paid off my smallest balances first. It made me feel like a real badass and helped me build some momentum to help me stick with my goals once I started tackling the larger balances.
Again, whatever works for you, but personally, I like the feeling of a few quick “wins” in the battle of the debt war.
Is it better to pay off debt or save money?
This way you can cover the majority of unexpected expenses and stay out of the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle. After the first $1,000 I would put the bulk of extra money toward debt repayment. Then, once the debt is paid off, I'd resume aggressively saving for my financial goals.
How can I stay motivated when I'm trying to pay off debt fast?
There are five big ways to stay 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 Blueprint.)
- 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. The “Best Self Journal” is my favorite for this.
- 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. 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? 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 in 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. 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
What if I am unable to pay off debt fast?
Not everyone can commit a full three months to accelerated debt payoff, not everyone can work a full-time job, AND side hustle, AND stay at home and save money.
But even if you can't pay off all your debt fast, or even in the next year, you can commit to paying your debt off the old fashioned way – slow and steady. You'll also be able to have a life while you do it. I'm no stranger to this either. Once upon a time, I was living in NYC and I paid of $10,000 in 14 months.
If you haven’t read the full post on how (and why) I moved to New York City with $300, you should definitely read that post here.
The TL: DR is – I graduated right in the middle of the recession, and with few job prospects and an extreme itch to get out of my parent’s house in Alabama. I moved the NYC with my unemployment checks and $300 in my checking. I moved to NYC with debt, and here's how I got out of it 14 months after I moved.
Step #1 – Get a Better Paying Job
I knew the only way to get rid of my debt for good AND get on my feet in a new city was to get a job. And not a Starbucks-retail-so-you-can-audition job, a real job, with a decent salary and benefits. If the debt is crushing you and you're living paycheck-to-paycheck, you may want to double-check and make sure your salary is where it should be.
Step #2 – Commit to Low Cost of Living Choices
This is the thing no one likes to talk about when it comes to debt payoff. Most people (myself included sometimes) don't want to accept the reality that debt means you're living a lifestyle you simply cannot afford.
For instance, when this article (the $8k in 90 Day Challenge) first went viral in 2015, the trolls came out. They complained it wasn’t a realistic story for people who had kids, who didn’t have jobs with a $60k salary (what I was making in 2015), those who didn’t have time and energy to hustle the way a single, childless woman can.
But I also feel people tend to forget that they dictate the set of circumstances in their own lives.
- I had to PRIORITIZE my debt repayment.
- I knew that by making it THE PRIORITY in my life I had to make big sacrifices.
- So, I committed to putting my Broadway dreams on hold for a year so I could take care of THE PRIORITY.
I chose to live in Harlem because it was cheaper. I chose to live four people to a three-bedroom house to save money. Making those sacrifices allowed me to make enough money to pay off the debt, and save enough room in my budget as well.
Step #3 – Create a Bulletproof Budget
After New York City & State Taxes, I took home $2,924.11 a month. This are the exact numbers from my very first “adult” non-acting job. I took that money and used the 50-30-20 method to set a budget.
- 50% = $1,462 in living expenses like rent and utilities
- 30% = $877.00 for spending money
- 20% = $584.82 for debt repayment
If you don’t already have a budgeting app, get one. Best of all, I was paid once a month, which was actually easier to pay down debt because I did it all at the start of the month.
Step #4 – Enable Autopay for your debt payments
This point is important.
Looking back on it, as I write this piece, it almost seemed easy to pay off that first $10,000 of debt in NYC. It was way easier than trying to pay off $8,000 in 90 days.
Really, there was no magic to paying off this amount in a little over a year. I committed to a timeline, set my payments to autopay and just let online banking do its thing.
Autopay is what made this a reality for me. I had autopay set to minimums, and then I did the “Debt-snowball” method: once I paid off a card in full, I routed that minimum to the next card and so on.
Step #5 – Make Extra Payments (Even if They're Small!)
Using the breakdown above, I should’ve paid off my credit card debt in around 17 months, but I did it in 14.
Whenever I had an extra $30 or $50 leftover at the end of the month, I’d make an extra debt payment. It was slow going, but every little bit (and it was always just that…a little bit!) helped me shave 3 months off my debt payoff timeline.
Step #6 – Avoid Lifestyle Inflation
I hope this piece especially inspires young people (think right out of college) to pay off debt ASAP. Paying off debt when you’re young and on a small salary isn’t as tough since you’re still on a college lifestyle. Like, seriously. Looking back on my two debt payoff journeys – one I did at 23 and the other at 28 – the one I did later in life felt way more difficult because I had to “cut back” a lot more.
At age 23, my $45,000 annual salary felt ginormous.
In both instances
In 2010, when I was paying off $10k…I wasn’t a blogger, I didn’t know what a “side hustle” was, and I was able to get by and meet my financial goals by simply budgeting a small salary.
Again, in 2015, my life changed once I paid off all my credit card debt. I know the same will happen to 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, I learned new things. I learned 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. It was updated in February 2019.