4 Strategies I Used to Pay Off $20,000 of Debt This Year


By Michelle Argento for CentSai

I’m awful at picking out goals and sticking to them. So when I set our family on the path to pay down $20,000 worth of debt in 2016, I was admittedly skeptical. In fact, I turned to my husband after the first month and said, “You know, if we don’t make the $20,000 goal, at least we tried. Maybe we’ll even make a small dent in those medical bills.”

But fast-forward to this fall, and we’ve almost hit our target. Here’s what I learned along the way that helped us stick with it.

1. Make sure that you’re as optimistic as you are realistic.

I wasn’t exactly into the idea of putting what amounted to a down payment on a home toward our debt, the bulk of which came from low-interest, medical-related charges. What fun was that?

But after the first few months of making mega-payments, I started to see the fun in it. Our tax return was coming in March? Great! My family gave me cash for my birthday? Awesome! Let’s throw it at that credit card bill.

Debt is a bummer, but changing my mindset kept me on the right path. And it made some of the long months, when nothing seemed to budge, more tolerable.

2. Find your like-minded tribe.

Behind the scenes at CentSai, we have weekly phone calls during which we talk about our writing. Having to fess up about my debt payments to a bunch of strangers (and friends), who are as into money as I am, has been a huge motivator.

The same is true of writing. Knowing how many eyes see my name and my debt totals is like sticking my feet in hot coals. I wanted to get off there as fast as I could. Without that accountability—and a bit of shame—I wouldn’t have been able to do it.

I’m not saying you have to go to extremes like confessing your money sins on every phone call you make. But if you can just find one friend or family member to talk to honestly about your money, it helps keep you on track.

3. Keep track of everything.

Here’s another confession: I suck at organizing. Piles of papers are my friends. Little notes written on the back of junk mail is my way of keeping things together. My to-do list is always hidden somewhere between my actual planner, our fridge calendar and sticky notes I occasionally find months later.

This year, I promised myself that I would be different. While I am still a pile-maker with errant sticky notes scattered around, I have been much better at setting alarms on my calendar to pay down debts on the 5th and 25th of each month, and I am keeping running tallies of my debt in Google Doc spreadsheets.

I’m no Martha Stewart, but it’s helping me visualize my progress every month.

4. If it doesn’t work for you, don’t try it.

As a personal finance writer, I’ve read a lot about money management. Some advice has been awesome. For example, I read about a person who used a whiteboard and doodles to represent debt. When it was paid off, he washed that doodle away until it was a blank canvas.

Well, that brilliant idea didn’t work for me. I forgot about it a week later, along with the 400 or so other Pinterest-like strategies and tips that I’d accumulated.

The truth is, what works for others won’t necessarily work for you. And what looks good on a blog won’t necessarily help you break through your debt problem. What did work for me was doing the mundane work. Budget. Track. Transfer. Repeat.

But that’s me. If you need something pretty and stylish—or someone to yell at you like a drill sergeant—go find it. Only you know what works for your debt repayment motivation.

Final Thoughts

So what does all this mean for my personal debt repayment in September? Sticking to these rules of debt payment goal-setting, my family managed to pay down $1,793.

For 2016, we have paid off $19,876 of our $20,000 goal. With a little under $200 left to go for 2016, you can bet that next month will be extra special! To read what happens click here.

This post originally appeared on CentSai, and is part of a series chronicling Michelle’s road to debt payoff. To see her previous update, click here.