After I paid off $28,000 of student loans in three years, friends started asking how I did it—and how they could do it, too. The truth is, paying off debt is simple: Spend less than you earn, and funnel any money you can spare toward your balance.
Still, the journey to debt-free can be a long one, and it helps to employ tactics to accelerate the process and stay motivated. I used a lot of strategies for saving money, like comparison shopping for the cheapest household goods and buying my clothes and books secondhand.
But I also created a visual reminder of my progress—a running tally of what I owed and how much I’d paid off—to keep me on track. When I felt down, I’d look at it and be encouraged by how far I’d come. That helped me stick to my plan. Ultimately, I was able to devote half of my $30,000 annual income toward my debt each month until it was finally paid off in 2014.
Whether you’re staring down a big balance you haven’t begun hacking away at yet, or you’re looking for ways to hit your debt-free goal faster, get inspired by these five and the tactics they used.
Eric Rosenberg, 32, a web developer in Ventura, Calif.
Establishing automatic payments not only ensures you’ll avoid the stress of late fees, but it can also help you accomplish your goals without feeling the pinch. Take it from Eric Rosenberg, who paid off $40,000 in student loans in just two years by submitting auto-payments from each paycheck.
“By paying automatically, I was used to living without the money and never had to go through the pain of seeing my checking account balance go down on payment day,” he says. Rosenberg also gradually increased the payment amount, using automation, in order to zero out his debt ahead of schedule.
Since becoming debt-free in 2012, Rosenberg’s found other productive ways to take advantage of automation, like allocating a portion of his paycheck to his 401(k) and diverting some of his direct deposit into a Roth IRA until it was maxed out. By the time Rosenberg transitioned to contract work, his automatic savings habits were ingrained—making it easy to remember to manually deposit his retirement savings each month.
Lee Huffman, 41, finance manager at a regional bank in Anaheim Hills, Calif.
Lee Huffman knows first-hand how tempting it can be to spend extra money instead of putting it toward your loans. When he paid off his $56,000 car loan last year, he says he would have loved to trade in his car for a newer model or spring for NBA or NFL game tickets. But he was still paying down his $30,000 student loan bill, and didn’t want to fall victim to “lifestyle inflation,” or upgrading his spending as soon as he got some wiggle room in his budget.
“I’ve always had the attitude of living beneath my means and saving for the future, with the occasional splurge,” Huffman says, adding that all his bonuses and raises have gone toward paying debt, saving for retirement or purchasing rental properties. So instead of upgrading his car, Huffman doubled-down on his debt, and funnelled the money he’d been using to pay the car loan to his student loans—which he ultimately paid off in March 2016.
Now that he’s debt-free, Huffman has even grander plans for his extra cash: “Over the last year, I realized that I could retire in 10 years by accelerating the payoff of my mortgages by redirecting the student loan and car payments toward my mortgages, while continuing my normal 401(k) savings,” he says.
Lauren Elliott, 26, a restaurant and retail employee in Indianapolis, Ind.
Back in 2012, Lauren Elliott was struggling to keep her diabetes in check. So she researched and attended a wellness retreat—with a $6,000 price tag—where she learned new healthy strategies for eating better and managing her condition. In a stroke of luck, she also met her future employer at the retreat: a chef who later opened a raw vegan cafe and asked Elliott to help her get it off the ground.
“I don’t regret attending the retreat,” Elliott says. “[It] ended up being an investment in my health and in my career.”
But by the time 2015 rolled around, the medical debt began to weigh heavily on Elliott. Not only was it a source of stress, but it was also a major roadblock to fulfilling her dream of moving to Colorado. She’d spent the winters of 2013 and 2014 working at a ski resort in Aspen, and loved it. But she knew that if she wanted to return in 2016—and perhaps stay permanently—it’d be wise to stay home for the 2015 season, wipe out her medical debt and start saving.
So Elliott hunkered down and created a plan. She started tracking her spending, cutting back on extras like shopping trips, and, most significantly, picking up a new job as a sales associate at REI, which netted an additional $800 per month. In total, she was able to contribute about $1,500 each month toward her balance.
Just four months later, in early 2016, Elliott was debt-free. “It felt like freedom—like I had the opportunity to open new doors in my life because my debt wasn’t holding me back,” she says. Now, Elliott’s saving up for a car that can handle Rocky Mountain conditions, then she’s planning to pack up and head to Colorado this winter.
Carrie Willard, 41, a stay-at-home mom, Atlanta, Ga.
Carrie Willard and her husband, Zeke, paid off $80,000 of credit card debt and car loans in five years. And if that wasn’t impressive enough, they did it on just one income—from Zeke’s furniture repair business.
How’d they stay on track? “The most important thing we did was hold weekly meetings. This helped us stay motivated, and even improved our marriage, as discussing money often uncovers hopes, dreams and fears,” Willard says.
Each month, the couple reworked their budget, adding in upcoming expenditures and removing other line items, in order to stay on track with their goals of paying off debt and building an emergency fund. They also discussed ways to save more, from selling items on eBay and Craigslist to buying used clothing and cooking at home instead of going out.
The Willards finally accomplished their goal in 2015—five years, three kids and two cars (paid in cash) later. But they didn’t discontinue their weekly checkins. Now, they meet regularly—in a quiet space, away from kids and other distractions—to review their progress on saving for a home down payment.
Thanks to their success, Willard recommends all couples create a budget date night. “Because money styles differ, a husband and wife could find that money is a source of tension, but budget meetings give you a way of working out these things in a way that maximizes your strengths and minimizes your weaknesses,” she says. “It also prevents the nerd from doing everything and the free spirit from opting out.”
J.D. Roth, 47, a blogger in Portland, Oregon
Back in 2004, J.D. Roth owed more than $35,000 in consumer debt. “Like most debt, it was from choosing to live beyond my means—buying things I could not afford,” he says. But Roth turned it around—paying $1,000 a month toward his debt for three years—thanks to a new mindset: He started thinking of himself as a business.
“A business has to make a profit, right? I decided that I had to make a profit, too, which meant that I had to earn more than I spent,” Roth says. “I told myself I was the CFO of JD, Inc. That meant I both cut my expenses and increased my income.”
He started by ordering less takeout, growing a vegetable garden to save on groceries, refinancing his mortgage and visiting the library instead of shopping at bookstores. Then he increased his income by selling off unwanted possessions and launching an IT consulting business.
After crossing the finish line in 2007, Roth used the money he’d been contributing to debt repayment to pad his savings account. “Once the debt was paid off, I could use the profit to ‘grow’ the business of me. It worked like a charm!” Roth says.