Reader Pays Off $14,330 In 20 Months

Stuck in a $14,300 debt hole, reader Trixare4kids was dug herself out using tips she learned about on Consumerist. Let’s learn how she went on a personal finance rampage, learned to live frugally, did it all in 20 months, and how you can do it too!

She writes: “This morning I made my very last payment on $14,300 in credit card debt and a personal line of credit for a home improvement project that was completed a few years ago. I paid it off over the last 20 months thanks to applying some of the stuff I learned at consumerist.com. It was tough. It took discipline, but I did it!

Instead of making a bunch of changes at once, I did things a little over time. It looked something like this. It’s maybe not in the order that makes the most sense to a financial planner or in the order that someone else would do things; I just know that it worked for me.

MONTH 1: NEGOTIATING BETTER CREDIT CARDS RATES:
I called every single credit card company and tried to negotiate for a lower rate. I was successful with a lot of them. In once case the rate went from 14% to 7.99%. If they would not lower the interest rate, I politely thanked them and then transferred those balances onto lower rate cards. I canceled each card as it was paid off.

RELATED CONSUMERIST POST: Sample Script To Get Your Credit Card Rate Lowered

MONTH 2: GO CASH-ONLY:
I cut up every single card except one for emergencies. I actually put my remaining credit card in a big plastic cup full of water and stuck it in the freezer. That way, I’d really have to work at it to get that card. Cash only was the rule. If I did not have the cash, I did not need it. It’s still in the freezer 20 months later.

RELATED CONSUMERIST POST: Paying Cash-Only, Family Spends $1,800 Less

MONTH 3: START DEBT-SNOWBALL:
It really works. I first heard about this method on consumerist and set myself up to pay off the lowest balances first. I used an Excel spreadsheet I downloaded here. I liked this one because it was easy to add extra one-time payments. I know that it would probably save me more money to pay off the higher interest rates first, but it was very, very satisfying to get stuff paid and DONE with. I cannot even begin to explain how highly motivating it was to finally pay something off. It was worth whatever little amount extra it cost me extra to pay the smallest balances off first. It makes for that good “light at the end of the tunnel” feeling. I also set up automatic payments on payday through the online bill pay to make this a seamless process. For the first couple of months, I just started off with just $50 extra because that’s all I could afford. Once I started living more frugally, I applied more to the snowball.

Make extra payments to the snowball. They really do help, no matter how small. Every single extra penny that came my way went toward paying down the debt. At the end of the month, if I had anything left over in any of the budget categories, I immediately applied that as an extra payment. The nice thing about online bill pay is that it’s just so easy to make as many payments as you want. Sometimes it was $100, sometimes it was $10 or even $3 one month, but every little bit helps. I purchased a printer that was almost free after rebate and applied the rebate to the debt. I did a few side jobs helping a caterer do some prep work; I sold some books on half.com, cleaned out my garage and made $300 from a yard sale, grandma sent me money for my birthday and Christmas, you get the idea. The point is, every single extra penny went right to the debt.

RELATED CONSUMERIST POST: Use Snowball Method Spreadsheet To Pay Off Debts

MONTH 4: SET UP BUDGET:
I made a budget and figured out where exactly my money was going.

RELATED CONSUMERIST POST: On The Money’s Budget Calculator Helps Guide Your Monthly Spending

MONTH 5: CUT BACK EXPENSES:
I figured out what I could cut back on or go without. Not only did I figure out what I was giving up would save me I also diligently applied that amount to the snowball. It also really helps to figure out what something is costing you per year. I had no idea I was spending $600 a year just on manicures!

Here’s what I gave up:

Cable TV. Got a cheap netflix plan and a roku player instead. Savings: $17/month, $204 a year
Land line phone. Savings: $27/month, $324/year
Gardener. Savings: $40/month, $480/year
Got slower DSL. Savings: $10/month, $120/year
Manicures. Did my own. Savings: $50/month, $600/year
Public Radio Membership. Sorry KQED and KALW, but I have to come first right now. I’ll continue to support you later. Savings: $11/month, $132/year
Gym Membership. Savings: $30/month, $360/year
Lunches at work. Savings: $120 month, $1440/year
Starbucks. Savings: $60/month, $720/year

Total extra towards snowball: $365/month, $4,380/year.
Just like that.

RELATED CONSUMERIST POST: 5 Expenses You Can’t Afford If You Have Credit Card Debt

MONTH 6:
I worked on cutting my spending in other ways.

I am an avid reader and I realized one of my biggest expenditures was new books. I gave up my Amazon habit and switched to the library. My local library allows you to browse the catalog online and request books be sent to the branch of your choice. I work 2 blocks from a branch so I just picked up things there. I also used paperbackswap.com, bookmooch.com and swaptree.com to give books I no longer wanted and in return get books I wanted. It only cost me the price of shipping books to other users via media mail. I saved unknown hundreds and hundreds of dollars by making this simple switch.

For example, in September, I spent $36 on postage to send out used books, books that would otherwise just be sitting around and in return I received about $300 worth of books had I bought them new at retail price. For those who are into DVDs and CDs, swapadvd.com and swapacd.com are also awesome sites. (Other than being a member, I’m not affiliated with any of those sites)

I stopped buying anything new. If I really, really needed something, I would ask first on freecycle http://www.freecycle.org/ and search craigslist for used items for sale. For example, my hairdryer stopped working about 6 months ago. Instead of running out to buy a new one, I posted an “Item Wanted” listing on the yahoo group and had a new and FREE hair dryer within 24 hours.

Food Budget: I ate the kind of things I normally eat; I just made some simple substitutions. I ate at home instead of eating out. I brought my lunch to work instead of eating out, but I did let myself eat out on Payday Friday. I used coupons and only bought very small amounts of perishable items so there was no waste. I stocked up on items like toilet paper when there was a really good sale, but was careful not to buy too many perishables. Nothing went to waste. I gave up paper towels and used rags instead. I shopped at the grocery outlet instead of Whole Foods (aka Whole Paycheck)

Instead of buying new clothes (except for bras, panties and socks) I shopped for things at thrift and consignment stores.

I know it sounds like I gave a lot of stuff up, but I don’t see it that way – I kept thinking about what I was GETTING instead, which is freedom from debt. I still gave myself a small budget for entertainment and frugal dining out once in awhile, and please, nothing could induce me to give up my hairdresser!

You’d be surprised how much you can actually do for FREE if you just look around.

Free Theatre: Lots of theatres need volunteer ushers. You work in the theatre for an hour or so before the show, maybe stuffing envelopes or something. You help seat people before the show and then you get to see the show for free. You often get good seats too. I saw 3 or 4 free show a month this way. You often have to wear black
slacks or skirt and a white shirt, but that’s a small price to pay for free theatre.

Artist’s receptions: You get to mingle and talk with people, see some (hopefully) lovely and interesting art, plus get fed wine and cheese.

I also used squidlist to find cheap and free things to do.

HOW IT FEELS
I was disciplined and determined and I did it! Thank you consumerist! As of today I am debt free (except for my thankfully low fixed-rate mortgage) and I feel like a huge weight has been lifted from my mind. My spirit feels lighter. I am FREE. I am doing a happy dance! My plan is to continue to live frugally and start building up a savings
now. I will never, ever be in that much debt again. I never want to feel the stress an anxiety of owing so much.

Oh yeah, all during this time, I also put just $40 per month away into a savings account (ING) which I set up as an automatic $20 deduction every payday. I now have $800 to spend guilt-free and after 20 months I’m ready for a vacation. So, as my prize for getting debt free, I just booked a $295 flight to Cancun a bit later in October. I really deserve this vacation for a job well done and best of all? It’s NOT going on a credit card.

Thanks, consumerist!

-trixare4kids”

Excellent work! We’re proud of you, trixare. You really buckled down and make the right decisions to aggressively attack your debt. For anyone who’s in debt, even if you just adopt a few things, there’s a lot in here to get you further down the path towards true financial freedom.

Which of trixare’s tips was most inspirational? What have you done in the past to get out of debt? How has the recession changed your personal finance debt strategy? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

This post originally appeared Oct. 10, 2008