How I paid off over $80K in credit card debt


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How do you get out of debt when it seems impossible? If you’re looking for inspiration, you could model yourself after Cara Curtis, an information technology executive in Boston. About five years ago, she had $81,435 in debt, with little to no hope of ever repaying it. She was making minimum payments and never falling behind. She had a knack for avoiding credit card late fees

But because of compound interest, her balances kept going up. Although Curtis did get out of debt, it didn’t happen overnight.

“I read these articles titled, ‘I Paid Off $200,000 in Student Loans in Four Months,’ and I never understood where they got the money to do this,” Curtis says.

For Curtis, it took a five-year journey to pay off 12 credit cards, but again, for those who are looking for strategies to reduce debt and see their credit score climb, Ms. Curtis may just be your role model.

Related: 7 debt consolidation myths you shouldn’t believe

7 debt consolidation myths you shouldn’t believe

In the right circumstances, debt consolidation can help get debt under control. But there are entities that offer the promise of debt consolidation yet don’t deliver — and even charge illegal fees in the process. Understand the following debt consolidation myths, and the pros and cons of the process, before pursuing it.


There are many types of debt consolidation. A debt consolidation loan, for instance, is a personal loan that can be used to pay off multiple kinds of high-interest debt, such as credit cards and payday loans.

But it can’t be used to pay off federal student loans. There’s a separate process for that, called federal student loan consolidation. This option won’t reduce your interest rate, but it can give you more time to pay off your loans or qualify you for additional reduced-payment programs.

You can also consolidate credit card debt on its own using a balance transfer credit card, which moves high-interest debt across multiple cards to a single one. You’ll have as long as 21 months, depending on the card for which you qualify, to pay off the debt interest-free.


Like other types of financial products, the higher your credit score, the more favorable terms you’ll get on debt consolidation loans and balance transfer credit cards.

But you can qualify for a debt consolidation loan with good, fair or even poor credit. Visit your local bank or credit union to check the options available there first. You may qualify for a lower interest rate if you have a long-standing relationship with the institution.


If you qualify, you could get a balance transfer credit card with no transfer fees and no interest charges during the introductory period. Paying off your debt during that time means consolidating your debt fee-free.

But some cards do come with a balance transfer fee; consolidation loans may also have origination fees. Take these into account when considering whether to consolidate your debt or choose a different option, such as negotiating with your creditors yourself to lower interest rates.

Use caution if you interact with a company that charges to consolidate debt for you. Some companies charge fees to consolidate student loans, for instance, which is free to do directly through the government at The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) maintains a list of companies that it has banned from offering debt relief services.

It is illegal to charge a fee by phone before issuing a loan, according to the FTC. Familiarize yourself with the signs of an advance-fee loan scam.


On the other hand, there are legitimate types of debt relief that may cost money.

Though not specifically a type of debt consolidation, debt management plans require working with a nonprofit credit counseling agency to simplify payments and potentially pay less on interest. You’ll make one payment to the credit counseling agency each month, which will then pay your creditors on your behalf. You’ll be charged a monthly fee and potentially an enrollment fee.

But you may find these fees are worthwhile to address your debt with the help of a reputable professional. A debt management plan requires making payments regularly and on time for the full length of the plan, which could take up to five years.


Opening new accounts, such as a credit card or loan, may lead to a small drop in your credit score. An inquiry for a new credit card generally takes fewer than five points off a FICO Score, according to FICO. But opening multiple new accounts over a period will more dramatically affect your score.

Research your options in advance so that you apply for a balance transfer card or debt consolidation loan for which you’re likely to qualify. Once you get it, make payments on time, every time. Payment history accounts for the largest share of your credit score — 35%, according to FICO.


You may not have to apply for a new credit card or loan to get out from under your debt. Alternatives to debt consolidation include working directly with your creditors, who may be willing to lower your interest rate, waive late fees or give you a new monthly payment. You could also choose a debt management plan, which doesn’t require you to open a new line of credit.

If you can pay extra toward the debt, you can opt to pay off the smallest loan balance first, then put the equivalent of that monthly payment toward the next-smallest balance. This is the debt snowball method, and can help you gather wins on your way to debt freedom. Or you can pay the highest-interest loan first, called debt avalanche, which will save more money in the long run.


While debt consolidation can help you feel less overwhelmed in the short term, ending a reliance on credit cards — and preventing future debt — is a separate, and necessary, process.

Once you’ve chosen a debt consolidation method, audit your expenses and make a spending plan. Cancel subscriptions you no longer use and identify areas that need a closer look, such as how much you spend on meals out. You don’t need a complete overhaul of your budget, but a few key changes — such as cutting back on food delivery or reducing subscription services — can help you avoid creating more debt.


Debt consolidation is a smart move when you qualify for a balance transfer credit card or loan that will lead to interest savings, as well as when you make payments on time for the duration.

Pause making purchases on the accounts you’re paying down. If you get a balance transfer credit card, make sure you fully pay off the debt during the card’s interest-free period. Divide your total debt by the number of months with the 0% interest rate and commit to sending that amount to the card each month.


While debt consolidation myths abound, researching your options and relying on reputable sources of professional guidance will help you land on a strong strategy. Deciding to pay off debt is half the battle. The next step is to choose a debt consolidation method that will give you the best chance of success.

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This article originally appeared on and was syndicated by


The Origin Story of Cara’s Debt

It’s important to know how you created your financial mess, so you can avoid repeating it, and Cara Curtis is very self-aware and fully understands where she went wrong. She was too blasé about the importance of paying off credit cards. 

For instance, when Curtis was in her 20s and living with roommates, she got into a habit of moving high-interest debt from credit cards to lower interest credit cards. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it doesn’t help your case if you then continue using and accumulating debt on the high-interest credit cards.

And there are fees with balance transfer credit cards, something Curtis didn’t really consider. “Nobody talks about the fees, but they aren’t negligible, and when you transfer thousands of dollars from credit cards to another card, they add up,” Curtis adds.


When looking into the right card for a balance transfer always look into the fees associated with the balance transfer.

She also says that when she moved into an apartment with roommates, she paid the landlord for the security deposits with a balance transfer check. So suddenly, she’s paying interest on her own security deposits.

But Curtis really made a critical error when she moved from Massachusetts to Virginia for a new job and took on a lavish apartment she couldn’t afford.

“I was living above my means. I thought I could afford the apartment. I thought I would get bonuses at work that didn’t materialize, and I just kept putting my rent and other living expenses on my credit cards,” Curtis says. “I kept thinking that during the next bonus cycle, I’d pay it off, or I would make a dent in it, but things kept getting worse and worse.”

Fortunately, Curtis didn’t hit rock bottom. For instance, she was never once late on a payment with her 12 credit cards. But she could see the writing on the wall – she wasn’t saving money. An emergency fund seemed impossible with all her outstanding debt. She looked at her credit card statements and realized that, at the rate she was going, even if she paid the minimum payments on all of them, she might pay them off right around the time she was set to retire.

So how did Curtis pay off her debts? 

Curtis offered these tips.

1. Reduce Your Expenses

This was the first thing Curtis did when she recognized she had a problem. She downsized from an apartment that cost her $1,550 without utilities, to one that ran her $910, plus utilities.

This helped immensely, but not enough.

2. Seek Professional Help

Help can mean a lot of things for a lot of people looking for options for getting out of debt. Some people might be so far behind that they may feel that they should seek out bankruptcy – and maybe they should. Everybody’s financial situation is different.

In Curtis’s case, she contacted Money Management International (MMI), a national debt relief and money management budgeting nonprofit, headquartered in Stafford, Texas. Because her bank recommended them, she figured their advice was credible. Curtis did talk to several people at what were likely debt settlement companies, which have a reputation for telling clients to forgo making payments while they negotiate with the creditors. Curtis didn’t like that idea. “That was the only thing I had going for me, a 100 percent payment streak and I had paid 100 percent on time,” she says.

But MMI, she says, had a different plan. Curtis wound up paying MMI exactly what she had been paying her 12 credit cards every month – $1,380. The only difference was that MMI convinced 11 of the 12 credit card companies to lower her interest rates, allowing Curtis to pay everything off much faster – in her case, five years instead of, for example, 30 years. It wasn’t a glamorous way to get out of debt, but it worked.

She would make a single credit card payment each month to MMI, who would retain a small amount for their services, and disperse the rest to the 12 credit card companies. “I would still talk to MMI. They stay in touch with you and give you updates on balances, but having just one monthly due date reduced a lot of my stress,” Curtis says.

3. Live Within Your Means

For Curtis, that meant not using her credit cards – for five years. She spent whatever she had in her checking account and never went beyond that. And it should be noted that once Curtis downsized apartments, she didn’t have much else to cut back on. She was driving a 12-year-old car. She didn’t have cable. “I was already doing the things people tell you to do,” Curtis says. Still, while the debt relief non-profit divided up her money among the credit cards, Curtis made sure she didn’t self-sabotage herself by living beyond her means.

4. Pay Off High-Interest Credit Cards First

Curtis didn’t ask MMI its strategy on how it was paying off her debts, but one of her credit cards had $500 on it, and she noticed that the nonprofit took its sweet time paying it off in full. Curtis suspects that they adopted what is often called the debt avalanche method of paying off credit cards. That’s when you make the minimum payments on all of your credit cards, and any money left over, you divert to the card with the highest interest rate.

Once that is paid off, you then put most of the money toward the card that remains with the highest interest rate and so on. In Curtis’s case, she started off with 12 credit cards, and the $500 credit card probably had the lowest interest rate.

If you’re paying off debt on your own, you may want to try the snowball method. This is where you would pay off your smallest debt first, in Curtis’s case, the $500 card. Psychologically, this small win can provide motivation to pay off your high-interest credit cards. But as you’ll see if you work with a compound interest calculator, the math works best when you first pay off high-interest credit cards.

5. Be Patient

Getting out of debt doesn’t happen overnight. The process of debt reduction involves creating a lot of good habits – and engaging in them over and over and over until one day, you’re debt free. Which finally happened to Curtis last February. But she’s not just debt free, she also saw her credit score climb 118 points.

Curtis recommends that anyone in debt come up with a strategy for paying it off, whether that’s working with a nonprofit or simply creating good habits and sticking with them. She also points out that she tried negotiating herself with credit card companies for better rates, but they wouldn’t do it. So if you’re deep in debt, you may have little choice but to work with an accredited credit counseling service.

Reducing Debt Pays Off

In any case, paying your debt off will eventually pay off. After Curtis’s $81,435 was finally eliminated, she wound up getting a credit card – just one – and a really good one that offers cash back. Her credit score is now over 800. “I pay off my credit card in full every month, and I have money in my savings account. It’s a whole new me,” Curtis says.

In fact, because she pays her credit card off in full every month and gets cash back on this card, she puts that cash back against her balance. That beats carrying a revolving balance and drowning in debt every month.

“For years, I paid my credit cards,” Curtis says, “and now I’m being paid to use a credit card.”

This article originally appeared on and was syndicated by

More from MediaFeed:
How to pay off your credit card debt fast

How to pay off your credit card debt fast

A reasonable plan must take into account your income, the amount of credit card debt you have and your financial priorities.

However, there are still some tips on how to pay off credit card debt that everyone can follow, regardless of your situation.

Before reviewing strategies to get out of credit card debt, evaluate your finances to determine where you stand. For example, if you can’t pay more than the minimum on credit cards, you might seek out additional sources of income, like freelance work or a part-time job. Doing so would open new ways of managing your debt, though we offer some options below if you can’t currently make payments.

A budget can be a powerful tool to track what money is coming in and going out. You can create one with this guide or download an app that pulls spending and earnings directly from your bank account and displays it in a dashboard. A popular budget strategy is the envelope method, where you set aside the exact amount of cash you need each month, placing hard limits on spending. Those that would prefer an app may find that Mint or Clarity Money provides needed accountability.

With a better understanding of your finances, you can make moves to create room in your budget to pay off credit card debt.

Here are nine options to pay off credit card debt.


If you have free cash in your budget, the debt snowball strategy sets you up for quick wins early on in your repayment journey so you stay motivated and encouraged. Here’s how it works:

  1. Make a list of all your credit card debt balances and order them from smallest to largest.
  2. Pay the minimum amount on each debt every month, but make extra payments on your smallest debt.
  3. Once you repay that debt, take the money you’ve freed up and pay off the next smallest debt.
  4. Cycle through steps 2 to 3 until you have paid off all your debt.

As an example, let’s say you have the following debt accounts:

  • Account A: $4,000 balance and 21.0% APR
  • Account B: $15,000 balance and 16.2% APR
  • Account C: $250 balance and 19.5% APR

If you follow the debt snowball method, you would pay off Account C first, as it has the smallest balance. Once it’s repaid, you’d target Account A and then finally Account B. Conquering smaller balances one at a time gives you motivation to tackle the next. And as you clear your debts, you free up more funds for the next account.

This method is not without its disadvantages, however. You might pay more in interest charges compared to other debt repayment strategies, such as a debt avalanche. That’s because a debt snowball doesn’t take interest rates into account, so you could spend several months paying off a low-cost debt. But if quick wins keep you motivated, then a debt snowball can be an effective strategy.

The debt avalanche method, also known as debt stacking, looks a lot like the debt snowball method — but with one key distinction. Instead of paying off the smallest balance first, you start with the highest interest rate and work your way down.

Here’s what it would look like applied to the example from the previous section:

  • Account A: $4,000 balance and 21.0% APR
  • Account B: $15,000 balance and 16.2% APR
  • Account C: $250 balance and 19.5% APR

In this situation, you would pay down Account A first, Account C next and Account B last.

The debt avalanche is a great option if you want to spend less on fees and get out of credit card debt quicker. Credit cards with high interest rates can keep you in the red longer as a larger part of your monthly payments go toward paying interest rather than decreasing the principal.

By tackling debts with the highest interest rates first, you’ll get rid of these pesky penalties sooner and free up more funds to pay off the rest of your credit card balances. Just like an avalanche, it takes a lot before you see any changes. But once you reach the tipping point, everything falls into place quicker than you’d expect.

However, because it can take longer to see results compared to a debt snowball, this repayment strategy can be discouraging for some people.

Credit cards carry notoriously high interest rates. New cardholders with poor credit bear the brunt of this, with rates that can soar above 20%, according to data from CompareCards.

But by moving your balance from a high-interest credit card to one with a lower rate, you can whittle down your debt without interest eating up such a large part of your payments. Some issuers will even offer a 0% introductory APR to sweeten the deal.

These introductory rates typically last between 12 to 24 months. Ideally, you want to pay off the balance before the introductory period is over. Otherwise, you may find yourself worse off than before, if your generous 0% APR offer turns into a higher-than-average interest rate and you’re charged back interest from the original purchase date.

This option is best for those with good or excellent credit, as you’re more likely to receive a better deal and be approved. Just make sure to check the fine print before you sign. Some issuers may charge you a balance transfer fee equal to 3% to 5% of the transferred amount. Compare that fee to potential savings from transferring your debt.

Another option to consider if you have good credit: low-interest personal loans. Credit card consolidation loans are used to pay off several debts at once, combining them into one balance with one monthly payment and a fixed interest rate and repayment period. Preferably, the new loan would have a lower interest rate than any of your credit cards, to make repayment more affordable.

Personal loan rates vary between 5% and above 30%, while rates for credit card offers typically start at about 15%. Over time, the money you save by consolidating your credit card debt adds up.

Consolidation loans also take the guesswork out of how to pay down credit card debt. You know how much to pay every month, and your repayment schedule guarantees that you clear the balance by the end of your loan term. It’s like having your repayment plan laid out for you – all you have to do is follow it.

If you’re a homeowner with sizable equity in your house, borrowing money against it may be an option to consider. Home equity loans provide you with a lump sum amount that you’d pay back in regular installments, much like a personal loan.

With a home equity line of credit (HELOC), on the other hand, you have more flexibility in your borrowing and repayment terms. HELOCs are comparable to credit cards, in that you can borrow up to 80% to 90% of the equity in your home whenever you need to and pay the amount back over several months.

These alternatives may appeal to you if you’re willing to take on secured debt. The rates are lower and your interest is tax-deductible.

Make sure to steer clear of home equity loans and HELOCs if you’re risk-averse or are dealing with unpredictable finances, however. If you default on your loan for credit card debt, you could risk foreclosure and lose your house.


Credit counseling services offered by nonprofit organizations help you manage your debt and improve your financial literacy, especially if you’re new to personal finance management.

In your first meeting with a credit counselor, they’ll learn about your financial situation and point you to resources you may need, such as educational materials and debt management classes. Certified counselors understand the intricacies of topics like credit and bankruptcy, allowing them to devise a personalized plan to help you get out of credit card debt.

They may recommend you enroll in a debt management plan. With this type of plan, your credit counselor will act as the intermediary between you and your creditors. They’ll make debt payments on your behalf, negotiate with creditors to potentially get your interest rates reduced and fees waived.

Although a debt management plan may come with a monthly fee, depending on your circumstances it may be waived. To find reputable credit counseling agencies, check this resource from the Department of Justice.

If you have retirement savings, you can borrow against them in what’s called a 401(k) loan.

Despite the label, this method isn’t considered a true loan. Instead, think of it as borrowing money from your 401(k) and reinvesting the funds one payment at a time. Specific guidelines vary between employers, but generally you can borrow up to $50,000 or half of the balance in your account. Since you’re borrowing from yourself, you can qualify with faulty credit, as well.

However, remember that 401(k) accounts are valuable investments, with interest that compounds exponentially. By borrowing from your retirement fund, you lose the financial gains you’ve made so far along with the ones you’d make in the future. You’re also subject to a multitude of penalties, fees and taxes – and you’re responsible for covering the entire “loan” balance within a short window of time if you leave the company.

Without a plan in place, you put your long-term financial security at risk, so try to avoid this option if possible.

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Settling credit card debt involves negotiating with creditors so that you only pay a portion of what you owe. Settling a debt will hurt your credit, so weigh that impact versus getting rid of the debt. 

Debt settlement can be done by yourself. Though you may see debt settlement companies offering to do the work for you, we don’t recommend using them.

Debt settlement companies charge you for services you can do yourself, and they can’t (and shouldn’t) guarantee success. Some require you to make monthly payments through them rather than directly to your creditors, and dubious companies will take your money without improving your financial situation.

Many debt settlement companies will also ask you to stop making payments to your creditors, to pressure them into settling your debts for less than what you owe. So if you do decide to go this route, know that you may go through the collections process as well. Missing payments and settling accounts for less than what you owe will bring down your credit score. In the worst case scenario, it can even lead to lawsuits and wage garnishment.


When you’ve exhausted all other options, bankruptcy may be a way to get a clean slate. There are two types of bankruptcy that you can file for as an individual:

  • Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which discharges your debt after examining your assets and liquidating non-exempt ones like vehicles and fine jewelry pieces.
  • Chapter 13 bankruptcy, which requires you to complete a three- to five-year repayment plan before your debts are discharged.

The irony of these debt relief methods is how expensive they are, considering that it’s bankruptcy you’re filing for. Even without taking Chapter 13 repayment plans into account, you’ll also have to consider your bankruptcy attorney fees, court filing fees and mandatory bankruptcy courses. You can expect to pay, on average, somewhere between $1,600 and $6,000 to file a case.

Pursuing bankruptcy will have huge consequences on your finances. Like most other negative credit information, it will stay on your credit report for up to 10 years.

As you wave goodbye to your credit card debt, know that personal financial management doesn’t stop here. It’s a journey, not a destination.

By following the same strategies you used for paying down credit card debt – along with the knowledge you might have gained from credit counseling – you can maintain your financial freedom. Your next steps include:

  • Staying debt-free. This isn’t the time to pile on new debt, just because you can. Spend less than you make, and consider using the money you’ve now freed up to invest in your future. Put money toward a home renovation, save for retirement or start an emergency fund.
  • Keeping your credit cards open. They’re important for maintaining a high credit score, especially if you’ve had them for a long time, if the accounts carry a large credit limit or both. Keep your cards active by using them for low-ticket monthly subscriptions like Spotify or Netflix. Just make sure to pay the balance before the end of the month.
  • Avoiding temptation. If you’re an impulse buyer, consider keeping your credit cards out of reach. Hide them away, lock them in your safe or cut them up — do whatever you need to do to avoid racking up debt again. Unsubscribe from the mailing lists of your favorite stores, and maybe even close your Amazon Prime account if you find yourself spending more than you should.
  • Budgeting for small “cheat” purchases. On the other hand, if it feels impossible to cut out impulse spending completely, set aside an allowance for small indulgences every month. Just as cheat meals help prevent you from going off the rails on your diet, “cheat” purchases like a frappé or movie tickets help you to maintain control over your carefully-calculated budget.

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