Credit cards are a lot like sports or politics.
People have some very different, very strong opinions about them. Some people love credit cards and some people love to hate them.
When it comes to credit cards, people can get pretty obnoxious trying to convince you that their opinion is the best. I’ll try not to do that, but rather tell you our story and let you decide for yourself.
We had a $14,000 problem.
Years ago, when my husband and I were still in our early twenties, we racked up around $14,000 in credit card debt during a particularly difficult time in our previous business.
Of course, we didn’t find ourselves sitting on a $14,000 pile of credit card debt merely because of an income reduction. There were some bad choices and poor budgeting habits that led to our credit card debt problem as well. Our income went down (by a significant 50%), and we didn’t adjust our spending habits to match our new earnings.
Eventually I woke up and realized that we had created a serious debt problem for ourselves. We had expected profits to bounce back quickly in our business, but they didn’t. We were going to have to make some serious changes in order to not only stop accumulating credit card debt, but to pay off the debt we had already piled up for ourselves.
We created a plan to get out of debt.
At the risk of spoiling the ending to the story, my husband and I did succeed in paying off our giant pile of credit card debt. There’s no magic secret to how we were successful either. We reached our goal by making a solid plan and sticking with it.
Here’s a look at the steps we took to free ourselves from the stressful, expensive credit card debt which was wasting our money and making us miserable.
1. We acknowledged the problem
I’m not going to lie, sitting down with my husband and talking about the mess we had created for ourselves was hard. Still, as painful as it was, I believe it was a crucial key to our success.
I went through our credit card and bank statements for the previous three months and tallied up the different categories where we’d been spending our money. We reviewed the numbers together and they weren’t pretty.
Seeing how much we had spent on dining out, shopping, and entertainment was an eye opener for us both. We were also wasting over $150 per month on credit card interest fees by revolving such large credit card balances.
We committed to curb our spending immediately and find a way to pay off the debt we had created as aggressively as possible. (Mind you, our income was still down so this wasn’t going to be an easy task.)
2. We cut expenses and spending
As I mentioned, dining out and entertainment were two big areas where my husband and I were overspending. At the time we didn’t have children, so weekend trips away, meals out, movies, concerts, and sporting events were frequent occurrences.
We cut spending in those areas immediately. It was tough because we were spoiled. Yet in the end, we could both say that the sacrifices were worth it to be credit card debt-free and more intentional with our money.
Additionally, because I had written out all our expenses, I set out to save money everywhere I could. I knew every dollar I saved was one step closer to our goal.
Here are a few of the ways I was able to stretch our money.
- Switching cable providers and choosing a cheaper plan
- Negotiating a lower rate with mobile phone provider
- Calling credit card issuers and asking for lower interest rates
- Negotiating lower monthly payments for internet services
- Switching auto insurance providers to secure a lower premium
- Canceling gym memberships and y husband’s online gaming subscription
- Quitting nail and hair salon visits
3. We reviewed different consolidation strategies
I knew that expensive credit card interest we had been paying (somewhere around 16%-18% at the time), was only going to delay our progress. So, I began to research different consolidation strategies. Although a personal loan might have improved our credit scores faster (by reducing our revolving utilization ratios immediately), our credit scores were still in decent shape around the low-700s.
My husband and I weren’t planning to make any major purchases, so we opted for the consolidation strategy which would save us the most money in the short term — a 0% balance transfer credit card offer from Chase. The balance transfer fee on the new account was 2%, so it cost us around $300 to transfer the funds from our old cards to the new one after I was approved for the account. Also, the 0% introductory rate was only good for 12 months. So, we had a strict time limit to add to our debt payoff goal.
4. We started a side hustle
At the time, no one called selling items online a side hustle, but that’s exactly what we did to earn extra money to put toward debt elimination. We found old, infrequently used items in our home and listed them on Craigslist. We also threw a few yards sales per month into the mix for good measure.
We sold clothes, old phones, video game systems, DVDs, books, and basically anything we could bear to part with. Once we ran out of our own items to sell, we hit yard sales on the weekends to replenish our inventory.
It’s hard to believe looking back, but we averaged nearly $1,000 extra per month by selling unwanted items. Again, I can’t say this was easy, but I can say it was worth it.
5. We held ourselves accountable
While we were chipping away at our debt, I kept a running log of our progress and let my husband know the new balance every week whenever I made a payment online. There are apps and spreadsheets to help with this as well, but I personally kept it simple and tracked our progress with a bright, fluorescent sticky note in our checkbook register.
6. We celebrated our successes.
At first, the thrill of seeing our credit card debt go down was enough motivation to stay on track with our self-imposed spending restrictions. Yet after a while, it became more difficult to say no to temptation. (For a couple used to dining out, shopping, and hitting up various entertainment venues almost at will, the new no-frills lifestyle had been a huge adjustment.)
As a solution, my husband and I decided we could allow ourselves some small rewards whenever we hit certain debt elimination milestones. For example, if we paid off $500 in debt, we might treat ourselves to an inexpensive meal out or a movie. A few times we held out for a bigger threshold (perhaps $1,500 in debt paid off) and we would reward ourselves with tickets to a basketball game (though not the expensive, premium seats we would have likely purchased in the past).
The point was, we could still have fun. We just needed to plan those splurges into our budget and stop going overboard with our money like a couple of 10-year-olds who had been set loose in a candy store.
I don’t blame the credit cards. I blame us.
Eventually, we paid off the full $14,000 in credit card debt
The balance transfer offer we chose saved us over $1,000 in interest fees during the process.
As an added bonus, our credit scores each jumped close to 75 points each — from the low-700s when we started to the high 700s once we were credit card debt-free.
Personally, I’m still in the pro-credit card camp, even though I personally struggled with credit card overspending in the past. I gave myself permission to learn from my mistakes, instead of swearing off credit cards altogether.
I’m also now a credit expert by trade. I simply believe credit cards offer too many benefits to be ignored including better credit scores, greater fraud protection and, when managed correctly, a great way to spend.
If there’s a downside to credit cards, it’s the temptation they offer, but that’s easy to solve. If you’re nervous about overspending, you can always open purposely low-limit credit card accounts to reduce temptation. You can also lock your credit cards away somewhere safe to prevent impulse purchases, like my husband and I did during our debt elimination journey.
Credit cards are simply a tool. The debt my husband and I had to dig ourselves out of was our fault. We couldn’t blame it on the shiny pieces of plastic tucked away in our wallets.
Taking responsibility for our debt problems was sobering and uncomfortable. Yet, acknowledging that we were the cause of our debt problem also put us in the driver’s seat. We were able to take control of our finances and learn from our mistakes.