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A few years ago, I was living paycheck to paycheck without any clue about how to manage my finances.

Gold Rush / Discovery Channel / Via Giphy /

I had a set income but just didn’t know how to start paying down my debt. I felt like everything related to finances was way. Too. Complicated. It was easier for me to just ignore my situation and hope it’d magically work itself out.

One fateful day, when I must’ve been feeling extra motivated for some reason, I randomly decided enough was enough. I made it my life goal to pay off my debt. All of it. And I wanted to do so fast.

By slowly changing my lifestyle, I was able to see big results and eventually pay off my $46,500 debt.

List of loans completely paid off!

Charis Barg

It didn’t happen overnight; but after making just a few simple changes to the way I handled my finances, I finally started seeing progress. And ultimately, I was able to pay off all my debt in just two years.

These changes, although small at the time, made a huge impact on my life. I’m still debt-free years later, managing finances is now a habit, and I generally don’t feel anxious about money, regardless of whether I have an income or not. I even started a website where I write about the money-saving tips I’ve learned.

Here are the 17 things I did that helped me get debt-free:

And just one quick note before we jump in: Although implementing these changes helped me pay off debt, not all of them may work for you. You know yourself best, after all.


Organized all my debt by writing everything down.

Conan / Via Giphy /

When I thought about my debt, I knew I owed like tens of thousands of dollars, but I had no idea exactly how much. Not knowing the amount totally added to my anxiety.

I told myself to calm down and forced myself to check all my accounts and write the numbers down. I wrote down the debt amount, the interest rate, and the minimum payment. For my student loans, I broke them down even further since I had a bunch of loans with different amounts and interest rates. The total amount ended up being $46,500.

Surprisingly, the act of writing it all down made me feel less anxious. It’s as if seeing it all on paper instead of hyping it up in my brain made it feel manageable. The brain surely works in mysterious ways.


Focused on paying off one debt at a time.

Comparison between debt snowball and debt avalanche.

Charis Barg

Once I had my debt written down, I saw what I owed more clearly. For me personally, I owed roughly:

• Student loans = ~$30,000 (around individual 8 loans varying from $1,000–$6,000)

• Car loan = ~$13,000

• Three credit card debts of varying amounts = ~$500–$2,000

Seeing it broken down actually made it super clear how I was gonna pay it off. I learned there are two common methods for paying down debt: debt snowball, which involves paying off your smallest debts first (to increase motivation), and debt avalanche, which focuses on paying off your debt with the highest interest first (to pay less interest).

I basically used a combo of those two methods and ended up paying off my debt in the following order:

1. Credit cards from lowest debt amount to highest debt amount

2. Car loan

3. Student loans


I actually started tracking my expenses.

Screenshot of how I keep track of expenses

Your Dollars Count / Charis Barg / Via

I never really used to know where all my money was going. It often felt like it was just disappearing into a black hole. Turns out, it was just going toward food. Like, way too much of it.

So in order to be more conscious of my spending, I began using a super-simple phone app called Your Dollars Count (Android only; sorry iPhone users) to document my most frequent expenses, which for me were dining out, groceries, and Amazon — don’t judge me. I just manually entered what I spent in each category, so I could easily see how much I’d spent compared to the amount I’d allocated in my budget. Then at the end of the month, I’d simply clear the info and start fresh.


Calculated how much interest I’d have to pay.

Amount of interest saved by paying off debt in 5 years vs 10 years

Charis Barg

I knew I’d have to pay interest; I couldn’t control that. But what I could control was how much interest I had to pay. I used a debt payoff calculator to figure out the amount of interest I’d end up paying if I only paid the minimum on my debts…and I was shocked to see how much of my hard-earned money would go to interest.

That totally motivated me to pay off my debt as quickly as possible. After all, it’s my money and I wanna keep as much of it as I can.


Planned spending freezes.

List of categories I'd spend money on

Charis Barg

Near the tail end of my debt journey when I was SO CLOSE to being done, I implemented spending freezes. Basically, I spent money solely in a few predetermined categories:

• Housing and utilities

• Groceries

• Car maintenance and gas

• Medical (doctor’s visits, prescriptions, etc.)

• “Fun money” (which I kept to a strict $100/month)

Umm…and that’s actually it. So for a few months, if something didn’t fall into one of these category, I didn’t spend money on it.

Maybe my memory is just foggy, but I felt like it wasn’t actually that difficult. Granted, I only did this when I was super close to paying off debt and I just wanted that final push to the finish line.


I accepted feeling uncomfortable (temporarily).

Bachelor in Paradise / Via Giphy /

I remember times I wanted to add more decor to my apartment, I had furniture that broke and needed to be replaced, or I wanted to go to a nice new fancy restaurant. But I knew debt wouldn’t be in my life forever, so my desire to pay it off was bigger than the slight discomfort of delaying experiences and purchases.

Besides, once I paid off my debt, I celebrated by going to the restaurant I wanted to check out a few months earlier. And I redecorated my apartment. So I mean, win-win.


Found cheaper alternatives to everything.


Which included becoming more creative in gift giving.

A picture frame with a word cloud of meaningful words

Charis Barg

It’s easy for me to make it rain gift cards for friends and family. But if I’m spending $50–100 on gift cards for every event that can happen throughout the year, that adds up!

I LOVE giving gifts so I’m not talking about being a miser. I know lots of people are happy to receive gift cards, but I’ve found it’s more meaningful to try to get that perfect gift that shows I’ve been paying attention. Plus, gifts totally don’t have to be expensive to be meaningful. I mean, I once gave my spouse a gift that involved asking friends and family to describe him with nice words. I put those words into a word cloud, printed it for free, and put it in a $10 frame. To this day, he still says it’s one of the most meaningful gifts he’s received.


I did proper research on products before making any purchases.

BBC Sherlock / Via Giphy /

If I needed something like an appliance, I rarely bought the first thing I saw. I’d read reviews, check out different models, and look at a variety of websites. (I’m making it sound like I wasted my life reading product descriptions, but I probably only spent like 20 minutes researching any given item.) Sometimes the impact was super small, like choosing a slow cooker with better reviews than another. Sometimes it made a huge difference, like figuring out a $30 mattress topper would help me sleep better instead of a having to spend $300 on a new mattress.

As I started doing more research on products, it also had a great secondary benefit: It helped curb my impulse buys. If I saw something I wanted, spending the time to do a bit of research helped shift my perspective from “I have to have this NOW” to “lemme check and see if this is something that’s actually useful for me.”


Used credit card rewards points to my advantage.

3 credit cards: Barclay Arrival, Capital One Venture, and Chase Sapphire

Charis Barg

Ironically, I think I used credit cards more than ever while paying down debt. Probably cause I stopped feeling controlled by the credit card and was able to start paying it off every month so it didn’t accrue interest. It even became a sort of nerdy game for me to identify the credit card with the best perks.

All my cards earn travel rewards; so by making my normal purchases, I could earn points and miles to put toward airfares. This saved me money on travel; since instead of paying $600–$800 for flights, they’d often be “free” — and who doesn’t like free?


I started being a minimalist.

A cupboard with a minimal amount of dishes.

Charis Barg

When I say “minimalist,” I don’t mean I tried to fit all my clothes in a backpack and only used one fork and one bowl. For me, it was more about just decluttering my excess stuff and realizing how much I was holding onto things “just in case.” I had a whole drawer full of loose wires and screws that I had no idea what they were for but I was like, You never know??

At the time I read Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. (BTW, for my personal bragging rights, I totally read it before the Netflix special came out.) That book and being more minimalist helped me shift from feeling like I always needed more to being content with what I had.


I decreased my contribution to retirement.

Twitter: @JBsoHood / Via Twitter

I know, I know. Contributing to retirement is like Money 101 so I get that this won’t work for everyone. But for me, I really wanted to maximize each paycheck for paying off my debt, so I decreased my contribution to my retirement to my company match, which was 4%. My thought process was that it’ll just be a temporary decrease and I’ll move it back up once I’m done. That I did (yay me for not forgetting)!


And temporarily stopped contributing to savings (controversial, I know!).

The Simpsons / FOX / Via Giphy /

Maybe this is more blasphemous than cutting back on contributing to retirement, but this strategy worked out really well for me. Personally, I didn’t like the concept of saving money and paying off debt at the same time because I liked seeing bigger chunks of money go toward debt.

So I made sure I had a buffer of around $1,000, and then I just didn’t contribute to savings again until after becoming debt-free. This approach might not work for everyone, but I was willing to take the risk of not having a ton of savings. I figured hey, once I’m done paying down debt, I’ll have more money available to put back into my savings.


I checked my credit card statements frequently to make sure I was charged correctly.

List of refunds that I'm waiting for

Charis Barg

When paying off debt, I became slightly anal with checking my bank account and credit card statements. I made sure that I knew what was going in and out of my account at least every other day.

Constantly seeing the charges helped me be super aware of my spending. It also meant I could catch subscriptions that didn’t get canceled in time or make sure refunds made it into my account. I wrote everything down so I wouldn’t forget to check back on it later.


I cooked. Like, a lot.

Groceries haul

Charis Barg

Ahh meal planning. Cooking isn’t my thing, but I have to admit it’s a total game changer when it comes to paying down debt. I managed to stretch my money a lot further at the grocery store than I could’ve if I was going out to eat all the time.

I planned out my meals and bought groceries once a week from cheaper grocery stores like Aldi or Walmart. Then, I make big-batch meals to avoid having to cook every day. If you want some inspo, see how I made a $25 grocery budget last an entire week.


And started mending old clothes instead of buying new ones.

Charis Barg

I was 100% the type of person that if I saw even the tiniest hole in my shirt, I’d throw out the entire thing. It didn’t even register for me to think, Oh maybe I can fix that? Once I started being more minimalist, I only kept clothes I genuinely liked, which meant I wanted to actually keep them in good condition.

I *gasp* bought a sewing kit and started making minor repairs to my clothes if needed. Nothing too difficult, but I felt proud of myself :’).

I also got Shoe Goo to help patch up shoes when the heels peeled away from the rest of the shoe. Sometimes my clothes and shoes were still in relatively good condition and just needed some TLC for a second chance at life.

Charis Barg

I was 100% the type of person that if I saw even the tiniest hole in my shirt, I’d throw out the entire thing. It didn’t even register for me to think, Oh maybe I can fix that? Once I started being more minimalist, I only kept clothes I genuinely liked, which meant I wanted to actually keep them in good condition.

I *gasp* bought a sewing kit and started making minor repairs to my clothes if needed. Nothing too difficult, but I felt proud of myself :’).

I also got Shoe Goo to help patch up shoes when the heels peeled away from the rest of the shoe. Sometimes my clothes and shoes were still in relatively good condition and just needed some TLC for a second chance at life.


Finally, I rediscovered the library and started borrowing books instead of buying them.

My well-loved library card

Charis Barg

I used to go to the library every day as a kid. Why did I stop going as an adult?!

Rather than automatically buying books that often just ended up collected dust on my bookshelf, I got myself a library card and started borrowing them from the library instead. If the book turned out to be amazing, I’d buy a copy so I could keep it.

Another great thing about the library: They have regular books, e-books, and audiobooks, so I can get the info in any format I want. Plus, some libraries offer helpful research on things how to prep for interviews or resources for businesses!

By incorporating these changes into my life, I achieved debt freedom in two years!

CBS / Via

Paying down the debt wasn’t an overnight process. Sometimes it felt like I was going two steps forward, one step back — especially when the unexpected life things got in the way. But I’m grateful to my past self for not giving up, especially in the beginning when the learning curve was the steepest.

I have to say, making the decision to get serious about paying down debt was definitely been worth it and probably the best decision I’ve made for myself.

What are your tips for paying off debt? Let us know in the comments below! And don’t forget to, check out more of our personal finance posts.

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