How I Paid Off Over $80,000 of Credit Card Debt

Updated: December 5, 2022

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Cara Curtis Headshot

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.

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.

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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.”

About Geoff Williams

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Geoff Williams has been a professional writer for over three decades and a personal finance journalist for over 15 years. He contributes financial content to MoneyGeek, with expertise in personal finance, real estate, entrepreneurship, credit cards and loans. He has been writing for various publications, including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and CNNMoney. He also authored several books, including “Living Well with Bad Credit.”

Williams earned his creative writing degree from Indiana University Bloomington.