Anyone who tells you it’s easy to pay off a bunch of debt fast is either lying or they make a ridiculous amount of money.
I know this because I just paid off $12,000 of debt in 12 weeks to ring in 2021 debt-free. I didn’t get a pay raise or an inheritance or a winning lotto ticket. I buckled down and worked my full-time job while side hustling, racking up about 80 hours a week.
10 Tips for How to Pay Off Debt Fast
I know, I know: Working 80 hours a week simply isn’t doable for a lot of people. There’s no single magic-bullet solution that will work for everyone. Regardless of how you approach paying off your debt quickly, here are some tips that could help you make headway.
1. Ask yourself: Can I really afford to pay off my debt?
I planned to crush my debt early on in 2020. But my priority shifted in March as millions of people lost jobs and spent weeks or more waiting for unemployment benefits.
So I focused on building my emergency fund and made minimum debt payments instead. I wanted money I could turn to for rent and bills if necessary that wouldn’t push me further into debt.
If you don’t have at least a three-month emergency fund, focus on building that first while making minimum debt payments. Only when you have those cash reserves can you afford to clamp down on debt.
2. Get to the root of whether income or spending is the problem
The problem with budgeting your way out of debt is that your big expenses are usually the ones you don’t have a lot of control over from month to month: your mortgage or rent, car payment, health insurance and utilities. These costs have a way of rising at a pace that erases the cuts you do make.
Case in point: I cut my Kindle Unlimited, Hulu and two website subscriptions, a savings of about $45 a month. Then guess what happened? My landlord raised the rent by $50.
Overspending may be what’s keeping you in debt. But I suspect that for a lot of people, income — or a lack of it — is the bigger challenge. I found about $400 I could easily cut from my expenses. Had I added that $400 to my $700 minimum payments, it still would have taken me at least a year to get out of debt.
If you can make extra money — and yes, I’m extraordinarily lucky that I can during these difficult times — that will often yield far more progress than cutting your spending.
3. Don’t try to be a bare-bones budgeter and an extreme side hustler.
I chose to become a hard-core side hustler and not make any substantial changes to my budget. Had I tried to work 80 hours a week and live off a bare-bones budget at the same time, I’m pretty sure I would have failed.
It’s a lot like taking on an extreme diet and an extreme exercise regime at the same time. You may last a few days, but then you’ll probably crash and wind up planted on the couch eating Ben & Jerry’s and binging on Netflix.
4. Make money doing something you know.
Learning new skills is a great way to boost your earnings in the long term, but when you’re paying off debt fast, make money doing what you know. I’m a writer and editor, so the easiest way for me to make extra money was as a freelance writer and editor. If your line of work doesn’t lend itself to freelancing, consider a side hustle that doesn’t require you to learn something new, whether that’s driving for a ride-share app, pet sitting or tutoring online.
5. Knock out one small bill first.
There are two schools of thought on how you should pay down debt: the debt avalanche method, where you pay off the balance with the highest interest rate first, and the debt snowball method, where you pay off the smallest balance first. For me, deciding which debt to focus on was easy because I had $550 charged on a credit card that was both my highest-interest and smallest-balance debt.
Even though my minimum payments were only $25 a month, it felt so empowering to knock out that debt and have one less bill to think about. Regardless of which method you choose, I suggest knocking out a small balance first to jumpstart your debt payoff. That quick win can give you the motivation you’ll need when you’re paying down your bigger balances.
6. Spend money if it lets you make more money.
Don’t feel guilty about spending extra money if you’re buying yourself the time to make more money. Sometimes I splurged on UberEats or grocery delivery. The fees and tip were worth it when I could work late without interruption. I also occasionally spent money on day camp for my dog, Kermit. Paying $20 to get a tired dog who would let me focus was money well spent.
7. Stop charging money on cards you’ve paid off.
It’s really hard to keep track of how much money you’re actually putting toward your debt payments when you’re actively charging expenses. I started using my debit card for most transactions so I could focus on getting my credit card balances to zero.
In situations where I paid by credit card for safety reasons (for example, I never pay with my debit card at the gas pump), I’d make note of how much I’d charged and pay it off that evening.
Ignore your credit card rewards while you’re paying off debt. The average point is only worth about 1 cent, and they can distract you from your bigger goal.
8. Celebrate every $1K you pay off.
Unless you’re paying off a small amount, paying off debt gets exhausting pretty quickly. I found a way to reward myself for every $1,000 to $2,000 I paid off.
Treating yourself doesn’t always require spending money. For example, I wanted a new purse, so I got one by trading in a few clothing items I hadn’t worn in forever at a consignment shop. One gorgeous Saturday afternoon, I rewarded myself by calling it quits early and taking a long bike ride. But if you want to indulge on occasion, go right ahead.
9. Talk about what you’re doing.
You have a better shot at hitting your goals when you announce them to the world. My colleague Adam Hardy wrote about UberEats driver Sam Lyons, who made more than $8,000 in one month delivering food and documenting it on TikTok. He said without TikTok, he probably would have burned out or taken a day off.
I didn’t announce my plan to pay off debt to the world, but I did talk about what I was doing a lot with friends, family and co-workers. Telling other people my goals made me hold myself accountable. Hopefully, it also bought me a little slack when I got busy and forgot to reply to texts.
10. Write the story of how you paid off your debt before you start paying it off.
I wrote a rough draft of how I paid off my debt before I started paying it off. It wasn’t anything detailed. But I wrote about what I planned to do: pay off $12,000 worth of debt in 12 weeks by working an extra three to four hours on weeknights, plus eight to 10 hours on Saturdays and Sundays. This made me get specific: How much would I have to make per hour? How many articles would I have to write?
The numbers sounded scary at first. But the 12 weeks was key for me. I knew I could hustle for 12 weeks straight since it’s not a long time. At the end of it, I’d give myself permission to stop freelancing if I wanted to.
Setting big, vague goals is easy. By writing how you reached your goals before you’ve actually reached them, you’re forced to get specific and spell out what you’re willing to sacrifice.
Figure Out What Works for You
Paying off $12,000 of debt in 12 weeks worked for me for a few key reasons: I’m working from home during the pandemic. I’m single with no kids. My job isn’t physically taxing. Most importantly, I didn’t experience any of those big unexpected expenses that can throw the best-laid plans off track.
The key thing here is that this is your story. So write it based on what works for you. The details may change, and that’s OK. It’s the ending that counts.
Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. She writes the Dear Penny personal finance advice column. Send your tricky money questions to [email protected].