Paying Off Debt the Quick and Dirty Way


Disclaimer: I am not a financial advisor. Just a 34 year old woman who is finally out of consumer debt since getting her first credit card at the age of eighteen. Always consult a financial planner or advisor before making radical financial decisions.

Being in debt sucks. It makes you feel bad so you spend more and then you feel bad about that and spend even more in a silly attempt to try and forget about the bills.

I know a lot about being in debt. It’s been a constant for most of my life. I grew up in a single parent family with five siblings and we all knew how much the mortgage payment was each month. We had our our cable television cut and our mom’s bank card and credit card was rejected many, many times at grocery stores and malls. Debt was how we survived.

When I was in university, on my full athletic scholarship, I got credit cards for the ‘extras’: nice clothes and the occasional restaurant meal. I also took on debt so that in the summers, instead of working, I moved to eastern Canada to train at the national rowing centre and race for Canada.

I brought debt into my marriage and then grew the debt as we moved into a bigger home, traveled and lived above our means.

In February of 2010, almost two years ago, my husband and I decided to do something about our debt. We tallied it up on a spreadsheet, all $82,000 CDN, and got to work. In September of 2011 we made our final payment on a line of credit and freed ourselves of consumer debt. Here’s what I learned about getting rid of debt the fast and dirty way:

Sell stuff.

Probably the easiest and quickest way to get some traction on your debt is to start selling things you don’t use. We sold everything from baby stuff, to the torch I ran with in the 2010 Olympic Torch Relay, to my wedding dress and, eventually, our car. Selling stuff netted us around $8,000 – almost 10% of our debt.

Stop buying things you don’t need.

We put ourselves on a shopping embargo. No non-consumable purchases without talking it out at length with each other. It worked. No more buying the daily deal on a website or Groupons we would never use. I stopped browsing in stores and turned a blind eye to sale signs. Stuff will never give you as a good a feeling as being out of consumer debt.

Know what your rice and beans are.

I couldn’t eat rice and beans for a month to save cash. I mean, I could if we were living in poverty and it really was the only thing we could afford to eat. But restricting myself to super cheap food makes me squirelly. It makes me resentful. It makes me do stupid things like buy something to make myself feel better about eating rice and beans every month. Know what you can give up without too much fuss and know what is near and dear to you. Some people can go with rice and beans for months but if you ask them to cancel the high-end cable package and sell the DVR, they’ll lose it. For us, cancelling the cable, newspaper service, home phone line and going without a car were our rice and beans.

Keep some small luxuries.

My husband and I like to have some spending money each month to dine out casually or grab a coffee and a treat once or twice a week. If we had cut that I don’t think we would have lasted on our shopping embargo or continued on with cancelling services. We liked the small luxury of those treats and it kept us motivated as we diligently worked on cutting costs in other areas. So, if it’s your iPhone or your coffee habit or take-out on Friday nights, keep it and soldier on with cutting the fat in other areas.

Find a confidant.

Your spouse, a friend, a sibling. Tell someone about your goals and ask them to make you accountable. Start a personal finance blog and connect with others getting out of debt. A support network will increase your chance of success and keep you motivated.

Rethink everything.

Getting rid of our car was big. It was scary and I wasn’t sure if we would be turning around and buying another one in a few months. But we had to try it. We immediately started saving $140 a month in car insurance, earning $75+ a month for renting our parking space out and saving at least $50 a month in gas. Not to mention the ticking time bomb of big car repair bills for our 10 year old vehicle. Using public transit, a car co-op and the occasional rental never came close to the expense of owning a car.

If you’re trapped in a big home with a big mortgage could you rent it out and the rent something smaller for your family to live in? Could you sell the second car and bike to work? Could you take a job closer to home and go without a car? Could you get rid of your cell phone, tv, fancy bike that you never use? Everything should be on the table.

Forget about everyone else.

Ignore what your friends are buying and doing. If they’re living a lavish lifestyle without a huge income, they’re probably in debt. Smile when they give you a sad look because you decline an invitation to go in on expensive concert tickets. This is your life. Have confidence in your choices even if they’re not the norm in your circle of friends. You don’t have to be a loud mouth about it or all sanctimonious that you’re getting out of debt unlike them. Just quietly do the work. The feeling of being out of consumer debt, the freedom of it, is the greatest reward.

Want to read about more families that have beat debt? Check out this Babble piece for links to five families that have paid off big consumer debt in record time.

Any other debt beating tips out there? The other thing that continues to help me stay organized, enjoy cooking and shave a bit off the grocery bill is meal planning.

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  • When my husband and I got married, I was a single parent with 3 kids, living on $10,000 a year with $4,000 in credit card debt. The only debt he had was on the mortgage. We got a home equity loan to clean up my mess, and paid off the house several years later. We drive older paid for cars, and pay off the credit cards every month.
    I’m still the shopper and my husband is the saver. The thing that has helped me the most is learning about minimalism. I’m getting less attached to stuff and the pursuit of stuff, and more attached to space and peace of mind. I’m trying to downsize within our home to get used to living in a smaller space with less furniture.
    I’ve never really done meal planning. Any hints?

    • Meal planning: make a list of all the meals your family likes, create a spreadsheet by week and go! I’ve been writing down our meals in a Google document. I only track dinners because we eat leftovers for lunch and breakfast is usually the same each day. It’s relieved a lot of stress about what’s for dinner and we have less food waste. Once a week I write the menu and corresponding grocery list. I only plan 5-6 dinners because we usually have a night out or their are enough leftovers to cobble together a dinner late in the week. Good luck! You can also check out (expert meal planner).

    • try the booking, eating forward, its a meal planning cookbook with grocery lists. Good way to start if you dont know where to start.

  • I think it’s important to celebrate accomplishments as you go along. This gives you something to look forward too & motivation to keep going. And the celebration can be as simple as dinner out or a new shirt, paid with cash of course!

    The only debt we have is our mortgage but we’re working on getting it knocked out (using a lot of the tactics you mentioned) as soon as possible so we will be truly debt free!

    • Being mortgage free will feel great. We’re not sure when we’ll be done with ours. It’s a HUGE mortgage (Vancouver real estate is expensive) but we’ve accelerated the payments and are hoping to make a balloon payment each year. Would be great to have the mortgage payed off in 10 years.

  • Although our only debt is our house (never had credit card debt, car loans, etc.), our financial situation is tight. Recently, we sold one of our cars and are a one car family for now. We’ve been doing it since late Oct. 2011, and it just works for us right now. We also refinanced our mortgage for a $60 monthly saving or $720 yearly savings. I can’t wait for the day that we can move and rent our house out, as we could easily make a $300-500 profit/mo. We hope to eventually move two states over and buy another (possibly smaller) house with land. That way, some of our new mortgage will be paid by the profit we’re making at our other/current house. Plus, if something doesn’t work out in the new state, we have a house to come back to. It’s win-win!

    Congrats on getting out of debt! That is such a great and amazing story!

  • I truly love these posts about getting out of debt. My husband and I never had credit card debt until we opened up are own business. The business failed, we lost a lot of cash and then only had credit card debt to show for it. After a few years, we were just about out of it and then my husband lost his job and couldn’t find another for 10 months so here we are in credit card debt again! I am becoming a minimalist and always look for websites like these to change our lifestyle and get tips on becoming debt free for good! I cannot wait to feel like a free person again. Thank you for being an inspiration!

  • IT CAN BE DONE!!! I stopped shopping for those “important things” I really never needed and my husband and I started the “debt snowball” on my education loans (totalling a small mortgage) in July 2012. We are by no means wealthy, but we are now spending so little that we are sending in checks worth half our monthly income to pay off the loans. We are budgeted to be done paying those off in July (loans that “should” take us 30 years to payoff). The way things have been going though, it will probably happen much sooner! After that, we plan to start paying off our two mortgages and to be COMPLETELY debt free in less than ten years. We are by no means denying ourselves any pleasures and splurge on the finer things in life when appropriate. WRITING THAT HUGE GHECK OF EXTRA PAYOFF MONEY TO THE LOAN COMPANIES EACH MONTH IS FAR MORE OF AN ADRENALINE RUSH THAN ANY TRIP TO THE MALL. We are a “minimalism for the masses” type of family, and not only has it helped pay off our loans, but it has improved our relationship, our kids appreciation of the things they already have, and more. I wish everyone could feel such freedom.

  • Thanks for sharing your story – so inspiring! My husband and I are also working on a debts snowball, and are perhaps a year or so behind you guys… but on our way! I love the idea of knowing “what your rice & beans are” – we’ve also cut to nothing in some areas and realized that there are other budget items that we need to keep for our sanity! I just blogged about budget too & linked back to you:

    • Great work, Katie. Yes, I have found it is really important to be honest with yourself about the small luxuries you get a lot of pleasure from. Very rare that someone can cut everything and keep going with it. I love Dave Ramsey’s ‘gazelle like intensity’ idea. For us it was about doing some radical things – the car, eventually getting rid of our expensive iPhones – and keeping those smaller treats. Good luck!

  • I practice what I call ‘conscious spending’. This is how we do it . We’ve never been in debt to speak of, so I have no quick ways to pay it off…but I do know that every tiny amount matters however insignificant you may think it is! However don’t go without do not go down the deprivation route just honestly work out what you truly desire… I don’t mind spending money but I hate wasting money!

  • I think that when you are done, you are DONE!
    I grew up in Mexico and my parents had no debt. We lived in a 3,500 sqft house that took 8 years to build. I remember visiting the construction site on the weekends. It was my parents dream. Whenever they had money, they would do something to the construction, until one day, the house was finished. I remember the moving day, everything was brand new, and everything was paid for. My parents had this dream and their dream came true.
    I didn’t follow their foot steps. I moved to the USA and got a credit card, why? because EVERYBODY HAD OND and because “you have to build your credit score!!!” and I did it and I got into debt. I got one mortgage, then a home equity loan, then another mortgage and more and more credit card debt to furnish those houses.
    It took me 18 years to be DONE to be done with having debt. I sold everything and I have no debt now. I feel so happy!

  • Great article! I am 27 and my only debt is private student loans from my undergrad degree, which I should be able to pay off completely in 21 more months (instead of the 25 year term my lender gave me), and then I will be completely debt-free! Here’s what I did/am doing:
    1.) Made an audacious goal to pay off my student loans in three years.
    2.) Used Mint to set up a budget and determine how much I’d have to allocate to my student loans to make that goal a reality (currently ~72% of my take-home pay goes to SL debt).
    3.) Applied for and got a higher paying job/promotion in my field (put entire pay increase to loans).
    4.) Moved to a much smaller apartment in a lower-rent area that is closer to work with ample public transit (added bonus: I love the community).
    5.) Furnished my apartment needs (real needs, not wants) entirely through Freecycle (including bowls and plates!) and my local thrift shop (added bonus: satisfaction at diverting perfectly usable items from the landfill).
    6.) Consolidated my eight various rate private student loans into one very low rate loan with a better lender.
    7.) Cut down on spending where I didn’t feel it (I haven’t been shopping for clothes in four years), but made sure not to deprive myself of the things that matter to me (good wholesome food).
    8.)Keep myself motivated by reading other people’s stories through wonderful blogs such as this one!

  • I’m a single mom with a 3yo, renting, own a car have already paired down budgetted. I work a regular 40hr/wk job, do part time housecleaning on wknds. I am a firm believer in minimalism, having moved out at the age of 17 and supported myself as well as my son ever since. I want to cut back hours, spend time with my son but also be able to support us. Any suggestions? I have no savings, live paycheck to paycheck, and am trying to finish paying off a student loan.

    • My mom was a single mom with six children – I have a lot of sympathy for how hard it is to raise kids on your own.
      It sounds like you are working very hard right now to pay the basic bills. My mom took in international students for a few years to keep us afloat. We were all older by then, I think the youngest was around eight, and the students either went to high school or were college age and were at an English language school. They paid room and board and it was a decent rate. My mom is still in touch with a few of the students that stayed with us. Would that appeal to you at all? You’d need an extra room so not sure that is doable.
      Have you looked at moving to a lower cost of living area? Are you on the cusp of things getting a bit easier, a few years until you don’t have to pay for daycare or your student loans are paid off?
      I was emailing with another single mom a while back and shared my experiences as the child of a single mom. I know for my mom things didn’t really get easier until most of us were out of the house. We all worked from a young age and often our babysitting and part-time job money went to help pay the mortgage and buy groceries. Good luck Heather!

  • I came across your site today. I really look forward to reading through your blog posts as it seems we have quite a bit in common as to the mess we have been in. I can’t wait to catch up and get some tips on fixing my financial situation! Keep up the great work!


  • Really enjoyed reading your blog and this article.
    My partner and I are in Australia and like many have fallen
    into debt. My partner had some health difficulties with
    chronic fatigue/hyperthyroidism, we also had our first child
    last year and he was sick in the children’s hospital for the
    first 3 months of his life.

    During this time we didn’t have stable income, I had previously
    lost a job and started a private business and my partner went on
    maternity leave.

    I had previously been a high income earner or reasonably high $80k +
    I assumed that I would continue on this wage thus spending was not an

    Our debts have included credit card $4k, body corporate debt 5k, utilities
    debt as well as tax debt, car loan $18k, plus more.

    We paid for some previous poor choices as well as some unforeseen circumstances
    that led to change of income and bills mounting up.

    I’m glad to say over the last 12 months we have made some significant changes.
    We are now up to date on all our utility bills, our car loan has reduced as well as our
    body corp debt and tax debt.

    I’m hoping over the next 6-12 months we can be rid of the rest of our debt including car
    loan/credit card.

    We have been trying to embrace minimalism, getting rid of stuff, we live in a small 3 bedroom
    house in an affordable area. We reduced some payments like cable tv (foxtel in Australia)
    looking at all our bills and trying to reduce as much as possible.

    For me personally I chose to pay off some of those bills that make you feel the most pressure,
    we are now in credit with our power bill which is nice and have paid all of our rates etc.
    We still have debts but not as many and it seems less overwhelming. We are earning less than we
    previously have earned but are slowly managing to get through our debt.


    Sean in Aus

  • My mortgage is huge too (New Jersey realestate)… and we have about $24,000 in cc debt and then $740 in car payment and not including tv, electricity, gas, and water…groceries i think is my most expensive thing! especially for extras. i pack a lunch and so does my husband and we have been able to save some but not much. I just feel like sometimes I am drowning… he makes a lot of money but it´s like we never see any of it because we´re always paying something off. i can´t get rid of the cars and i have to pay a babysitter for my daughter ($600/month) and ymca for my son ($281/month). my income is not the best so i feel like i am not doing much by going to work and i´m missing out on my kids… i don´t know what to do anymore…

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