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This Woman Slashed $12,000 in Credit Card Debt. Steal Her 5 Tricks

Her unusual budgeting method has helped her stay on track to be debt free by the end of the year.

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It’s easy to offer advice on paying off debt in retrospect. But when you’re in the middle of it, it can feel like you’re never going to dig your way out. Oriana Nesbit knows that feeling.

Like many Americans, the 49-year-old project manager from California started using balance transfers in 2023 to help her pay off her six credit cards. As of January, she’s paid off $12,000 in debt. And while that’s a huge accomplishment, she doesn’t expect to have the rest paid off until December.

It would be easy for Nesbit to give up and just accept that she’ll be living with debt for decades. But she’s determined to keep going, despite the uphill battle ahead of her.

“If you give up on it, then you’re not going to make any progress,” Nesbit said. “No matter how much progress you make every month, if you make a little bit, you’re winning.”

Alaina Fingal, a certified financial coach and CNET Money Expert Review Board member, agrees, noting that there’s no one right way to pay down debt. But if you’re feeling a bit stalled on your own progress toward paying off credit card debt -- or maybe can’t get motivated to even try -- here are the tips that Nesbit employs to stay on track.

1. Find the debt repayment strategy that works best for you  

After years as a single mom spending her time raising her kids instead of saving like she knew she should, Nesbit struggled to dig herself out of debt. She had cards with interest rates as high as 28%, so she felt like she was never making any progress on reducing the balance.

“At first, I was trying to throw as much money at it as I could by making large payments,” she said. “But when you’ve got that high interest rate, you’re just fighting that interest rate the whole time.” 

After receiving an unsolicited balance transfer offer in the mail, Nesbit realized that a temporary zero interest period was her chance to finally put a dent in her balance without the continually accruing interest thwarting her efforts. 

She started by transferring the balance from the card with the highest interest rate, then over the course of the year took advantage of another offer to transfer two other cards.

Even if you can’t pay off your entire balance, lower interest rate offers can help you pay off a larger portion of your debt faster since more of your money goes toward paying down the balance.

Before you apply for a card

Before you submit a credit card application, be sure to read the fine print and make sure you know what your interest rate will be after the introductory period. “Most companies will make up for what they lost after the special offer by increasing your interest rate,” Fingal said.

2. Keep track of your spending

With work, family and life in general keeping her busy, Nesbit has found using a long-term budget helpful. By reviewing her previous year’s spending, she can create a plan for the whole year that accounts for both typical monthly expenses, as well as expenses that may only come up once a year, like her car registration.

“That budget saves me every month -- I don’t have to think about it,” she said. 

Nesbit, who describes herself as a “perpetual planner,” says she realizes that creating a whole year’s budget might seem overwhelming to some, but it lets her focus on organizing her budget at the beginning of the year. By checking in with her budget every month, she avoids surprise expenses. 

And to avoid burnout, she doesn’t budget only for bills. She incorporates money each month to save toward a vacation and extra money toward the end of the year for holiday gifts.

“I even throw in an extra $5 for my birthday,” she said.

What helps one person pay off debt may not work for the next, but tracking your spending is crucial. Fingal recommends trying out multiple methods, like budgeting apps and spreadsheets, to find the tool or strategy that works for you. 

“I have used apps in the past, but paper and pen have always kept me motivated about my progress,” Fingal said. 

3. Commit to a goal, but be flexible

Nesbit organized her budget by using an Excel spreadsheet to track her regular spending, savings and 401(k) contributions. She gets paid biweekly, so she budgets the first paycheck of the month to cover the majority of her expenses, along with the minimum payment due on each of her credit cards. The second paycheck is where she gets aggressive about paying off her debt.

“The plan is to put as much as I could at the end of the month into a second payment on the credit card,” Nesbit said. “It changes month to month, but it’s definitely more than 50% over the minimum (credit card payment) every month no matter what. I try to at least double it -- that’s my goal.” 

As one card is paid off, Nesbit puts all the extra money toward paying off the card with the next highest interest rate. Known as the debt avalanche method, this strategy helps her save more on interest over time.

4. Don’t deny yourself everything

An all-or-nothing diet can be difficult for anyone to maintain. Nesbit doesn’t use her balance transfer cards for anything other than paying off a balance. She allows herself to use only her debit card for expenses outside her regular budget, which helps her avoid overspending. But she wants to earn credit card rewards for travel, so she continues to use one of her current credit cards for planned purchases. 

“The points card is for my groceries -- I stick to my budget when I go to the grocery store and I pay that off instead of using my debit card,” she said. “So I’m still using it every month but I’m using it for something I budgeted for so I can simply pay it back.”

Credit cards can be more convenient to use than cash, and if you’ve gotten used to earning rewards, it can be tough to stop using them altogether as you pay off your debt. 

But even taking temporary breaks from credit cards can help you avoid the temptation to overspend, according to Fingal. If using even one credit card is too much of a temptation to overspend, consider getting a debit card that offers rewards

“If I know I’m going to be on vacation, I will stop using my credit card and use my debit card to ensure I don’t blow my budget,” Fingal said.

5. Recognize the ‘why’

Nesbit’s ultimate goal is to pay off her debt, downsize to a smaller house and retire early. By focusing on these bigger goals, she’s reshaped her perspective on money and her debt.

“It depends a lot on a person’s mentality with money -- do you see it as something to use or something to save,” she said. “I think a lot of people see a line of credit as something to use versus something to save for an emergency.” 

Debt payoff strategies may sound great on paper. But you’ll have trouble sticking to a plan if you don’t recognize how your views on money landed you in debt -- or keep returning you there. “Knowing your triggers are crucial to developing a solid financial strategy,” Fingal said. By understanding your motivation, you can develop healthy money habits that help you use your money for what you value most.

As Nesbit continues her progress toward her own goal, she says that seeing the balances dwindle -- even if it’s not quite as fast as she’d like -- has helped motivate her to get debt free.

“I feel good about the progress I’ve made, and I’m definitely sticking with it.”

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Tiffany Wendeln Connors is a senior editor for CNET Money with a focus on credit cards. Previously, she covered personal finance topics as a writer and editor at The Penny Hoarder. She is passionate about helping people make the best money decisions for themselves and their families. She graduated from Bowling Green State University with a bachelor's degree in journalism and has been a writer and editor for publications including the New York Post, Women's Running magazine and Soap Opera Digest. When she isn't working, you can find her enjoying life in St. Petersburg, Florida, with her husband, daughter and a very needy dog.
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