Paying Off Debt In 8 Months Or Less

Making sacrifices both great and small.

Image: Sean MacEntee CC BY 2.0

I spent the majority of August staring at Glossier ads that would pop up on Facebook. I’ll buy that lip stain next Friday, I would tell myself on Monday. Friday would come, and my cart on the site would remain empty. I would remind myself that while it was a pricier product, it was a treat, and yet, I still couldn’t bring myself to buy it. It’s November, and I still haven’t purchased it.

But in the time between August and now, I finished paying off my credit cards. I beat my goal of one year, completing it in eight months. I was proud of myself, and I still am.

But then, why can’t I just buy the damn lip stain?

Pay days feel different when you’re working towards paying down credit card debt. It’s no longer about how much you save or what you can treat yourself to. It’s about how fast you can empty your bank account to lower your debt and keep the interest at bay. While, of course, keeping enough food in your account for food and bills.

I opened my first credit card in 2013, near the end of college. I used my credit card, and later my second, and my third, to purchase everything from necessities, such as food and medical bills, to impulse buys, like clothes. The latter won out most of the time. As of January 2016, I had $5,788.65 in credit card debt.

The number followed me around. I spent downtime at work writing out different budget formations on Post-it notes, which I’d put in my notebook next to pages with more configurations and numbers. The amount of my debt hadn’t always frightened me. I assumed most everyone had accumulated some level of credit card debt by 24, but it wasn’t until I opened one of my paper statements and saw the projected pay-off date that I began to panic.

If I maintained a minimum payment of approximately $100, it would take me 11 years to pay off just one credit card. In eleven years, I would be 36; suddenly I couldn’t stomach my debt anymore.

Here is how you pay off your debt in eight months: you stop going out, unless you can get a theater ticket on sale; you live on CliffBars and cheap yogurt until you feel like shit, and your doctor tells you to change your diet; you get rid of the near-daily iced Americano habit, and only allow yourself one a week; you save, but only barely. That $100 could be the difference between having $2,000 and $1,900 left on your card. You wake up on pay day, and immediately begin transferring money manually, and you watch your bank account plummet.

There are other debts, of course. After all, I began college in 2009. But I’m not so concerned about these loans yet: I only took out federal loans, and the interest rates are low; I’ve enrolled in an income-based repayment plan, which allows me to keep payments low, but not low enough to pay off my other debt as efficiently as I wanted. I even went into forbearance just so I could pay off my credit cards faster. It’s a simple matter of looking at interest rates: my highest interest rate on a Direct Loan is 6.55%; my highest interest rate on a credit card is 23.24%, nearly four times as much.

Everything is money, and money is everything when in the middle of it. But once it’s over, and the debt is paid, how do you move forward?

I was at the mall last month, and living in northern New Jersey, it was the Garden State Mall: gigantic and flashy. I was there to buy a gift for my sister’s birthday and nothing more. And yet, I found myself wandering around stores, eyeing sweaters and skinny jeans, and feeling immediately crushed by the prices.

Even as recent as last year, I may have tried to justify a larger purchase. I have room on my card, or it’s on sale, and it’d be wrong to skip out on, I would tell myself as I confidently swiped.

Go back a year farther, and I was impulsively buying clothes from the store where I worked. My paychecks would vanish if I relied on them for my shopping, so my credit card it was. These are investments, I would say.

Not all the debt was frivolous. But in the end, it doesn’t matter. It was there, ever-present. It’s gone now, and I’ve matured and grown. I’ve treated myself to small things, paying with my debit card, that I need or can more easily justify: a new wallet to replace a nearly four year old one with ragged cloth edges; a massage and breathing coaching session to help manage my anxiety.

Switching from impulsive shopping to frugality to a balance between the two (but closer to the frugal end of things) is difficult. For the past year, I’ve told myself that I don’t really need anything new, and quite possibly, that I don’t deserve it, no matter how hard I’ve worked to put my debt and bad habits behind me.

I don’t want to go back to simply buying for the sake of it; I just don’t want to feel guilty for buying that lip stain I don’t need.

Sarah Galo is freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Guardian US, Fusion, The Toast, and The Establishment, among others. She lives in New Jersey.

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