5 lessons from people who slayed six-figure debt

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Picture someone with about $230,000 in debt. Are you thinking of a disheveled graduate student or someone with a serious online shopping addiction? The truth is that debt is more common than you may realize — and if you have debt, you're not alone. Nearly 40% of households have credit card debt and more than half of college graduates have student loans to pay off.

Plus, borrowing money doesn't mean you are irresponsible. In fact, even the most rigorous of budgeters can find themselves in some serious debt, as was the case for hospital administrator Scott Huse, who prides himself on tracking even the tiniest household expense for the better part of the last 20 years. 

"I've used Quicken since 1998. To the detail. I even have categories for my cleaning supplies," Huse told Mic in a phone interview. "I can probably tell you how much I've spent on toilet paper since 1998."

Yet despite his scrupulous expense tracking, like many Americans, Huse — who lives in Arkansas with his wife and three kids — was still caught off guard by the financial crisis of 2008. After trying unsuccessfully to start a business in the wake of the crash, Huse and his family found themselves more than $225,000 in the hole.

When financial troubles began to affect his marriage, Huse said, he knew he needed to make some changes: "This was to save my marriage ... I was in desperation mode. That's a big difference from just being sloppy and just needing to sit down and figure things out."

Nine years later, Huse and his family are almost debt free, with the exception of about $50,000 left on their mortgage. Altogether, his family managed to pay off $238,000 in just five and a half years.

Want to know the secret to smashing monster-sized debt? Here's how Huse, and other debt-slayers like him, have pulled it off. 

1. Nothing beats having a plan 

Pretty much every "how I got out of debt story" starts by making a plan. To start, take out a piece of paper and list all of your debts.

Often, one of the first things debt-smashers do is figure out how to make their debt reduction a little less complicated. Start with the highest-interest loans — is there a way to lower the rates? You might also be able to consolidate or refinance some of the loans. 

These steps can make a pretty big difference: If your balance is really large, then the interest alone can eat up most of your payments.

Take Blake Hillstead, a Utah-based orthodontist who graduated from dental school with $300,000 in debt, who was paying some $26,000 annually in interest alone. By consolidating, albeit aggressively, he reportedly was able to reduce those interest payments by 70%. 

If you haven't already, you should also consider calling your loan servicer. These companies don't always have the best reputation for producing materials that are clear and easy to understand, but you should be able to get a human being on the line to walk you through your options. 

That's what Zina Kumok, a Denver Colorado-based freelance writer, said she did in order to pay off $24,000 of student loans in three years.

"Based on the numbers, I said, 'I'm going to add an extra $10 a month. It's not much, but I'll start there.' So I call them up, and asked 'what would this $10 do?' And they told me it would shave a whole year off my term," said Kumok, who has also written for Mic. "$10 a month, that's almost not noticeable. But a year of not paying $350 a month. That motivated me. If $10 could do that, what if I came up with $20 or $50?"

Struggling to find a place to start? As Mic has recommended before, from a purely mathematical standpoint, it's always going to be better to start by paying down highest-interest debts first, before moving to lower-interest ones.

Of course, human psychology is a factor to consider, too, and what makes sense mathematically may not make sense for you. Paying off smaller debts before larger ones — even if you aren't tackling the worst debt in terms of interest rate — can be helpful if it gives you early wins and a sense of momentum. That's possibly why research suggests people who pay off debt this way tend to be more motivated and thus successful. 

2. Embrace a Spartan lifestyle

Most people who successfully make debt-repayment a priority tend to lead a pretty Spartan lifestyle, at least for a little while: They put every birthday check, every raise, every tax refund toward their debt.

Take Jessica Elberfeld, a Nashville-based sales executive who paid off $113,000 in student loans in seven years, and shared her detailed budget with Business Insider. While getting out of debt, Elberfeld allowed herself $48 to spend at bars a month for going out, and in one month only spent $12.37.

And if you think that's extreme, you should read about the famous Google employee, Brandon, who doesn't reveal his last name, but whose story went viral after it came to light that he spent several months in 2015 living in a van in his employer's parking lot.

Rather than deal with exorbitant San Francisco rent, Brandon eschewed the whole apartment thing in favor of a 128-square-foot truck that he purchased for $10,000 using his signing bonus. "Even if someone offered me a free apartment I wouldn't take it," Brandon said in a phone interview with Mic. "The saving money is more a side effect at this point."

The interior of Brendon's truck/home.
Source: 
Provided by Brandon./Mic

Brandon's situation is not easy to replicate, since high-paying Google jobs don't grow on trees and most employers don't provide kitchens, fitness centers, nap-pods and other amenities that make living in such a way tenable. Google eventually asked him to leave the parking lot, he said, likely due to the steady stream of media attention, but he still lives out of his truck.

That decision has paid off: Brandon didn't struggle long with a small amount of student loan debt and he estimates he's saved more than $40,000 on rent to date, thanks to his choice of digs.

While his case may be extreme, Brandon shows you can embrace a Spartan lifestyle, as opposed to trying to resist it. If living in a van doesn't work for you, you many find that giving up alcohol is an instant money saver — not just on the booze itself but also on the reckless spending and late-night bacon, egg and cheeses that accompany it.

Journalist Chadwick Matlin, who graduated from Tufts with some $124,000 in student loan debt, similarly wrote in Matter about how he paid off his debts on an entry-level salary:

I spent the first three years after college without a bed frame. Embarrassed, I put some futon slats underneath the mattress (my girlfriend was impressed). The frameless streak was broken only when a departing roommate left one behind. It paired well with the mattress I took from a stranger who was offering it for free online. Let those bedbugs bite.

Trains were never taken when buses could do. Soda was a myth; it was water—tap, obviously—or nothing. Clothing? Still mostly provided by my mother on trips home. My friends complimented me anytime I had a pair of pants that actually fit. I wore belts a year past their expiration date—by the time they hit the garbage, they lacked their backing.

The takeaway? People who pay off debt quickly tend to make big sacrifices. So be prepared to do the same — though a bit of creativity (and maybe some gamification) can make the process more fun, or at least less painful.

3. Get creative to raise your cash flow

Unfortunately, not everyone with debt has lots of expenses to trim. That was the case for Derek Sall, a 31-year old financial analyst who told CNBC he paid off $20,000 in debt in a matter of months before finding himself immediately indebted again after getting a divorce. Sall said that after cutting his expenses, tackling the new debt required finding extra work mowing lawns, writing freelance, and flipping cars. 

Similarly, Melanie Lockert graduated from New York University with a masters in theater and $81,000 in student loan debt, she told Mic in a phone interview; she ultimately decided to relocate from New York to Portland to cut expenses, which still wasn't enough. She then turned to side gigs. 

"At some point there's just nothing left you can cut. When I first arrived in Portland, I was making $10 to $12 an hour, I could pay my half of the rent but anything else was really tough," Lockert said. "The best side-gig was being a brand ambassador; I'm a theater major and an extrovert, so there were some cool gigs and festivals and you just hand out free things and coupons."

Have just a little extra time, or unusual skills? You too can make money with a gig — cash that will come in handy when it comes time to pay off debts. Here's Mic's guide to earning money on the side.

4. Don't be ashamed of receiving help

If you've done all you can to cut expenses and raise your income, consider getting some help. Chadwick Matlin, the bed-bug bitten journalist, wrote that he attributes most of his success to his parents and a "a series of lucky breaks," that included supportive bosses who gave him freelance work between jobs, and paid fellowships to cover living costs during unpaid internships. 

Indeed, many debt-slayer stories usually point to a source of outside help. Activist Danielle Muscato went viral for highlighting the many examples of parental support that may have been overlooked in a Business Insider story about a woman who received a job and an investment property from her parents to help her pay off her loans. 

If your balance is really large, you may not be able to do it all on your own. And that's okay. Of course, not everyone can rely on a source of family money or someone else's couch — but anyone can seek out debt counseling.

Debt counseling is simply sitting down with someone and talking through a plan for your debt. In some cases, a counselor may even be able to help you renegotiate your interest rates or payments with your lender. 

Huse, who accrued $158,000 in loans before his company went under, used a non-profit service in his home state of Arkansas. He said he paid about $20-$30 a month, and in exchange they helped him negotiate his interest rates with his credit card companies and prepare a new household budget. 

That said, if you're going to get help, be advised that many of these debt-related services can be predatory: "There are always scams in the debt relief world," said Charles Phelan a debt-negotiator who runs a service that helps people try and negotiate with their creditors. "A lot of them cluster around the credit repair end of things... Debt invalidation is one, although it goes by different names. But even the legit companies are somewhat predatory, people need to do their due diligence."

If you do enlist the help of a service, the Federal Trade Commission publishes a wealth of information about how to find a reputable one, including what sorts of questions you can ask to look for red flags. Generally speaking, reputable debt counselors will be non-profit and offer a variety of services. You should also inquire as to what sorts of qualifications their counselors have and how they are compensated. 

5. Savor your successes

Once you've finally eased your debt, you can start to breathe again. Hospital administrator Huse said that the benefits of paying off his six-figure debt so quickly didn't really sink in until something bad happened in his life.

Last year, when he lost his job due to downsizing, he realized he didn't need to rush so much to find a new position. The debt was almost gone, he'd saved an emergency fund, and the holidays were coming up.

"We never once had to touch our emergency fund. I was using up my paid time off, and I wasn't really hunting for a job immediately. And then we really got to enjoy the holidays," Huse said. "I maybe lost three months in salary most, I didn't miss any income. I didn't miss anything."

Rachel Beisel, who lives in Boulder, Colorado and wrote on Medium about how she managed to pay $70,000 in student loans in nine months — by doing everything from skipping meals to working nearly every day of the year — has another takeaway: "Become so enraged with your debt and those profiting off it, you're able to turn what feels like monumental sacrifices into minuscule abnegations today."

In short: Once you learn frugal habits, you'll can unleash them whenever you must to reach your financial goals. Paying down five- or six-figures in loans will feel amazing — but even better is the fact that learning the skills required to crush big debt will set you up for financial success for the rest of your life.

Sign up for The Payoff — your weekly crash course on how to live your best financial life. Additionally, for all your burning money questions, check out Mic's creditsavingscareerinvesting and health care hubs for more information — that pays off.

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James Dennin

James is a staff writer covering money and millennials. Send your tips and your money problems to jdennin@mic.com.

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