“My Debt Equaled My Salary”: How Clinton Kelly Paid Off $45k in Credit Card Debt in 3 Years

“My Debt Equaled My Salary”: How Clinton Kelly Paid Off $45k in Credit Card Debt in 3 Years

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[Editorial note: The evaluations of financial products in this article are independently determined by Wirecutter and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any third party.]

Let’s consider some figures. At the time, I earned $45,000 a year as a magazine editor and writer in New York City. And I also owed $45,000—to Visa, Visa, Visa, Mastercard, Mastercard, Mastercard, and American Express. Plus, I had the monthly costs of rent, utilities, health insurance, food, and entertainment to consider.

Let me break my financial situation down for you: A – (B + C) = dude, you are screwed.

That’s what I thought, anyway. But with some dogged determination and a serious reorganization of my priorities, within three years I had reduced all of my balances to zero, which is where they’ve remained for the last 18 years and counting. And so, like a rehabilitated uncle who is absolutely not a licensed credit counselor and has zero desire to be one, I share with you the plan that worked for me.

Credit cards, meet scissors. Lay all of your credit cards on the kitchen table and choose your favorite, preferably one that isn’t maxed out and has the lowest interest rate. Put it in your pocket for a few minutes, and while it’s in there, snip the remaining cards into tiny little bits. Buh-bye. It’s been real. You are never, ever getting back together.

Prepare yourself for the emotional journey from “This feels great” to “What the hell have I just done?” and back again. Don’t cancel these credit cards (yet), but do unsave their information from retail websites and remove them from your digital wallets so it’s harder to add to your debt. (You’re not cancelling them quite yet because doing so could hurt your credit scores and deprive you of bargaining power when it comes to lowering your interest rate. We’ll talk about that in a minute.)

Call mom. It doesn’t have to be your mother—or any blood relative, for that matter—but call someone you can trust and confide in. Tell them the truth: You’re temporarily swearing off credit cards, and you need them to hold on to your one remaining card in case of an emergency. Then give them your last credit card. When I did this, I decided to keep my American Express card because I had to pay it off every month. To this day, it’s the only card I use. (Amex now lets you pay your balance over time for your convenience—and for a fee. I prefer not to because that slope, she’s a slippery one.)

Now that my financial situation is stable, I continue to dutifully pay it off every month. The Amex points I get in return allow me to obtain flight upgrades (for me) and hotel rooms (for my family when they come to visit). Logically, I’m aware I spend a lot of money with Amex to acquire these points, but the kid in me still feels like I’m getting free stuff.

Face the beast. If you were going to fight a dragon, you’d want to do so with your eyes open—close ’em and your ass is gonna get burned. That’s why you need to order your credit report and actually read it. (You’re entitled to a free one from each credit bureau every year.) Use your report to get an overview of where you stand with your credit card issuers. Shockingly, mine wasn’t as awful as I assumed it would be, probably because I had been pretty good at making minimum payments on time. Minimum payments won’t come close to helping you pay off a debt, but if made on time, they can keep collection agencies off your back and your credit in decent standing.

Be smooth. Call customer service for all of your cards and ask, as nicely as possible, if you can have a lower interest rate. Human interaction still counts for something. Be as kind as you can to the representative on the other side of the line, and say something like, “I was wondering if you could do me a favor and lower my interest rate a little.” Sometimes they will, especially if you tell them you’re considering cancelling your account because another company is offering you a better deal.

But let’s be honest: They will have access to your account history and balance, and they aren’t obligated to help you out. They’ll know if you’re up a creek. If this call didn’t work, try again next week, and the week after. If you’re phone-call-averse, you can try your bank’s online chat feature to connect with a customer service rep, but it’s harder to charm them that way.

Strategize accordingly. If there’s a credit account that’s holding your biggest debt or chaining you to the highest interest rate, mentally mark it as your mortal enemy. That’s the one you’re going to pay off first. All the rest receive minimum payments, but this guy gets as much money as humanly possible thrown at him every month. When he’s paid off, call and cancel your card. While you’re on that call, the representative will probably beg you to stay. They may even try to entice you with a new, super-low interest rate. Don’t be fooled. Break up with them like the ex who cheated on you with your best friend.

Do the same with your remaining cards, one at a time. Depending on the number of cards you have, you may not want to cancel them all, since doing so could ding your credit score. But your focus is paying them off. If you need to keep ’em on ice for awhile, that’s fine. (Some people prefer what’s known as the snowball method—paying off your smallest balance first so you get some early momentum. That’s cool too.)

Embrace your new (green) best friend. Because your mom (or whoever) has your only remaining “live” credit card, you’ll need a new way to pay for stuff. Cash (or a check) still works in 99% of situations. If you can’t pay for something in cash, you cannot afford it, and you’ll learn to live without it. This is your new reality—and while it sucks, it won’t last forever. The bad news is that when you pass on invites to fancy dinners, trendy cocktails, and lavish vacations, you will lose friends. That’s also the good news: You’ll be stuck with the people who actually enjoy your personality. Imagine that.

Get a second job. Sorry. I saved this one for last because I didn’t think you could handle it early on. I know, working a second job sounds absolutely miserable and maybe even impossible. And granted, I was young and had lots of energy when I was in serious debt, and I didn’t have children who needed tending.

But the hard truth is this: If your credit card debt is a number near or greater than your annual salary, there is no other way to pay it off than earning more money. Sell your G.I. Joe collection on eBay, become a cater waiter, mow lawns, shovel snow, babysit—whatever. But take that second paycheck, week after week, and put the entire amount toward lowering your credit card debt.

Even though I had a full-time job, I took freelance gig after freelance gig, sometimes writing catalog copy until I thought my eyes would melt. It was a rough three years, but it was probably the most empowering period of my life: I learned I had control over a relationship that scared the crap out of me. I’m not sure if I can help you out with any of your other relationships, but this one I feel good about.

Source: NY Times – Wirecutter
Keyword: “My Debt Equaled My Salary”: How Clinton Kelly Paid Off $45k in Credit Card Debt in 3 Years

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