4 things no one tells you about paying off credit-card debt, from someone who's done it

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  • Credit card debt can be overwhelming and stressful, and many stories found online paint a glossy picture of the process of becoming debt-free.
  • The journey to being debt-free is not always a straight path - it takes vigilance and adaptability to keep yourself on track with your plan.
  • Here's what no one tells you about paying off credit card debt.

I graduated from college in 2015 with more student loan debt than I wanted to acknowledge and about $5,000 in credit card debt.

I racked up this debt in spite of the fact that I was working hard to earn money. From my second semester at Boston University through graduation, I worked two to three part-time jobs in addition to my full course load. (In fact, those jobs are what allowed me to qualify for a credit card in the first place.)

My spending habits weren't reckless, but life is expensive, and plastic just seemed like the easiest way to fund the parts of my college life that weren't factored into my financial aid package. This included a coffee addiction, a semester of studying abroad in London, and the various expenses of taking on two unpaid internships.

I tried not to think about the long-term costs I was racking up with every purchase. And for a long time, I didn't even look at my statements - I just paid the minimum amounts due every month.

I knew that keeping a revolving balance meant paying interest (to the tune of over 15%) on my debt, but I didn't want to add more pressure to my life by worrying about it.

Once I got my first post-grad job and got serious about getting out of credit card debt, I managed to pay it off over the course of a year and a half. Even so, my path to getting out of that debt was a far cry from the glossy debt-free stories that I read online. And I found that the psychological impact of paying off debt was greater than I anticipated.

Here's what happened and what I learned along the way about paying off credit card debt:

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1. I had to reassess my game plan a few times before finally getting to a $0 balance

1. I had to reassess my game plan a few times before finally getting to a $0 balance

At first, I was all about paying down the highest balance, because I needed a mental win. But after that account balance dipped below $1,000, I switched my focus to targeting the highest interest rate.

Then I got an offer for a balance-transfer credit card, which allowed me to move a portion of my debt onto a new card without having to pay interest for a set amount of time, in exchange for a small fee. Taking advantage of that option meant I had to re-evaluate my tactics all over again.

My payoff method may not have been the cheapest option, since I didn’t address the highest interest-rate card first, but they did give me the mental strength I needed to reach the finish line.

2. I discovered that getting out of debt isn't always a straight line

2. I discovered that getting out of debt isn't always a straight line

I put a lot of effort into getting out of credit card debt, but things like broken chargers and unexpected trips to the doctor came up. That meant my balance sometimes went up instead of down. Even though I graduated with $5,000 of credit card debt, I ended up paying off about $6,500 because of unexpected expenses.

3. I learned that the small victories don't automatically feel special

3. I learned that the small victories don't automatically feel special

I paid off my credit card debt over about 18 months, but it felt much longer because I was now so aware of my debt. To keep myself motivated, I celebrated each three-month milestone by giving myself proportionate and affordable rewards, like going to my favorite vegan restaurant with my roommate.

This practice was especially important in the beginning, because it prevented my remaining debt from overwhelming me and gave me a feeling of accomplishment.

4. I celebrated the final payoff by telling people about my victory, instead of spending money

4. I celebrated the final payoff by telling people about my victory, instead of spending money

Rewards along the way were important, but once I paid off my credit card debt, I decided that my reward would be sharing my news with the people I loved and trusted, like my mom and dad.

I did this because I wanted to start a dialogue about personal finance and fight the stigma around people who had acquired “bad” debt. For me, this tactic worked, and I now feel much more comfortable talking about my finances.

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