Sage debt pay-off advice often sounds like this: “Reduce your spending. Start paying the balance with the highest interest rate first.”
But forget “sage” for a moment, and let’s get weird. Debt payoff can become a slog, and sometimes you need a more out-there tick or motivator to keep going.
We reached out to 12 people who paid off large amounts of debt – and professionals in the personal finance industry — for the creative and quirky methods that, somehow, worked.
Alaya Linton, financial coach and blogger at Hope + Cents
While working through $74,000 in debt, Linton and her family celebrated pay-off milestones in an unconventional way: Whenever a certain type of debt was paid off (a car, card, etc.), Linton gathered the kids in the living room for what she calls a “debt-free scream.” It’s exactly what it sounds like.
“Because we did a scream each time we paid off a certain type of debt, we had something to look forward to and work towards,” Linton says. “The screams also were a release for shedding the debt (it just feels good to yell) as well as a reward for our hard work.”
It’s a small motivation, Linton admits, but it’s a more effective way of boosting morale than the activities that got you into debt in the first place.
“Screaming, ‘I’m debt-free!’ won’t give you the thrill of a shopping spree,” she says. “But it will provide a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment without the damage.”
Make small – nearly painless – cuts
Craig Dacy, financial coach
Dacy calls this the “10 percent rule,” and it’s been affective with many of his clients. First, pinpoint mutable expenses like dining out, entertainment, groceries, clothing and technology. Then, cut each by 10 percent and re-route that extra 10 percent to debt pay-off. For example, a $200-per-month restaurant budget would be cut to $180, with the extra $20 going toward your debt.
“The cut is small enough that it’s barely noticeable in the budget, but when the savings are added up, it can be over $100 saved each month,” Dacy says.
The PIF-card method
Steve Gillman, creator of EveryWayToMakeMoney.com, which covers making and saving money with credit cards
“PIF” stands for “pay in full.” When you have multiple cards with various balances, pay at least the minimum on all. The one that reaches zero first becomes your PIF card.
Use your PIF card for regular expenses you can comfortably pay off in full each month. Put additional charges on the others. When it’s time to pay up, make sure the PIF card goes back to zero.
There’s a mathematical appeal behind this trick (at least some of your purchases every month will be interest-free, meaning you’ll have more money to throw at your remaining debts).
But there’s psychological appeal, too.
“When you pay for everything with cards accruing interest charges, you feel like you’re digging your hole deeper,” Gillman says. “When your regular expenses are separated out and paid using a PIF card, you’ll feel more in control and able to focus on reducing debt.”
Pick a manageable number (any number) and pay that much “extra” each month
Jackie Beck, debt-freedom expert at TheDebtMyth.com
A mortgage is a big, intimidating debt – Beck and her family had $95k left on theirs. So they picked a less-intimidating number (in their case $35) and endeavored to pay that much extra each month.
That extra $35 came from various side gigs, and there were some months where Beck’s family made eight separate mortgage payments.
Picking a do-able, specific number jump-starts you when a debt seems insurmountable.
“When you chip away at debt, you don’t need a whole bunch of money to start making a difference,” Beck says, noting that, for a mortgage, you need to check if you’re allowed to make additional payments and that they go toward principal.
“It’s also great because you can ask yourself, ‘Hmm, do I really want to stop and get a little treat right now, or would I rather live in a paid-for house?’” Beck says. “Sometimes you do want the treat, but by asking that question regularly, you can keep your goal top of your mind and keep making progress on what you want most.”
Beck has since created a debt pay-off app that encourages users via small wins.
Pay the bill the second you get it
Stephanie, blogger at PoorerThanYou.com
Are you the type to set bills aside to pay at the end of the month? Instead, try this simple trick, which helped Stephanie whittle down her credit card debt: The second the bill comes in the mail or your email, pay it (at least the minimum).
It makes sense mathematically because of the “average daily balance” method of calculating interest (you save if you pay a couple weeks early). But there’s more at work here.
“If you pay as much as you can, as soon as you can, you stop yourself from spending that money on something else,” Stephanie says.
This method also virtually eliminates the chance you’ll forget to pay your bill and get charged a late fee. And, since it’s such a simple change to make, it’s a good fit for someone who needs that first push toward debt pay-off.
“It gets you that small win right out of the gate, which is just what you need to motivate yourself,” Stephanie says.
Turn bills into loose change
Gene Caballero, co-founder of GreenPal
Going cash-only is an often-recommended tip for digging out of debt. But what if those paper bills burn as big a hole in your wallet as your cards did?
Caballero undermined his temptation by taking any $1 and $5 bills he got to the carwash (or somewhere else that would make change) and converting them to coins. That far less spend-friendly change went into a change jar at home.
“No one wants 23 quarters in their pocket, and it made me think twice about the $20 I was about to break,” Caballero says. “Just a fun little way I would trick myself to be more frugal and also save.”
Live the basement-and-ham-sandwich life for a year
Phil Risher, founder of YoungAdultSurvivalGuide.com
After college, Risher decided he would pay off his entire $30,000 student loan debt in a year — on a $48,000 annual salary.
He moved into his dad’s and stepmother’s basement, paying “rent” in the form of yard work and baby-sitting for his brothers. He brown-bagged it for lunch at work (ham sandwhich, chips, Pepsi).
Risher admits that lifestyle (even for a year) is a hard sell for a recent grad making decent money.
“However, if you live different than most now and make sacrifices, later in life you will be able to live different than most,” he says. “Since I am debt free, I can live the life I want, not the life I have to live to survive.”
After a year of basement dwelling, Risher used the same technique (this time paying $200 a month to his family in rent) to save up for a home.
Don’t have a family member’s basement available to you? Try to find another cheap, unconventional living arrangement.
“I read a story recently of a young adult who moved into an older woman’s garage and paid $250 a month in rent and had to make sure the snow was removed from the driveway and the grass was cut,” Risher says.
Find a niche and make it your side-hustle
Jeff Neal, owner of TheCritterDepot
Driving for a rideshare or renting a room to vacationers have now become commonplace side-hustles. Neal went a different route – selling crickets.
The motivator: a $10,000 personal loan he took out to get a van – which had a 27 percent interest rate.
Having worked in ecommerce in the past, Neal knew the quickest way to make money was to find the right niche product.
“I spent about a week searching for niches and found that crickets proved to be an excellent option,” he says.
There have been some hurdles, including becoming well acquainted with the cricket’s weather cycles. But Neal managed to pay off his debt in eight months.
Crickets are strictly a side-hustle for now.
“But if it ever grew large enough to support my tribe, I would offer it my full, undivided attention,” Neal says.
Take to the high seas
Andrew Kamphey, traveler and Twitterer at KampheyApproved
After moving to Chicago post-graduation, running out of money and racking up debt, Kamphey saw “an endless spiral starting.”
“What I did next was quite rash, and sort of like running off to join the circus,” he says.
He got rid of all his stuff, drove to Florida – and got a job on a cruise ship.
Kamphey spent five years cruising the world with minimal living expenses, stashing away the money he earned. It took two years to pay off the debt.
“Every month, I would leave the ship and head to my bank and deposit hundreds of dollars,” he says.
Kamphey is currently traveling the world debt-free.
Cut everything you don’t need – and get a night job
Tristan Desinor, public relations specialist and writer
Desinor and her husband paid off $29,180 in debt in eight months by making some sacrifices.
They sold their kitchen table, their second car, a televsion and pillows. And Desinor found herself a night job.
Chipotle happened to be walking distance from her apartment and paid $10 an hour. So that’s where she spent her weekends and nights, while continuing to work her day job.
These were drastic, and not always comfortable, lifestyle changes, but the process shook Desinor out of her debt cycle.
“It sort of reset my spending habits and made me re-evaluate every purchase,” she says. “In the past, it was pretty easy for me to swipe the credit card without a second thought.”
Those with “drive and determination” are capable of doing what she and her husband did, Desinor says.
“A lot of people may think my husband and I make a ton of money and had a lot of extra cash to pay down our debt,” she says. “Far from the truth!”
Every time you talk yourself out of spending money, put it towards your debt
Maggie McCombs, content marketer
McCombs is using this technique to boost her savings and pay down student- and auto-loan debt. Every time you are tempted to spend money on something (a hair appointment, new shoes, a meal out), stop yourself. And then immediately throw the money you didn’t spend at your debt.
You can apply the trick to discounts, too. Choose $5 thrift-store jeans over the $45 pair at a department store? Throw the extra 40 bucks at your debt.
“This really clicks for me because it demands the spender to put a true monetary value on the item or service they’re about to purchase,” McCombs says. “For example, ‘Does this $70 pair of shoes mean more to me than being $70 closer to debt freedom?’”
All those small stop-and-think moments add up.
“This is a small way to see an extra $50 to $100 more in savings every month that would have been lost to ‘treat yourself’ purchases,” McCombs says.
Sell stuff – and not just your stuff
Sean Desilva, owner of EveryLastSpot
Facing $23,000 in student debt, Desilva started selling his own stuff from his dorm room and childhood bedroom.
“Eventually, I realized there was a limit to this and kept looking for used goods on the free section of Craigslist and then on local deal websites,” he says.
As he got better at assessing items’ value he was able to make a few hundred dollars a month.
The most memorable item he sold? A shark fish tank that required paying a friend part of the proceeds in exchange for use of his truck.
“Usually I stick to things I can keep in my car, but the seller of the shark fish tank had it plopped on the side of the road for free,” Desilva says.