How They Ditched Debt

These people tamed debt on their own terms. Read their stories to help inspire your own payoff process.

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Written by Amrita Jayakumar
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Edited by Kathy Hinson
Lead Assigning Editor
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How Two Teachers Wiped Out More Than $53,000

Jae Bratton and her husband
That rumor about kids being expensive? Fact! That's why Jae Bratton and her husband, a fellow teacher, focused on paying off their debt over the three years leading up to the birth of their first child. Read more

From $20K to $0 in Five Years and 8 Steps

Photo by Jonathan Sharpe
It took some years — and just about every trick in the book — for Kenley Young to wipe out more than $20,000 in credit card debt. Over that time, he learned a lot about how pay-down dreams can collide with the reality of major life events. Now a NerdWallet editor, he shares which tools had the greatest impact on his journey to $0. Read more

Crushing a Goal Leads to Helping Others

Photo courtesy of Sandra Leigh Photography
The gift of a book about personal finance inspired Holly Carey to get serious about understanding and wiping out her debt. She learned about zero-based budgeting and cut expenses wherever possible, such as moving in with a roommate. After zeroing out more than $55,000 in 26 months, she was inspired to share advice with friends and family — and eventually landed a job as an editor at NerdWallet. Read more

Jhanilka and Anthony Hartzog stand together outside smiling.

Pandemic After Payoff Tests Couple’s Resilience

Just months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, Anthony and Jhanilka Hartzog paid off the last of their $114,000 in debt. They'd developed a budget that worked for them, created additional income streams and exploited a lower cost of living after a move from New York to Dallas. We checked in with them nearly two years later — were the Hartzogs able to stay debt-free in the face of a global pandemic that strained the finances of many families? And what tips do they have for others hoping to ditch debt of their own? Read more

Image of Sylvester Akpan holding son Aiden on his shoulders and wife Karen Akpan standing next to them outside.

Downsizing the Home, Growing the Business

When job loss reduced household income for Karen and Sylvester Akpan, the couple made the bold choice to sell their Los Angeles-area home and buy an RV. They focused on growing their travel blog and an associated Instagram account, and were able to pay off their debt in a year. Their path is unusual, but points to a universal truth: Lowering expenses and increasing income leaves more money to tackle debt. Read more

CJ Mantilla stands in front of a dark brick backdrop in dark-rimmed glasses. His right hand rests on the back of his baby son, whom Steffa Mantilla holds on one hip. She smiles at the camera as the baby grips her collar.

Getting On Board With a Budget for Baby

Former zookeeper Steffa Mantilla promises she didn't use any animal training techniques to get her husband on board with a debt reduction plan.

However she might have persuaded him, the Houston couple paid off more than $70,000 in debt in five years. Planning for a baby served as a catalyst for their money makeover. Read more

Trimming Small Expenses Achieved a Big Goal

Refinancing students loans was the beginning of the payoff journey for Neal and Laura Fogarty. Then they went on the hunt for expenses to trim so they could put every extra dollar toward ditching debt, clearing $36,600 in eight years. Read more

Rebounding From Bankruptcy


Rashad and Nirvanna Muhammad carried student debt and financial struggles as they married and built a family. After experiencing a bankruptcy, they narrowed their focus and made the sacrifices necessary to pay off $179,000 in just under four years. Read more

Keeping a ‘Passion for Fashion’ on the Road to Repayment

The promise of a new start to her life — with a house and family — prompted Caitlin Forni to get more serious about paying down her debt. She paid off $123,000 in student and car loans in nine years. Read more

A Spender, a Saver and Dreams of a Family

When Kendall Berry and her husband started planning for kids, they got serious about paying off their debt. Here's how they ditched nearly $54,000 in less than a year. Read more

‘Happiness Journey’ Fueled Payoff

How I Ditched Debt: ‘Happiness Journey’ Fueled Payoff

(Photo by Abby Bengs)

After taking on over $200,000 in debt from student loans for law school, Okeoma Moronu decided to take a purposeful approach to her life and finances and wiped out her debt in six and a half years. Read more

From ‘Extravagantly Broke’ to Comfortably Frugal

deshena woodard
DeShena Woodard, a nurse from Texas, had nothing in savings and lived paycheck to paycheck until she changed her habits and paid off more than $50,000 in almost three years. Read more

Little Splurges on the Path to Freedom

Brian and Lindsey Baldwin wiped out $130,000 in student loans in just under four years — and still managed some treats for the family along the way. Read more

Small Wins Help Achieve a Big Dream

Bernadette Joy and AJ Maulion paid off student debt and two mortgages, a whopping total of $309,800, while building a small business. The recipe: Live on one salary, celebrate small wins. Read more

Whipping Up a Payoff 'Tornado'

Steven Donovan and his dog, Angel.
When Steven Donovan didn't want to plug his debt numbers into a budget app, he knew he had to act. Attacking his most-hated debt helped him pay off $118,000 in five years. Read more

'I Just Pretended I Didn't Have Money'

Sarah McGowan
Sarah McGowan's goal: Be out of student debt by the time she turned 25. By maintaining a frugal lifestyle right out of college and working every chance she got, McGowan got rid of a little over $36,000 in debt in just under two years. Read more

'It Made Our Marriage So Strong'

(Photo by Amelia Campbell Photography)

Ray and Bailey Robertson paid off over $33,000 in 18 months thanks to an aggressive strategy, lean lifestyle, tight partnership and plenty of planning. Read more

Redefining 'Best Life,' Scaling Back

Sonia Sears
Sonia Sears ended up deep in the red while pursuing her “best life” in college and beyond. But she conquered her mountain of debt by working more, traveling less and moving back home. She paid off $79,000 in just over two years. Read more

Kicking Frugality Into High Gear

Ben and Melissa Panter were always frugal, but when they faced a large mortgage and growing student loan balances, they knew they had to kick frugality into high gear. The Panters paid off $127,000 in nearly four years. Read more

Side Jobs, Meal Planning and Faith

Jenna and Jamie Griffin

(Photo by Brok and Amanda Hansmeyer)

As teachers, Jamie and Jenna Griffin were overwhelmed with student loans. They used budgeting and hard work to pay off more than $100,000 in five and a half years. Read more

Making the Most of a Gig Economy

Kara Perez headshot by Shane Henderson

(Photo by Shane Henderson)

Kara Perez doubled down on part-time jobs to pay off student loans worth $25,302 in three and a half years. Read more

Holiday Bills Break a Couple’s Budget

Anthony and Jhanilka Hartzog

Christmas gifts piled on top of existing debt persuaded Anthony Hartzog and his wife to act and pay off $114,151 in 23 months. Read more

Thrifty Living and Side Gigs

Through careful budgeting, working full-time and supplementing her income, Tanya Nwamkpa paid off $57,000 in five years. Read more

'We Have Choices Again'

Their finances started to skid with a job loss in 2009. Despite mistakes along the way, Adam and Sally Cleary climbed out of more than $11,000 in high-interest debt. Read more

Conquering College Credit Card Balances

natalie tomko with husband
Natalie Tomko aimed to pay off $50,000 in credit card debt by her 30th birthday. It took six years, a hardship plan and community support to do it. Read more

Changing Habits, Budgeting for a Baby

How I Ditched Debt: Changing Habits, Budgeting for a Baby

After they discovered a baby was on the way, the Baggerlys overhauled their carefree spending and started budgeting, and two kids later, paid off $111,108. Read more

Smart Solutions for ‘Stupidest Decision’


Cameron Merriman paid off $95,000 in student loan debt in five years while living in one of the most expensive cities in the country. Read more

‘It Became Like a Game to Us’

How I Ditched Debt: 'It Became Like a Game to Us'

Josh and Jessie Boyce paid off $147,000 in debt in a little more than three years, after realizing debt was holding them back from financial freedom. Read more

An Olympian’s Medal-Worthy Juggling Act

john coyle
John Coyle's $147,000 debt helped fund his Olympics run, and upon landing a six-figure gig, Coyle paid it off over 15 years. Read more

Tenacious Focus on the Goal

New college graduate Samantha Ealy paid off more than $70,000 in a little under three years — working multiple jobs and at times even neglecting her health. Read more

Becoming a Budget Obsessive

christine brown
A combination of student loans, a car loan, credit card debts and home improvement financing left the Browns $72,000 in debt, forcing them to create a budget. Read more

Engineer Goes Old-School With Pen and Paper

brianna harrington

Despite receiving scholarships, Brianna Harrington graduated college with $40,000 in student loan debt. Determined to eliminate it, she created a strict budget to pay it off in 26 months. Read more

Setting Pride Aside and Asking for Help

cara and jesse nuno
Jesse Nuno was laid off during the financial crisis and fell behind on a mortgage and auto loans. Cara couldn't pay her bills on disability. The couple turned to a credit counselor to pay off $272, 261 in five years. Read more

A Wish List Kept Her Going

How I Ditched Debt Melanie Lockert Dear Debt

(Photo by Jim Gion, 2015)

Melanie Lockert resolved to wipe out $57,426 in debt and motivated herself by making wish lists of things she’d be able to do once debt-free. Read more

‘Born Spender’ Goes on a Spending Fast

Anna Newell Jones_born spender_social

Anna Newell Jones entered married life nearly $24,000 in debt. She forced herself to go on a spending fast and paid it all off in 15 months. Read more

New Parents Quit Credit Cards

How I Ditched Debt: New Parents Quit Credit Cards

Lydia Senn and her husband pretended they weren't deep in debt until they were expecting their first child. Living frugally, working side jobs and budgeting helped them pay off $36,000 in just over two years. Read more

Grad Gives Gift to Her Future Self

ogechi igbokwe
Ogechi Igbokwe didn't want to be another student loan statistic. To set herself up for success, she lived frugally and paid off $26,000 in three years. Read more

Financial Goals Are Family Goals

Andy Hill
Newlyweds Nicole and Andy Hill saw debt as a roadblock to achieving goals. The couple made budgeting into a routine and wiped out nearly $50,000 in debt in a single year. Read more

No Sleep for New Parents Until Payoff

Chelsea and Nate Day ended up owing her family $52,000 after a bungled homebuying experience. The family debt made the Days uneasy, so they slashed expenses to pay it off in six months. Read more

Homemade Tracker Kept Her Cooking

Chef and food writer Stephanie Stiavetti racked up debt to pursue her culinary dream. But she knew that if she didn’t adjust her lifestyle, she’d be saddled with $64,000 in debt for decades. Read more

Newly Single, ‘I Knew I Had to Help Myself’

How I Ditched Debt: Newly Single, 'I Knew I Had to Help Myself'
At age 25, Carrie Smith Nicholson found herself divorced and $14,000 in debt. She realized she had to get an extra job, cut back on spending and dig herself out of the hole. Read more

Getting an Education in Student Loans

How I Ditched Debt Kara Stevens
After college, Kara Stevens found herself with student loans and credit card debt. Once she educated herself on debt, Stevens decided to tackle it head-on, paying off $65,000 in six years. Read more

Extra Payments Became Her Obsession

After Jackie Beck lost her job and struggled to pay for food and housing, she was forced to face her debts. Beck became obsessed with small payments and paid off $147,106 in 10 years. Read more

Making Sense of Cents

Michelle Schroeder-Gardner
By age 23, Michelle Schroeder-Gardner had earned three college degrees, gotten married and bought a house. She graduated with $38,000 in student debt and decided she would pay it off as fast as she could. Read more

Money Under 30

How I Ditched Debt: Money Under 30
David Weliver didn't tackle his $80,000 debt until he faced a painful choice: pay rent or a credit card bill. He consolidated debts, reduced his cost of living and worked a second job to pay it off in three years. Read more

Lauren Greutman

pay off debt
Lauren, a spender, was ashamed to let her husband, Mark, a saver, know how badly she’d managed their family finances. Once she owned up and changed her spending habits, they paid off $40,000 in two years. Read more

Money Peach

How I Ditched Debt: Money Peach
Chris Peach and his wife Andrea hit rock-bottom when they maxed out their credit cards and couldn’t pay for groceries. Peach, a firefighter by training, applied a step-by-step approach to pay off $52,000 in seven months. Read more

Debt Discipline

How I Ditched Debt: The Brandow Family
Brian Brandow had his debt epiphany when the father of three had to tell his family there’d be no vacation that year. The Brandows had maxed out their credit cards. They used a debt management plan to pay off $109,000 in four years. Read more

Cait Flanders

In her early 20s, Flanders racked up debt totaling nearly $30,000 by saying "yes" to everything. By monitoring expenses and cutting down on unnecessary purchases, she paid it off in two years. Read more

Active Budgeting Pays Off

Joanna and Johnny Galbraith_social
As newlyweds and recent graduates with $20,000 in debt, Johnny and Joanna Galbraith were determined to create an attack plan and get out of the red. They paid it off in 1.5 years. Read more

My Shiny Nickels

How I Ditched Debt: My Shiny Nickels
Laura Dobbins and her family lived in an upscale home with all the trappings of wealth, but they were nearly $40,000 in debt. They downsized their lifestyle and began saving, and in less than two years, they were debt-free. Read more

Smart Spending, Dedication

How I Ditched Student Debt: Smart Spending and Dedication

Zina Kumok graduated college with $24,000 in student loan debt. But since she was making $28,000 a year, she knew she had to get serious about her debt. She paid it off in three years. Read more

The Family CEO

How I Ditched Debt: The Family CEO
Julie Mayfield and her husband confronted 18 years’ worth of debt — totaling $59,000 — to help finance their daughter’s first year of college. They put any extra money they had toward debt and paid it off in 22 months. Read more

'Monster Payments'

NerdWallet's 'How I Ditched Student Debt' series — Amanda Page
Amanda Page graduated with $48,500 in student loan debt. Ten years later, after realizing she’d paid off less than $1,000 of her total balance, she took on extra work and used a strategy of making "monster payments" to pay it off in 14 months. Read more

Penny Pinchin' Mom

Before marriage, Tracie Fobes declared bankruptcy to get rid of debt. But by the time she and her husband had their first child, they’d accumulated $37,000 more. Open conversations about money led them to pay it off in just over two years. Read more

Queen of Free

Cherie Lowe and her husband, Brian, had more than $127,000 in debt spread across payday loans, medical bills and student loans. The birth of their second child prompted a lifestyle change, and they were debt-free in four years. Read more

The Budgetnista

(Photo by Tinnetta Bell.)

Tiffany Aliche was saddled with $55,000 in graduate student loans, $40,000 in credit card debt and $200,000 from a defaulted mortgage. She moved back home and switched to an all-cash lifestyle to pay it off. Read more

Well Kept Wallet

Deacon Hayes and his wife Kim used debt as a way to fund their lifestyle. When they were $52,000 in debt and living paycheck to paycheck, they knew they had to take action. The Hayes paid it off in 18 months. Read more

His and Her Money

How I Ditched Debt: His and Her Money

As newlyweds, Talaat and Tai McNeely had opposite money habits and around $30,000 of debt. They lived on one income and used the other to pay off their debts within a year. Read more

Debt Free Guys

John Schneider and David Auten had years of experience in financial services — but they still managed to accumulate $51,000 in credit card debt. They cut down on spending, used a balance transfer and paid it off in 18 months. Read more

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