How I Ditched Debt: Homemade Tracker Kept Her Cooking

Paying Off Debt, Personal Finance

In this series, NerdWallet interviews people who have triumphed over debt using a combination of commitment, budgeting and smart financial choices. Their stories may even inspire you to pay off your debt. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

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For chef and food writer Stephanie Stiavetti, debt was a tool to use then lose as fast as possible. Student loans let her leave a job at a tech company and follow her culinary passion. But she knew that if she didn’t adjust her lifestyle, she’d be saddled with debt for decades.

She got smart about her debt — and learned to love spreadsheets. Stiavetti tracked her cash flow and monthly debt payments, and cracked down on expenses. Lunches at restaurants with friends were replaced by picnics in the park. She cut back spending on clothes. And it began to add up.

She’s now debt-free and pursuing her passion for cooking via her website, Fearless Fresh, where she teaches amateur chefs for free.

How much debt did you have when you decided to pay it off?

In 2011, I had $50,000 in student loan debt and another $8,000 in post-divorce credit card debt. I paid that off by mid-2013, then a few years later I ended up borrowing about $6,000 in student loans again for pastry school.

How did you end up in debt?

For the most part it was a student loan issue. When I was a college student, I’d done my general education at a community college to save money, but after that I opted to attend a hoity-toity private college, which caused the debt to rack up quickly.

I quickly transferred to a public school when I realized what the private school tuition would do to my long-term finances, but that one year at the private school was responsible for over half of my student loans.

>>DID YOU DITCH DEBT? Tell us how.

What triggered your decision to get out of debt?

I wanted to leave my tech career and become a chef and food writer, and I knew that would be difficult with so much debt. I also knew that I wanted to buy a house one day, and all the expenses of owning a home on top of student loan and credit card payments seemed overwhelming.

I was not comfortable taking out a home loan until I had cleared out the bulk of my debt. The added bonus is that once I paid of all my debt, my credit rating increased to 825, making me eligible for lower interest on home loans.

What steps did you take to reduce your debt?

I used my head. I figured out my tech salary and how much money I could bring in from freelancing gigs and decided to sink every extra penny I had into paying off my debt. … I still went out with friends and enjoyed the occasional vacation, but I did so with an eye toward budget spending and found ways to make the most of every dollar instead of indulging in expensive luxuries.

I also created a crazy Excel spreadsheet of all my debts and my monthly payments, with the totals automatically calculated every month. I have to tell you, inputting my payments into that spreadsheet and watching the totals drop was hugely motivating.

How has your life changed for the better since you got out of debt?

Now I can look at my outgoing cash every month and not feel stressed or pressured. I have not bought a house yet, so I have almost zero debt.

To go from having almost $60,000 in debt to nothing is an incredible feeling. I am able to now save all of my extra income and have it stay where it belongs — in my bank account, not my creditors’ accounts.

What advice do you have for someone looking to get out of debt?

Just suck it up, Buttercup, and do what you have to do. Cut back your fun or find cheaper ways to have fun. The only thing standing between yourself and a debt-free existence is you.

Put as much energy to paying off your debt as you put into your goals. Otherwise it’ll be so much harder in the long run.

How to demolish your own debt

Follow these steps if you’re inspired to get serious about paying down your debt:

  1. Know what you owe: It sounds obvious, but adding up all your debts gives you an overview of your situation and can make clear what you need to do.
  2. Get a grip on your cash flow and credit: Know how much you can pay toward your debt each month. If you have good credit, look into debt consolidation; you might be able to combine several debts into one at a lower interest rate.
  3. Pick your path: You may want to try a DIY repayment strategy, or need to look into debt management plans or debt relief.
  4. Track your progress: Seeing your payments make a difference can keep you motivated.

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