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What Would You Give Up to Be Debt-Free?

Feb. 15, 2019
Paying Off Debt, Personal Finance
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Looking to get out from under a mountain of credit card debt? You’ve likely come across an aspirational story or 12 while clicking around.

They usually go like this: Penny-pinching Peter rid himself of an enormous amount of debt by cutting out small treats and giving up Netflix. But will abstaining from $12 avocado toast and missing out on the latest season of “Orange Is the New Black” do the trick for you?

Or you read about those who sleep in their cars for a year, shower at the gym and consume only discarded ketchup packets. That might not work for you, either.

Defeating debt is a delicate balance: You need to figure out where you can cut — and how long you can live that way.

We crunched the numbers for some common budget cuts, and some extreme ones, and then tested how long they’d take to offset $15,000, a nice round number close to the average credit card debt in the U.S., according to a NerdWallet study.

Cuts that really make a difference

Starting small can ease you into the habit of budget cuts. But forgoing little luxuries alone often won’t be enough to make a meaningful difference in debt. For instance, brown-bagging your lunch cuts out the average $5 fast food tab every workday. Great start, you’re saving $105 a month — but at that rate it would take you nearly 12 years to save enough to pay off $15,000.

Getting more serious, you could take on a second job, figuring that wiping out debt is worth sacrificing some of your free time. An extra 10 hours of work a week could earn you an additional $314 a month, based on the federal minimum wage. At that rate, you’d be up to $15,000 in four years.

The most extreme measures put you on the fast track to paying off debt — if you’re willing to make the lifestyle sacrifices. Moving in with family or living out of your car are drastic options, but ditching rent on a one-bedroom saves $810 a month on average. That adds up to $15,000 in just a year and a half.

See for yourself

Playing around with different budget scenarios gives you valuable insight: You might be inspired to go big and defeat debt quickly, or you might decide to preserve some little luxuries and accept a longer timeline.

NerdWallet’s debt-free calculator lets you test cuts to your monthly budget and see how long various combinations would take to offset your current debt.

Getting a sense of what you can live with clears the way to the next step: picking the right path to paying it off. Strategies such as debt consolidation and targeted payments — the “debt avalanche” and “debt snowball” techniques you can use — may speed up the process or reduce the amount of interest you pay.

And if your repayment timeline is stretching past five years even with major austerity measures, it’s time to look at debt relief options such as debt management plans or bankruptcy. Most people want to pay what they owe, but there comes a time when trying to dig your way out is really just digging yourself deeper.

Sean Pyles is a staff writer and Daniel Tonkovich is a data analyst at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: [email protected], [email protected]. Twitter: @SeanLoranPyles