ScoreCard Research Zina Kumok - The Penny Hoarder

A character in the Shopaholic series from Sophie Kinsella tells the main character, who’s up to her eyeballs in credit card debt, she can either spend less or make more money.

Most people try to spend less. So many financial books and blogs (even mine) focus on cutting your expenses. But the biggest thing I realized while paying off my debt was that spending less wasn’t enough.

If you’re only making $28,000 a year, you can only cut so much before you reach your breaking point. That’s when the amount of money you could save becomes less valuable than what you’re buying with it.

If You Can’t Spend Less, Make More Money

I was paying $550 a month for my apartment, I was driving six hours every weekend to see my boyfriend (and paying $300 for gas) and I was contributing $250 to my savings account every month, trying to build up an emergency fund.

At one point, when I was going on vacation for 10 days, I called my Internet provider and asked if I could disconnect the service while I was out. At that time, I was putting $10 extra a month toward my debt, which was enough to knock off one year’s worth of payments. But paying off my student loans in nine years versus 10 wasn’t enough.

That’s when I realized that spending less couldn’t be my only plan. I had to find a way to make more money.

Due to my schedule, a part-time job was out of the question. I was working as a journalist, and the random hours of my job made it impossible to find a second gig.

I decided to start putting any extra money toward my loans. When I visited my grandma and she handed me a check, I added it to my monthly student loan payment. If I had a freelance gig, I put all that money toward my loans. If I got a hefty tax refund, I put that toward my loans.

To keep myself from going crazy, I usually kept about 10% of everything I earned and used that as a small splurge. That way, I could still celebrate without forgetting my goal.

Get a Raise? Put It Toward Your Debt

A year after my first job, I moved to the city where my boyfriend lived. My new gig came with a slight pay increase, and I no longer had to fill up a tank of gas every week. I added my new savings toward my loans and suddenly I was more than doubling my monthly payment.

It was at that point that I wanted to see how quickly I could pay off my debt. If $10 a month shaved off a whole year, how much would $400 do? I set myself a goal of paying off student loans within three years of graduation.

When my lease ended, I moved in with my boyfriend and a mutual friend. Having roommates for the first time since college meant even lower living expenses. We chose a cheap duplex, and my rent only cost 14% of my take-home pay. You can probably guess where I put the rest of my money.

While I was paying off my loans, I also found other ways to save. I clipped coupons and bought items on sale, I discovered Goodwill and other thrift stores and I always researched an item before I bought it.

A little more than a year after that move, I made my last student loan payment -- three years after my first.

How Much You Make Matters Less Than What You Do With It

Throughout this journey, I learned that how much you make doesn’t matter as what you do with it. I know people who make double than I do that have more debt and fewer savings. I know people who make more who travel less. I know people who live on six figures and feel broke.

Even though I still have yet to make much more than $30,000, I don’t feel poor. I can buy everything I need and most things that I want.

Make the most of your salary by figuring out what truly makes you happy and how to save money on the rest. I love to travel, so I don’t scimp there. I use credit card bonuses to buy flights at a discount, and I stay at Airbnb to save money. Traveling is expensive, but I’d rather go to a new country than buy nice purses or hit up the bars. So I skip those.

No matter how much I earn, I still have habits that I developed over the last three years to carry me through.

Disclosure: We have a serious Taco Bell addiction around here. The affiliate links in this post help us order off the dollar menu. Thanks for your support!

Zina Kumok writes about paying off $28,000 worth of student loans in three years at Debt Free After Three. She has been featured in DailyWorth, LifeHacker and Time.

Debt is a reality for many Americans.

The average household in the red carries more than $15,000 in credit card debt. College grads with student loans leave school, on average, nearly $30,000 in the hole.

If those numbers make you dizzy, don’t despair: Paying off debt is possible with hard work, discipline and focus.

Need some inspiration? Here’s what these 13 people did to become debt-free -- and you can, too.

1. Know WHY You Want to Be Debt-Free

“My number one tip is to know why you want to become debt-free,” said Jessi Fearon of The Budget Mama.

Is it so you can travel more, leave your job or go back to school? Having a reason can help you stay on track.

“Write it down along with all the debts and amounts you owe to keep you motivated. It'll help to keep you from spending money carelessly.”

Fearon and her husband paid off $55,000 in 17 months.

2. Look at the Full Picture

Gather all the information you can on your debt, advises Lance Cothern, the writer behind The Money Manifesto.

“Write down the loan type, the amount owed, the minimum payments, the months left on the loan, the interest rate, whether the loan is variable or fixed and any other information you may need to know,” he said.

Once you’ve done that, you can choose if you want to pay off the loan with the highest interest rate or the lowest balance.  

Cothern paid off the highest-interest-rate loans first, and then variable-rate loans since he knew they could increase at any moment.

He and his wife paid off $80,000 in less than three years.

3. Stop Adding to Your Debt

Jackie Beck, who developed an app to help people get out of debt, said too many Americans think of credit as a means to an end.

If you want to be debt-free, you have to change your mindset.

“That means committing to no longer thinking of debt as a solution,” she said. “In other words, stop borrowing.”

This could mean not applying for a credit card, cutting up your current one or lowering your credit limit.

Beck paid off $147,000 in debt.

4. Only Use Cash

Blogger Jessica Garbarino recommends living on a cash budget if you’re going to pay off debt. That means canceling your credit cards and only keeping your debit card if you want to use plastic.

“Being on a cash budget will force you to make different decisions and change behavior,” she said.

“It helped me pay off $56K in debt [in five years].”

5. Remove Temptation From Your Inbox

Sometimes, paying off debt means turning off external temptation.

“Your email inbox can make or break your debt journey,” said Jacob Wade of I Heart Budgets. “Go to Unroll.Me and remove yourself from all coupon- and store-related email subscriptions.”

If you want to go one step further, Wade recommends subscribing to your favorite personal finance blogs for daily motivation.

“Your inbox will instantly turn from a money-sucking temptation to a motivation and action-based financial planner to help you get your money on track,” he explained.

Wade and his wife paid off $43,000 in six and a half years.

6. Be Candid With Friends

Finding free or frugal ways to have fun is crucial if you’re trying to throw any extra funds toward your debt, said Mindy Jensen, Community Manager at

“Share your goals with your friends,” she said.

“Ask them to help you out by coming over to your house for entertainment rather than going out. Game night is a great way to spend time with friends, while having fun and saving money.”

Jensen and her husband paid off $60,000, mostly in student loan debt, in five years.

7. Find Free and Cheap Entertainment

Toni Perrien Husbands, co-founder of Debt Free Divas, echoes Jensen’s ideas. She put money toward debt and looked for frugal fun.

“We attended free concerts and movies in the park, attended pot luck game nights with friends, and attended outings hosted by churches or universities,” she said.

She and her husband paid off $107,000 in seven years. Talk about a lucky number.

8. Find Ways to Make More Money

Too many people focus solely on cutting expenses when they’re getting out of debt. Instead, think about making more money, recommends Michelle Schroeder-Gardner of Making Sense of Cents.

“Extra income allowed me to pay off $40,000 in student loans in seven months,” she said. “There's no way I could have cut that much out of my budget, but I definitely had extra time to devote towards earning more money.”

Some of her side hustles included mystery shopping, taking surveys, working a part-time job and blogging.

9. Ask for Help

You shouldn’t hide what you’re going through, said Thomas Nitzsche, media relations manager for ClearPoint.

“Many creditors have a hardship plan for those who can demonstrate a need, and there are many local nonprofits out there who can help give guidance,” he explained.

“Don't be too proud to ask for help, but don't contact anyone without doing your due diligence first!”

Financial counseling organizations can help answer your questions and provide solid feedback. As Nitzsche notes, check for reviews and accreditation with the Better Business Bureau. If you’re worried about missing payments, call your lenders; they’re often able to help.

Nitzsche had 60% of his medical debt written off and then set up a 12-month payment plan for the rest, which was around $2,500.

10. Create a Physical Barrier to Spending

Sometimes paying off debt requires you to get visual.

Financial coach Whitney Hansen taped her budget to her debit card. That way, she had a physical reminder not to spend money.

“It definitely saved my bacon a time or two when I was getting out of debt,” she said. Hansen paid off $30,000 of debt in 10 months.

“If nothing else, it's a pain in the butt to remove your budget every time you want to make a purchase.”

11. Make a Visual Reminder

Military writer Kate Horrell did something similar.  

“If I'm trying to tackle a particular financial goal, I make a chart and put it somewhere obvious, like on my refrigerator,” she said.

Horrell and her husband were trying to pay off a car loan when Horrell decided to chart their progress. She taped it to their fridge, where she says it became part of her daily thought process.

“It is amazing how fast you can knock something out when you are thinking about it 20 times a day.”

12. Calculate Your Daily Interest Rate

It’s one thing to know your total amount of debt, but it’s another to figure out how much you pay in interest every day, said Melanie Lockert, the blogger behind Dear Debt.

She recommends calculating your daily interest rate, using the following formula: Interest Rate x Current Principal Balance ÷ Number of Days in the Year = Daily Interest.

“Imagine what else you could do with that money,” she said. “Get mad. Take action.”

Lockert paid off $81,000 worth of student loans in nine and a half years.

13. Only Buy Groceries Online

It might sound counterintuitive, but shopping online could help you stick to your budget and pay off debt.

Financial coach Melissa Comstock Thomas recommends buying groceries online.

“You stay on budget when food shopping because you can see your balance owed as you virtually put items in the cart,” she said.

Thomas reduced her grocery bill to $450 a month -- not bad for a family of four! This strategy helped her family pay off $43,000 of debt in less than four years.

Your Turn: Do you use any of these strategies or tips to pay off debt?

Zina Kumok writes about paying off $28,000 worth of student loans in three years at Debt Free After Three. She has been featured in DailyWorth, LifeHacker and Time.