How to Pay Off Debt in 9 Steps

By Austin Kilham · July 20, 2023 · 14 minute read

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How to Pay Off Debt in 9 Steps

Being debt-free can be a terrific feeling of freedom. However, many of us don’t know that sensation. According to Experian, the average American is carrying $101,915 in debt. And paying off the amount that you owe — whether it’s credit card debt, student loans, or something else — can be a considerable challenge.

While each person’s finances are different, there are smart strategies to pay off debt effectively and quickly. That will not only likely reduce your money stress and improve your finances, it can also free up funds to help you achieve some big-picture goals, whether that means funding a wedding or growing your toddler’s college fund.

Here, you’ll learn why it’s important to pay off debt, the best how-tos, and tips for managing debt as you work to shake it off.

Why Is It Important to Pay Off Debt?

Granted, not all debt should necessarily be paid off ASAP. There’s “good debt,” which is typically lower interest and can have a positive impact on your financial status. For example, if you have a mortgage, that is likely low-interest and it is helping you build equity and, by extension, your net worth.

However, there is also “bad debt” of the high interest variety, like credit card debt, which can wind up having a negative effect on your finances and your life. Some examples of why this kind of debt can be problematic:

•  It takes up funds that could otherwise be put towards long-term goals like retirement or short-term goals, such as a vacation fund.

•  It gives you more bills to pay.

•  It can cause you stress.

•  It can have a negative impact on your credit score, which can have further ramifications, such as making it more expensive to open other lines of credit.

•  It means you are subject to the lender’s decisions (such as raising your interest rate).

When you are debt-free, you likely don’t have to deal with those issues any longer. So here are smart debt payoff strategies to help you take control of your money.

💡 Quick Tip: With low interest rates compared to credit cards, a debt consolidation loan can substantially lower your payments.

steps to paying off debt

1. Create a Budget

A budget can help you understand and create a plan for where your money is going. This is where you can start to figure out how to live within your means to avoid accumulating new or more debt in the future, such as credit card debt.

•  To start your budget, take an inventory of all of your after-tax income. If you have a job, simply look at your net paycheck and multiply the number by how many times you’re paid each month.

•  Next, tally up necessary expenses. These might already include debt payments such as your student loans or a car payment. They can also include rent, utilities, insurance payments, groceries, and so on.

•  Subtract this total from your income and what you have left represents the money available for discretionary spending. If the amount of money you’re spending on discretionary expenses exceeds the amount you have available, you’ll likely need to make some adjustments to how you spend.

•  To pay off debt, focus a portion of the available discretionary income on debt payments. One approach is known as the 20/10 rule, which says that you should put no more than 20% of your annual take-home pay or 10% of your monthly income towards consumer debt.

2. Set Realistic Goals

It takes a lot of discipline to get debt-free. Setting measurable and achievable goals can help you stay on track. Think carefully about how much money you actually are able to put toward your debts each month. Include factors like how much spending you can reasonably cut and how much you might be able to add to your income.

Don’t factor in extra income unless you’re sure you’ll be able to come up with it. Once you settle on your monthly amount, you can calculate how many months it will take you to pay your debt off.

For example, say you have $500 dollars per month to help you pay off $10,000 in credit card debt with a 19.99% interest. With an online credit card payoff calculator, you can determine that it will take you about 25 months to pay off your card. So, a reasonable goal might be two years to get out of debt, which even builds in a little wiggle room if you can’t come up with a full $500 in one of those months.

3. Try a Payoff Method

Once you’ve identified funds you can use to pay down debt, there are a number of strategies you can use to put that money to work towards different debts you’re shouldering.

The Snowball Method

Here’s how the snowball method of debt repayment works:

•  List your debts in order of smallest balance to largest. Look exclusively at the amount you owe, ignoring the interest rate.

•  Make minimum payments on all the debts to avoid penalties. Make all extra payments toward paying off the smallest debt.

•  Once the smallest debt is paid in full, move on to the next largest debt and so on. Use all of the money you were directing toward the previous debt, including minimum and extra payments, to pay off the next smallest. In this way, the amount you’re able to direct toward the larger debts should grow or “snowball.”

One downside to the snowball method is that while targeting your smaller debts first, you may be holding onto your higher interest debts for a longer period of time.

However, you should also theoretically get a psychological boost every time you pay off a debt that helps you build momentum toward paying all of your debts off. And if this extra push can help keep you motivated to continue eliminating debt, the benefits of this strategy might outweigh the extra costs.

The Avalanche Method

The avalanche method takes a slightly different approach:

•  List your debts in order of highest interest rate to lowest. Once again, commit to making minimum payments on all of your debts first.

•  Make any extra payments toward your highest interest rate debt. As you pay each debt off, move on to the next debt with the highest rate. The debt avalanche method minimizes the amount of interest you pay as you work to get debt-free, potentially saving you money in the long-term.

The Fireball Method

This is a hybrid approach to the snowball and avalanche methods:

•  Group your debts by good and bad debt. As noted above, good debts are those that help you build your future net worth, like a mortgage, business loan, or student loan, and typically have lower interest rates. Bad debts have high interest rates and work against your ability to save; think credit card debt. (Btw, credit card debt should always be characterized as bad debt even if you are taking advantage of a 0% interest promotion.)

•  Next, list your bad debts in order from smallest to largest based on balance size. Continue making minimum payments on all debts, but funnel extra cash toward paying off the smallest of the bad debts.

•  Work your way up the list until all your bad debts are paid off. You can pay off your good debts on a regular schedule while investing in your future. Once you’ve blazed through your bad debt, you may even have extra cash to help you accomplish your long-term goals.

Choose the strategy that fits your personality and financial situation to increase the chances for success.

4. Complete a Balance Transfer

A balance transfer allows you to pay off debt from one or more high-interest credit cards (or other high-interest debt) by using a card with a lower interest rate. This strategy has a number of benefits.

•  First, it helps you get organized. Staying on top of one credit card statement might be easier than keeping track of many cards.

•  This strategy also helps you free up the money you were paying toward higher interest rates, which you could use to accelerate your debt payments.

Research what’s available carefully. Some credit cards offer teaser rates as low as 0% for a set period of time, such as six months to a year or even longer. It may make sense to take advantage of one of these deals if you think you can pay down your debt within that time frame.

However, when these teaser rates expire, the card might jump to its regular rate, which could be higher than the rates you were previously paying.

5. Make More Than the Minimum Payment

Credit cards allow you to make minimum payments — small portions of the balance you owe — until your debt is paid off. While this might seem convenient on the surface, this system is stacked in the credit companies’ favor. Making minimum payments can cost more in the long run than making larger payments and paying down debt faster.

That’s because as you make minimum payments, the remaining balance continues to accrue interest. Consider a credit card balance of $5,000 with a 15% interest rate. According to this credit card interest calculator, if you only make minimum payments of $112.50 per month, it will take you 64 months (5 years and 4 months!) to pay off your debt of $7,344. And in that time you will have spent more than $2,344 on interest payments alone.

In an ideal world, you would pay your credit card balance off each month and wouldn’t owe any interest. But, if that’s not possible, consider paying as much as you can to minimize the cost of high interest rates.

6. Find Extra Cash

Finding the cash to pay off your debt can be tough, especially if you’re looking to accelerate your debt payments. The most obvious place to start is by cutting unnecessary expenses.

For example, you might save money on streaming services by dropping some or all of your subscriptions, or give up your gym membership while you’re getting your debt in check. You may also try negotiating lower rates for some necessary expenses such as phone or internet bills, or consider starting a side hustle that can boost your income.

You can also use any windfalls, such as extra cash from tax returns, bonuses at work, or generous birthday gifts, to help accelerate your debt payments.

7. Avoid Taking on More Debt

While you’re paying off debt, it’s important that you work hard to not add to your debt. If you’re trying to pay off a credit card, you might want to stop using it. You may not want to cancel your credit card, but consider putting it somewhere where it’s not easily accessible. That way you’ll be less tempted to use it for impulse buys.

It can also be helpful to track your spending with a free budget app to help understand where your money is going and how not to increase your debt.

8. Consolidate Debt

Consolidating is another strategy that makes use of lower interest rates to pay off debt.

•  When you take out a loan, it will come with a fixed interest rate and a set term. When you consolidate your debts, you are essentially taking out a new loan to pay off debts, hopefully with a better interest rate or term.

•  A new loan with a lower interest rate can save you money in the long run, especially if you’re carrying a sizable balance. You may also be able to lower your monthly payments to make a budget more manageable on a month to month basis — or you may be able to shorten your terms, which can let you pay off the loan faster. Do keep in mind extending the term of the loan could lead to lower monthly payments but you may end up paying more in interest over time.

•  You may want to consider consolidating if you’ve established your credit history since you took out your loan. That may mean banks are more willing to trust a borrower with a loan and will give them more favorable rates and terms.

•  Also, keep an eye on the prime interest rate set by the Federal Reserve. When the Fed lowers interest rates, banks often follow suit, providing you with a possible chance to find a loan with lower interest rates.

9. Reward Yourself

Paying off debt can be a challenging process. That’s why it’s so important to treat yourself as you reach debt milestones.

Tethering productive behavior to rewards is a process that Wharton business school professor Katherine Milkman calls “temptation bundling.” This process can help you boost your willpower and stick to your goals.

So, choose a reward and tie it to a debt milestone like paying off a credit card, or paying off 10% of your debt. Each of these steps puts you closer to being debt-free, and that’s worth celebrating. When you reach a goal, indulge in a free or budget-friendly reward.

Debt Payoff Tips

Paying off debt often requires patience and persistence. Here’s some smart advice to address common concerns and help keep you going as you whittle down that debt.

What Are Some Common Mistakes to Avoid When Paying off Debt?

Some common mistakes when paying off debt are hiding from the situation (that is, not looking at how much you owe and creating a plan), taking out high interest payday loans, and, in some cases, taking out a home equity loan. Here’s a closer look at each:

•  It can be a common mistake to not dig in, review the full picture, and make a plan. Some people would rather be in denial and just keep paying a little bit here and there. Knowing your debt and developing a way to pay it off can be the best move.

•  Taking out a payday loan or other high-interest option to make a payment. This can make a tough situation worse by adding more money owed to your situation. A personal loan might be a better option with lower rates.

•  Tapping your home equity. Credit card debt is unsecured; you don’t put up anything as collateral. A home equity loan, however, uses your home as collateral. Yes, a home equity loan can be a helpful option in some situations, but if you use that equity to continue spending at a level your income can’t support, that can mean bigger problems lie ahead. You could wind up losing your home.

How Can I Balance Paying off Debt with Saving for Other Financial Goals?

To manage both debt repayment and saving, it’s important to make sure you keep current on paying what you owe. Next, you might want to create a budget, cut your spending, and automate your finances (which will send some money to savings) to help maintain a good balance. Here’s guidance:

•  Create a budget, keep paying off your debt, and work to create an emergency fund (even saving $20 or $25 a month is a good start).

•  Commit to cutting your spending. Some people like gamifying this: Say, one month, you vow to not eat dinner out; another month, you decide to forgo buying any new clothes.

•  Automate your finances. This can be as simple as setting up a recurring transfer from your checking account to savings just after payday. That whisks some money into savings (a small amount is fine), and you won’t see it sitting in checking, tempting you to spend it.

What Are My Debt Relief Options if I’m Struggling to Make Payments?

Some ways to get help with debt relief can include a balance transfer credit card, a personal loan, a debt management plan, and (if no other options are possible) considering declaring bankruptcy. If you are having a hard time with debt payoff, there are several options:

•  As mentioned above, you might take advantage of zero-percent balance transfer credit card offers.

•  You can contact your creditors and see if they will lower your interest rate or otherwise reduce your burden.

•  You might consider a personal loan (mentioned above) to pay off high-interest debt with a lower-interest loan.

•  You could participate in a debt management plan that consolidates your debt into one payment monthly that is then divvied up among those to whom you owe money. Look for a plan that is backed by a reputable organization such as the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) or the Financial Counseling Association of America.

•  You might decide to declare bankruptcy; the most common form is known as Chapter 7 liquidation, and can get rid of credit card debt, medical debt, and unsecured personal loans. Educate yourself carefully to see if you qualify, and be sure you understand the long-term impact it may have on your personal finances.

The Takeaway

Digging yourself out of debt can be a challenging process, but with a well-crafted plan and discipline, it can be achieved. Evaluate your spending habits, determine how you are going to prioritize your debts, and stick to your plan by setting small, measurable goals. One option people consider is consolidating multiple high-interest debts into a one personal loan with one payment. However, note that extending the loan term could lead to lower monthly payments, but you may end up paying more interest in the long run.

Think twice before turning to high-interest credit cards. Consider a SoFi personal loan instead. SoFi offers competitive fixed rates and same-day funding. Checking your rate takes just a minute.

SoFi’s Personal Loan was named NerdWallet’s 2024 winner for Best Personal Loan overall.


Why is it important to have a plan to pay off debt?

It’s important to have a plan to pay off debt so you can be organized and strategic in this effort. Only by knowing the full extent of your debt and your resources can you make a plan. Whether you choose to use a method like the snowball or avalanche technique, take out a personal loan, or try a debt management program, it’s vital to know just where you stand.

What are some strategies for dealing with multiple sources of debt?

If you have multiple sources of debt, you may want to research the snowball, avalanche, and fireball methods of paying down what you owe. These consider such factors as how much you owe and the interest rate you are being charged and can help you prioritize how you repay the debt. These strategies can help focus your efforts and contribute to your success.

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Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.

Disclaimer: Many factors affect your credit scores and the interest rates you may receive. SoFi is not a Credit Repair Organization as defined under federal or state law, including the Credit Repair Organizations Act. SoFi does not provide “credit repair” services or advice or assistance regarding “rebuilding” or “improving” your credit record, credit history, or credit rating. For details, see the FTC’s website .

This article is not intended to be legal advice. Please consult an attorney for advice.

Third-Party Brand Mentions: No brands, products, or companies mentioned are affiliated with SoFi, nor do they endorse or sponsor this article. Third-party trademarks referenced herein are property of their respective owners.


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