My Dance With Credit Card Debt (And How I Got Out of it)

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What comes to mind when you think of your college years? Many might say going to football games, making lifelong friends, or being away from home for the first time. I got to experience most if not all of that in my college years, but one of the most memorable was graduating with over $20,000 in credit card debt.

How I Got There


I remember the first credit card I got when I arrived on campus. I walked out of the auditorium (class registration was still done in person back then) and walked into a slew of individuals hawking freebies from t-shirts to backpacks and water bottles. I now know that was just the bait to lure us in.

I walked up to the one I liked best and filled out the 30-second application and away I was with $2,000…or so I thought. This one decision opened up the gates and soon found myself amassing credit card debt along with three other credit cards.

The spending soon began as I found it easy just to swipe the plastic if there was something I wanted that I did not have the cash for. The salient point I did not realize, or want to admit to, was this money was not free, but a line of credit that if used, had to be paid back. I was using the misperceived freedom of credit cards to finance living way beyond my means.  This ignorant attitude lead to me accumulating over $20,000 in credit card debt in roughly three years at college.

I did not have the requisite funds to pay even the minimum balance and soon the debt that was a snowball turned into an avalanche. It didn’t take long for the creditors to start calling daily. Ashamedly, I did not know what to tell them as I was sinking further into the quicksand of credit card debt. It felt as if there was no way out and that the quicksand was soon going to envelope me. Thankfully, there was soon to be a lifeline thrown to me.

How I Got Out of the Credit Card Debt Hole


In a word, it was discipline that got me out from under the mountain of credit card debt. Left with nowhere to turn I was able to find a credit counselor who got me on the road to recovery. The first step was to cut up the cards, then it was to establish a budget.

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While this was so foreign to me, I was willing to give almost anything a try in order to get out from under the self-inflicted burden of credit card debt I created. She was able to negotiate lower rates with the credit cards for me and we then came up with a plan for me to get the debt paid off.

This was an incredibly painful and costly lesson, however it taught me to live within my means. The credit card debt, not created overnight, also was not paid off overnight. It took me nearly five years to pay off the debt and with each monthly payment I made I had the same sour taste in my mouth of the hard lesson learned. Looking back though, I see it as an invaluable lesson as it formed the framework of the frugal living I espouse today.

I Wish I Were Alone


Credit cards are everywhere in today’s society. A recent study shows that each credit card holder has 3.5 credit cards and that there are nearly 610 million cards in circulation in the U.S. alone. The same study shows that the average debt held by those who have credit card debt is nearly $16,000. This is a staggering statistic, and can lead to thousands of dollars of interest and fees paid over the life of the indebtedness. I share my story as a hope to encourage others who may be struggling with similar debt that there is a way out and that with discipline you can free yourself from the burdens of credit card debt.

Have you ever had a pile of credit card debt to climb out from? What helped you be successful to get out from under it?


Photo courtesy of: Sanja Gjenero

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John is the founder of Frugal Rules, a dad, husband and veteran of the financial services industry whose writing has been featured in Forbes, CNBC, Yahoo Finance and more.

Passionate about helping people learn from his mistakes, John shares financial tools and tips to help you enjoy the freedom that comes from living frugally. One of his favorite tools is Personal Capital , which he used to plan for retirement and keep track of his finances in less than 15 minutes each month.

Another one of John's passions is helping people save $80 per month by axing their expensive cable subscriptions and replacing them with more affordable ones, like Hulu with Live TV.

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  • Greg@ClubThrifty says:

    Luckily, I’ve never had that sort of credit card debt. Unfortunately, I am one of the few. Like you, I also remember getting my first credit card during my first week at college. I got a shiny new card with my school’s name on it. I thought I had a ton of freedom. Lucky for me, I didn’t get into too much trouble with it.

  • John says:

    Yea, I remember that feeling Greg. I am thankful (now that is) for the lessons I learned throughout it and how its changed my view on finances and debt. It’s funny, after I finally got out of the debt I swung to hating credit cards. I’ve come a bit towards the middle of it now though as if you use them wisely they can be a good resource.

  • Sean @ One Smart Dollar says:

    I can honestly say that I have never had credit card debt. I am more of a saver then spender anyways so I think that contributes.

  • John says:

    Yea, I can definitely say that I have moved to being more of a saver these days. It’s been over 10 years since I’ve had credit card debt at all. It’s a great feeling to be able to pay off all your bills each month and know that you’re not still tied to some sort of debt.

  • DC @ Young Adult Money says:

    I have not had credit card debt, though I have had a credit card since college. I can see how it would be easy to get caught up in credit card debt in college, especially with the free-spending culture that is college. I can understand getting in some debt to cover living expenses, but overall if you can get out of college without credit card debt you are much better off. I’m deep in student loan debt so I can’t even imagine having the credit card debt on top of it.

  • John says:

    Yea, if it was for living expenses or an emergency then it is a bit more understandable. As long as there is a plan in place to get out from under it ASAP. However, in my case, it was largely just stupid crap that I did not need.

  • Kim@Eyesonthedollar says:

    I did great through college, but experienced severe lifestyle inflation when I started making money. We had a major turning point two years ago when we sat down and realized we owed over $30K on credit cards. We’re under 10K now and would pay it off, but it’s on a 0% card until next August, so might as well keep the money in savings for now in case of emergency. This is the last credit card debt we’ll ever owe that isn’t paid off every month. It’s no fun to have more than half you income going to pay Visa and Mastercard.

    • John says:

      Great job on knocking down the debt Kim! I can relate to having so much of your income go to Visa & Mastercard, but it’s such a great feeling to be done and have them off your back.

  • Debt and the Girl says:

    Wow, I applaud your action. I recently paid off $5k in credit card debt and that was not fun. I know it can be had cutting corners but its so worth it in the end. Thank you for sharing your story.

  • Jennifer Lynn @ Broke-Ass Mommy says:

    $18,000 worth of debt (for a car loan and student loans). Worst. Feeling. Ever. It took three years of aggressive payments and subsisting on Cheerios, but I have now been debt-free for three years, a truly empowering feeling. Saving hardcore has also allowed me to stay home with my daughter during these precious first years. Congratulations on having the fortitude to dig yourself out from your own debt avalanche, John.

    • John says:

      I can SO relate. Those days were tough, but it is an empowering feeling as you say. I remember feeling like a weight had just been taken off of my shoulders. That’s awesome your discipline has allowed you to stay home as well, what a gift!

  • Nurse Frugal says:

    Before we got married, my husband made me pay off my credit card bill of $2,000! yikes! The crazy thing is that I have NOTHING to show for that $2,000 where did it go? Who knows, but the bottom line is that we no longer have ANY credit cards. Only debit cards 😉 There should be a mandatory class in high school about finances so that these young college students are adequately prepared for all the credit card sharks out there!

    • John says:

      I can totally relate. I have virtually nothing to show for the $20K I racked up. We use credit cards now, but only for what we have budgeted already. I could not agree more about the education. I think it should begin with basics in Jr. High about very simple things and moving up in regards to importance and what’s taught.

  • Katie says:

    I am currently in the process of digging us out. Right now (not including the house) we owe $22k (1 auto loan for under $5000 – the rest is credit cards!). One day I realized I was just sick of juggling it. We’d had the same amount of credit card debt for almost 10 years. As quickly as we could pay it off, emergencies would happen, things would break, etc. A couple of months ago I started digging us out – using the snowball method and tightening our budget as much as possible. We got rid of our 2nd car that we didn’t REALLY use and got a “beater” so nobody would ever be left at home with the kids without a way to leave if an emergency arose. I started really paying attention to coupons and sales for the things we HAVE to have. We don’t eat out except a rare pizza maybe once a month now. If we can stick to my plan, we will have all of it paid off by next April (or sooner if I can find some extra to throw into the payments here & there). I can’t wait to be able to actually SAVE money for things and feel like I can BREATHE!

    • John says:

      Sorry I’m just catching this comment now Katie! 🙂 It sounds like you’re making the right steps to get that debt taken care of. It is difficult, but certainly possible to kill.

  • Rachel says:

    I’m currently at $11k in debt spread over about 5 cards. And then 10k in student loans on top! I’m 23, with a one year old and a full time job. No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to get my cards down at all. I haven’t used any of them in over 6 months. (Even gave them to my mom for safe keeping.) Living paycheck to paycheck is becoming very taxing and I’m so overwhelmed… I want to make a good life for my child, but it’s so hard when I’ve already made so many terrible financial decisions. This article, like many, gives me hope. Once I can stop procrastinating and feeling sorry for myself, I know I’ll get help. It’s just getting to that point is so difficult. I hope anyone out there reading this in the same slippery slope that I am is smarter than I and will SEEK HELP! it’s out there! Just reach out and ask for it.

    • John says:

      Thanks for your comment Rachel. I can relate to the feeling that living paycheck to paycheck can be wearing. You’ve made the right first step in not using your cards. I would encourage you to seek some help, perhaps in the form of a qualified and reputable debt counselor, to help get you started towards slaying the debt. Best of luck, it is possible! 🙂

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