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$100,000 of Debt Paid Off

Our discussion boards are full of some amazing stories. In fact, I ran across one just the other day. On our Credit Cards and Consumer Debt board, Fool Community member FIgirl celebrated paying off a lot of debt with a "semi-happy dance." On that board, happy dances are what posters do when they become debt-free, as many have done. Some have paid off tens of thousands of dollars.

So how much had FIgirl paid off? Well, here are her self-reported stats:

September 30, 2005:
Credit card debt: $59,000
Auto loan: $34,700
Student loans: $120,000
TOTAL DEBT: $213,700
Emergency fund: basically zilch

February 9, 2007:
Credit card debt: $2,050 at 3% fixed
Student loans: $112,000 at 3.75%, 4%, and 5%
TOTAL DEBT: $114,050
Emergency fund: $42,000 at 5%

Got that? That's $99,650 in debt -- almost $100,000 -- wiped out. Better still, you can bet that the credit card debt carried stiff interest rates -- some mainstream card issuers out there are charging borrowers upwards of 25% in annual interest!

What she did right, and ...
There are two main things worth noting: She focused on paying off her higher-rate debt first, which is almost always the right thing to do. And she also focused on building an emergency fund, which is smart. (Learn how to maximize your short-term savings by visiting our Savings Center.)

Is she progressing perfectly? Well, she herself isn't sure. She discussed her mixed feelings:

"At this point, being nearly completely free of credit card debt (which was a source of great anxiety and self-recrimination), and having an emergency fund, I've noticed that my mindset on debt has changed. Now, instead of obsessing about getting balances down, I obsess about getting my net worth up. Since this can be accomplished by saving and investing as well as debt paydown, my priorities have started shifting. But that could be for better or for worse. After all, debt paid off is a risk-free improvement in net worth, while investing is full of risk."

That's an excellent point. When dealing with debt, it can be helpful to think of it as the reverse of investing. If you're paying 20% in interest on your debt, for example, and are investing in the stock market with hopes of earning 10% or 15%, per year, on average, you're losing ground. It's true that some companies and mutual funds have grown by more than 20% per year over long periods -- such as Harley-Davidson (NYSE HOG), with its average annual gains of 22% over the past decade. But I wouldn't ever count on that. Companies such as Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT  ) and ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) have averaged about 15% annually over the past 20 years.

Click in to our board to read the whole discussion that FIgirl's post generated, and you'll see what good advice fellow board denizens offered.

You can do it
If you're struggling with credit card debt, know that there can be a bright light at the end of your tunnel. I related another community member's happy dance last year, when I explained how he paid off $37,000 in 17 months, all while earning $60,000 per year.

Here are some more examples:

Those are just a few of many stories. If you click on some of them, you'll find people paying down debt without having grand incomes. They're often people of modest means who nevertheless have dug their way out of debt.

Shop around
One step to paying off this kind of debt is shopping around for a better deal. Consider calling up major credit card issuers such as JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, or American Express, to see which one will offer you a good deal on consolidating your debt under a reasonable interest rate. Check with your current card company, too -- and make repeat calls, once you get some offers. If Bank of America is offering a decent deal, call JPMorgan Chase and see whether they'll beat it.

Learn more in our Credit Center, which features some surprisingly interesting info about the credit card industry. Being smart about credit can potentially save you tens of thousands of dollars. Check out the following articles:

Longtime contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of Wal-Mart, which is an Inside Value recommendation. Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase are Income Investor picks. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.


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Selena Maranjian
TMFSelena

Selena Maranjian has been writing for the Fool since 1996 and covers basic investing and personal finance topics. She also prepares the Fool's syndicated newspaper column and has written or co-written a number of Fool books. For more financial and non-financial fare (as well as silly things), follow her on Twitter...

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