Credit: via Flickr.

About seven years ago I collected inspiring stories from people posting on our Credit Cards and Consumer Debt discussion board about how they paid off some massive sums. Four years ago, I revisited the topic and offered tips and observations from more former debtors. And the first-person accounts of people paying off hefty debts keep rolling in. These stories about how people freed themselves can provide great insight, ideas, and inspiration.

The sheer size of many debts paid off is inspiring. One fellow dug out from under $125,000 in debt, even though it took about eight years. "Don't ever give up," he says "If I can do it, you can do it!"

Another person paid down $64,000 in debt in less than three years. Many others paid off considerably smaller but still meaningful sums through determination and persistence.

So what are some strategies these folks used to dig out from so much debt? Of course, there are the simple ones, such as not accumulating more debt and paying off your highest-interest-rate debts first. But there are a variety of ways to save or earn the money needed to do so. For example:

  • Stop eating at restaurants, cook food at home (avoiding more expensive prepared foods), and pack lunches for household members.
  • If you need to replace an old car, buy a used vehicle.
  • Aim to buy items you need only when they're on sale, which requires keeping up with sale circulars or signing up for retailer emails.
  • Use libraries and book swaps instead of paying for print or digital books.
  • Shop for clothes at stores run by Goodwill, The Salvation Army, and the like. You might be surprised that along with lots of clothes you wouldn't want to be seen in, there are frequently Brooks Brothers shirts and other name-brand items in decent condition.
  • Cancel expensive cable TV and perhaps switch to a streaming service for a fraction of the cost. For birthdays and the holiday season, cut way back on gifts.
  • Cancel landscaper services and trim those hedges and lawns yourself.
  • Use balance transfers to move some debt to lower interest rates. A home equity loan can work, too, but be sure not to fall behind on those payments, lest you lose your home.
  • Win money on Jeopardy! and apply some of your winnings to paying down your debt. (OK, this one might not be the most realistic idea for everyone, but it did succeed for one person on our discussion board.)

Finally, don't underestimate the value of sharing your journey with others, as it can be particularly helpful when you're feeling discouraged, as is likely to happen now and then. One board contributor who paid down about $55,000 said to his fellow contributors: "I've read your stories over the years, the month by month updates. They were very much inspirational to me. The determination of all was my strength." You might not want to share your financial struggles with family members or close friends, but an online community can give you others to hold yourself accountable to.

Reading through the experiences and thoughts of debt reducers and debt eliminators also yields some great insights. Some have noted that the process of tightening belts, saving more, spending less, and paying much more attention to money matters helped them develop better financial habits that will serve them well long after they're debt-free. Having paid off tens of thousands of dollars, for example, many people are less likely to accumulate a lot of debt again now that they appreciate the difficulty of dealing with it. One board denizen noted how he went from nearly $45,000 in debt to more than $400,000 in net worth, in about a decade.

Another board participant said: 

In the process of paying off debt, I have become extremely frugal. I used to buy stuff that were on sale that I didn't really need. Now I only buy stuff that I really need and know I'll use regularly. I also try to plan everything to get a good picture of how I will accomplish my goals and dreams. Less hoping and wishing and more planning and certainty.

If you're saddled with a lot of debt, know that your situation isn't hopeless. You can dig out from under it, and you might want to tap the support of an online community to help with that challenge. When you're debt-free, life will likely be much sweeter.