Debt: It's the four-letter word that can wreak havoc on your finances. In our Debt Confessions series, real people share how they tackled debt — from credit card bills to student loans to everything in between — and how it felt to reach their zero-balance goals.

Here, one woman shares how impressive success stories made her feel stuck in her debt — and how she focused on small wins to make progress instead.

Over the years, it’s been easy for my husband, Chris, and I to feel discouraged about our finances. Between a car loan, student loans and credit card bills, we were over $40,000 in debt and unsure how we would ever make more than the minimum payments each month. We heard so many stories about people with impressive incomes knocking out tens of thousands of dollars in debt within months — but we couldn’t see how that would ever be us.

Money has been a struggle for a lot of our marriage. We started with just enough to make ends meet while I finished up my college degree in psychology and he worked as an email marketing specialist. Our incomes have slowly risen since then, but our expenses have, too.

We made the occasional frivolous purchase on credit (who hasn’t?), but they were minimal compared to the debt from medicals bills from my first pregnancy, the expenses of unpaid maternity leave with my second, and then my husband’s six-month unemployment while I was expecting my third. During that time, I tried to ramp up my part-time freelance writing while working full-time as a behavioral health technician. But some months we had to charge groceries or utility bills — and those expenses added up quickly.

Things did turn around for us. My husband returned to work and I started writing more, eventually turning it into my full-time gig with greater earning power than my job at the hospital. Even so, I felt like we were staring down a ton of debt that would never budge on our modest income.

THE LIGHTBULB MOMENT

It wasn’t until last year, after making minimum payments on all of our debts for months, that I found the key to making meaningful progress. I’d been so caught up in the big picture — how I would knock out huge amounts of debt in a short amount of time — that I missed how powerful small wins could be for our family.

My lightbulb moment came after landing a small writing gig with a new client unexpectedly that paid just over $100. It was a quick project, and the extra cash wasn’t written into our budget. As tempting as it was to spend it on something fun, I used it to make an extra payment to one of our credit cards.

The next month, I did the same thing. I picked up just a little extra work with my new writing client and sent the entire check to a credit card as an extra payment. I began to feel unstuck after paying minimums for so long. If one extra gig helped us make a little progress, what would the impact of two or three extra jobs be over the long term?

“If one extra gig helped us make a little progress, what would the impact of two or three extra jobs be over the long term?”

CROSSING THE $10K MARK

Our family still hasn’t gotten to the point of eliminating thousands of dollars in debt within a month. But I have steadily built up enough work to throw an extra $500 on top of our $500 in minimum payments to knock down the balances. We focused first on our credit card with the highest interest rate. When we paid that one off, we sent any extra money from my work to the next card. By the end of the year, we paid off $10,000 of our credit card debt. We were finally seeing that financial freedom was more than possible, even if our income wasn’t increasing significantly overnight.

This year, we’re sticking with the same approach to tackle the remaining $30,000, focusing on the small ways we can chip away at our balances each month. I'm continuing to work 35 to 40 a week as a freelance writer with three kids at home. Any money from my writing that doesn’t go toward living expenses goes straight to paying down our debt. We’ve seen the power of an extra $100 here and there to making long-term progress, and we’re excited to keep it up.

Our approach might be slow and steady, but we’re excited for what debt freedom could mean for our family. We have plans to keep our lifestyle modest and instead use future money freed up from debt to travel with our kids — Europe’s on our bucket list — and spend more time with the people we love.

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