How I Went From Zero to Dinero When I Paid Off My Credit Card Debt

Updated on May 31, 2020
Sherri Ter Molen profile image

Sherri L. Ter Molen, PhD has been credit card debt free since 2002.

I Wasted at Least $1,000 in ATM Fees

When I arrived as a freshman at Olivet College in 1990, I had around $3,000 that I had managed to save up by working part time for less than $5 an hour. I didn’t have any expenses during high school, so I could spend my small checks on anything I wanted. I bought clothes at North Kent Mall; I went to the movies at Alpine Twin, and I drank a lot of chocolate Cokes at Abbotts Pharmacy. I didn’t spend every penny, however. I responsibly saved half of each paycheck in my bank account.

But whatever sense of financial responsibility I once had evaporated the moment I entered college.

If my friends wanted to go to McDonald’s, I ran to the ATM machine to take out $20, incurring a $1 fee since the machine was out of network. If my friends wanted to go to Chi-Chi’s the next day, I ran to the ATM once again to take out $30, getting hit with yet another $1 fee. By the end of my freshman year, I had spent all of my savings on frivolities and fees, and, worse yet, I had gone into debt on credit cards as well. I had a great time, but I continued to overspend throughout college and well beyond graduation.

I ended up owing nearly $16,000 on three credit cards, each with an astronomical annual percentage rate (APR). Even with my college degree, I was making merely $9 an hour, which means I could barely make the interest-laden minimum payments, let alone pay down the principal on my debts. I felt suffocated, and I wanted to get out of debt without claiming bankruptcy.


Credit cards allowed me to travel the world, but when the payments and interest came due, they prohibited me from living the life I wanted to live. Do you feel trapped by your credit card debt?

A newsletter clipping from 1998.  This service might cost a little more than $8/$10 today.
A newsletter clipping from 1998. This service might cost a little more than $8/$10 today.

The Clipping That Set Me on the Path

I contacted a nonprofit organization called the National Foundation for Consumer Credit (now the National Foundation for Credit Counseling) in 1999, and they put me in contact with a member organization in Florida where I was living at the time. This organization required that I cut up my credit cards. In exchange, it negotiated lower interest rates. All three creditors agreed, with two dropping their APRs to 0%. For the next four years, I made one monthly credit card payment to this nonprofit, and it divided my payment three ways, keeping a mere $10 each month for its service fee. $10 was a bargain, especially since this nonprofit saved me thousands of dollars in interest.

I kept track of my debt payments in a columnar that I bought for 5 cents at Big Lots.  I loved watching my balances go down!
I kept track of my debt payments in a columnar that I bought for 5 cents at Big Lots. I loved watching my balances go down!


I never made sacrifices. I made choices. I chose to not buy a sweater or not to go out for dinner because it was in my best interest to get out of debt. Remember, you're not making a sacrifice when you choose not to spend money. You're just choosing to invest in yourself instead.

I Lived on a Nickel Because I Didn't Even Have a Dime

During these years, I rarely bought clothes. I hardly ever ate out. I used coupons, and I went to free events. I also did everything I could to earn extra money. I held second jobs, I earned money by participating in pharmaceutical studies, and I took care of coworkers’ pets when the owners were out of town. I sent every extra dollar to the credit counseling organization, designating that the extra amount should be applied to the credit card that had both had the highest interest and the lowest balance.

It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t miserable either. When I paid off the first credit card, I took my husband out to dinner, using a buy one/get one free coupon of course. I displayed my zero-balance credit card statement on the table, and we basked in my progress. We did the same thing when I paid off my second credit card. But when I paid off the third and final credit card in 2002, I held a cocktail party. It was the gala event of the season! My brother even flew down from our home state of Michigan to celebrate!

In Four Years, I Paid off My Credit Card Debt!


Since paying off my debt, I've earned a master's degree and a doctorate, but paying off my credits cards remains one of my biggest achievements. When you pay off your credit cards, you'll be proud too!

I Crushed My Debt and am Building My Fortune

I have remained credit card debt free since 2002. My husband and I continue to use credit cards, but we pay off balances in full every month. (Not everyone can control their spending, so as Dave Ramsey and his team advocate, it's probably best not to have them at all.)

My husband and I still choose to eat most of our meals at home. I make more than $9 an hour at this point in my career, but we still use coupons and take advantage of free events. Nevertheless, I don't feel deprived. In fact, I feel that I can have anything I want. (Luckily, I don't want a Maserati or a Cartier watch.) I can have what I truly want because I'm more conscious of where my money goes than I once was. I have also learned to save again.

Today, instead of paying the ATM, I pay the STM—the Sherri Ter Molen. (That’s me.)

There's Nothing as Grand as a Credit Card Statement With a $0 Balance

I was actually excited to receive this credit card statement. I paid off this card in 2002.
I was actually excited to receive this credit card statement. I paid off this card in 2002.


If I could pay off my credit cards, you can too. Don't give up. You can do it!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


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    • profile image


      7 weeks ago

      Güzel bir tecrübe olmuş. Tebrik ederim :)

    • Sherri Ter Molen profile imageAUTHOR

      Sherri Ter Molen 

      2 months ago from Chicago

      Thank you!

    • profile image

      Darlis Townsend 

      2 months ago

      It was so fun to read about the familiar places you mentioned from Michigan days, and I am so proud of you!!! You did a great job writing this article as well. Good job...keep on keeping on!


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