personal finance

‘How I Paid Off $36,000 in Credit-Card Debt’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

Last fall, Brittney Reynolds was in a rough spot. The 28-year-old had broken up with her partner, left their shared apartment in San Francisco, and moved back in with her parents in Temecula, California, to regroup. More specifically, she needed to pay off her three maxed-out credit cards, which totaled more than $36,000.

At first, Reynolds felt like an extreme outlier — she didn’t know of anyone with that much credit-card debt. And while her balance was significantly higher than most people’s (the national average among cardholders with unpaid balances at the end of 2023 was $6,864, according to a recent report), her situation is more common than she thought — nearly half of those with credit-card debt said it would take them at least a year to pay off.

After about eight months of drastically reducing her expenses, Reynolds has paid off all but $2,000 of her debt, which she plans to get rid of by April. She also documented the process on TikTok, where she has amassed a following of more than 80,000 supporters who now share their own debt-payoff stories in the comments.

She avoids giving prescriptive advice. She’s the first to admit that she’s lucky to be able to move in with her parents, and she knows a lot of people can’t. “I don’t have any money hacks,” she says. “I’m just talking about debt in a more lighthearted way that doesn’t make people feel worse about something they probably already feel bad about.” Here, Reynolds shares how she got into credit-card debt in the first place, what she’s learned by paying it off, and what she’ll do differently when she moves out on her own again.

What made you decide to share your debt payoff publicly?
When I made my first debt-payoff video, I was honestly just making fun of myself. Like, oh, LOL, I’m in $36,000 of credit-card debt. I had never seen anyone talk about having that much credit-card debt. I felt isolated and crazy. And then I was shocked by how many people reached out and were like, “I’m going through the same thing.” Or, “I went through that too.” And I realized that there’s a whole community.

Obviously, there was the other end of it — some people were like, “You’re so stupid. How could you get into this much debt?” And the answer was, it didn’t happen all at once. It took me about ten years to accumulate that much credit-card debt. There wasn’t one big thing that happened.

Before you moved back in with your parents, what kinds of things were you spending money on?
I moved to the Bay Area in about 2017, and I had this lifestyle in my head that I wanted to achieve. I wanted to find the perfect skin-care routine and the perfect workout classes, and go to cool Airbnbs on weekends. I wasn’t buying tons of clothes, but I love to have people over for a dinner party, so I was buying wine and expensive cheese. If I was at the grocery store, I would just buy all the things that I wanted versus trying to meal-plan and get specific things. Sometimes, I would leave the grocery store with a $300 or $400 bill for one person for a week or two. I had a similar attitude toward ordering food, like DoorDash and whatnot. I’d be like, “I’m craving sushi tonight. I’m going to order sushi, and I’m going to order whatever I want.” So it was just gradual overspending. I never really thought about budgeting.

There were a couple of larger purchases. I put a $4,000 couch on my credit card. And there was no sense of, “Oh, I want this couch. I should save up for it.” I was like, “I’ll just buy it now and pay it off later.” I understood that what I was doing wasn’t good. It wasn’t for lack of understanding how credit cards work. I wasn’t ignoring it, either — I always knew how much debt I was in. I was obsessed with checking it and trying to calculate how I was going to pay it off. It was very stressful to me. But I was also like, “Well, okay, if I have $8,000 of credit-card debt, what is another $400 from Sephora?” I was anxious about finances, but my self-soothing and coping mechanism was to spend more.

What got you to the point where you realized you needed to make some aggressive changes?
I was paying upwards of $400 or $500 a month on interest alone, and I realized that even if I did really, really pinch pennies, it would have been extremely difficult to pay it off. I’m a brand-marketing specialist, and I make $88,000 a year. Some people hear that number and they’re like, oh, that’s a great salary. But when you look at how much things cost in a major city, that’s just me scraping by. It’s especially warped when you live in a place like the Bay Area and you’re surrounded by people who are making $200,000 or $300,000. At my last apartment, when I moved in with my partner at the time, I was paying about $2,200 in rent a month.

The debt was a big reason why I needed to move back home with my parents. Another reason was that I was living with a partner and I knew I needed to end the relationship. But I couldn’t just move out. My credit cards were maxed and I didn’t have any savings. So I was like, okay, you know what? We’ll enter a healing era. We’ll break up, move home, pay off the credit-card debt. My job has always been fully remote, so that wasn’t an issue. And after I did the calculations, there was no question that this was what I needed to do.

How did your parents react when you moved back in with them?
Really positively. Not about the credit-card debt, obviously, but they were excited to spend time together. It was a big relief. My parents have never had much of a shame culture around money. They did with other stuff, but not with money. They’re good with budgeting. We never had a lot when I was growing up, but they figured things out. A lot of people have been like, “Oh, if you have that much debt, it must be that you were never taught about money.” But my parents have always been responsible.

You’ve mentioned that your parents are very conservative and Christian, and it’s been tough living with them as a queer woman. How is that going?
I’m queer and my parents are — how do I put this? It’s a safe environment to be in, but it’s not necessarily a comfortable one. There is a big wall up knowing that I’m not fully accepted. I know in the back of my head they might have been like, “Oh, great, she’s getting out of her gay relationship and moving home, maybe things will be different.” And it’s not going as planned for them in that sense.

Their views are probably never going to change. I’m not going to try to convince them of what I think they should believe. But I also need to protect this piece of myself. I’m excited to have some boundaries again when I move out. At the same time, I don’t want to seem like I’m just taking advantage of them by living here. There have been a lot of moments of joy of being able to spend time with them as an adult. There also have been a lot of moments of frustration and hurt, but those things can coexist. I can be grateful and also acknowledge how it makes me feel to be here.

What was your plan, exactly?
My debt was spread across three credit cards. There was $22,000 on one, $9,000 on another, and $5,000 on the third. My plan was to allocate $4,000 of my monthly income to my debt, starting with the highest-interest card that also had the highest balance. I figured it would take me about a year to do it, because the balances were growing because of interest. I ended up knocking out the smallest card first, just to get rid of one. Then I did the highest-interest card, and now I’m doing the middle card last.

How much money did that leave for your living expenses?
It gave me about a thousand dollars to live off of, so my expenses were really stripped. The primary things I’ve been paying for are my phone bill and my car insurance, and I contribute to groceries for my parents and general utilities — water and gas bills.

What was it like to cut back on your living expenses so suddenly?
When I first moved home, I cut out almost everything, honestly. I don’t necessarily recommend that people go cold turkey on stuff, but it was specifically easy for me, because I don’t have any friends around. I didn’t have the same temptations of going to get drinks or whatnot. I cut out Amazon, and I was very cautious about my groceries.

What are some things you did not cut?
Workout classes were a big one for me because I needed a sense of community. And I have gone to L.A. to visit friends a couple of times. I have to remind myself and remind other people that I am still a person allowed to do things. People get really, really in their head with any type of spending, and there’s a lot of guilt around it. If getting your nails done is something that you prioritize and it makes you feel good, then get your nails done, within reason. No one deserves to be miserable because of money or debt, despite what society tells you.

How did your friends react to your debt? Were you ever nervous about your employer finding out about it?
I was always pretty open about my credit-card debt, more so because I was poking fun at myself. So it wasn’t a secret. My friends were very, very supportive of me moving home with my parents, especially because I really needed to get out of the relationship I was in before this.

People from my job actually follow my TikTok and have shared it in our company Slack. I feel pretty comfortable with it. It’s not something that I feel weird about at all.

Was it scary to talk about your debt so publicly? 
Yeah. In the very beginning, I got a lot of mixed feedback. I remember I gained 10,000 followers in the first month of posting about my debt. And for the most part, people were nice. There will always be assholes who are going to say something, and they kind of thinned out once I started actually paying off the debt. My little community really came through. The comment section is so encouraging, it’s crazy. And I really appreciate it, especially since I’m kind of isolated here at my parents’ house.

What do you think it is about your content that made people so interested?
At first, I think some people were watching because they were like, “Oh my God, this girl’s in so much credit-card debt.” But now it feels like we’ve become a little team. Maybe it’s because I’m allowing them to be less stressed about something that’s very stressful. I’m just talking about debt in a more lighthearted way that doesn’t make people feel worse about something they probably already feel bad about. I know that it is such a privilege for me to be able to pay off this debt so quickly, and most people aren’t in this position. But even if people can’t move home with their parents, they’re realizing that they can put themselves in a better place.

How do you decide what to share?
I try to think of what I would have wanted to see when I was starting this process. I would want to see someone being a human in this situation. People ask me all the time if I hit rock bottom. And it’s interesting — no, I haven’t. You can exist in these situations and be happy or sad or frustrated. I always wanted to be honest about my feelings. I didn’t want to come across like I was having a fantastic time, because I wasn’t, but I also don’t want it to seem like I’m over here suffering.

I know you’ve gotten some brand partnerships out of this, too. Is it ironic that being public about your debt has actually helped you get out of it?
To be quote-unquote “famous” for my credit-card debt is so bizarre. And at this point, I’ve made about $10,000 from brand deals on TikTok, which has fast-tracked my credit-card-debt payoff by several months. I did partnerships with Bumble and Kayak and Poshmark. Which is funny, because part of my nine-to-five job is influencer marketing.

I was originally supposed to pay off the debt by the end of June, beginning of July, and now it’s taking me until basically the end of April. I know I’m incredibly lucky to be able to do that.

What’s next for you? Will you keep using credit cards, or are you done with them?
I am planning on using my credit cards again, because I would love to develop a healthy relationship with them. They can be beneficial if you’re using them correctly. Otherwise, I’m just excited to see my friends. My best friend lives in New York, and I haven’t been able to plan a trip to go visit her for obvious financial reasons. I am excited to be able to comfortably save and plan for trips like that instead of just putting it on my credit card and then having this looming stress of, “Okay, you’re having fun, but you’re going to have to pay for this later.”

I know you’re planning to move to L.A. in May. What are you doing to set yourself up?
Before I move out, my goal is to save $10,000 so that I’m set up for a security deposit on an apartment and whatnot. I should definitely hit that goal by the time I move out. But I also feel so much more anxious about next steps than I anticipated. I have to keep reminding myself that I am prepared, and it’s going to be okay, and I’m not going to get in this situation again. A lot of people have been like, “Why don’t you stay longer and save up more money?” And I feel so lucky that I’ve had this launching pad to figure things out, but now I need to take these next steps on my own.

What happened to your fancy couch?
The couch is in a storage unit right now. It will definitely be coming to my new apartment in L.A. when I find one. When I moved back home with my parents, I was pretty adamant that I didn’t want to sell all of my possessions. A lot of people were like, “Why are you paying for a storage unit?” And the answer is that I still loved and wanted my things. I’m not just going to strip myself of everything.

Will you keep posting about your finances on TikTok?
I definitely would love to keep creating content. And I’ll probably talk about reshaping my budget after I get out of debt. I will continue to be open about money. But I also need a little bit of a break. I am not a financial adviser or financial coach. As far as leaning into the finance TikTok, I don’t think I will do that.

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‘How I Paid Off $36,000 in Credit Card Debt’