When I got divorced seven years ago, I started my life over from scratch. I didn't own a lick of furniture, and my savings had been decimated by a house I nearly bought with my ex before pulling out of the deal at the last minute. After we split, I signed a year lease on a new apartment and was ready to start fresh and design my own happy place, but I didn't have cash on hand to do it. So I turned to my trusty credit card.
I bought what I needed: a couch, a bookcase, a desk and chair, a tiny kitchen table with two seats, towels and miscellaneous bathroom items, and my (still) beloved orange rug. I was good at shopping, so the total for all my new goodies was about $1,400. But with my housing costs now double what they were when I shared an apartment with my ex, I didn't have the means to pay off my card in full, or in half, or even a quarter at the end of the month. I started making whatever small payments I could, usually just a few dollars more than the minimum due.
As the next couple of years went by, my balance grew — along with interest adding to my balance, I had some unexpected car and medical expenses come up. No matter what I did, my balance always seemed to hover around $2,000. I couldn't get it down, and it was driving me bananas. I needed a plan.
I had a life-changing talk with my grandmother
My grandmother, who never had much money and could make a bag of frozen fries and a can of soup last a week, one day asked how things were going. "You must be so happy to be free," she said, referring to my breakup. My voice warbled: "I don't feel free!"
I told her all about the credit card debt that was stalking me, how I couldn't seem to pay it down no matter how many extra $20 payments I made throughout the month. "Oh that's an easy problem," she said. "What you need to do is transfer your balance."
I'd heard her talk about transferring her credit card balances in years past but didn't fully understand the process. When my uncle needed a new car or someone in the family needed school supplies or clothes, she'd throw the cost on her credit card and then move the balance to a 0% interest card and steadily pay it down. "Then your balance doesn't grow, sweetie, and you can move on," she told me.
If you, like me, have never heard of a balance-transfer credit card, it works like this: You take the balance you owe on one card (with a higher interest rate) and transfer it to your 0% card (which you have to apply and be approved for like any credit card). You may have to pay a fee to transfer your balance, typically a small percentage of whatever amount you transferred. Then, you get a specific period of time to pay off your balance at 0% before an interest rate kicks in.
It wasn't a magic bullet (like a raise or a windfall might have been) but it was a plan. I could see the end of my debt and imagine the weight lifted off my shoulders.
Now, you might think it's absurd to hold onto $2,000 of debt for years and years. Looking back, there are certainly things I could have done differently to get that balance paid off faster, like sold my car or moved in with a roommate. But in my post-divorce life, my solo apartment and my car were my freedom — they provided a safe space no one could invade or take away from me, and the ability to go anywhere and see anyone I needed to when I longed for support, comfort, or distraction. And I needed a lot of that.
I made a plan — and saw it through
Up till that point, I'd been making payments of between $50 and $100 a month on my card, but with new expenses added, the cycle was swallowing me whole. So, armed with my grandmother's sage wisdom, I opened a 0% interest balance-transfer card and whooshed away that $2,000 balance (that I'd been paying well over 20% interest on for years). My card offered an 18-month promotional interest rate period, so if I paid off my balance in that time, I wouldn't owe another cent in interest. I looked at my budget and pared down some of my expenses (like reducing my grocery spending), and found I could make a payment of $150 a month. In just about 13 months, my balance would be gone.
When I made my last credit card payment in 2019, I danced around my living room. I was liberated, at last, from the threads that bound me to my pre-divorce life. And it felt fabulous.