I paid off $28,000 in debt in 3 years and became a money coach: Here's my best advice

Zina Kumok is a money coach and founder of
Courtesy Zina Kumok

When I started paying off my student loans, I wanted to do everything I could to hold myself accountable. So I started a blog called Conscious Coins about my plan to pay off my debt, sharing my struggles and my triumphs along the way.

Over time I built a community of people who understood what I was going through. I don't think that I would have been able to pay off $28,000 in three years without being so open and honest about my goal. Once I paid off my debt, other people began reaching out to ask if I could help them achieve their financial objectives, too.

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Last year, I became a certified financial health counselor. Today, my job is to help people come up with realistic, sustainable strategies to achieve their goals and improve their relationship with money

Every client is unique, but I've found that there are a few basic principles that ring true, no matter what kind of goal you are working toward. Here is my best advice. 

Having debt doesn't make you a bad person

A common theme I see with my financial coaching clients is feeling shame about their debt. They see debt as a moral or a personal failing, and their feelings of shame lead them to ignore the issue. Sometimes they even keep their situation a secret from family members or their romantic partners

I've been there. When I had student loans, I often felt guilty that I didn't get more scholarship money for college or felt that I was wasting the income I could put toward the debt on things like clothes or takeout.

But keeping financial skeletons in your closet often only makes the problem feel scarier. Being open about money can be intimidating. Still, I encourage my clients to start by discussing their budget with a trusted friend. Sometimes it's easier to decline an invitation, or come up with an alternative affordable activity, if your friends know you're working toward paying off debt.

Shame can also prevent you from asking for help. I also encourage my clients to call and ask for relief from their lenders and bill providers. Some credit card companies will reduce your interest rate if you ask. You may discover you're eligible for a lower rate through your car insurance company, or that you can get a lower price on your cable package. Don't be afraid to ask for what you need.

What's the difference between a debt avalanche and a debt snowball
What's the difference between a debt avalanche and a debt snowball

Video by David Fang

To be good with money, focus on habits, not willpower

Just like if you were creating a fitness routine or a nutrition plan, improving your relationship with money is all about building habits you feel good about, one step at a time.

If you have an inclination towards online shopping, try uninstalling any retail apps on your phone, removing saved credit card information from sites like Amazon, and setting time limits on shopping sites with browser extensions. 

If you're about to make a significant purchase, take at least 24 hours to weigh your options before clicking that buy button. When an item catches your eye, add it to your wish list or a special folder on your bookmarks. 

Improving your relationship with money is all about building habits you feel good about, one step at a time.

Some of my clients also find it easier to only shop for discretionary or nonessential items on certain days of the week. For example, if your shopping days are Tuesday and Saturday, and you see a dress you like on Wednesday, you'll have to wait until Saturday to buy it. 

These are all strategies that have worked for me. Personally, my "to buy" folder on my computer is filled with clothes, home decor, and nonessential items that I most of the time, I end up not purchasing. By acknowledging these items and putting them out of sight for the time being, it gives me more time and space to be intentional about my spending.

You don't have to give up everything to reach your goals

I don't expect my clients to never order takeout or grab a drink with their friends while paying off debt. The last thing I want is for them to feel pressure to be perfect, and then feel guilty if they seemingly miss a step. I want them to have a positive association with their money, and still have some fun.

You don't have to strip out all "nonessential" spending from your budget. If an occasional dinner out for a special occasion is an experience that will help you stay on track with your goal, do that. 

How reverse budgeting can relieve money stress
How reverse budgeting can relieve money stress

Video by Courtney Stith

Things like buying new clothes or traveling can all fit into a well-constructed budget. Go through your budget and identify the expenses that you don't care as much about, and see whether you can remove them and put that money towards things that are more valuable to you.

My husband and I each allow ourselves a certain amount every month for discretionary purchases. If I want to buy a new dress, I tap into my individual discretionary account. We also save every month for travel in a separate savings account solely for that purpose. 

Finding your 'why' will help you stay on track

During a client's first meeting, I ask them what their financial goals are. I usually hear the same responses: paying off debt, saving for a house, or starting a retirement account.

After that, it's time for their first piece of homework: Find your "why." Why do you want to get out of debt? Why do you want to buy a house? Why is saving for retirement important to you?

Finding your why is about getting specific. It's not enough to say, "I want to pay off credit card debt." I like to hear my clients say, "I want to get out of debt so I can afford to have a child or move to a new city."

3 tips for buying your first home in a crowded market
3 tips for buying your first home in a crowded market

Video by Richard Washington

I also tell them to find a picture of their "why" and keep it around the house or on their phone, ideally somewhere they can glance at it if they're tempted to stretch their budget.

I personally keep a list of my short-term and long-term financial goals next to my computer. These currently include traveling abroad once a year, remodeling my kitchen, and taking more trips with my friends when it's safe to do so. 

And I have a client who dreams of renting a beach house for her family. She found a postcard from the destination and pinned it near her laptop so she can remember what she is saving for. I believe that visualizing and articulating what matters most to you will make the work worth it in the end. 

Zina Kumok is a freelance writer and editor. She has written for outlets such as Investopedia, Credit Karma, and LearnVest. Her expertise has been featured in Glamour, BBC, and NerdWallet. She paid off $28,000 in student loans in three years and works as a money coach at

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The article "I Paid Off $28,000 in Debt in 3 Years and Became a Money Coach: Here's My Best Advice" originally published on Grow+Acorns.

This guy dug himself out of debt to become a millionaire at 35
This guy dug himself out of debt to become a millionaire at 35