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'7 things I wish I knew about paying off debt,' from a YouTube star who paid off $200,000 in 2 years

YouTuber Aja Dang shares seven lessons she learned paying off credit cards, a car and student loans.

Photo courtesy of Aja Dang

Whether it's an outstanding credit card balance, student loans, a new car payment or a first-time mortgage, having debt is common.

Yet it's still a taboo subject that doesn't get talked about nearly as much as it should, given how universal it is.

YouTuber Aja Dang recognized this fact when she decided to document her own $200,000 debt payoff journey on her YouTube channel, sharing her monthly budgets and progress along the way to her 450,000+ subscribers.

For anyone paying down their debt or waiting to take the first step, Dang has some lessons that she wishes she knew when she started tackling her own credit cards, a car payment and student loans.

Below, CNBC Select outlines the seven things she hoped somebody would have told her about paying off her six-figure debt.

1. Paying off debt is hard

"It might seem super obvious, but you really don't understand how hard [debt] is until you're in it," Dang says.

Putting money toward your debt instead of toward other wants and needs, takes a lot of commitment to not just give in, she says. And, if you're tapping into a bunch of side hustles in order to bring in more money, it can become physically draining.

This level of commitment can make debt payoff emotionally exhausting, especially if you're facing large amounts. "I can guarantee that you WILL hit a wall," Dang says. "There will be a moment in your payoff journey that you'll want to give up."

For Dang, it was the moment after she paid off her third largest debt of $30,000. "I thought I would feel a sense of accomplishment and excitement, but I just felt defeated because I wasn't even half way towards becoming debt free."

What to do: No matter how large or small your debt load is, create mini goals to follow along the way and reward yourself when you accomplish them. This can help you stay motivated on your journey. It may also help to write down the kind of life you want to live when you are debt-free to visualize your success no matter how far you are from getting there. Melanie Lockert, personal finance blogger and author of the book, "Dear Debt," created what she called "a debt-freedom dream list" where she wrote down everything she would do once she paid off her $81,000 in student loans.

2. Find your support system

Dang calls this her number one tip for paying off your debt. She found her community through her YouTube channel where viewers left encouraging comments on her videos.

"You need people in your corner who can push you when you hit your walls," Dang says. "For me, my support system ended up being complete strangers online."

What to do: An obvious support system are your close friends and family. With the resources available today, you don't have to be a YouTube star to find your community online, either. Online (and free) debt payoff support groups that help provide emotional support, motivation and open discussion include the Financial Common Cents Facebook group for those with credit card debt, the subreddits on Reddit for student loan borrowers and Debtors Anonymous for compulsive debtors. Or, if you do prefer YouTube, search for vloggers like Dang.

"It's easy to be embarrassed about your debt and try to keep it a secret, but when you hide from it, it makes it so much harder to pay off," Dang says. "You need to know you are not alone in your journey."

3. Your budget, your choice

Don't let other people tell you what is important (or not important) in your budget.

Dang learned this the hard way when her viewers questioned why she included facials in her monthly budgets (she discussed her expenses openly on her channel). To afford her $100 per month facial, Dang would find $100 to cut out from some other spending category that didn't bring as much value to her. But not everyone understood this.

"You can spend money on what you want, but just remember it's going to come at a sacrifice for something else," she says. "For me, I'd rather sacrifice a weekend out (gas money, dining out, drinks) than my facials."

What to do: Throughout your own debt payoff journey, don't sacrifice everything for debt freedom. Whether it's a facial or your weekly latte habit, pick one thing that is important to you that you prioritize over any other discretionary expenses. Whatever that product or experience is, make sure you allocate money for it somewhere else in your budget.

If you need help creating and managing a budget, consider signing up for a budgeting app that essentially does all the work for you. CNBC Select reviewed and compared over a dozen budgeting apps to rank our top five and found that Mint is the best overall free app for offering basic budgeting features, plus bill payment reminders, customized alerts when you're over budget and a credit monitoring service.

4. Your journey will impact those in your life

"Paying off debt is very much a personal journey, but it will also change the lives and relationships of people around you," Dang says.

It took Dang's boyfriend a while to figure out that she wasn't going to jump on a plane for spontaneous trips anymore. The same applied to her friends: "My girlfriends had to understand that if we wanted to meet for drinks, it would be for happy hour," she adds.

Curbing your spending will undoubtedly have an impact on what you are able to do with your partner, roommate, friends and/or family. If you switch to cooking at home rather than go out to eat, it's a sacrifice for both you and the person you dine with.

What to do: Missing out on certain events may feel limiting, but the money you save lets you ultimately feel more in control of your debt. Instead of alienating yourself from relationships so that you can cut costs, find free activities to do with your loved ones. For example, make dinner at home but dress up with your friend or partner so it feels more like an occasion.

"Maybe you'll lose relationships with people who don't understand why this journey is important to you — and that's fine," Dang says. "You will be a very different person when you find financial freedom. Pay attention to who sticks around."

5. There is no right way to pay off debt

One debt payoff method doesn't work for everyone. Pick the strategy that works for you and consider the kind of debt you have, how much you owe, your level of income and how you stay motivated.

Some may prefer paying off balances with the highest interest first (the avalanche method), while others might prioritize paying off their smallest balances so to feel motivated from the start (the snowball method). Dang chose the latter.

"I am a very competitive person so I needed to see those quick wins," she says. She paid off her credit cards in one night (what she estimates was around $1,200), her car in three months and then left the bulk of her debt — her undergraduate and graduate student loans totaling around $180,000 — for last.

What to do: There are pros and cons of both the avalanche and snowball debt payoff methods. The avalanche strategy theoretically saves you money in the long run, but some say it can be harder to stay motivated because you're tackling bigger balances upfront. The snowball route lets you start wiping away debt so you see success quicker, but the higher-interest balances keep adding up. This is why there is no right way; a lot of it depends on what drives you.

6. Say bye to the haters

While Dang is fast to credit her YouTube community for helping encourage her along her debt payoff journey, she also had viewers shame her for her decisions.

"In the beginning of my journey, people called me stupid for taking out student loans," Dang says. "At the end of my journey, people said it's easy to pay off debt and that I should've been able to do it sooner."

What to do: No matter how big or small your audience is, know that sometimes people always have something to say. Find a safe place to both share your debt struggles and celebrate your successes. This could be your partner, a friend, a relative, a co-worker, a therapist or one of the support groups online that we mention above.

7. Your confidence will skyrocket

"I promise you, the moment you do your first budget and finally acknowledge how much debt you're in, you'll start to feel good about yourself," Dang says.

As you accept your debt and create a budget with goals moving forward, it makes you feel more certain in your future, she explains.

What to do: Address your debt by writing down everything you owe. Seeing your debt can help you create a budget so you can then allocate your money strategically. This will help you feel more in control, which generates confidence.

"When you acknowledge your debt instead of ignoring it, you're setting up the building blocks to changing your life forever," Dang says. "You're doing something most people avoid. That makes you exceptional."

And, when you've finally paid off your debt, you will have built great savings habits as well, like how to set aside money each month. To kick-start or build your savings, consider a high-yield savings account. The Ally Online Savings Account offers a solid APY, no minimum account balance, no monthly maintenance fees, an easy-to-use mobile app and 24/7 live customer service.

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.
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