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How a 39-year-old paid off $16,397 in credit card debt in less than a year (and hasn't paid a cent in interest since)

Getty Images, Lana is not pictured

Lana always carried a balance on her credit card. In her 20s, when she was living in Washington, D.C., it was usually just $1,000 a month. But when the total reached $16,397 in the fall of 2018, she knew something had to give. 

As a project manager in the banking industry, Lana wasn't intimidated by debt. She always made her minimum payment, and the APR on her credit card was low, she says —  about 11%. Paying small monthly interest charges felt like money well-spent.

"Even a $50 interest payment wasn't a big deal to me," Lana, now 39 and living in Denver, tells CNBC Select. "It was easy to dismiss it as the same price as a nice bottle of wine."

Since she always paid her credit card minimums on time, she had a good credit score and was able to buy a house in D.C. with a mortgage payment she felt comfortable covering each month. But she hadn't considered the cost of the new sofas and rugs she bought to furnish it.

Soon, Lana's debt started to snowball up to $5,000, and then $10,000 and finally reaching $16,000. While the debt grew, she never stopped to take stock of how much interest she was really paying. When she finally looked closely at her credit card statement, she was shocked to realize her minimum payments reached "about $350," Lana recalls.

She knew it was time to make a change. In December 2018, Lana opened a Twitter account to document the debt payoff journey she started in the fall.

She tweeted on December 20, 2018 about how she found herself in what she describes as "crushing" debt, which included five-figure credit card debt and over $100,000 in student loans:

Since the fall of 2018, Lana has paid off all of her credit card debt and most of her student loan debt. She still uses a credit card, and her credit score is now considered excellent. On March 9, 2020, her score was an impressive 809, according to her Mint account.

Along the way, she shared her journey on Twitter, which she says has helped her stay accountable to her goals. But how exactly did she do it? CNBC Select digs into the steps Lana took to pay down her credit card debt.

Step 1: She calculated her budget

Lana was fortunate to have enough income that she could pay off her debt without taking on a second job. But she did need to reevaluate her budget. Before she began her debt payoff journey in the fall of 2018, she first prioritized building up a savings account that contained a few months' worth of living expenses.

Once she felt more secure knowing she had a rainy day fund, she shifted her focus to her debt.

"Looking at my budget and understanding exactly how much I could put on my credit card per month really motivated me. I had it down to the dollar," she tells CNBC Select.

Then she created a plan to pay off the existing debt, and she started by calculating how many months it would take her to pay it off if she had a 0% interest credit card. To her surprise, she realized could pay it off comfortably within about 12 months if she could eliminate those sky-high interest payments. 

So Lana looked for a 15-month balance transfer card in order to give herself a three-month window of "wiggle room" that was helpful for her peace of mind.

Step 2: She qualified for a no-fee balance transfer card

Since Lana had a good credit score, she qualified for the Chase Slate®. This balance transfer credit card doesn't have the typical 3% balance transfer fee when the transfer is made within the first 60 days. Being able to avoid this fee saved Lana about $492 right from the start.

The Chase Slate offers 0% APR for the first 15 months. When Lana signed up for the card, she said the variable APR jumped to about 26% after the intro period was over. (Currently, the APR on the Chase Slate is 14.99% to 23.74% variable following the 15-month intro period.) With such a high variable APR (more than double what she was paying on her old card), she was extra motivated to pay off her balance before the 15 months were up.

Step 3: She transferred a portion of her balance

Lana was surprised to learn that she could only transfer a portion of her existing balance. She hadn't anticipated this, even after researching how 0% APR credit cards work.

"Chase only allowed me to transfer over somewhere between $9,000 and $10,000," Lana explains, even though her total credit limit was around $14,000.

Overall the transaction was simple, but the actual transfer took longer than Lana expected it would.

"It takes a little while for the balance transfer to go through," she tells CNBC Select. "It was close to a month or a month and a half."

Her advice for people using this debt payoff method is to plan on paying your old credit card bill for at least a month while the transfer is being processed and don't assume your balance will disappear right away.

Step 4: She paid off the old balance first

Once the balance transfer was complete, Lana still had about $6,000 left on her old credit card. Since it was still accruing interest at 11% APR, she prioritized paying it down right away.

"Then I focused on the second tier," she tells CNBC Select.

Step 5: She paid off the 0% balance within the promotional APR period

Originally, Lana planned to pay off her credit card debt in 12 to 15 months. But once she saw her debt going down, she was inspired to pay it off even faster by making further cuts to her budget. She even found a side hustle to make a little extra "bonus money," as she says. And when her tax return arrived, she decided to use it all to tackle her debt even faster.

In March 2019, just a few days before her birthday, Lana reached her goal of being credit card debt-free.

"I paid it off in 5 or 6 months rather than the 12 to 15 months I was anticipating," Lana tells CNBC Select. "By using a 0% balance transfer card, I easily saved over $1,000 in interest."

And her score jumped over 50 points in just a few months.

Step 6: She still uses credit cards for everyday spending

Lana wasn't sure if she should trust herself to use a credit card again after digging out of debt.

But ultimately, the benefits of having a credit card prevailed, and she learned to trust herself again. Lana now has three cards —  her first credit card, the Chase Slate balance transfer card and a Chase travel rewards card.

Chase offers two travel rewards credit cards, each with a unique appeal depending on your travel preferences. The Chase Sapphire Reserve® Card has a $550 fee, and you can earn 3X points on travel (after earning your $300 travel credit) and dining at restaurants, 1X points on all other purchases. The  Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card has a $95 annual fee, and you can earn 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants, 1X points on all other purchases.

Lana doesn't use her old credit card very often, but she doesn't want to close her oldest line of credit. So to keep it active, she uses it to pay for her monthly iCloud subscription (about $1, she says), and pays it off with autopay every month.

She uses her travel rewards card as her everyday card, but never keeps a balance and has not paid a cent in interest.

Her secret? She pays her card off every three days.

"I like to treat my credit card like a debit card," she tells CNBC Select.

This helps her "feel the pain" as she likes to say, which is a reminder to herself that the money is real. That's easier to do when you see your checking account balance go down.

Step 7: She's embraced the benefits of using a credit card

Even though the experience of having so much credit card debt was highly stressful, Lana still uses a credit card for daily spending. And she's done so successfully.

She knows there are people who cut up their credit cards and never look back, but she says her travel rewards card has helped her go on three vacations she would otherwise not have been able to afford thanks to the travel miles.

One of the biggest takeaways for Lana was learning that her credit score was not the only indicator of financial health.

"I got a mortgage even when I had a lot of debt," she tells CNBC Select. She realized that she could still live comfortably while paying off debt.

She also feels strongly that it was important to build a strong emergency fund before tackling her high-interest balances, despite the advice from some financial experts that you only need to have $1,000 stashed away.

Though the $1,000 approach makes mathematical sense (since the longer you pay interest, the more you pay overall), Lana knew it was important to her emotional well-being that she was prepared for the unexpected.

"I work in finance," she tells CNBC Select. "I know how fast the economy can change."

And with the sweeping financial uncertainty due to coronavirus, Lana, who has since moved on to paying off her student loans, is glad she prioritized saving first.

As for her credit score, it is now over 800, but it "still fluctuates within three to 15 points," Lana says.

She doesn't stress about aiming for the perfect 850, because at its current level, she still qualifies for the best deals on loan products and credit cards. 

Her next goal is to pay off the remaining $14,000 she owes in student loans and becoming debt-free, with the exception of her mortgage.

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Information about the Chase Slate® credit card has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.

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