Eighteen years ago, Shanté Nicole Harris of Financial Common Cents wasn't the credit expert that she is today. At age 22, Harris learned she had stage three Hodgkin's Lymphoma, a form of blood cancer that originates in the lymphatic system.
With this news, Harris' life was disrupted. She spent 12 months undergoing chemotherapy and radiation and attending countless follow-up appointments.
Harris successfully beat the cancer, but it came at a financial cost. At a time when most young adults are ramping up their careers and their earnings, Harris lost valuable income and fell into a cycle of relying on credit cards to make ends meet.
In hindsight, Harris recognizes that she could have done things differently: "You shouldn't use credit cards to supplement income, but that's what I had at the time. I didn't have anyone preaching to me about how important [an emergency savings] was," she tells CNBC Select. "And in your 20s...we thought we were invincible."
Harris, now 40, currently has a very good credit score between the FICO range of 740 to 799, and she pays her credit cards off in full every month. Below, CNBC Select spoke to Harris about how she overcame a number of personal challenges — including cancer, job loss and divorce — and eventually paid off five-figure credit card debt.
One-third of American credit card users are in debt because of medical bills. About 137.1 million adults experienced financial hardship brought on by high out-of-pocket medical expenses between 2018 and 2019, according to recent research. Cancer patients are hit particularly hard, with more than 50% of survivors reporting problems paying medical bills and financial distress.
"Any time throughout my life that I was in major credit card debt, it wasn't because I overspent, and it wasn't because I'm a shopaholic. It was always because of life circumstances," says Harris.
At the time Harris was diagnosed with cancer, she had health insurance through her then-husband's plan, but money was tight because she had to cut back her hours working at a bank to part-time, and the couple didn't have much in savings.
"I was just putting any and everything I could on the [cards]," says Harris. "Groceries, gas, you know. Whatever I could pay on the card, I did."
It was a never-ending cycle, she recalls, and it was hard to get ahead financially. Harris also incurred significant medical debt that ultimately ended up going to collections. (It has since been cleared from her credit report.)
Following her recovery, Harris spent several months job hunting before she eventually accepted a position in the nonprofit sector. She was in her mid-20s by then, and her new position paid her enough that she felt comfortable with her lifestyle for the first time since getting cancer.
It was during this period of relative stability that she had a son, Dylan. When her son was diagnosed with autism in 2008, Harris embraced the process of learning how to care for him while still working full time.
But after being in her salaried position for five years, she was abruptly let go in March 2010 when a new director took over the leadership of her organization.
"I was devastated," says Harris. "I had been there for years, and in less than six months [after the new director joined] I was filing for unemployment."
Harris' former employer contested her unemployment claim, and she had to appeal to the state unemployment office to get her benefits. For the three months while she waited for the verdict, Harris went without any pay at all. She ultimately won the appeal and received unemployment for a year, which covered a portion of her former salary.
At the same time she was struggling professionally, Harris was also facing huge challenges at home. In 2010, Harris and her husband divorced. To cover legal fees and the increased financial responsibility of being a single mother to a child with special needs, Harris worked multiple part-time jobs for well over a year while she went on interviews for a new full-time position.
Meanwhile, she charged nearly every expense she could on her credit cards, from her phone bill to the day care and special care her son needed.
"I had nothing," Harris says. "My credit score plummeted."
After a little over 12 months of unemployment, Harris, age 30, realized that she'd let her debt swell to between $50,000 to $60,000 across multiple cards.
With no luck in finding a new job, Harris worked two part-time jobs and took out student loans so she could go back to schools for nursing. In 2013, Harris founded Facing Autism with Children Everywhere (F.A.C.E.), a nonprofit organization to increase autism awareness and help families support their children with special needs.
She also got remarried. With her new husband's encouragement and the stability of becoming a two-income household, Harris finally felt ready to tackle her credit card debt in 2015. The couple began using balance transfer credit cards, a common strategy — but they sped things up by applying for 0% APR credit cards in both Harris' and her husband's name. A little-known perk of balance transfer cards is that it's sometimes possible to transfer a family member or friend's balance to your own card.
"Whenever [my husband] got an offer, he was like, 'put it on my card,'" Harris recalls. "As soon as one of us got the offer in the mail for 0% APR balance transfers, I would transfer as much money as I could to those cards. As soon as that promo was over I transferred [my debt] to another card."
For nearly five years, both Harris and her husband used balance transfer cards to reduce her interest payments and chip away at debt. Harris opened four cards and her husband opened two. Her husband's score took a slight hit; he began with a 680 FICO score and it dropped to 620 after maxing out his new cards with his wife's debt. But now that it's paid off, both Harris and her husband enjoy the perks that come from using their credit cards optimally.
Harris uses her seven credit cards for bills, subscriptions and everyday spending. She pays off her balances on time and in full each month with autopay, and she keeps her credit utilization right around the recommended 10%.
Harris' advice to people in debt? Don't sweat your credit score until your debt is gone. Instead, focus on saving as much money as you can on interest.
When used correctly, a balance transfer credit card can save you hundreds or thousands of dollars. The average credit card APR is about 16.6% according to the Fed's most recent data from February 2020. The U.S. Bank Visa® Platinum Card provides one of the best overall intro APR periods at 20 billing cycles for both balance transfers and purchases (then 13.99% to 23.99% variable APR). This card requires good to excellent credit.
Consumers with fair to good credit might consider a card like the Aspire Platinum Mastercard®, which has a 2% balance transfer fee and no interest for six billing cycles (after 8.15% to 18.00% variable APR).
If you pay a lot in interest charges, "you're not getting that money back," explains Harris. Meanwhile, you can certainly repair a bad credit score.
Harris and her husband continue to use their credit cards on a daily basis. But how they use them differs.
"Right now, I have seven major credit cards and I use them all every single month for bills that I already have to pay anyway. And I just pay them off in full when the bill is due," Harris says.
This method leaves Harris with money leftover to put in savings, she says. "I'm able to save so much because I'm not paying those credit cards off anymore."
To help pay for travel, Harris and her husband use their Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card almost like a debit card, swiping it for everyday purchases like gas, groceries and convenience stores.
"We just flew to San Jose in November for free because of my airline miles on Southwest," says Harris.
Her other six credit cards are cut up in a bag, but the accounts are still in active use. She gives each one of her cards a purpose by linking it to a recurring bill, and she's set up autopay so she doesn't have to worry about paying the bill every month.
And as for financial struggles? Harris advises people to remember that everything is temporary. "It always sucks when I'm in the midst of the storm, but honestly you always know that it's not going to rain every day."
Information about the U.S. Bank Visa® Platinum Card and Aspire Platinum Mastercard® has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.