finance

From $3,000 to $99,000: 10 women candidly share how they got rid of their debt.

Debt is a heavy topic. 

For some, it's a nightmare they can only hope to avoid. For others, it's already an insufferable reality. 

It's often a conversation we refuse to have. A subject too shameful to discuss. And that's exactly why Mamamia wants to talk about it.

Watch: The 5 money lessons your parents told you that you should probably forget. Post continues after video. 


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In 2021, a survey among over two thousand Australians told us that Millennials have an average personal debt of around $56,000. Gen X's averaged out to about $55,000. Gen Z's aren't too far behind either with an average debt of around $46,000.

Research shows us Australians are slowly falling into more debt as each year passes, which makes discussing methods to remain-debt free and on top of our money more important than ever.

There's no quick pill or magic wand that rids all of our money troubles – clearing debt takes a lot hard work. Which is why we reached out to the Mamamia community to tell us their own stories – to show just how possible it is to get back into the black.

10 women bravely shared with us the inner details of their debt. Here's what they had to say.

Eileen, 22.

Debt: Around $10,000. I'm still in the depths of it as I have about $4,000 to repay.

What is the experience of being in debt like? I fell into debt because I was under a lot of pressure. I was 19, alone and isolated. My parents had moved overseas and so I lived with family who had taken me in and given me a bedroom. It was a little bit of miscommunication-type-of-story but basically I was giving them rent money with the understanding that it was a savings account too - so in short, I was putting in way more than I needed to as a 'savings method'. I had about $8,000 in there or so I thought. When I was ready to move out, I asked for the money. They apologised and told me there wasn't anything left. They'd needed it all. I wasn't mad really, more so incredibly sad and defeated. So as most of those in desperate situations do, I secretly (didn't tell parents, friends or family) took out loans to compensate and so I could get out of there. I don't really have an excuse, I know it wasn't the smartest decision, but I had too much pride to ask other family or my parents for help. Over time, I guess I just got into a pretty bad flow where I couldn't get on top of it. It is the most stressful feeling, I would just cry when my flatmates were not around.

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I became debt-free by: I have taken on lots of freelance work and odd jobs around my town (dog walking, pet-sitting, and even the occasional babysitting gig), my pay now is so much better than it was when I was younger. I work full time so I try to put 30 per cent of my income on my loans no matter what. I have a small amount of savings (around $2,000 to cover my immediate emergencies) but I won't be adding anymore until I can get rid of all the debt. So far, I have three outstanding loans and by December 2022, everything should be paid off.

Megen, 51.

Debt: $50,000.

What is the experience of being in debt like? I have only been debt-free for a month and it’s the most liberating thing that ever felt. I was in debt of some type since I was 18. Moving out of home initiated my debt and over the years it compounded. It was totally insufferable most of the time. It really made me feel useless and really played a huge part in my mental health. 

I’ve had anxiety attacks from the phone ringing to sabotaging myself with shopping for unnecessary things to ease the pain. A huge part of my debt was raised when I’ve needed to have medical procedures, move house or other major events. My hubby and I also did eight years of IVF (mostly on credit cards) to have our beautiful daughter - who is now 16. I have also had some complex medical issues and surgeries which have needed funding on credit cards. 

Moving interstate tipped us financially. It really broke us and we sold our house as it was no longer affordable and we rented. The failure of all these things made me have a breakdown. Being in debt nearly killed me. It’s also made me live my life as an illusion, actually no - as a lie. I’ve lied to everyone by never admitting it to anyone until I did my husband. Managing money is a burden for me and the living life that I want has always been just out of reach. I don’t even really want for a lot. 

I became debt-free by: We entered a part IX debt agreement five years ago when I had a breakdown. It all it came tumbling down. From the moment I exposed the truth of the depth of debt to myself, my husband and financial services, I felt a sense of relief for the first time. Owning it and taking responsibility and knowing it wasn't going to increase was a relief. That was the best thing that could have happened.

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We’ve now paid back creditors and I actually now feel like I own my daughter. I always felt like they may take her away as she was produced on credit. Silly isn’t it? But I write this with tears in my eyes. I feel shame for my debt. I feel shame for having been bankrupt. We’ve never told anyone. The shame makes me keep it private. 

We are just re-mortgaging our house to get a better interest rate. It feels empowering to only owe our mortgage. We have a credit score of 1000 each which makes me feel so proud that finally we live without shame and guilt. 

I’m sure I’ll feel guilty about something else now. But it won’t be debt.

Wendy, 51.

Debt: $35,000. I have $3,000 left and it will take two years to repay.

What is the experience of being in debt like? It is extremely stressful every day, and it played on my mind 24/7.

I became debt-free by: I have a supportive partner. We have separate finances and the same goals.

Helen, 34.

Debt: $40,000.

What is the experience of being in debt like? I managed to keep up the repayments up no problems, but so much cash flow directed to repaying the debts which were at considerably high interest rates. It wasn't stressful, but it's obviously not preferable.

I became debt-free with a: Refinanced home loan. I know it means that the debt will essentially being paid off over 30 years, but I'm repaying twice the minimum with the spare cash flow from the s***ty little debts.

Melissa, 32.

Debt: $30,000 and it took maybe three to five years to repay.

What is the experience of being in debt like? It was the lowest point in my life. Having debt collectors calling you daily is horrible, and the stress is overwhelming when they are asking you to make a payment and you can’t afford to buy food and make your rent. I felt hopeless.

I became debt-free as: The debt was sold a few times and in the end the original amount was negotiated down and replacements became manageable.

Sarah, 41.

Debt: $99,000 post-divorce.

What is the experience of being in debt like? Becoming in debt due to a divorce back in 2016 was very frustrating. It felt like a huge step backwards as we’d just got to a point we owned a modest property but hadn’t discharged the mortgage. I work part time due to health issues, have the full responsibility for my children’s care (father moved overseas when we separated and paid little child support initially as he was advancing his career on a fellowship). On top of that, I’m a New Zealand citizen, so I don’t have the same back-up supports if something goes wrong with my ability to work. 

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I feel a lot of pressure to make ends meet and was only able to cover necessities for several years due to ongoing legal costs as my ex re-opened legal action after completing his fellowship. This added financial stress that I was not expecting and it really impacted me emotionally. Activities had to be cheap while I recovered from the legal fees - even the cost of ice creams at $6 each an event with a family entry of $10 was a luxury. When my son (Autism Spectrum Disorder Level 2) threw his ice cream because I had a taste, I broke down in tears. I hadn’t purchased one for me as couldn’t afford a third one for myself. My Mum (a retired banker) has been very generous and provided a personal loan (it was money she inherited from my Grandma) interest free (although she can charge some but doesn’t request it) which we drew up with a solicitor. 

I do still have a bank loan against our home but it’s offset by the loan from her. It has saved me having to pay interest on the bank loan. I set it up so that if Mum needs the money back, I could re-draw from the bank loan and pay her back in full. I make a payment to her each month. I’ve a little bit of money saved towards a car or emergencies and could pay her back now, but she’d prefer I have that money as a bit of a buffer. A lot of time and effort has been put into my financial set up. I’ve finally recovered from the legal costs of divorce and I’m budgeting my money into separate bank accounts in a modified barefoot investor type way. We still live carefully but there is money aside for occasional treats. 

I became debt-free by: Budgeting very carefully. Separate bank accounts for various needs. I have an everyday account that my wages go into. Groceries, petrol, power, insurance and phone also come out of that. Any surplus left from my fortnightly budget at my next pay goes into another account for big bills - rates and car registration, car service/repairs etc. I also have a holiday/well-being account for treats and a savings account that a small portion goes into as well. I have a credit card for work memberships etc to come out of, but I pay it back as soon as my work reimburses me.

While you're here, listen to What The Finance, Mamamia's money podcast. Post continues after audio. 


Belinda, 47.

Debt: $10,000. It took three years to clear.

What is the experience of being in debt like? Mentally. it was stressful. I'd left my husband, took nothing, so went into debt refitting the house for my three small kids (primary aged and one that was two-years-old). My ex also reduced his child support by two thirds, hence the credit card debt. 

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Those three years it took to pay it off were HARD! I had to budget to the dollar. I still don't own my own home, and I haven't had a credit card since. It was too traumatic. Even to the extent I don't want to take out a car loan, I'm also self employed, so the thought of going into debt again for anything is just too stressful.

I became debt-free by: I would add the cost up of the shopping as I went. It helped to keep an eye on what I was spending. I also bought cheaper cuts of meat, took hand-me-downs where I could. Made sure I didn't buy anything spontaneous. Did a lot more home cooking, even for snacks for the kids. Funnily enough, I was talking about how tough it was the other day to them, and they said they had no idea... Parenting win?!

Kaitlyn, 32. 

Debt: Without a ‘sum’ of our debt to give - we had a vacant investment property, our home failed to sell at auction and we were paying our own rent with no income thanks to emergency surgery, as well as a brand new baby. We had exhausted every fund and resorted to having to borrow thousands of dollars from family to get by. We had repaid those within 12 months. 

What is the experience of being in debt like? It’s heartbreaking, and so isolating. You can’t socialise because you can’t just go out for coffee or be the places people usually go to socialise. It makes you question your purpose, your worth and your identity - how on earth did we get from ‘successful’ to ‘broke’? Finances still carry such shame and you can often be ostracised for speaking of your wealth, but also feel shunned if you were to speak of your true lack of wealth too. 

I became debt-free by: Confronting my outgoings. This can be emotionally charged and tricky, but it has to be done. For the first few weeks we were back to having an income, we just put everything we could away. Life went on hold for a little while until we had a bit in savings. Then we reviewed things like subscriptions, healthcare, energy providers, phone plans, insurance providers. Health and Fitness was a huge essential for us, we did the calculations and found it was more economical for us to invest in our own gym equipment than to continue paying gym memberships year after year. All of those small changes added up. 

We’ve since bought another home, and opted to continue to pay any extras into that mortgage. Thankfully, the value of the property has increased, and that’s left us with the capacity to top up the loan so we are definitely in front. We also bought a home that was below our means. A ‘fixer upper’. But the mortgage was HALF that of our rent, and so it was money back in our own pockets. Check why you’re living in the place you are - does it truly make you happy or is it that societal myth of the dream life with the big home and the big car?

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Lucy, 39.

Debt: $5,000. It took just over a year to clear.

What is the experience of being in debt like? It was credit card debt from university. It was awful - a constant monkey on my back. I always made repayments, but only the minimum and then would run it down again. 

I became debt-free by: I cut up the card, firstly! Then I got real with myself and did a budget. With paper and pen (it was the olden days!) I worked out what I could truly spare from my fortnightly pay, and then transferred it immediately to the credit card the DAY I got paid. I paid $175 a fortnight, and the debt was gone in a little over a year.

Elspeth, 41. 

Debt: $25k. Blew out to $40k. It took five years to repay.

What is the experience of being in debt like? It was utterly demoralising. I felt guilt and shame. It wasn’t due to bad financial decisions. It was due to my fiancé losing his job during the GFC. I had just got divorced and had no savings. I accidentally fell pregnant three months before our wedding. We struggled with the six months I had off work on maternity leave before I returned full time and my husband took over for six months. 

We couldn’t afford anything. Ultimately, we couldn’t afford rent. We wanted to have another baby, but we knew we shouldn't if we couldn’t be financially stable. I had worked full time since I was 18. I achieved top marks in my HSC, never did drugs or smoked, and I was always careful with my money. I couldn’t believe that I would ever end up in so much debt.

I became debt-free by: Moved in with my mum, husband and one-year-old. We ended up staying for five years. We budgeted like crazy. It caused many fights and tears as my idea of a budget was quite different to my husband’s. We consolidated debt on multiple occasions until the bank finally rejected us. I crashed our car at one point - that was a low point as we had to find a way to get a car loan or a crappy second-hand car. We saved and sacrificed and tried our best but I’ll admit that ultimately what got us back in the black was one of our grandmothers dying which was awful but it gave us a small inheritance; I think about $20k - which was about as much debt as we still had. So it was enough to get us back to $0 and able to start over. 

The wider Mamamia community also shared tips on staying out of debt. 

Elspeth: The BEST thing we did was talk to a financial adviser. She is worth her weight in gold. We explained that we were broke and in debt and wouldn’t be taking on any investments soon. She wasn’t deterred. She sorted out our super and life insurance. She helped us to budget accurately and was a mediator/psychologist with my husband and our different perspectives on money. We had actually tried to see a different financial adviser on a few occasions and it was demoralising because as soon as they realised we weren’t investors, they dropped us. Years later, we are still with our financial adviser because she was so amazing. Also, NEVER use a credit card.

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Melissa: Any amount you can offer to pay and stick to that amount weekly does help in the long run, even $20 a week and maybe some weeks you might be able to afford $25. $20 a week felt like a number they would never agree to because it was so low but once they realised that’s all I had they were accommodating. 

Kaitlyn: You will get there. It feels so overwhelming, because it is. But every dollar saved is another step towards clinging out of debt. Really look within yourself, what do you TRULY want in life. Make changes, take the leap. It gets better with each step.

Megen: Read the Barefoot Investor and be openly discussing with your partner about finances. In my lifetime I’ve always looked like I managed my money well. I met what are considered to be life goals. I moved out of home, lived in another city, went to university, met my husband, got married, bought a house, had a baby, upgraded house etc and earned over $100k. I had all those milestones, and I still went broke. It can happen to anyone. 

Maymunah: I come from a community that does something we call ayuuto - known as Hagbad or Ayuuto (Somali for "help", with roots in the Italian word "aiuto") in Somali culture. It is an interest-free rotating savings scheme based on mutual trust. It is primarily run by women in the same neighbourhood who not only know one another but also share common experiences.

Michelle: YNAB budgeting software is life saving (and debt managing!).

Kait: Doing a self audit is a great start. It can feel pretty confronting and can be tense if doing it with your partner, but it’s a brilliant foundation to get an idea of where your money is going. We utilised a loose version of Barefoot Investor, without getting all the extra cards and fuss of switching banks. We were looking down the path of bankruptcy in 2017 after lots of bad luck in a short time, but now we are comfortable. Our biggest recent change was making the budget realistic - we knew restricting too much would just end in frustration or blowing it on something spontaneously. For us it was smaller, sustainable growth over a longer term.

What's your tips for getting out of debt? Let us know your advice in the comments below!

Feature Image: Canva / Mamamia. 

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