How I got rid of debt: A medal-worthy juggling act by an Olympian


In this series, NerdWallet interviews people who have triumphed over debt with a combination of commitment, budgeting, and wise financial decisions. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

What would you do to pursue a career as an Olympic speed skater and earn degrees from two prestigious schools? Would you go into $ 147,000 in debt to pursue these dreams?

That is exactly what John Coyle did. His debt helped fund his Olympic run, and after making a six-figure appearance, Coyle paid off everything over 15 years.

Coyle, a 1994 silver medalist in the 5,000 meter relay, used as Debt management plan from a non-profit credit counseling center. Under this program, debts are pooled into one monthly payment with reduced interest rates.

Coyle, now a motivational speaker, lives debt free – in large part from his sizable income. On his blog, he describes his journey and way of thinking to get the most out of life. The art of really living.

While Coyle’s debt path is best viewed from a distance, his story shows that debt out is possible if you have the determination.

It is a debt-wiping time

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What was your total debt when you started your repayment journey and how much is it now?

By the time I did eight full-time Olympic speed skating years, I had 17 credit cards with credit card debt of $ 87,000, a student loan of $ 30,000 from Stanford, and a student loan of $ 30,000 from [Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management]. I owed $ 147,000 in total. Now I have no debts.

How did you get into debt?

I trained full-time for the Olympics for eight years. I trained with the team at the Olympic base for the first four years, but their training program didn’t work for me, so for the past four years I’ve lived and trained and ate and traveled on my own, and that’s when the credit card debt piled up quickly.

For my student loans, half came from my bachelor’s degree from Stanford and the other half from an MBA in Kellogg.

So you’ve used debt to finance your future: student loans for school, credit card debt for your Olympic dreams

It was on purpose, yes. I had some scholarships at Stanford, so I was lucky enough to get out of there on just $ 30,000 in student loans. Then Kellogg was on business. It was all an investment in the future. I don’t know what has helped me more in my career: the degrees or the fact that I was able to take part in the Olympics. It still opens doors.

What made you start paying off debt?

It was a combination of things. I was 30 years old, never had a full-time job, and owed $ 147,000.

At the same time, credit card offers with 0% interest – the type of credit cards I held my debt on – were becoming rarer, and I ran out of 0% interest on four of my largest cards. The debt only started to go up because of the interest rate and it got very scary. So that was my trigger to see what my options were.

What steps have you taken to reduce your debt? What resources or services did you use?

I’ve got a flyer about in the mail [debt management plans] and called. They said they could negotiate on my behalf and get me into a plan with a monthly payment for a set amount, and they negotiated my interest rates from about 15% to zero.

I had just started a high-paying job in management consulting, so it was a good time to pay off my debt.

How did you manage your debt before signing up for the debt management program?

Every month or two I got an offer from a credit card company for a new credit card with 0% interest. So I would transfer funds from one 0% APR card to the next when the first one expired. I had a table to monitor this. I did that between all cards. At any given time, I had probably seven to eight fully loaded cards, and the others didn’t owe that much.

That sounds like a complicated act of juggling. Ever been scared of dropping the ball?

By the end of the day, I had a decent amount of unused credit to swap debts between. By the end, I suddenly didn’t have that anymore, so I ran out of runway while trading and interest rates were just starting to grow. And it was pretty good timing with the money making so I could start paying it off.

How long did it take you to pay off your total debt?

It took me 15 years in total to pay off all of my debts.

I’ve been paying $ 1,100 a month on the debt management plan for almost 6 years. I paid off Stanford in 2000 and I paid off Kellogg on a 15 year plan.

What is your biggest takeaway from this process?

I think like with anything, when you go about it with your eyes open, debt can be an amazing tool to get what you need to do.

When people get into trouble, they don’t understand the rate hike. But I was well aware of this and traded debts between creditors, so I didn’t pay much interest.

If you could go back and do something differently, what would you change?

What I would definitely do is understand what bankruptcy would have meant for me. I’m proud to have paid off this debt, but then again, these laws exist for situations just like mine. I don’t know if I would undo what I did because I feel good I paid it off, but would I rather get that $ 147,000 back? Maybe.

How do you view debt now that you are debt free?

For me, debt was a way of achieving the dream lifestyle that I didn’t have the time to work for. Many other athletes had parents with a lot of money. This was my mechanism to make the same dream come true. In all honesty, I never really stressed myself out, even when I realized I had to start paying it off. I had a job so it was pretty easy.

How do you stay debt free today?

I earn a lot of money and keep spending on “things” low. I don’t have a huge tower in Heaven’s luxury apartment. My vehicles are reliable older cars. So I can spend my money on experiences rather than things.

How to Combat Your Own Debt

  • Start with a full assessment of your debt, broken down by creditor, interest rate, and amount owed per account.

  • Put your debt in context. See how your debt mixes up with your income to see if you can pay it off yourself or if you have too much debt and should tap on debt relief.

  • Debt management plans can help you save time and money paying off debts, especially with credit cards. It might be a good idea if your Debt-Income Ratio is greater than 15%.

  • Stay focused in the long term. If you don’t win the lottery, you likely won’t pay off your debt overnight. Think about how paying off your debt can help you achieve other financial goals, such as: B. Saving for retirement.

Photo courtesy John Coyle.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the amount Coyle would have liked to get back. This article has been corrected.



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Reggie S. Williams

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