How I Paid Off Debt So I Could Start Paying It Forward


Paying off debt doesn't have to be overwhelming with these three tips.

By Susan Stutz

Research shows the most satisfying way to use money is to invest in others. An increasing number of wealthy individuals must agree as well with many billionaires committing to the Giving Pledge each year, a promise to give more than half of their wealth to charitable causes.

But there’s just one thing: I’m not wealthy. Not even close. In fact, a few years ago I was divorced, moved to a new home and my son, to my surprise, joined the U.S. Marine Corps. To top it all off, I was $76,000 in debt! I had always dreamed about helping to build a school in Africa, but I could hardly pay my bills, let alone give back to the community.

Despite the proverbial lemons life threw my way, I was determined to make the most of my journey by getting my finances in order so I could fulfill my passion. Luckily, we don’t have to be philanthropists or billionaires to make a difference. Here are a few tips to help you take a step back and prioritize what matters to you:

  1. Determine your values. The key is aligning your finances with what you value. Even though I was passionate about the idea of giving back to the community, my spending habits reflected otherwise. When I was honest with myself, it became clear I needed to start with the basics and paying off debt was the top priority. To stay focused, make a list of what’s important and put it where you’ll always see it.
  2. Make a plan. Once you define your values, make a plan. Always keeping that school in Africa top of mind, I began by tackling the smaller debts and worked my way up. By using the resources on SunTrust’s site, I discovered tools to create a budget and stick to it. I felt a sense of relief and satisfaction when I paid off every credit card. And now I’m about to pay off my mortgage! Plus, I have the financial freedom to do something that matters to me and make a difference. That’s something I could never imagine having the flexibility to do a few years ago, and it’s an incredible feeling.
  3. Pay it forward. Whenever I share my story, I hear from others about how it helped them see a different perspective and inspired them to take action. That’s my purpose. I can relate to people who feel financial stress, I can offer empathy and I can help them make the right choices to get on the path to financial wellbeing. I share my story because it's about where so many people have been or still are – it’s about hope and never giving up.

Managing finances isn’t always easy. But when you determine what’s most important to you, research – and my experience – suggests you’ll discover a new mindset that leads to a more meaningful life: one that’s filled with less financial stress and more time to celebrate the journey. 

Susan Stutz is a senior vice president and area manager with SunTrust Banks, Inc. and a married mom of two adult sons in sunny south Florida. For more information about SunTrust’s onUp movement to help people move from financial stress to confidence, visit