Budgeting/Living With Debt/Money Management

How I Used Zero-Dollar Swaps To Reduce My Expenses & Pay Off $155k

By | Wednesday, September 30, 2020



Paying off debt, regardless of your situation, can feel like a never-ending uphill battle. Layer a global pandemic on top of that and identifying a path to financial freedom seems like a complete nonstarter. Two years ago, I set out on a journey to be debt-free. While I didn’t start my journey during a pandemic, I did end it during one; and many of the tools I used to reduce my expenses didn’t rely on my finding increased income or giving up on saving money, both of which feel impossible to do in the current financial climate. 

Aside from rent, some of my biggest expenses each month were groceries and utilities. Groceries are a necessary expense and cutting costs here can feel incredibly demoralizing during a journey to being free of debt. Cutting out your favorite cereal for a store brand, or swapping out meat for affordable vegetarian alternatives, can weigh heavy when you’re already sacrificing other things from your budget to prioritize your credit cards or student loans. I knew that I didn’t want to give up my favorite foods on top of everything else, so I sought out alternatives to reduce these expenses, if not negate them entirely. 

User Interviews

To reduce my grocery expenses, I signed up for User Interviews, a market research and user experience interview platform. Here, researchers at companies seeking to launch new products or enter new markets will publish a research study, and based on a profile that you complete when you register, you’ll be matched to studies that fit your demographics. 

You’ll chat through a series of questions with the researcher and, in exchange for your honest feedback, you’ll be given Amazon or Visa giftcards, depending on the study. I spend about thirty minutes each week completing pre-screening surveys and participate in an average of two studies per month (usually lasting an hour each). Over the past year, I’ve earned $1,315 in Amazon gift cards on the User Interviews platform itself, as well as another $600-700 in gift cards from follow-up studies with researchers I met on the platform. That’s a total of $2,015 in Amazon gift cards that I have then used to purchase my groceries each month via Amazon Fresh, allowing me to get ~$170/mo in free groceries. 

Amazon Fresh

By coupling my card earnings with the weekly deals on the Amazon Fresh platform, along with the coupons that are often available, I was able to zero out my monthly grocery expenses, and instead put the $170 I would have spent towards food, towards paying off my debt. Even though I’m debt-free now, I still participate in User Interviews and put the earnings towards my savings. The best part is – if you break down the time I spent on these, versus the money earned, I make about $67.16/hour. Well worth the time, in my opinion! 


If you’re a student, you can also reduce your monthly subscription expenses using PayTime. PayTime is an app that asks you to watch and rate ads from a variety of popular companies. The companies are then able to improve their advertising based on your feedback. In exchange for watching 40 minutes of ads per month (10 minutes per week), you are rewarded with $12.00 towards popular digital subscriptions like Netflix, Spotify, and more. I’m able to pay my $4.99 Spotify+Hulu student subscription and my $6.99 Youtube Premium student subscription this way. I typically watch the videos on my commute to work (in pre-pandemic times) or while I’m waiting for pasta to boil or during some other multi-tasking opportunity. 


You’re likely familiar with Poshmark, the popular clothing resale platform. I’ve had an account with Poshmark since 2012 and had sold one or two things over the past eight years, but in 2020 I really got serious about clearing out my physical closet and selling things I don’t wear. 

At the start of this year, I had only 100 or so followers on the platform. I overhauled my Poshmark “closet” and listed more than 50 items, adding more as things sold. Since the beginning of the year, I’ve sold 35 of those items for a total net earnings of $1,081.53 (or an average of $30.90 per item). I’ve also grown my “closet” following to nearly 10,000 followers, which means that when I list new items, they tend to sell more quickly than they did at the beginning of the year. If you’re going to sell on Poshmark, I highly recommend listing a minimum of 10 items to give the appearance of a “full closet” as well as engaging with the community like you would any other social media platform. Also, use original stock photos of the items you’re selling as well as your own photos taken in a well-lit setting against a neutral background, in order to make your closet look and feel more cohesive. With the income you make from Poshmark, you can either put it towards debt, use it to mitigate the cost of any new clothes you buy throughout the year, or a combination of both (which is what I did). 

The Takeaway

These are just three examples of many ways you can replace your expenses with $0 alternates, and make progress on your debt payoff goals in the meantime. Other examples of things I’ve done to reduce expenses include swapping buying books with checking e-books out of the library and reading them on the Kindle app on my phone, using the commuter benefits I get at work to pay for UberPools when I can’t take public transit and trading plant cuttings with friends instead of buying new plants.

Along with applying financial discipline with my paycheck, these practices were integral parts of my debt-free journey, eventually paying off six-figures worth of student loan and credit card debt in just under eighteen months. These three tips may not seem like much at face value, but over the past year they’ve added up to an extra $272.13/mo in debt payments that I wouldn’t have been able to manage otherwise. Nearly $3,300/year in extra debt payments can mean ~$200 in student loan interest savings or ~$550 in credit card interest savings, even if you’re not trying to pay off your debt quickly! By adding these in with other cost saving measures like the additional examples I mentioned or by moving to a less expensive apartment when my lease was up, I was able to save $1,000/month in expenses over the duration of my debt-free journey.

Dannie Lynn Fountain is a queer woman working in tech who lives in Chicago. When she’s not spending time with her girlfriend, she’s writing – either working on her next book, her doctoral dissertation, or contributing to articles on Forbes, Girlboss, Cosmopolitan, The Everygirl, and more. You can follow her on Instagram or Twitter

Image via Pexels

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