This post may contain affiliate links.
For a stretch of over twenty years I never really considered debt a four-letter word. You know the type I mean. Those coarse, offensive type you start using as a teenager to seem cool around your friends.
I always viewed debt as a necessity, a way to get things I didn’t have the cash for immediately. Having a fifteen-thousand-dollar piece of plastic in my pocket felt powerful. My embossed name and member since on the front of the card made me feel important.
The monthly payments were not a problem. A few hundred dollars to have access to a credit line of fifteen-thousand that was a trade-off I was willing to take.
While that single card was not the problem, it did lay the foundation for the start of bad behavior that would be repeated over and over again.
Hundreds and hundreds of transactions and overspending over four more cards, a with larger credit lines and all with their own minimum payments. That few hundred-dollar payment now ballooned to almost two thousand per month.
That’s just a math snapshot of the debt, it doesn’t tell the story of the stress, fear and fights the debt caused. The feeling of powerfulness now turned to weakness, and the importance felt like embarrassment.
The word debt was now starting to feel like those other four-letter words. Those I often used in my youth and now as a dad would never think of using in front of my own children. It was time for a change, time to take responsibility, time to clean up the mess this little four-letter word had caused.
Dealing with Debt
It turns out that dealing with debt and managing your money comes down to pretty common sense steps. The trick for many is having the initial introduction to the topic. Often the topic is not a typical conversation at home or taught in school and leads to bad behavior.
Here are some basic steps to help take control of your debt.
Realize you need Help – Once you accept this, it is easy to move on to the other steps. It took a rock bottom moment for us to realize we needed to make a change. Once we did, we began increasing our overall knowledge on the topic. We used blogs and books. Dave Ramsey’s “The Total Money Makeover” remains my favorite books today.
Define a Why – Changing your behavior and getting out of debt will not be easy. It will take hard work and sacrifice. It’s a good idea to discuss the “why” for these changes. Having a “why” a goal that you are trying to achieve will help keep you focused and motivated. Our why was to stop living paycheck to paycheck, build a better financial future for our family and teach our children better money habits.
Build a Plan – Now that you’ve mentally and emotionally ready for the change you need to create a plan. The best way is in the form of a budget. I started our budget using an excel spreadsheet and still use it today. You can jot it down on paper, use an app or software like Personal Capital, but whichever way you choose you to need to get your total income, debt and expenses down in some format.
Track Spending – A budget could take time to evolve. I suggest tracking your spending for 30, 60, or 90 days saving all receipts to see where your money is going. You may be surprised at some of the dollar amounts of some categories. They could be much higher or lower than you initially estimated.
Communicate and agree on the Plan – If you’re single you’re in control of your own destiny, but it might be good to get an accountability partner. Someone who can help keep you on track, or at the very least bounce ideas off. When in a relationship, it’s so important to be on the same page with your spouse, partner, children, etc. when making changes like this.
I was the one who initiated the plan for us, but before we started anything, I reviewed it with my wife. We compromised on some things but came away with an agreement on our money and budget. Then, we looped in our three children, so they were aware of the changes and to help start to educate them about all things personal finance related. Communication is not just a one-time thing; it’s ongoing every day. Our family discusses money and budgets all the time.
Stop building New Debt – You cannot get out of debt if you continue to add new debt. To be successful with your money you need to break the cycle. You do not want to dig yourself further into a hole; you want to begin climbing out immediately. It will be difficult to break old habits, change your behavior, but once you saved a cash cushion, it becomes easier to stay out of debt.
Wants versus Needs – Once you have a clear understanding of the budget and all expenses, it’s time to priority the expenses into two buckets either a want or a need. As an example food and shelter are clearly needs, the new 60-inch television or pair of shoes are wants.
Once you organize your expenses into these two categories, you will find items to cut. These reductions will become saving that can be used for paying debt or for building cash reserves. The key to remember is you can afford anything; you just can’t afford everything.
Emergency Fund – Or as I like to call it a peace of mind fund. You need to have some cash saving for when life happens or Murphy come to visit you. We never had an e-fund before 2010, and when an appliance broke or we got a flat tire it was stressful.
We didn’t have a plan for unexpected things and often used a credit card to cover these costs. A $1000 saving will cover most events and reduces so much stress and avoid money fights you will not understand this benefit until you have the savings in place.
Pick a Method to Pay off Debt – The debt snowball is the way we paid off our debt. The debt snowball is a debt reduction method where one owes on multiple debts and pays off the account starting with the smallest balances first while continuing to pay the minimum on all other debts. After the smallest balance is paid off, the payment is snowballed to the next smallest debt. This method helps build momentum.
This worked best for us. Others use the Debt Avalanche method where you pay off the balance with the highest interest rates first. Anyway, you choose to pay off your debt is fine, as long as you are not adding any new debt along the way and adding as much additional money as possible to your repayment.
Most banks and credit unions offer free credit counseling. Check with yours, and they can supply you with additional advice and information that you may find helpful. You can always speak with your creditors yourself and request an interest rate reduction. The best approach is, to be honest, and be diligent. Don’t give up after the first “no.”
Once you have these steps in place, you need to continue to track your progress. Set time aside each week or month to review your progress. Maybe after some time, you need to make some adjustments to the original plan. It’s important not to set it and forget it.
It’s also important to stay motivated over the long haul. If you need extra incentive, one suggestion is once you complete a debt payoff, and before you roll it over to the next debt, use that debt payment to celebrate.
Build Wealth – Once you have completed your debt repayment, you will have a surplus of income each month. I would recommend building wealth. Increasing emergency fund saving is a good first step, to cover you for when bigger life events happen. Could you survive a job loss? Build retirement saving, by investing. Save money for college, a house, a vacation, a car, etc. The possibilities are endless once you free your income up to spend on your priorities and not minimum payments.
We stopped using the four-letter word debt in 2010. We build a plan for our money in the form of a budget, cut expenses, and increase income. It was really tough to cut debt out of our life cold turkey because we had to get used to the change.
After doing things a certain way for over twenty years and overnight begin to do them differently it’s not going to happen without a little pain. The hard work was worth it because being on the other side of debt for a few years now it brings a piece of mind. I never want to experience the uncertainty of living paycheck to paycheck or the stress that having debt hanging over my head can bring.
If you are living with the fear and uncertainty of debt, make a plan for your money, ask for help, and stop using the four-letter word call debt.
What’s your view of debt? What’s a big reason you have gone into debt? What steps would you recommend for someone looking to gain control of their debt?
This article was originally published in 2016 and has since been updated.