There aren’t many of us who have avoided the pitfalls of debt. It is all too easy to be in over your head before you are even aware you are in trouble. Once you are in trouble, you can sometimes feel like there is no way out. It can leave you feeling depressed and hopeless. Don’t despair. There is a way out.
Let me be clear: Getting out of debt is not easy! But, you got yourself into debt, and you can get yourself out. It will take a little sacrifice, discipline and a lot of hard work, but you can do it. Plus, you will have the huge sense of accomplishment for taking responsibility for your debts.
Get serious – You have to make the choice that you want out from under your debts. No questions and no doubts. If you are tired of paying huge chunks of your paycheck just to pay for your Discover bill, then make the decision now. If you do not put yourself in the right frame of mind from the beginning, you will only backslide later.
Stop charging – The best way to turn yourself around when you’ve hit bottom is to put down the credit cards. Make the commitment again that you will stop digging yourself into that hole.
Know where you are starting from – I know most people hate this part, but you have to know what you owe. That means every doctor bill, credit card and car loan. Be brave here – the numbers can be scary. I recommend including your mortgage in this as well, but if that is too much for you to handle, leave it off. You will pay that off last anyway.
Know where your money is going – Anyone who is serious about getting out of debt needs to make a budget or spending plan. Not glamorous and definitely not fun, but it is the best way to see where your money is leaking out. You may find it helpful to use Quicken, Microsoft Money, or some other financial software to help you get started (if you already have them).
If you don’t have budgeting software, you don’t have to go buy any. There are tons of free budget forms you can print off the internet. You may not be able to customize them, but they all basically work the same. There will be a section at the top for your income, another section for your expenses like utilities and household, and another for your debts. Subtract all of your expenses from your income and that gives you your net income (what you get to keep at the end of the month). This is the money you will use to pay off your debts.
If your net income is a negative number, don’t panic. There are options for dealing with this. You will either a) have to earn more money, b) cut your expenses, c) ask your creditors to help lower your payments temporarily or d) all of the above.
Trim the fat – You will be amazed at how much of your money is spent on junk and impulse buys. After you’ve made your budget, pick apart every one of your expenses and decide if they are really needed. How much do you really need for clothing or entertainment? Magazine subscriptions? Eating out? Be honest with yourself and learn to live within your means. If you really can’t go without the little luxuries, you may need to go back to step one and try again. I’m not saying you can’t have any fun until your debt is paid off, but this mindset is likely what got you to this point to begin with.
If you are really serious about getting out of debt, get drastic. Look for ways to cut expenses. My husband and I didn’t spend a lot of money on luxuries to begin with, but we knew that with $110,000 in debt looming over us, we had to be ruthless. We learned to look for ways to make our normal lives less expensive. Here are a few ideas to get you started, and I’m sure, if you look closely, you can find plenty of your own.
– Instead of going out for movies, check them out at the library.
– Learn to cook. Pre-packaged and prepared foods are expensive and really not that good for you. Staples like rice and beans are excellent for stretching your food dollar.
– Consider lightening up on the meat. Beef, chicken, and pork are all expensive. Try using less meat or even trying a few vegetarian recipes.
– Make your home more energy efficient. Caulk windows, turn off lights when you leave the room, put in draft guards under doors, and close vents to rooms you don’t use very often. Look around your home and note where energy is being wasted. Your energy bills will thank you for it.
– Combine errands whenever possible. Gas is a huge drain on any budget these days, so conserve it as much as possible. Don’t make unnecessary trips.
– If you are really desperate for money, consider eliminating the second car. For some people, this is not an option. My husband and I couldn’t share a car because of our unpredictable work hours. What we could do, however, was trade in one car for a used one with lesser payment. This saved us $150 per month.
– Sell something. When you look in your house, I’m sure there is plenty of stuff just collecting dust. Put in on eBay, have a garage sale, put it in the newspaper – whatever. This is a great way to jump start your debt payoff.
Earn more money – some of you may still be in the negative in your budget even after making sacrifices. You may have to take another look at your income. If your current job is one you are happy at, volunteer for overtime or ask for a raise. If this doesn’t help, you may need a second job temporarily. I don’t recommend this one very often, because I believe time with family and friends is important. However, it may be necessary in the short term to get your budget back in the black.
Prepare for the unexpected – life happens. The car breaks down. You get sick. The house needs repairs. There is always something. The point is you need to have a buffer to help get you through these little emergencies. Every month, you will need to set aside some money for these expenses. $1,000-$1,500 is a good rule of thumb to start out with. This money should be put into an interest bearing account and left alone until there is an actual emergency. Paying your car insurance is not an emergency, but your son’s broken arm is.
Decide which debt to pay off first – there is a lot of debate about this one. Some say that you should pay off the highest interest first, and some say start with the lowest balance. I say this is up to you. If your lowest bill is several thousand dollars, I would start with the highest interest rate first. If your lowest bill is only a couple hundred dollars, I would start there, just to get the ball rolling. Ultimately, you will likely save more money if you start with the highest interest rate, but you will get a lot of motivation from paying of that first little bill. The choice is yours.
Once you’ve paid off your first debt – Congratulations! This is a huge step for you. Pat yourself on the back a little, and then move on. You are not done yet. Next, you will take what you were paying on that first debt and add that to what you are already paying on the first. Keep doing this until all of your credit cards and loans are paid.
Tackle your mortgage – if you are hanging on to your mortgage for the tax write-off, please don’t. Take a look at your interest on this one. Yes, you may have a great, low rate, but over 20-30 years, you are looking at tens, maybe even hundreds of thousands of dollars in interest paid out. Don’t believe me, check out some of the financial calculators at dinkytown.com and plug in your numbers. Now that you have freed up all the money from your loans and credit cards, you have plenty of ammunition to attack your mortgage. Oh, and if you are worried about the taxes, you can just put what you would owe into an interest bearing account and let it earn money for you, not your mortgage company!
I have to admire anyone who is willing to undertake the overwhelming challenge of facing their debts. It shows great integrity and honor to admit responsibility for your actions and mistakes. I wish you all the best of luck in your journey, as I know it will be a difficult one. I have been there, and it is worth every sacrifice and hardship you will endure.