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Tips on Becoming Debt Free

I started blogging at Debt Discipline as a way to help keep my family accountable as we paid off $109,000 worth of consumer debt. Yes, you read that right: $109K of debt. This is my story on how I became debt free:

debt free

At first, I wasn’t sure what made up such a large amount of debt. We didn’t have any big items like a boat or a fancy car to show off. We fell prey to the death by a thousand cuts mentality. Because we were making only the minimum payments, we were suffering the consequences.

When we were out of cash and wanted something, we used a credit card. We rinsed and repeated these steps for over ten years. One credit card turned in five, and we slowly and steadily sank deeper into debt.

We used our credit cards for things like eating out, gifts, vacations, and the unexpected things life threw at us, like an urgent car repair.

As long as we could manage next month’s minimum payment, we continued to use credit cards to spend beyond our means. That was our financial plan, as long as we could handle the minimum amount, we were okay.

We figured that since everyone else has debt too, we were normal. That “follow the herd” thinking was stressful, and we feared unexpected life events and emergencies, but we continued to march along because we didn’t know any better, and didn’t want to learn any different.

Our years of overspending came to a grinding halt in the summer of 2010. My wife and I were planning a summer vacation for the family, and without any cash savings, we turned to our five credit cards to finance the trip. Little did we know, because we didn’t pay attention, that each of the credit cards was close to the limit.

I figured I would just call the credit companies and get an increase on our credit line. After five calls and receiving five “no” answers, we hit rock bottom moment with our money. (Or as I like to think of it now, as our “a-ha” moment!) Our debt-to-income ratio had ballooned, and the credit companies viewed us as a big red flag.

We were backed into a corner, and with the fear of not being able to provide a vacation for my wife and three kids stuck in the back of the mind, I chose to fight my way out. I knew we made too much money to be in this situation, so to get out of it, we needed a plan.

I did some research online looking for a plan to get out of debt that no one ever taught me growing up or when I was in college. Additionally, I found several resources, including blogs and a popular personal finance guru named Dave Ramsey.

I read as much personal finance information as I could. With my newfound knowledge, I began to build a plan for our money. I reviewed the initial plan with my wife, and we started working together. We built our first budget and agreed on a plan to pay off our debt. We had ups and downs along the way, but overall after just a few months in, we felt money stress lifted from our lives. We became debt free in 2015, after 50 months.

Six months after becoming debt-free, I lost my job from a company I was with for over 20 years. This would have sent me into panic mode if we still had credit card debt and no plan for our money. It merely became a speed bump in the overall scheme of things.

Now with close to ten years under our belts of actively managing our money, here are some of the things I’ve learned about dumping debt.

DON’T FOLLOW THE HERD

“Herd mentality” describes how people can be influenced by their peers to adopt certain behaviors on a mostly emotional, rather than rational basis. The herd mentality is one you need to break ASAP to be successful in paying off debt.

Just because everyone else has debt doesn’t mean you have to too. Your parents, friends, and co-‘workers’ ways of doing things ‘don’t have to be yours. You need to think and act for yourself without following someone ‘else’s script.

Defining your path, and what’s right and wrong for your family should be decided by what’s best for you, given your current financial situation.

EDUCATE YOURSELF or ASK FOR HELP

Any time you are trying to master a new subject or skill, increasing your knowledge on the topic is a must, including when you are working to pay off debt.

There are many resources you can tap to increase your financial IQ. Consider these:

  • Blogs – You can read a personal finance blog like Debt Discipline
  • Books – There are many books on personal finance. Two that I started with are The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey and The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas J. Stanley.
  • Podcasts – There are plenty of podcasts, too, if audio is your preferred medium. It’s great to listen while commuting or doing work around the home. Planet Money and Freakonomics Radio are two good choices to start with.

If any of the above resources don’t get you excited and you need a more personal approach, find someone you can help you. You might enlist a friend who is successful with their money to help you understand how they have done so. You could speak to a credit counselor at a nonprofit credit counseling agency to help dig into your numbers and assess your overall financial situation to figure out your options to pay off debt.

 

CALCULATE HOW MUCH DEBT YOU OWE

A core step in paying off debt is to know your debt numbers. Grab all of your statements and begin to write down each debt type. Debt comes in all shapes and sizes, so be sure to include mortgages, student loans, and credit card payments.

Be sure to include the total amount due for each debt, including interest rate, minimum payment, and due date.

Take this exercise a step further to include all spending in your notes, like utilities, personal care, subscription services, etc., as well as all sources of income. Collecting all of your income and expenses for a month’s time frame will give you an excellent basis for a budget.

Getting to know your debt and an overall financial picture will help you prepare to pay off debt fast. Another great way to understand how your money is being spent is to track all expenses for one to three months. This exercise will help identify any money leaks or habit spending that you may be doing and not even realize it.

Finally, once you have all of the information jotted down, it best to transfer to a Google sheet or app to help keep track of your progress.

STOP ADDING NEW DEBT

The best time to pay off debt is today. Well, actually it would be yesterday, but here we are. To avoid increasing your debt total, you need to stop accumulating new debt immediately.

To reverse the trend, you need to avoid new debt. A tool in doing this is some type of cash saving, often called an emergency fund. Having cash savings as little as $1000 will prevent you from taking on new debt when the unexpected happens. Ideally, you should have three to six months’ worth of expenses saved in your emergency fund.

ADOPT A PAY OFF DEBT STRATEGY

Now that you have our debt numbers, you’ve prepared for the change, increased your knowledge on the topic, and have a motivating reason to move forward, let’s review some additional tools to pay off debt.

PAY OFF DEBT CALCULATORS

Many financial apps and calculators are available for free online. These tools are great to use to help calculate how long it will take you to pay off debt.

The also gives you the ability to play “what if” scenarios quickly. What if you had a lower interest rate, or what if you had more money to apply to your debt payment?

NEGOTIATE

When you are trying to pay off debt, let your creditors know. Some will be willing to work with you. You can call credit card companies and ask for a reduced interest rate. If you have a lump sum bill like a medical bill, you can call and try to work out a realistic payment plan. Even better, if you have the available cash, you can ask for a reduced amount if you pay it in full.

Creditors want to know they will be paid. Certainly, if you are delinquent on the account, opening a line of communication with them may not be a bad thing. Make sure you get names when you call and always ask for confirmation to be sent in writing of any rate reductions. This way, you have a record of it.

The worst you can receive is a “no,” and you can call back at another time and speak with someone else or escalate to a supervisor or manager.

DEBT SNOWBALL

The debt snowball is an accelerated debt payoff strategy. It’s called the snowball because, like a snowball rolling downhill, it begins to pick up momentum.

Here are the nuts and bolts of the debt snowball in five steps:

  1. List all debts smallest to largest.
  2. Make minimum payments on each of your debts every month.
  3. Target your smallest debt, and apply as much money as you can above the minimum payment each month.
  4. Once the smallest debt from step three has been paid in full, roll its complete payment to your next smallest debt.
  5. Repeat step four until you are debt-free.

The fact that you are targeting your smallest debt first helps build the momentum in your debt repayment plan, just like that snowball rolling downhill. Having a win each time you pay off debt helps sustain momentum.

DEBT AVALANCHE

The second method is the debt avalanche is another accelerated debt payoff strategy. It’s called the avalanche because it saves you the most money on interest.

Here are the nuts and bolts of the debt avalanche in five steps:

  1. List all debts largest interest rate to the smallest.
  2. Make minimum payments on each of your debts every month.
  3. Target your largest interest debt, and apply as much money as you can above the minimum payment each month.
  4. Once the largest interest debt from step three has been paid in full, roll its complete payment to your next largest interest debt.
  5. Repeat step four until you are debt-free.

To best understand which, if the snowball or avalanche payoff method might be right for you, leverage the pay off debt calculator mentioned above to test out some “what if” scenarios to conclude what works best for you.

These are the best tips I can offer from my own experience paying off six-figure of debt. Keep in mind, they call it personal finance for a reason. Find and apply the information that will work best for your unique situation. Good luck!

Bio: Brian is a Dad, husband, and an IT professional by trade. A Personal Finance Blogger since 2013 at Debt Discipline, Brian and his family have successfully paid off over $100K worth of consumer debt. Now that Brian is debt-free, his mission is to help his three children prepare for their financial lives and educate others to achieved financial success.

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