Pay Off That Debt! ($5 Dinners)

Tips to Stay the Course and Pay Off That Debt!

(Originally published January 2010 on $5 Dinners.com.)

Over the years, my husband and I have borrowed money, paid it off, reached for the credit card, paid it off, taken out a loan, made payment after payment, paid it off… Sound familiar?

Something was always “coming up” that we never had enough cash for, and it was usually a move! We have been married 15 years and have moved some 11 times. We never felt like we could get ahead because we were always just trying to keep up.

Last Spring I discovered Dave Ramsey’s book, “The Total Money Makeover”, and it hit me: We don’t have to live like this! We can control our finances! We don’t have to reach for our credit card when those unexpected expenses come up!

The first step was to get rid of our current (non-mortgage) debt. We are eight months into paying off $19,375,72. True to (our) form, we had acquired this debt just since our last move in August 2007: We had just moved from overseas and needed a family car; we bought a house that needed new windows, new countertops… You get the idea. We are now on the home stretch to paying off that consumer debt, and here are some things I’ve learned that have helped us stay the course.

Write It Down!

I can’t emphasize this enough. I’m not going to talk here about writing out a budget — which, yes, you should do, too. I’m saying keep a running tally of your total debt. Show me the numbers. Write them out by hand and post them on your refrigerator. Use colorful crayons if you like. Type them out and send it to yourself in an email every day. (To your spouse, too.) If nothing else, posting these numbers in a prominent place will make a great conversation-starter the next time someone stops by. In my opinion, our society would greatly benefit if more of us shared our financial strides and struggles with each other.

Do what works for you, but find a way to remind yourself daily of your debt-free goal. It doesn’t hurt to catch a glimpse of where you started from, either.

Make it Scary

This means different things for different people. For me, putting our retirement contributions on hold while we tackled our snowball was scary: after all, we can’t get this time back! We also drew down our regular savings account to just $1000 and immediately put the rest toward our snow ball. I’m using that fear to motivate me to stay the course and to reach our goal as quickly as possible, speed bumps and all.

Now some of you are undoubtedly saying, “Savings acount? $1000? I don’t even have $10!”

Then you are coming from a different place, and that is okay. For some people, it is scary to set money aside where it isn’t “doing” anything! But trust me, for others that money is playing a very important role in making us feel secure. If a true emergency comes up — if our car breaks down, say — we can dip into that savings instead of reaching for a credit card.  Once the emergency has passed we can bulk that savings up to $1000 again and resume our snowball, but at least we haven’t added anything to it in the meantime.

Keep Track of Your Spending

This is unavoidable, sorry. And a no-brainer — but undoubtedly the hardest thing to do. It’s much easier to stick your head in the sand.

The thing is, becoming and staying debt-free is more about how we spend our money than about how we save it. The only way to assess where your money is going is to, well, know where your money is going.

Many personal money management software options are out there. I personally use mint.com, a free online money management program. I also keep a separate running total of all debts, credits, and daily transactions on a tally sheet I created on a simple word pad. It’s been trial and error, and that’s the point — the only way you’ll figure out what system works for you is to get started.

The important thing is to keep up with it. The easiest way is to review and update it every (business) day. Once you have a system it literally takes less than five minutes. How much time do you spend checking your email? or on Twitter? or facebook? (Ahem) It may take up to three weeks to make this a habit, but once you do it will revolutionize your financial life.

Resist the Urge to Yell at Your Spouse to Get On Board

It won’t work. (I’ve tried.)

It was so freeing for me when I started listening to Dave Ramsey and realized that it wasn’t about my husband and I doing the finances together — it was about us making the financial decisions together and reading off the same page.

In other words, it was okay if I was the one who wrote the page, so long as we both agreed with what was on it.

This was a big deal to me because I always felt like I was herding cats trying to get my husband to sit down with me to crunch numbers. Truth be told, I’m not very good with numbers. But I am detail-oriented when it comes to taking care of the finances and (usually) prone to follow-through, while my husband is all like, “Isn’t it enough that I earn the money?” No biggie. Yin and yang, and all that. We all have our strengths, and frankly it’s a good thing I’m the one making sure the bills get paid because when The Hubs is away it’s all up to me anyway.

I wish I had some magic words of wisdom that would help you get your spouse to sit down with you and talk finances. But if the two of you aren’t able to discuss what your financial goals are than the problem is bigger than what I can address in this space. I will only say that it is important that each of you has “Blow Money” of your own each month: an agreed upon amount of cash that each of you has to spend without having to answer to the other.

And if it is difficult for you to sit down with your spouse — how about just with yourself? Why do you want to be debt-free? What are your goals? Have you ever written them down? (More on this in “Dare to Dream” further down.) Try doing that first, then see where a conversation goes when you share them with your spouse. You might be surprised to learn about some goals that he (or she) has, as well, that have never been articulated. When you start talking about where you want to be, it might make it easier to move into talking about what you have to do to get there.

Yes, you have worked hard for your money. That’s why you deserve to be debt-free.

Take Baby Steps!

Does looking at your total debt amount make you want to give up before you even get started? Then don’t look at it. Break the total debt down into manageable pieces and take an honest look at your spending needs to determine what you can put toward debt. You’re already making payments, after all: the goal is to determine how much extra you can put toward your debt and still keep the lights on and food on the table and not go completely insane.

For some, a baby step might be a monthly goal of simply creating — and then sticking to — a budget. For others, it might be paying off credit cards and worrying about the student loans later.The key is to just get started.

Then Reward Yourself!

Did you meet your goal of going one month without eating out? Then treat yourself! Did you stick with a monthly budget for the first time in your life? Treat yourself! Did you meet your baby step goal of paying off that high-interest credit card (which you also STOPPED USING altogether)? Way to go!

Rewarding yourself for these incremental accomplishments should not be setting you back financially — that would, after all, be defeating the purpose. But indulging yourself in a $4 latte or a $5 used book online (or wherever your true love lies) somehow feels different when you’re making the purchase deliberately after practicing self-discipline for a set amount of time.

Get Back on the Horse

We have personally encountered more than a few speed bumps on our debt-free journey so far. Namely, with car expenses: $  total in maintenance and repairs, to be exact.

Rather than put these repairs on a credit card to be “paid later”, we cash-flowed them and paid off less debt that month. It was frustrating to not meet our goals for that month. But psychologically, it was important to face that expense head-on rather than put it on a credit card. We felt more in control that way; somehow it feels much different knowing that those dollars are leaving your checking account right now. It allows you to just move on.

The main thing is to get back on that horse and pick up where you left off. You’re going to “keep on keeping on” anyway, right? Might as well get out of debt while you’re doing it.

Dare to Dream

What would you do if finances weren’t a consideration? Travel? Work for a charity?  Work for yourself? Live in the country? Give your kids a debt-free college education?  Stay home and home school those kids right now?

Most people know what they would like to do, but they hardly dare voice their desire because they don’t believe it’ll ever happen. Sadly, ignoring debt leads to ignoring dreams.

Curiously, some people even use their debt as a crutch as to why they can’t do what they say they really want to do. In other words: they’re using their debt as an excuse.  Facing your dreams can help you to face your debt. Dare to define your dreams and make them tangible. Write them down. Better yet, find a picture that defines your dream — a log cabin in the woods? A worn passport filled with stamps? A picture of your kid holding a college diploma? (You can photo shop those in — go ahead, get creative.)

Take that picture and wrap it around your debit card (because you have put away your credit cards by this point, right?). If you’ve moved completely to cash — yea for you! Then wrap it around your ATM card. This reminder will help you to stay the course and measure the real cost of each purchase, in dollars and cents and otherwise.

***

My husband and I are almost done paying off our debt snowball — just $3,396.21 to go! We expect to pay that off in the next couple of months after which we will start building up our emergency fund. After that we will turn our focus to paying off our 2nd mortgage (aka “stupid tax)…

Oh, sure, we would do things differently had we known then the things we know now, blah-blah-blah… But at least we know them now! The best place to start is the beginning. We will continue to make mistakes, I’m sure — but at least now we know where we’re headed. When we get derailed we know exactly where that train is going once we get back on.

We continue to hit speed bumps. For instance, we are Reluctant Landlords of a house in Las Vegas that we will not be able to sell anytime soon. Our latest tenants just moved out, so we are currently paying the mortgage and other various expenses for that house with no rent check to off set the cost. Yes, it hurts! But we’re not changing the direction we’re traveling — it may just take us a little longer to get there, that’s all.

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