Getting out of debt and staying out of debt is not easy. Chances are, you’re reading this article because you’ve already amassed a fair amount of debt and are thinking it will be impossible to ever get out from under it all. Learn how to stop incurring new debt and change your life.
1. Stop increasing your debt. If you have any credit cards that are maxed out, cut them in half. If you have more than one remaining credit card, cut them up. When you finish, you should have no more than one credit card. Also cut up any “convenience” cards, such as gas cards, department store cards, etc. You will use your one credit card ONLY to buy “must haves” (see below) until you can get your spending fully under control.
2. Record your spending. The idea of writing down what you spend is a concept most people find annoying at best and useless at worst. However, this is actually your key to getting out of debt. You’re in debt because you spent money you didn’t have. If you’re like many people, your debt didn’t come from one single huge purchase; it was trickles of spending amassed over time. Avoiding more debt starts with knowing what you are spending your money on. Each day for one month (at least), write down every penny you spend, no matter how small.
3. Categorize your spending. Categorize your monthly expenses into logical groups of “Must have,” “Should have,” and “Like to have.” “Must haves” are things that will cause harm if you don’t buy them, such as food, rent, medicine, pet food, etc. “Should haves” are things that you need, but can do without for a little while, e.g., new clothes for work, gym membership, etc. “Like to haves” are things that you don’t need, but enhance your life, e.g., magazine subscriptions, newspaper, cable tv, weekly coffee with friends, IM on your phone, etc. By doing this, you’ll have a good idea of what you spend your money on, and you’ll be able to figure out where you might need to cut back on spending. You don’t want to eliminate all of the “should haves” and the “like to haves,” but take a look at those first. One of your expenses will be paying off your debt. You will want to always pay more than the minimum required, otherwise it will take an extemely long time to eliminate your debt. For example, a single credit card with just a $2,000 balance and 19% interest will take about FIVE YEARS to pay off by making only the minimum payment of $42.
4. Make a budget based on your spending record. Write down the amount you spent in each category of spending last month as you budget for spending for the next month. Don’t sweat if you feel like the amount is too much. For now, just write it down. If you spent $250 on clothes last month, write it down. If you spent $200 on gas for your car last month, write it down.
5. Figure out your debt paydown fund amount. Looking at your new budget, you’re going to be able to see areas where you might be able to cut back. You might also see categories where you need to increase spending. In doing this step, no one is suggesting that you come up with budget amounts that are unlivable. Think about going on a diet–if you try to restrict your calories excessively, what’s the first thing you want to do? Krispy Kreme here you come, right? The key here is to be realistic. Are you paying money for a gym membership you never use, despite your best intentions? What about the $4 a day, every day, morning coffee you get before work, or your 5-cans-of-Diet-Coke-a-day habit? Chances are, your budget has some fat that can be trimmed. At the end of this exercise, you should have come up with a figure, a number of dollars that can be put toward debt paydown. Make a note of this figure. Day-to-day, if you don’t want to keep taking note of all your expenditures, just write down what you spend in the categories you are trying to cut back. This will give you a very clear idea of how well you are doing, and, if you know you’re going to go over your budgeted amount, it may help you decide to hold back on a purchase.
6. Figure out how much you owe, to whom, and on what terms. Debt can often feel overwhelming because you really don’t have a clear idea of how much in debt you really are. Gather your bills, and make a simple list or spreadsheet of all the debts you have. Write down all the pertinent facts, including name of the creditor, your total balance, your minimum monthly payment, and your interest rate.
7. Start paying it off. Take the debt paydown figure of money you trimmed from your budget in step 4, and apply it to debt repayment. It’s a good idea to prioritize the debts to which you are going to apply this extra money.
8. Don’t give up. Chances are you didn’t get into debt in a day, and you won’t get out of debt in a day. Quick fixes don’t last, but learning how to manage your money can bring great peace into your life, and you can spend your mental energies on more fun things.