Debt is a vicious cycle, and once you’re stuck, it’s very difficult to get out.
I signed up for my first two credit cards in college (you know, to get the free t-shirt). By the time I left college I had a decent amount of debt and two worn out t-shirts. I wasn’t paying this off every month and so I was paying 20% or more in interest charges.
Looking back, it’s hard to believe I left college with this debt. After all, I graduated with an advanced degree in accounting and was preparing for the CPA exam. I guess I was living for the future, thinking that first big payday would bail me out.
After college, I got a few retail credit cards (you know, to save 10% on more t-shirts). All this eventually added up to late charges, credit dings, and a bunch of high interest, stupid debt. I let the credit card companies dictate when I applied for a credit card. I wasn’t being disciplined in the use of those cards.
Getting out of debt is not glamorous or exciting, but it’s essential for creating a financially healthy future. You need to be intentional with your financial choices so that you, rather than your creditors, are making all of your money decisions.
Table of Contents
- Why Get Out of Debt?
- What’s the Best Way to Pay Off Credit Card Debt?
- How Do You Prioritize Other Debts?
- Should You Pay Off “Good” Debt?
- Stop the Cycle of Debt
- How Your Community Can Help
- Increase Your Income to Speed Up Your Debt Payoff
- Get Creative with Credit Card Payoff
- Staying Focused During a Long Debt Payoff
Why Get Out of Debt?
For most of my life I was under the impression that debt is normal. Doesn’t everyone carry some sort of debt? But this kind of thinking is limiting and counterproductive.
Yes, there are arguments to be made about how debt can be leveraged to your advantage. Certain types of debts, like mortgages, student loans, or small business loans, could be an investment in your future. But even though it makes sense to borrow money sometimes, the stress of debt means it’s usually not worth it.
In fact, getting out of debt has intangible benefits and can help you become a happier and healthier person. Benefits like:
Three of the five top causes of deaths in America (heart disease, lower respiratory diseases, and strokes) are often stress-related or exacerbated by stress. (Stress may also contribute to fatal accidents, which make up the third leading cause of death in the United States.) And what are we stressed about? One of the main stressors on our bodies is the financial problems we encounter everyday.
Having debt-related stress is much more pervasive and difficult, because it’s so integrated with other areas of your life. It affects your physical, mental and emotional state, and can lead to serious health issues.
Those of us who have large amounts of debt are negatively impacted when it comes to our health. Highly debt-stressed people are more likely to:
- Lose sleep at night
- Have severe anxiety
- Take stress out on others
- Experience severe depression
- Have ulcers and other digestive problems
- Have heart problems and migraines
Getting out of debt can make an enormous difference on your health. Once you are debt-free, you will be enjoying less stress, giving your body a break.
I discovered first hand how interconnected debt is with the overall health of your mind and body. After I paid off my debt, I slept better. I stopped having endless migraines and stomach problems. And I felt less anxious and less tired.
More Money in Your Pocket
Not only does clearing your debts feel pretty darn good, but it can also offer you a kind of financial freedom. Suddenly, instead of owing money to your creditors each month, you can decide where to put your money based on your wants, needs, and values. For instance, you might prioritize any of these kinds of spending if you didn’t have to pay debts every month:
- Funding your retirement
- Saving for a down payment on a new home
- Putting money aside for a child’s college education
- Saving for a family vacation
- Giving generously to your favorite charitable organizations
See Also: 10 Ways to Give More
Finally, having more money freed up each month means you can use your money to build wealth. You can set your money to work for you once you’re no longer in the debt payment cycle. Invest, save, and do whatever it is you want to do with your money to build up some real capital. Watching your money grow exponentially is enough to make almost anyone happy.
Better Preparation for the Future
When you are debt-free, setbacks are no longer a major emergency, which means you’re ready for whatever life throws at you. If you have to visit the emergency room or you get laid off you probably won’t panic nearly as much as if you had a ton of debt obligations. Financial setbacks are annoying when you’re debt free, but they can be absolutely devastating when you’re riddled with debt.
This also means that retirement won’t feel quite so daunting. Retiring without any debt is certainly preferable to bringing a great deal of debt along with you into your golden years. Even if you are many years away from retiring, being debt free will make the impending experience less frightening.
Read More: How to Avoid Going Broke in Retirement
What’s the Best Way to Pay Off Credit Card Debt?
Even if you’re totally on board with the importance of paying off your debt, the specific process can feel overwhelming. Do you pay off the entire balance, even if it wipes out your cash reserves, or make payments over time? If you have several credit cards, how do you decide which card to pay off first?
There are several factors that go into deciding your strategy:
1. The Interest Rate on the Card
The first thing you should do is find how much you will be paying in interest if you do not pay off the credit card balance by the end of the billing term. If the interest rate is above 10% then you should try and pay off the complete balance. You will be paying a great deal in interest charges to keep this balance. But don’t forget that you may also consider using a personal loan to get a lower interest rate on your debt. You can checkout Fiona to compare personal loan interest rates of top providers in less than a minute.
If you’re card’s interest rate is 0-1% due to some special promotion, then it’s probably okay to make the minimums as long as you are fully aware of the promotional rate terms (i.e. when it ends, promotional balance vs regular balance).
The reason the minimum is acceptable in this situation is because the money you would use to pay off the full balance is better used elsewhere. For instance, it could be in an online savings account, like CIT Bank’s Savings Builder, and be earning interest, or you could invest it in a Roth IRA.
Lastly, if the interest rate is somewhere in between, 2-10% (a rarity), then you should let the next two factors influence your decision, as interest rate is somewhat of a non-factor at these levels.
2. Total Balance of the Card vs. Your Short-Term Savings
Assuming this your credit card is your only debt, compare your balance to your short-term savings.
As a general rule, if you have a decent amount of savings, say $500-$1,000, and your credit card balance is less than half that amount, $250-$500, then you should pay off the credit card in full.
If your short-term savings balance is less than $500, then I would consider getting it to that level prior to making any extra debt payments. My advice would be to make the minimum payment on your debt until you build up a decent level of savings. Then, every dollar over that amount would be put towards paying off the debt.
As an extra step, if you find yourself unable to pay off the full amount of credit card debt due to a low savings balance, consider transferring your debt to one of the best 0% balance transfer credit cards available today.
3. Your Risk Tolerance
The numbers above do have some meaning for your decision, but they aren’t everything. How you feel about your debt can trump the math.
For example, let’s say you have a credit card balance of $500, but it’s at a special promotion interest rate of 0%. Also, you have $2,000 in savings. It would then make sense, strictly from a numbers standpoint, to make the minimum payments on your credit card balance and continue funding your savings account.
However, if that $500 balance is keeping you up at night or making you feel uneasy about your financial situation or if you don’t trust yourself to remember to make the minimums (you’re scared of missing a payment), then it would probably be best to just wipe it out and pay it all off.
How Do You Prioritize Other Debts?
Of course, not all debt comes from credit cards. Figuring out the best way to pay off other types of debt also requires some careful consideration, especially if you carry multiple types of debt. To start, it’s a good idea to figure out what kind of payoff strategy you want to use:
Creating a Debt Payoff Plan
No matter what plan you use to eighty-six your debt, you need to start with some organization. Specifically, make a list of all your debts and include the following categories:
- name of your creditor
- total amount you owe
- recurring due date
- interest rate (including future rate changes)
- minimum payment
You can use a simple pen and paper or upgrade to a spreadsheet (which makes sorting easier). Once you have your list, you can prioritize your debts for payoff. In addition to these categories, make sure you also consider any annual fees, rate changes, or tax deductions. These factors can also affect your debt payoff strategy.
Some people like to use the interest rate on the debt to prioritize their list (payoff highest interest first). Others like to use the total balance of the debt, paying off the smallest debt first (this is the Dave Ramsey “snowball” way).
The former is better from a strictly numbers perspective. The latter may be better for motivation sake.
Decide which is right for you and rank your debts accordingly. The debt that ends up #1 on your list according to your ranking, will be the first debt you payoff. This will be the debt that you put all of your extra money towards.
After this one is completely paid off, move to #2, and so on until all debts are paid off.
Use Tally to Help You Pay Down Your Debt
Tally uses a new low-interest loan to help you organize your debt into one payment. There is a fee, which may or may not make it worth it.
Use the Pay Off Debt App to Help you Prioritize
This app allows you to organize your debts into a debt snowball, debt avalanche, or custom repayment order. You’ll be able to see exactly when the plan you set up will allow you to be debt-free.
It takes the guesswork out of which method will actually get you out of debt the fastest based on your exact situation. The app makes it easy to test out how big of an impact additional payments could make, record custom payments, and more. It includes an amortization table for each debt so you can see at a glance how much of each payment goes to interest and how much goes to reduce the balance.
But helping you stay motivated is the most important thing the app does. Everything within the app is designed to help you remain focused on your goal of debt freedom: the app’s “PAID” icon for instant inspiration, progress bars, space for you to add a photo that represents why you want to be debt-free, and more.
Should You Pay Off “Good” Debt?
Both mortgages and student loans are often lumped together as “good” debt. Student loan debt, which generally has a very low-interest rate, creates value over time in your ability to qualify for a higher paying job. Mortgages also tend to enjoy lower interest rates, and the interest on both of these types of debt are tax-deductible. Considering the low interest rates on these types of “good” debt, when does it make sense to prioritize paying them off?
Before you consider paying off these debts early, make sure you have the following basics taken care of:
- A well-established emergency fund
- No other debts
- Contributing to your 401(k) up to your employer’s match
Prioritizing Mortgage vs. Student Loan Payoff
If you are all set with that, then you can start prioritizing either your student loan or mortgage. Under the Snowball technique, encouraged by financial guru Dave Ramsey, an individual attacks the smallest debt first since they are going to have success fairly quickly. Most people subscribing to this method would choose to pay off the student loan debt first because of the lower balance.
The other strategy would target the bill with the highest interest rate first. Student loans generally carry a low-to-moderate interest rate, currently averaging 5.8% in the U.S. according to New America. Mortgage rates are really low, currently averaging below 4%, per Bankrate.
Mortgage Payoff vs. Investment
The argument around paying off your mortgage early mostly revolves around whether you should instead be investing the money. The math actually supports investing in most cases, especially as the term becomes longer. Let’s look at a rough example:
- Let’s say you have a $200,000 mortgage at a 30-year fixed 4% interest rate.
- Let’s also assume you have an extra $1,000 each month to either invest in taxable investment accounts or apply to your mortgage.
Example 1 (Invest): If you spend the next 30 years paying that off with the minimum payments, you will have paid a total of $343,739.21 in combined principal and interest payments. If you invested the $1,000 each month into a taxable investing account at a projected 6% annual return, your investment alone would be worth around $1,000,000 at the 30-year mark.
Example 2 (Debt Payoff): If instead, you apply the extra $1,000 to your monthly payments, at the end of 10.5 years you will have paid off your mortgage. You will have paid a total of $245,007.71 in combined principal and interest payments. If you then started investing the $1,000 plus the mortgage payment of $954.83 each month into a taxable investing account at a projected 6% annual return, your investment would grow over the next 19.5 years and be worth around $850,000 at the 30-year mark.
So, even though you will save around $100,000 in interest payments, you are giving up over $150,000 in potential investment gains.
Before we leave this section, you should know: you can do both! You can fast track your mortgage and still aggressively invest. It’s not an either-or proposition.
You’ll likely make more money in the future. You’ll get a raise. Your business will take off. You’ll create that second or third stream of income. Pretending that you can only do one or the other only limits your mindset.
How to Pay Off Your Mortgage
There are several strategies for paying off your mortgage:
- Make routine extra pre-payments: An extra $250 per month on a 200,000 loan at 4% interest would knock 10 years off your loan – taking it from a 30-year mortgage to a 20 year.
- Biweekly payments: Instead of paying your mortgage each month, you could switch to bi-weekly payments. This would give you 26 half payments each year vs the 12 full payments. It speeds up your payoff, without changing much of your cash outlay.
- Refinance your 30-year mortgage to a 15-year mortgage: There might be closing costs to account for here. But a better rate and a shorter term could be just the strategy you need.
- Rent out a room and apply the rent payment: This extra income stream could be applied directly to your mortgage balance and help you pay off your home sooner.
- Make lump-sum payments:Whether it’s annual bonuses, tax refunds, stock options, or some side-hustle business boom, think of the lump sums you’ll be getting over the next few years. Make plans to apply those big chunks to your mortgage.
Related: Should You Refinance Your Mortgage?
Stop the Cycle of Debt
A debt payoff plan is a necessary part of getting debt free. But no plan or strategy will ever work if you are stuck in a cycle of debt. The American dream of owning a home, having a fulfilling career, and settling down can turn into a debt nightmare if you don’t have your finances under control.
There are six necessary steps to stop this endless cycle:
Step 1: Understand Your Mindset
Why are you in debt? Does your debt consist of consumer debt (like credit cards or payday loans) or secured debt (like a car or mortgage). Perhaps it’s a mix of both, which is a clear sign your spending habits – and financial mindset – is completely out of balance. Start the process of reviewing the decisions you make and understand the WHY behind them. What prompted you to make the wrong financial decisions? Knowing the answers will help you avoid these issues and mistakes in the future.
Step 2: Change Your Habits
Once you identify the method behind the madness (and yes, spending more than you earn is madness), it will be that much simpler to change your habits. You’ll be able to see where you’re making good financial decisions and enforce them, while identifying the bad ones and stop them.
Step 3: Go On a Spending Diet
Challenge yourself to a financial diet and go 30 days without buying any non-essentials. Only allow yourself to purchase items that you need, like groceries and gas, along with paying your essential bills. Once you try it, you too might find you no longer want many of the things you thought you needed. Going on a short spending diet is not only better for your wallet, but for your mind!
Step 4: Set Yourself Up to Succeed
Once you acknowledge and understand your habits, the only way to truly overcome them is by replacing bad habits with good ones. One of my problem areas is eating out and buying fast food. So if I want to save money and spend smarter, I have to substitute eating out with meal planning, grocery shopping and cooking.
See also: 10 Tips for Healthy Eating on a Budget
But if you really want to overcome this vicious cycle, you have to set yourself up to succeed. For instance, I learned to buy food that’s not only convenient but simple to cook. My schedule is so demanding that if I spent hours making a complex meal plan, I’m likely to give up and go back to eating out again.
Step 5: Remove Any Temptations
It’s easier to avoid temptation than to resist it! So if you’re a shopaholic, it’s a good idea to avoid shopping traps. Unsubscribing from all your favorite online retail newsletters means you won’t be tempted each time you check your email. It’s much easier and smarter to remove any temptations that keep you stuck in the same bad spending habits.
Change your habits now and remove any unnecessary roadblocks, so you can ensure your journey to debt freedom will be as smooth as possible.
Step 6: Find Your Inspiration
Once you finally commit to ending your debt cycle and learn to live below your means, you’ll find it’s not easy.
You have to remember where you’re going, and focus on the end result. Otherwise, it will be all too easy to give up, then you’ll be less likely to try again in the future. The prize at the end of your journey has to be worth fighting for, to keep you motivated to reach the end. Find the goals that inspire you and you’ll have no problem staying the course.
How Your Community Can Help
The psychology of getting debt-free is almost as important as the math. Which is why making your debt goals public and sharing them with friends and family is a helpful strategy for destroying your debt for good. Using the power of peer pressure can help you stay on the straight-and-narrow. Here’s how:
Harness the Power of the Public
So share your debt goals with your best friend, your followers on Twitter or via email. However, you spread the word, just do it! Take that next step and vow that this year, you’re changing your life and want to take them along for the journey.
Yes, you’ll have to answer to them if your discipline starts declining or you begin losing momentum – but that’s what you need. Harnessing the power of the community around you is the best way to reach your dreams and goals.
But Find the Right Kind of Community
Of course, asking for peer pressure only works if you have a supportive community that wants to see you succeed. One of the biggest problems with trying to get out of debt is that your friends and family don’t always understand or support your decisions. So when you have to cut back on family outings, socializing with friends and going out to movies, the people around you might oppose you instead of support you.
This is why finding the right type of support is critical, and could mean the difference between failing or succeeding. When you share your goals publically, you give the community around you the chance to support you, both emotionally and financially.
So Don’t Be Afraid to Ask
If you’re not sure where to find your debt-payoff squad, don’t be afraid to ask for advice from those who have been through it. Advice from an experienced debt-payoff veteran will save you lots of time, money and energy. So if you’re lucky enough to find someone who’s been through it and came out on the other side, or who’s an expert in this area, ask questions!
If you surround yourself with the right type of people, they are usually very happy to talk about their experiences and share their knowledge. You might fear that accepting help or guidance will lessen your own achievement, or you might be reluctant to let your friend, family and community help. But the truth is, it’s nearly impossible to achieve a huge milestone on your own.
But if you allow others to help, you not only increase your chances of success, you’ll reinforce the relationship with them.
A Community of Two
Even if you decide not to share your debt-payoff journey with the wider world, make sure you get on the same page with your spouse or significant other. Working together to vanquish your debt will not only make the process more effective, but it can also help bring you closer together. Knowing that you have each other’s back in working for a better financial future is the stuff of romance.
But dealing with finances as a couple can be stressful, especially if you’re both new to the process of debt payoff. The Zeta app was designed specifically for couples and allows for improved financial communication between you and your partner without sacrificing privacy. The app allows you to share your finances with your sweetheart, track your overall net worth, review your monthly spending, and get targeted advice on how to improve your joint finances, including how to pay off your debt.
Creating a supportive financial community of two can increase your enjoyment of the process while helping speed up your end date.
Check out our full review of Zeta!
Increase Your Income to Speed Up Your Debt Payoff
To be debt-free there are only two real strategies that work: cut back on spending or earn more money. There’s only so much you can cut back on spending until you can’t cut back anymore. Too many people focus on scrimping and saving money and lose sight of how much more progress they could make just by bringing in a little extra money.
If you want to see the light at the end of the debt tunnel sooner, focus on bringing in more money. Here are three ways you can do that:
1. Leverage Your Knowledge and Skills
You don’t have to go back to school or have an expensive degree to make some money on the side. You probably already possess the skills and knowledge!
- Do you enjoy teaching and mentoring? Make money on the side as a substitute teacher or do some private tutoring
- Are you creative and enjoy doing crafts and DIY projects? Make money hosting a scrap-booking class, a jewelry party or doing small DIY repairs
- Are you passionate about fashion and clothes? Make extra money as a fashion consultant or flip thrift store finds for a profit
There’s an endless amount of ways to increase your income by leveraging what you already know how to do.
2. Make Money From Your Assets
No, not those assets…
Each of us owns some sort of asset that we can use to make money on the side. Here’s what I mean–your home, your car and your yard, are all assets you can leverage.
If you have an extra room in your house, there’s an abundance of overnight travelers always looking for a comfortable bed and place to stay. On top of renting a space in your home, you could try renting your car for extra cash too. Some people even earn up to $600 per month doing this!
If you have a small garden with home-grown produce, consider selling at a local farmer’s markets or directly to friends, family, and neighbors. This is a great way to make your yard work for you.
3. Use Your Time for a Side Hustle
With sites like Fiverr, Taskrabbit, and Upwork.com, you can start making money immediately. From running quick errands like picking up groceries, driving someone to the airport or doing a few writing gigs, there are all kinds of ways to make an easy $5 or $10 bucks.
Related: How to Make Money on Fiverr
DoorDash is a food delivery service. Customers order at their favorite restaurants and DoorDash drivers, or Dashers, pick it up and deliver it. When you sign up, you’ll be asked when you are available for deliveries and you will be notified of jobs during those time frames. By strategically accepting orders, working high volume time slots, providing excellent customer service, and utilizing perks offered by DoorDash, you’ll be well on your way to earning $17/hour or more!
Check out our full review of DoorDash!
If you are in search of a side gig that requires no exclusive training or certification, then using Rover to become a dog walker or dog sitter is a great option. Loving animals, being reliable, and the ability to provide pets with safe, loving care, will go a long way in this type of work. Once you’ve hit your stride, you can make upwards of up to $1,000! Use this gig to pay off more of your mortgage, save up for that dream vacation, set aside towards a car, or whatever else you’ve got your sights on! Rover is an app that connects pet sitters and dog walkers with customers in their area.
Check out our full review of Rover!
Get Creative with Credit Card Payoff
Don’t limit your strategies for credit card payoff! You will definitely need to keep sending payments to your creditors each month. And the best way to kill off your debt is to find ways to send as much money as you can ASAP. But there are numerous tricks, hacks, and ideas for speeding up the process. For instance, you could:
- Use technology (like the Tally app) as part of your debt reduction plan. FinTech can often find solutions that would never occur to you.
- Post a debt payoff schedule on your fridge. The schedule and front-and-center placement will keep you motivated.
- Follow the old-school advice of (literally) freezing your credit card. You can’t use it to spend money if it’s in a block of ice!
- Negotiate a better rate with your credit card issuer.
- Transfer your high-interest balance to a card with a 0% APR promotional rate.
- Track your debt reduction progress visually. There’s something incredibly satisfying about coloring in a debt-payoff thermometer.
Finding new ways to reduce your costs, increase your income, and maintain your motivation can help you reach the end of your debt payoff journey.
Staying Focused During a Long Debt Payoff
In a perfect world, debt freedom would only require several months of sustained effort. But in the real world, you may be facing a long slog between now and your last debt payment. It’s natural to lose momentum when it can feel like your finish line is too far away. But there are some great strategies for keeping your eyes on the prize:
Adopt the Six Debt-Payoff Characteristics
Paying off debt doesn’t require special skills, talents, or the help of a debt settlement company. There are a few common characteristics I’ve seen in people, through my volunteer work in budget coaching ministry, who have been successful with paying down debts both big and small:
If the debt was the result of impulse buying or a spending problem, it may require looking deep inside to find the reason and dealing with that issue first. Without solving the problem, it’s likely to repeat itself again and again. Being honest with yourself about who you are is necessary to make sure you avoid temptations and stay on track.
Willingness to Accept Help
Why should you go at a big debt problem alone? Those who can put pride aside and are open to help are well on their way to getting some financial peace back in their life. A coach or accountability partner can help in identifying the root cause of the problem, as mentioned above, but also provide accountability for staying on track.
Appreciation for Small Victories
Staying on track can be done by using a spending plan and making proactive decisions for how money will be used. Celebrate the small wins. Small goals always lead to achieving the big goals!
It’s much easier to celebrate your little wins if you know they’re happening. That’s one of the reasons why it’s important to track your finances. Without a bird’s-eye view of your money, you won’t know how well your proactive money decisions are working. Empower is a great place to aggregate all your accounts and really see what’s going on with your money. With it, you can really feel all of your steps forward in your debt-payoff journey.
Ability to Avoid Temptation
Don’t make the problem larger than what it already is. For debts that take longer to pay off, there will be temptation faced along the way. The people who are serious about getting out of debt build up a tolerance and ignore these temptations. Their debt free date is bigger than short-term gratification.
Being willing to make some adjustments or delaying certain milestones in financial plans may be necessary. The more money that can be applied on top of the minimum payment, the faster the debt free day will occur. Again, this date is bigger than other plans to the person ultra motivated about getting out of debt.
This word has a negative connotation, but this characteristic is for those who are extra aggressive at paying off their debt. They look for opportunities to make extra payments using every penny they can. This might include working a few days per month or using work bonuses or tax refunds to make extra payments. They take every opportunity to send more money to their debt.
Use Mind Hacks
Staying motivated is also easier if you use mind hacks to keep yourself on track. These are strategies like:
- Reading inspiring stories: Seeing how others have navigated the same path you are walking can help you stay focused.
- Using an anti-charity: An anti-charity is an organization that supports a cause you don’t believe in or is against your values. Committing to a donation to your anti-charity if you don’t meet your goals is incredibly motivating!
- Creating a dream board: If you’re visually motivated, create a vision board for what you hope a life after debt will look like. Include images of places you want to travel and organizations you want to give money to.
- Making it a game: Engage your family and make your debt payoff progress a game. Assign points for various tasks and (free) prizes for reaching intermediate goals.
- Changing your perspective: It’s important to remember we each are to live such an abundant life. Taking the time to regularly notice all the good things in our lives and feel thankful for them can put the struggles of debt payoff into perspective.
The Bottom Line
The process of getting out of debt is often slow and tiresome. Your debt payoff journey will probably not be easy. But it is so worthwhile to know that you have ended the cycle of debt and given yourself freedom from creditors. Get started today, and your future will thank you.
Are you in the process of getting out of debt? What’s your inspiration for living a debt-free life? What tips and tricks do you use to stay motivated while you pay off your debt?
Photo by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash