Given that you have taken the time to click on this article, is it safe to say that you’re in debt? You're certainly not alone! From home mortgages and student loans to purchases made on credit cards or through other lenders, many of us have borrowed money to at some point. Whether you owe a minimal quantity or sizable sums, the reality is that you will have to pay back your loan debt in full at some juncture (not forgetting interest, of course). It is intimidating to face any balance, especially when the payment plan covers a span of decades. Though you may feel trapped by debt and destined to a life of scrimping and saving just to pay off your loan debt, you don’t have to let short- or long-term debt consume you. As you strive both to repay money you owe and maintain some of a semblance of your lifestyle, keep these five tips in mind.
1. Don’t fear the “b” word.
The first step in paying off debt of any kind has to be creating a budget. Shake off the cringe you just experienced hearing that word, shatter all the negative connotations you associate with it, and reconstruct your overall approach to budgets. They are key to becoming debt free. Think of them as frameworks that not only align with your individual financial situation but also inform and guide your short- and long-term goals. While many people falsely perceive following a budget as restrictive, the process actually provides freedom within the structure that you give yourself.
How do you begin to put together a budget? It may seem intimidating, but you can easily get advice and tools from a simple internet search or talking with a trusted friend or family member. In hardly any time at all, you can get your hands on a template and be off and running. Depending on your personality and financial situation, though, you may find using a template to be frustrating. In this case, it might be most helpful to start from scratch and build a budget to fit your specific needs. This operation will take time and effort upfront, but it will absolutely expedite your budgeting system moving forward. Most importantly, remember that a budget is a living document; once created, it does not have to remain in its initial form. Its purpose is to help you take charge of your spending and saving, but don’t hesitate to let it evolve with your fiscal life and tweak it accordingly.
2. Personalize your payments.
Whether your budgeting format is borrowed or an original, you will have to customize it somewhat in order to reflect accurately your individual money situation. Insert categories that parallel the reality of your own income and expenditures, as well as your need to pay off debt. You can’t effectively budget without knowing where your dollars come from and where they go! One straightforward path to directing funds toward debt payoff is first to make cutbacks in other spending areas. Determine which “nonessential” (entertainment, eating out, impulse buys, etc.) expense categories are your vices and focus on limiting corresponding purchases. Extra money you save in those categories can be earmarked to pay off debt. You’ll be amazed by how reducing spending on some of those “fluff” items can save big bucks without stepping on your game too much.
Depending on the agency, you can personalize your debt payment and strategically factor it into your budget. Many student loan collection corporations, for example, offer the option of enrolling in a plan that automatically increases your monthly payment total every few years. This program assumes your income level will rise over the course of your career, which will equip you to afford graduated payments and pay back your student loan debt at a faster overall rate. If your professional field doesn’t produce a steady income climb, you might prefer a different plan that requires static monthly payments and then choose to contribute larger sums only when you're able.
Regardless of the type of debt you’re in, don’t let the notion of paying it off in full in the shortest time frame dominate your budget and interfere with your day-to-day life. Of course, repaying debt is a nonnegotiable that you will have to do eventually, but other sources of spending in your life are just as vital and cannot be neglected—namely, residence, utilities, food, and healthcare. Make debt payments that take into account your personal circumstances (income level, essential expenses, marital and parental status, etc.) and allow you to fund all your essentials and adequately provide for yourself and your loved ones. Just because someone you know is able to pay off a debt in a given window of time doesn’t mean that same plan is the right choice for you.
3. Let your debt snowball.
Sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Renowned financial expert and debt-free life enthusiast Dave Ramsey coined the “snowball method,” a debt reduction strategy that centers around escalating motivation and shrinking money owed. Its intent is to pay off debts in order of smallest to largest, gaining momentum each time a balance reaches zero. When the least significant debt is paid in its entirety, you “roll” the money that had been allocated for it into the next smallest balance. This method is effective in eliminating debt in a logical and feasible manner. Simply list all your non-mortgage debt from smallest to largest and make the minimum payments on each, except your smallest, of which you pay as much as possible. Repeat this system until each debt is compeltely repaid.
In order to implement the snowball approach, you must have resources available to make the maximum payments on the focus balance, which will technically be your least amount for the time being but still more substantial than the one you just paid off and only a fraction of the ones on deck. Freeing up funds to pay off the current and upcoming debts might force to you to make sacrifices in other spending areas. Think back to those “nonessential” categories and eliminate anything that you really don’t need or can live without in the present for the sake of reducing debt. Again, don’t go overboard and adopt unhealthy or unsustainable measures—take on only what is reasonably achievable for you.
4. Avoid digging more holes.
If you’re already in debt, whether you owe an inconsequential amount to one debt collector or several weighty bundles to multiple institutions, you’re best off working to pay back what you owe while not incurring any more balances in the meantime. You may feel oppressed by reining in your spending power, but choosing not to borrow money doesn’t mean you have to settle for a bare-bones lifestyle. In fact, more frequent, smaller-scale purchases can bring greater satisfaction than occasional but still over-the-top expenditures that max out credit cards. Differentiate between needs and wants, and prioritize each grouping—you’ll feel at ease dropping manageable dough on time-sensitive must-haves, as opposed to going into debt for luxuries that can wait or are altogether dispensable.
Need a new car, for instance, amidst paying for a combination of other debts? Instead of going in the hole again and having to make monthly payments on a new model, consider a preowned, older version that is just as reliable, just with fewer bells and whistles, for which you can save up to pay cash upfront. You’re still fulfilling a need and making a necessary purchase, but you’re being conscientious and not sinking further into the red. Practicality does not have to equal deprivation!
5. Treat yo’self.
It’s no secret that a surefire way to accumulate money to repay debt is to reapportion what you spend on those oh-so-tempting yet ultimately nonessential items. Don’t feel like you have to go without a Target spree or Starbucks stop forever, though! Establish an incentive system that will periodically reward and, therefore, continuously motivate you along the road to debt payoff. Think of budgeting like dieting: permitting yourself to have “cheat meals” is crucial to staying on track toward your goal weight. If you withhold indulgence for too long, you’ll be much more inclined to give up the diet altogether in one fatal, chocolate-covered move.
The same mindset applies to debt repayment. Depriving yourself of purchases you enjoy might eventually break you and cause you to go on a spending frenzy, which will derail your budget and negate the progress you’ve made in paying off debt. Come up with options for sensible yet gratifying “prizes” to buy for yourself each time a debt balance reaches zero. You’ll experience all the purchasing pleasure you crave to propel you to the next reward while not having to worry about jeopardizing your overall finances.
Debt doesn’t have to paralyze your lifestyle! Start with a budgeting framework that fits your daily fiscal reality, and don’t be afraid to adjust it as needed over time. However you choose to budget, you will have to make some sacrifices, but remember that the process is all about prioritizing expenditures and determining what is truly most valuable in the grand scheme. Above all, don’t compare yourself to anyone else. You can’t possibly know the nuances of other people’s financial situations, and fretting about what this coworker or that friend is doing or feeling sorry for yourself won’t help you in reaching your monetary goals. Find a system that works for you and your family to live comfortably within your means while also working toward debt payoff. Consider how you might execute the five tips explained here as part of your approach to debt, and you can find freedom within the hole!
Hi, there! I’m Allie Hofer, an HR professional and work-life balance enthusiast. More officially, I’m a Professional in Human Resources (PHR), Society of Human Resource Management – Certified Professional (SHRM-CP), and Recruiter Academy Certified Recruiter (RACR).
After having my first child, I opted out of the traditional office setting to work from home. Since then, I have been consulting with organizations in the public and private sectors to support the Human Resources function in recruiting, compensation, training and development, and performance management.
I started Office Hours to offer a boutique HR solution for small and medium-sized businesses and to help candidates navigate and completely own their career paths.
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