Beating Debt: What Worked For Me

January 5, 2015

To those that have made the resolution every year to get out of debt or stop over-spending, I’ve been there. The best intentions paired with cutting up my credit cards and going on an anorexic budget didn’t work for me. I had to try a lot of ideas before I found a combination that fit my life. These are some of the strategies that have helped me stay on track. Take the ones that resonate with you and leave the rest.

Be honest about your debt

History has shown me if I don’t share with the important people in my life that I am in debt and making it a priority to pay it off, I will remain in debt. If I keep my debt a secret, I’ll keep getting invited to go out to dinner or to the movies, and sooner or later I will crack. The more people that know, the stronger my support system and the more likely I am to succeed.

The first few times I opened up about my debt problem, it was anxiety-inducing and embarrassing. In time it became easier. For the most part, people reacted with kindness, offering to spend more time doing activities that didn’t cost us anything. There were those people whom, for whatever reason, continued to invite me to dinner and costly events. I eventually had to distance myself from them. In the end, my honesty revealed who supported me and who did not.

Be realistic

The first nine months of adhering to my budget felt like trying to subsist on 500 calories a day. I wouldn’t buy something if I didn’t need it to survive. A few days or a week of this, and I would throw my budget out the window and spend recklessly. When the smoke cleared, I would look at myself with shame and confusion, wondering why I didn’t have the willpower to stick to a simple monthly budget. Soon thereafter, the cycle would start again.

Looking back, I wasn’t being realistic. Some people can go from being a spendthrift to miser without much effort, but I can’t. I would continue to fail if I didn’t change my expectations. It’s better to take a little longer to get out of debt, than to deprive myself to the point where I quit caring about paying off the debt. I began to get a cup of coffee if I really wanted it, without guilt. I bought the organic peanut butter I really like, without reservation. I purchased jeans that fit me better, and felt relief. I am still aggressively paying down debt, but give myself the wiggle room to spend money on things that bring me happiness every once in a while.

Practice saying no

I enjoy dining out, but if I went out to eat every time someone invited me to, I’d never get out of debt. I had to set a clear boundary with myself: If it’s not an important celebration for someone I’m close with, I will kindly decline. No lies or excuses are necessary. Something like, “I’d love to go, but it’s not in my budget right now. Have a great time though,” is usually enough. If you absolutely want to go to every birthday you’re invited to because you don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, set aside money from every paycheck into a checking account specifically for special events. I’m telling you though, people who respect and want the best for their friends will understand if you can’t afford to go.

Track your successes

I have a hand-written page with all my debts on it. Every time I make a payment I cross out the old balance and write the new balance underneath. When I’m feeling like I’m not making any progress, it’s a way for me to stay motivated by seeing how far I have come.

Plan ahead

I used to go to the grocery store every night because I didn’t plan my meals ahead of time. When I began to get my finances in order, I was optimistic and tried to meal-plan for the entire week. That was overwhelming so I gave up and I was back to running to the grocery store daily. After more trial and error, I discovered my comfort zone was to plan meals for three days, see what I had in stock, and go grocery shopping. As a result, I spend less money and less time at the grocery store.

Another way to plan ahead is to set aside money for birthday gifts, oil changes and other expenses I know are on the horizon. I have a checking account for car expenses, and every time I get paid I put a flat dollar amount in the account. When it’s time for the oil change, I’m not putting it off because I already have money designated for it. I use the same principle for gifts. I put a flat dollar amount into a ‘gifts’ checking account. Now when someone’s birthday or the holidays come up, I’m not worried about over-spending or sacrificing one expense for another. It’s a life saver for me.

If a strategy doesn’t work, try something else you’ve read or heard about until you do find something that works for you. Keep at it. It does get better.