It's easy to get discouraged when your financial big picture is drenched in red ink -- especially if you stop to calculate how much you're paying just for the interest on your debt. Phil Gardner did just that a few years ago, and realized that he'd forked over $193,345.59!
Fortunately, you can pay off your debt -- all of it. Many folks in our Fool community have done so, and have shared their advice and encouragement. Here are just a few impressive examples of board denizens who have reported doing a "happy dance" after becoming free of non-mortgage debt:
- Kristin and Brian Lee paid off more than $65,000.
- Mary Katz and her husband paid off $138,000.
- Jay Allen and his wife paid off $170,000.
Odds are, your debt isn't quite at those heady levels. That means you're in an even better position than these folks were.
The psychology of debt
Those deep in debt often end up just as deep in denial. The truth is just so painful to face that many people don't. But all the time they spend ignoring or refusing to acknowledge their situation just leaves them less time to fix it -- and more debt to pay back.
Even after people start tackling their debt, it's easy for them to get discouraged and give up. Maintaining your momentum and determination are crucial, which is why many people find it effective to join with others in their endeavor, whether in real-world support groups or an online discussion board.
Diana Alt, who paid off $25,000 in debt, explained: "I am a pretty disciplined person when it comes to doing what needs to be done, but if I hadn't found [the Fool] I don't think I would have known that I needed to do these things in order to create a sound financial future for myself, and I certainly wouldn't have known how to do it or had daily reinforcement and encouragement."
Expect to encounter setbacks, and stay focused all the same. Some of our heroes experienced job losses or periods of underemployment while paying down their debt. (One was in New York City during 9/11!) Yet they persevered.
Jay Allen reinforced the importance of focus: "It took us a loooong time to pay down the debt and I sometimes found that discouraging, but we never gave up. There were a number of times that we had to revise our goals for slower debt paydown and there were numerous times that we slid backwards, but we continued to keep our ultimate goal in mind and to work toward it."
Nuts and bolts
Once you've determined to dig yourself out, what actual steps should you take? These strategies have worked for many people:
- Join forces. If you're in a relationship, get your partner on board. Your plan won't work well if only one of you is committed to it.
- Stop adding to your debt. Rein in your spending, and focus on necessities.
- Set priorities. Assuming that your debt resides in multiple places -- a mortgage, a car loan, a stack of credit cards -- decide which debt you'll pay off first. Some find it very motivating to pay off the smallest-balance debts first, to cross them off the list. A more dollar-smart approach involves paying off your highest-rate debts first. Still, as long as you're paying down some portion of your debt, you're moving in the right direction.
- Plan your attack. Decide how much per month you'll be able to pay on your debts. Make sure you're paying the minimum due on each debt, so that you don't incur additional charges. After that, attack your top-priority debts.
- Think outside the box. See whether you can work overtime or get a part-time job, to pay down even more of what you owe. The more you pay, and the sooner you pay it, the faster you'll get out of debt, and the less you'll fork over in interest.
- Be patient. It took Mary Katz and her husband 40 months to pay off that $138,000 -- that's roughly $3,500 per month. How long it takes you will depend on the extent of your debt, and the resources you can muster.
- Don't look back. Once you reach your goal, make the most of the good habits you've developed. Consider turning your monthly debt payment into an investment deposit in your bank account, IRA, 401(k), or your regular brokerage account. You'll be in a great position to build up an emergency fund as well as salvage your retirement.
Naturally, the biggest benefit of paying off your debt is that you'll be financially free. Instead of paying interest to lenders, you'll start earning interest, or making money on stocks. Talk about turning your life around!
But there are other payoffs, too. For example, one Fool community member who paid off $84,000 noted that much to his surprise, he's become an authority on debt, and a source of inspiration among the people he knows. He added: "[G]etting out of this debt situation is the single-most rewarding financial experience of my life. I am not really an emotional type, but when I think of what we have achieved, it almost brings me to tears."
The Lees noted: "The most important thing we took away from our financial adventure together is how much closer it brought us together as a couple. ... We continue to live below our means and it is no longer difficult."
Katz, meanwhile, reported:
It's been seven years and we are still happily out of debt. Life on the other side is just fantastic. We put my son through college with no debt, have done some traveling, home improvements, and I'm back in school for another degree, all without taking on additional debt. I think our biggest tool is really the 'freedom account' -- saving money every month for the normal but non-monthly expenses.
Their success, and the success of many others, can be yours. It will take a lot of determination, courage, hard work, and patience, but it can be done if you put your mind to it. You'll be amazed at what you can accomplish, and that success will likely inspire you in other areas of your life, too. Once you've clawed your way out of tens of thousands of dollars in debt, what can't you do?
Learn more about handling your money better:
- This Sticky Stock Is a Steal
- 5 Dividend Monsters to Buy After the Crash
- Warren Buffett Predicts the Next Crisis
Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian does not own shares of any companies mentioned in this article. Try any of our investing newsletter services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.