Debt truly is the worst four-letter word in the financial world. Once you get into debt, it can constantly hang over your life, causing constant anxiety. But debt doesn't have to dominate your life. To help show you how to get out of debt, I've put together five simple things you can do to start paying off what you owe, and get yourself on the path to financial independence.
1. Figure out what you really owe.
Many people think of debt in terms of how much they have to pay to cover their minimum payments every month. But to get a true handle on your debt, you have to know how much you owe in total.
Make a list of all your debts, with the total outstanding, minimum payments, and current interest rates. You'll use that list in future steps as a guide to deciding how to get your debt paid off.
2. Find savings wherever you can.
In tough times, the hardest thing to do is find ways to cut your costs in order to save more. But whether it's clipping coupons, cutting back on unnecessary expenses, or picking up extra work on the side, dedicating every spare dollar in your budget toward reducing your debt will get you out of debt as fast as possible.
3. Apply any extra money toward paying down your highest-rate debt.
Once you've found that savings, go back to your list of debts and figure out which ones carry the highest interest rates. For most people, credit card debt will rise to the top of the list, as card-issuing banks Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM), and Citigroup have many cards that charge double-digit interest rates right now. Banks count on those sky-high interest rates to help finance delinquent accounts and earn substantial profits, but that doesn't mean you should pay them any longer than you have to. If you can double your monthly payments on just a single card, you'll chop off well over half the time it'll take you to get that card paid off.
4. When you've paid off one debt, apply that money to your next-highest-rate debt.
Getting that first card paid off can be slow going, but the nice thing about this strategy is that when you're done paying that card off, you'll have more money to pay down other debts. Once you're done getting rid of all your credit card debt, you'll likely move on to high-rate student loan debt, car payments, and eventually, lower-rate student loans and mortgage debt.
5. Once you're done, don't stop saving.
When your debt is all gone, start paying yourself. Since you've gotten used to setting that money aside to get out of debt, you shouldn't miss it when you start investing it toward savings goals, such as having a rainy-day fund, building up a down payment for a home, or saving for long-term needs like retirement. Doing so will get you ahead and prevent you from falling back down the debt spiral at the first sign of financial difficulties in the future.
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As simple as these steps are, it can take years to get through them and eliminate your debt entirely. The key, though, is staying confident that you have a plan, and that you do know how to get out of debt in the long run. Having that confidence will help you get through the inevitable tough times, and stay on course to a much more prosperous financial future.
Fool contributor Dan Caplinger owns warrants on Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase. You can follow him on Twitter @DanCaplinger. The Motley Fool owns shares of Bank of America, Citigroup, and JPMorgan Chase. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.