Is your debt stressing you out? If so, you’re not alone. Nearly 70 percent of American households have some form of debt. That’s a smaller percentage than during the height of the recent recession, but debt statistics for the United States are still sobering:
- $70,000 – Median debt for American households
- $150,000 – Average mortgage debt in the U.S.
- $33,000 – Typical student loan debt for new graduates
- $15,000 – Average credit card debt for most consumers
Face your debt now and find your financial Zen—that enlightened attitude toward money others seem to enjoy. Put it off, and your situation’s only going to get worse, further separating you from any peace of mind you might be hoping for.
Getting out of debt and keeping your spending under control can boost your financial and physical well-being. And while there’s no instant fix for those who want to learn how to get out of debt fast, the path to finding your financial Zen can be distilled down to a few key principles. Here are six ways to get out of debt and be more mindful about your money.
1. Find Out Where You Stand
Reviewing your credit history does two things: It alerts you to possible mistakes on your credit record (which are fairly common), and it gives you some insight into how flexible your creditors might be if you try to renegotiate your payment plan. Start by getting a free copy of your current credit report at AnnualCreditReport.com. This type of “soft” inquiry won’t impact your credit score like a loan application would, so there’s no reason not to download this document.
Review your report carefully to ensure that all of the accounts listed are legit. If you spot something suspicious, contact the credit agencies ASAP. Your report will also give you a good idea as to how your creditors view you as well as a better grasp on your credit standing in general. And only by knowing where you stand now, will you be able to clearly see a path forward.
2. Lock Up Your Credit Cards
Avoid digging yourself any deeper in debt by making it hard to use your credit cards. Lock those pieces of plastic in a box, cut them up (except one for true emergencies) or even freeze them in a bowl of water. (This actually works for some people.) Generally speaking, don’t close any accounts because this reduces your credit limit and can ding your credit score. Plus, even if you do end your relationship with a creditor, you’ll obviously still need to pay off your balance.
3. Negotiate with Creditors
It’s hard for most people to negotiate with creditors, but it can make a difference in getting out of debt. Prioritize your most important bills, including utilities, transportation, insurance and your rent or mortgage. Pay all of them in full if possible. If you’re not able to pay the minimum on a credit card, give the card issuer a call. Depending on your history, you may be able to negotiate a lower interest rate or at least a lower minimum payment. Creditors don’t want to track you down or send your account to collections, and calling them to explain your situation makes it less likely they’ll have to.
4. Reduce Stress with Budgeting Apps, Software or Services
A key factor in reaching your financial Zen is learning how to take charge, and then doing it. That begins with a monthly budget. Creating a budget and sticking to it can lower your debt and erase stress, making you a happier and healthier person. Budgeting used to be a hassle, but modern apps like Mint make everything easier by automatically importing your financial activity and reminding you about upcoming bills. The best tools offer alerts and financial suggestions to help you make informed choices instead of muddling your way through and hoping for the best.
Budgeting apps, software and services can help you find financial enlightenment and empowers you to maintain your progress. You don’t need a fortune in the bank to create a budget that works and constantly improve it. Start by entering your income and recurring expenses. Overestimate important costs such as utilities, transportation and food to allow yourself a little buffer. Use your budgeting tool to help you spot areas where you can cut back. Whatever money is left over after paying your monthly expenses should go directly toward outstanding debts.
5. Focus on One Debt at a Time
If your debt is spread out across multiple credit accounts, it might be tempting to pay them all down equally. And while that’s not necessarily a bad idea, another approach might help you build more momentum. Many experts advise choosing one outstanding debt to target first, but there are different theories on the best one to select. Some people choose the smallest debt first for the motivation that paying it off will provide. Others choose to go after debt with the highest interest rate first because it’s costing the most money.
Once you choose which debt to work on first, pay the minimums on all other outstanding debts, and put every leftover dime toward the debt you’re targeting. Repeat until the targeted debt is cleared, then choose another to tackle. There are no shortcuts, and you may have to make difficult spending choices, but it’s still better than having a debt going into collections.
6. Use Unexpected Money Wisely
Don’t include things like year-end bonuses in your budgeting, because amounts and timing are not guaranteed. When you find yourself with unexpected money, put it toward debt before you even have a chance to think about it.
Furthermore, don’t be afraid to ask for help when it comes to your debt. If your income isn’t high enough to meet certain responsibilities, or if you worry that bankruptcy may be necessary, you have a few choices. You can ignore your debt (bad idea), or try a combination cutting expenses, finding additional sources of income and working with creditors to create reduced-interest repayment plans.
If you’re really in over your head and don’t know where to start to get out of debt, consider working with a consumer counseling service. Before choosing a service, check with your state’s Attorney General’s office to learn if there are complaints against it. The Department of Justice has a list of approved agencies for debt counseling as well. Unfortunately, some organizations claiming to be credit counseling services charge high fees and can make debt problems even worse.
If thinking about how much money you owe creditors gives you headaches, heartburn, or just plain stresses you out, your relationship with money is harming your health. The consequences of not being able to pay your bills can haunt you for years, but remember that you’re not alone. Getting out of debt is a goal shared by millions, and it can be accomplished if you approach it mindfully.
Most people have experienced the peace that comes from having enough money to meet a responsibility, however small. Imagine enjoying that sensation thanks to education and intention, not by happy accident. Start acting to get out of debt now, and you’ll realize your dream of living a debt-free life that much sooner.