Debt

How to Get Out of Debt... and Fast

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I’m not a huge Dave Ramsey fan. I’ve listened to his show from time to time and read his books. He can be entertaining, and he has helped a lot of people. But his dogmatic,” I’m right, and you’re wrong” approach to personal finance just rubs me the wrong way.

Of course, he can be inspiring about getting out of debt. And one-day several years ago after listening to his show, I pulled out a piece of paper and wrote the following:

“I will be debt-free by the age of 50.”

I was 40 when I made that promise to myself. By the time I turned 45, I had reached a significant milestone in my journey to get out of debt—I paid off my last school loan, leaving our mortgage as our only remaining debt.

Here’s the Real Deal on Dave Ramsey and Debt

When I first embarked on my debt-free journey, our non-mortgage debt consisted of school loans and a home equity line of credit. The home equity line was the result of several purchases, including a kitchen renovation and consolidating some credit card debt. We made the last payment on the home equity just a month before paying off the school loan.

In total, my wife and I paid off $237,428.13 in debt in less than five years.

So, how did we do it? And more importantly, how can you begin and finish a journey toward a debt-free life?

Based on our experience of climbing out of debt, there are 4 important steps that you need to take if being debt-free is your goal:

  • Stop going into more debt.
  • Reduce your interest rates.
  • Be aggressive, but not insane, about paying down debt.
  • Find a way to earn extra money to help fuel your debt paydown.

Stop going into more debt

This has become a bit of a cliché, but it is without a doubt the most important (and hardest) step if you want to tackle your debt. Unless you are teetering on bankruptcy, paying your debts is the easy part. But staying away from new debt? Now that is a challenge.

Learn More: 6 Keys to Setting Financial Goals

So, we started paying cash for cars, paying off credit card debt in full each month, and just saying ‘No’ to big purchases we couldn’t afford. Once you develop the habit of living without debt, you’ll likely find that your quality of life has not changed a bit.

Here’s what we found to be important to avoid piling on more debt:

  • An Emergency Fund: You’ve no doubt heard it a thousand times, but an emergency fund is a must. Even before you begin to pay extra on your debt, having some money set aside will help you handle unexpected expenses and give you a wonderful feeling of control over your finances. I’d recommend building up a one-month cushion before paying extra on debt. Once you have a month’s worth of expenses saved (in a high-interest savings account, of course), then you can begin paying down debt while continuing to build your emergency fund at a slower pace.
  • Save for big purchases: It’s absolutely critical that you include in your monthly budget the cost of large purchases (cars, education) and periodic expenses (car insurance and vacations). Don’t use your emergency fund for these!
  • Plan to have fun: You shouldn’t deprive yourself of any and all fun. I firmly believe that being debt-free is not actually the goal, but rather a means to a life full of choices and endless possibilities. So, what’s the point if you’re miserable for years while you work your way out of debt? More importantly, most people cannot maintain total financial deprivation for long. And just like a yo-yo diet, the result can be even more debt than you started with.

Related: How to Budget for a Vacation

Reduce your interest rates

This one is simple. Take a look at all of your debt, and take steps to reduce the interest rates on each loan. If it makes sense, refinance your mortgage or home equity line of credit. We refinanced our first home once, and we are refinancing our current home now. Refinancing a home is the single best way for most folks to lower their monthly expenses. But you should also look at refinancing your car loan or even personal loans.

If you have credit card debt, use 0% balance transfer credit cards to lower your rates. We did this for several years, and the result was significantly lower interest payments and less time to get out of credit card debt.

Related: Self is a unique company that offers to help you build your credit score. Instead of applying for a credit card that has high fees or a high-interest rate, Self has created a way for you to increase your credit score through a self-funded loan. After you’ve applied for your loan and selected a payment option, you’ll be on the path to building your credit. Once you’ve completed your payments, the entire principal is returned to you minus the interest rate.

Be aggressive, but not insane, about paying down debt

I alluded to this above, but it’s critical that you be realistic about how quickly you can pay off your debt. Dave Ramsey speaks of “gazelle-like intensity” when it comes to getting out of debt. That’s a great image, but we need to be careful.

To me, balance is important in all aspects of life, including finances. As a result, my wife and I invested in retirement accounts and our emergency fund while we paid down our debt. While this meant it took us a bit longer to get out of debt, it also helped us develop the habits of saving and investing, and it provided a solid financial foundation for our family.

One tool that many found helpful in paying down debt was Ready for Zero, though they shut down last year. Luckily, there are still programs such as the Goals feature within Mint.com, which can help you track your progress along your debt-free journey. This can help you make a plan to get out of debt, see where you stand, and calculate your payoff date(s). All of this can help you get out of debt faster.

Find a way to earn extra money to help fuel your debt pay down

This last one was our secret weapon. When I started the Dough Roller in 2007, I had no idea it would turn into a business. Within the first four years, the websites that I launched, combined, generated a full-time income. I kept my job at the same time, which allowed us to put the income from the business toward our debt (and now savings). I have since retired, focusing all of my efforts on Dough Roller and my other sites.

I’m not suggesting you start a website necessarily. But I am saying that if you can find a way to generate extra income, it will super-charge your efforts to pay down your debt.

How to Make Money with a Blog

If you want to learn about the above topics in more detail, here are some additional resources to help you tackle your debt:

What are your top “rules” for reaching a debt-free lifestyle?


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