The 12 Truths About Getting Out of Debt

1. You don’t have to live like a monk to get out of debt.

If you’ve currently got enough money (in theory at least!) to pay all of your bills and still eat, you can get out of debt without living like a monk.

12 truths about getting out of debtFor example, while we were paying off over $147,000 in debt, we lived a normal life with all of its ups and downs. We took trips to some great places, ate out, bought gifts, went to the movies, and did some home improvements. We dealt with a lot of not-so-fun stuff too, like layoffs, medical issues, and car problems.

To make those things possible — both the fun and the not-so-fun stuff — while still gradually paying down debt, we worked to increase our income while cutting back in areas that didn’t matter much to us. Critically, we also lived by the other Truths I describe here.

Could we have gotten out of debt faster by going extremely frugal instead? Maybe, if we could have stood the deprivation without giving in and slipping back into our old credit-filled ways.

We opted for slow but steady while still having fun though, and that made living life without the use of debt into a permanent change. That’s important, because…

2. Debt freedom is a way of life, not a fad diet.

That means there’s no magic pill, and no get-out-of-debt free card. There’s no massive restriction followed by bingeing. There’s no “one easy payment”, no frantically moving debt around, no rolling one debt into another. You can’t borrow your way out of debt.

Instead, getting out of debt is about changing your behavior for good. It means only spending money you already have. Paying down what you already owe. Preparing for your future, both short & long term. Tackling the past. Living the life you want to live.

If your spouse is actively sabotaging, it might mean marriage counseling to resolve the deeper problem, or separate finances or sometimes even divorce if you can’t.

If your spouse just isn’t as enthusiastic about getting out of debt as you are, it might mean being patient, going at a slower pace, or really getting them excited about the dream. Shared dreams are amazing, as is supporting each other along the way.

3. Debt is not a solution. It’s a problem.

I know, you are probably so used to having to borrow money when an emergency happens that it seems like debt solves your problem. It’s marketed that way for sure. But what borrowing really does is exchange the immediate problem at hand for another, longer-term one: debt. It may not even occur to you that there’s another way, but there is.

I was that way for sure. One day I sort of panicked when I couldn’t immediately find a source to borrow money that I thought I needed. “What if,” I thought “I really can’t borrow any more money?” It scared me until I took things to their logical conclusion.

Ok, so what if I DID max out all my credit cards and couldn’t get another loan? I’d have piles of debt, with little or nothing to show for all my hard work, and payments like crazy. I’d be desperate, and…I’d find another way to solve the immediate problem facing me. So why not just find another way NOW and save myself a world of hurt and a pile of debt…

That mindset shift was huge.

4. Debt is a choice, and you can choose differently.

That’s right, you didn’t “have to” borrow money for those emergencies. Bear with me for a minute, even though you probably didn’t like reading that. You might be thinking some variation of “But you have no idea what my life was like; I had no choice! I had to borrow money because ________.”

I used to feel that way too.

But the truth is you don’t literally  “have to” do anything in this life except die (hopefully of old age after a full and enjoyable life.)

Ben Franklin was wrong when he said that “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes” because you don’t even have to pay your taxes, as long as you’re willing to accept the hefty and highly negative long-term consequences which I do not recommend.

This means that debt is a CHOICE. Sometimes it’s a terrible or desperate choice — but it’s still a choice. Sometimes it’s a thoughtless choice. Many times it’s a choice you rationalize to yourself as something you “have” to do, for lots of reasons — many of which are completely fixable and avoidable.

So I repeat: you don’t have to do much of anything at all in life. That includes borrowing money.

Yes, some things absolutely do happen in our lives that are completely beyond our control. And they can suck immensely. But one thing isn’t beyond our control: how we choose to react to those events. I choose, you choose, we all choose.

And that’s GOOD NEWS!

Because it means you have the ability to make different choices going forward.

I love it when I realize that things are my fault and my choice. I’m not even kidding; I get excited, because it means I have the power to make changes in the future. To react differently. To plan ahead. To prepare for the unknown as best I can. To prepare for the likely, and the inevitable, and the fun. You can do that too.

5. It’s what you do with your money that matters most.

There are all kinds of people who get out of debt. People with kids, and without. People who are married, and people who are not. People who are young, and people who are old. People who have college degrees, and people who don’t. When it comes to getting out of debt, it’s what you do with your money that matters most.

If you want to become debt free, the #1 thing you’ve got to do is QUIT borrowing money.

That means only spending money you already have. Not money you’ll get on payday, or tomorrow, or as soon as the company reimburses you. Only spend money you already have in your hot little hands right now. (Or in your bank account.)

It’s hard at first, because most of us aren’t used to doing that. But it’s absolutely doable, and gets easier with practice. And once you start paying stuff off, it becomes even easier because your money isn’t flying out the door to service debt. You have MORE money available, which makes things easier still. It’s the exact opposite of a vicious circle.

6. You don’t have to get out of debt a certain way.

I will tell you about how to get out of debt from my perspective, the way that typically works best for people, and I’ll describe how to avoid common pitfalls along the way. As I do so, I promise not to call names, make fun of you, or mix in other messages at the same time. I will also be honest, passionate, and fairly blunt, if that wasn’t apparent already.

I believe that YOU get to choose what’s right for your life, because you’re the one who lives it. That includes how to get out of debt. On a related note, I hope that everyone gets out of debt, but I recognize that there are people who don’t want to, and that there are people who think debt it is the greatest tool in the world. That’s ok, because they’re not here.

If you’re struggling with finding the best way to get out of debt, my advice is this: Don’t waste your time reading arguments all over the internet. Just pick the one that resonates with you and get going. Most of the people who berate others for not paying off debt in the “right” order or way have never even been in debt themselves — let alone gotten OUT. Don’t listen to people who purport to know what’s best for you when they’ve never been in a remotely similar situation. You know your life best.

The best way to get out of debt is the one that you will stick with.

7. You DO have to make changes to pay off debt.

While you don’t need to eat strictly rice & beans for years to pay off debt or use one specific method, you absolutely will need to change the way you interact with money. (And often the way you feel about it too.)

In addition to only spending money you already have, those changes include saving up money for emergencies, planning for regular and irregular expenses (including fun things), saying no or getting creative until you’ve got the money for stuff you want, and asking for help. They include tracking your spending to see if you’re getting enough value, taking responsibility for your actions and inactions, and making different choices than the ones that got you into debt. They include being honest with yourself and anyone else you share finances with.

If you’re not sure where to start, track your spending for at least a day to see if you’re getting enough value from the things you buy. Just write it down as you spend and see how you feel. You’ll probably be amazed that you begin making changes immediately, cutting out the things that don’t really matter to you and getting more of the things that do instead.

Be patient (but persistent!) with yourself along the way. Chances are you didn’t get into debt overnight, and so you’re not going to get out of debt overnight either. Don’t be discouraged when it takes time to change or when you screw up. Just own it, see what you can do differently next time, adjust, and keep going. It does not mean you are a failure! It means you are human.

That’s the way it works. Getting out of debt is slow going at first. You’ve got to get the hang of it, you’ve got to get determined, and you’ve got to stick with it and get back on the wagon when you fall off.

Imagine what your debt-free future will be like. See it, feel it, and dream it daily. Want it so badly you can taste it. Make it happen, step by step. And every time you do make progress, mentally celebrate the heck out of that progress. (Or jump up and down and do a little dance — whatever floats your boat.)

Because paying off debt is not just about owing less money; it’s about re-defining your relationship with money and changing your life for good.

8. When you’re paying off debt, obsession is a good thing.

You don’t have to be lucky, rich, or some kind of financial whiz to get completely out of debt, house and everything. What you have to be is committed. Obsession makes the process go faster. The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll finish. Decide on the pace that’s right for you and then get going.

Cut back, brainstorm ways to make more money (which could include getting a better job and/or working on the side, among other things), and remember to have fun along the way. Track your progress and talk about what life will be like once you’re debt free. Keep your focus on where you want to be.

9. In debt or out, no one’s life is perfect. You are not the exception.

Things will go wrong, both when you’re getting out of debt and afterward. When something happens that you weren’t prepared for, don’t chalk it up to being an unusual month or an exception. Assume it or something similar could happen again, and build it into your budget. If it doesn’t happen, you’re ahead!

Make building up an emergency fund a huge priority, along with sticking to your long-term goal even when life throws in monkey wrenches. You may have to adjust, but you can still get there. That emergency fund is critical, because you need a cushion when the inevitable unexpected comes around. And then you’ll need to rebuild it.

Having an emergency fund to use is progress, because you’re in better shape than you would have been without it. So celebrate and keep obsessing.

10. People who get out of debt take action, and they don’t give up.

It makes me so sad when I hear people longingly say “I wish I could do that” because chances are THEY CAN. Maybe not the same way as me, or at the same speed (heck maybe they could even go faster!), or under the same circumstances, or using the same exact methods (except for the only spending money they already have part…) but they can certainly do more than just wish or feel bad about themselves.

If you want to get out of debt, you almost certainly can, by hook or by crook.

There are a few types of debts that can’t be bankrupted, but even if you have some of those types, you STILL might be able to pay them off. So don’t lose hope. (And the majority of people I hear from and talk with are NOT dealing with those types of debts at all.)

It’s heartbreaking to get emails where someone’s soul is being crushed under the weight of $5,000 in debt, or $19,000, or $100,000 when the circumstances they describe don’t sound impossible at all to me. I know it’s hard, and that you absolutely may be dealing with some rough stuff.

But I believe you can get through it. I’ve been clinically depressed, I’ve been divorced, I’ve had no transportation in a city with very little public transit, I’ve been unemployed for 4 years and down to ten bucks in my account, and I’ve also been lucky — like many people. Keep going. Find a way.

Ask for help from your friends, relatives, coworkers, and acquaintances. I don’t mean ask people to pay your debts for you. I mean ask for help with transportation, child care, manual labor, tips, recipes, and ideas. Ask to borrow tools. Ask handy people to show you how to do things to save money. Google stuff. Just because you don’t know how to do something now or have never done it before doesn’t mean you can’t do it.

It’s scary to try new things, and to ask for help. Do it anyway. Your life is worth it. YOU are worth it. You will thank yourself later. Remember too that it feels good to genuinely help others, so by accepting help in a sense you are also giving a gift. You may also be able to help in return in non-monetary ways.

11. It IS nice to be out of debt.

And I never, ever want to be in debt again.

It pisses me off when I hear people say “It must be nice” when talking about some of the things I do — like quitting my job to work for myself, or traveling around the world on a regular basis — as if it were something that just magically happened that they could never do and so all they have left is sarcasm.

Why does it piss me off? Because people CAN do the things that matter most.

If you’re the kind of person who says “it must be nice” out of jealousy, think about the message you’re really sending yourself instead. You’re taking the path of fake helplessness instead of being true to yourself. If it matters, change your life instead — a tiny bit at a time.

Because you don’t have to be jealous. You can take action.

If you don’t want to do what it may take, own that and enjoy the life you do have. Don’t blame your spouse, your circumstances, or anything else. Your choices are a huge part of the problem, and they can be a huge part of the solution. Either way, some choices are very hard, but you do get to choose.

And yes, it’s not always that simple. There are people who deal with some scary, painful, and expensive health issues in a broken system that just makes it harder. It’s all too easy to become one of them. And there are people who’ve been dealt a bad hand in other ways, by growing up in generational poverty, starting out behind, and/or being thwarted at every turn by a lack of access to the advantages others take for granted or don’t even notice.

Sometimes those people are the strongest ones and pull themselves out, seemingly by pure force of will. And sometimes we all need help. But the “it must be nice” folks? They haven’t been those people.

12. If life without the burden of debt is weird, weird is AWESOME!

I’m used to making choices that people sometimes think are weird, irrational, or scary.

The day I resigned at my job was the day after my husband got laid off from his. My coworkers looked at me askance when I excitedly told them about the decision. I drive a car so old that it sometimes takes months to find simple parts for when it breaks down. I’ve asked total strangers for help with some odd things. I like public speaking. I like good pizza more than probably anyone should. I volunteered to be interviewed in a national magazine about my experience with living with and recovering from social anxiety, a mental health disorder I used to have. I’ve made many many mistakes, and will likely make many more. Those just aren’t any of them.

I’m putting myself out there now because I want everyone to know the joy that debt freedom brings. I want you to unburden yourself. To feel what it’s really like to have your money stay yours. To prepare as best you can for the unknowable future, and to have it be as great as possible. To live your dreams. To pay less for every. single. thing you buy because you use money instead of debt. To be able to take advantage of unexpected and amazing opportunities. To help others.

So take these 12 Truths and make them yours!

7 thoughts on “The 12 Truths About Getting Out of Debt

  1. Out of curiosity… How much money do you think you would have accumulated had you put money in a low index fund vs. paying off debt? Being out of debt is the BEST feeling in the world but do you think you would have made more or less money investing that same amount?

    1. Nice to hear from you Jai :) — we invested as well while paying off debt, so it doesn’t need to be an either-or proposition. To answer your question though, it would be way too time-consuming for me to figure out because of the variety of interest rates we had + other variables. (You may want to look at this post though if you want to see a related scenario: https://www.jackiebeck.com/why-you-should-worry-about-student-loan-interest/ ) That said, no one can see the future, but I KNOW that I no longer have all of that debt weighing me down, and I no longer have all that risk hanging out there.

  2. Thank you so much for this! My husband and I have just started our debt journey and these “12 truths” are so helpful. I have bookmarked them so I can go back and read them again when I am feeling frustrated.

  3. This was a really great article! It is true that you can’t approach debt like a fad diet, it needs to be a lifestyle! And everyone has different lifestyles so it’s okay to approach paying off your debt differently than your friends or family! It just is important to keep at it and make a change to the way you used to live when you were getting yourself in debt! Thanks for sharing this with us!

  4. I belive you just wrote the most honest piece ive read about getting out of debt.
    I now do not feel guilty about the tea i bought today .i certainly dont do it every day or week.
    We are on a strict budget and we don’t go out to eat .
    We will get out of debt but it will take time .we have had to cut through our emergency fund twice ..for mold basement and new tires but we bounded back.
    Thank you

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