A debt story repeated. Time to take action and become debt free.
I recently re-connected with an old friend from 20 years ago. She was bad with money then and she’s bad with money now. Her life has been difficult from an early age and she has not had good role models in her life to steer her in the right direction.
When I met her 20 years ago she was a young single mum just getting back to work and doing it all without any family help. In those days she didn’t have the financial commitments that can really screw your finances up.
She had no mortgage, no car and her utilities were on pre-paid meters. She didn’t have real debt and thank goodness she didn’t go down the route of door step creditors.
Unfortunately her poor decision making led to instances such as time off work because she didn’t have transportable food for her son to take to nursery. 4 days she was off work that time – aargh!
She was waiting for her child benefit payment so she could re-stock her cupboards.
It’s a complicated life
Fast forward 20 years and her finances are much more complicated. She has a mortgage, credit cards, utility bills, car payment. All the things that are normal when you are in your late 30’s and been working for 20 years.
Problem is her finances are in a complete mess. When I say mess I mean non-payment of her water bill has been outsourced to a debt collector.
I mean a mortgage which tracks the Libor rate as it’s not from a mainstream lender. I mean a credit card with an interest rate of 40%+.
I mean not even knowing what bills are in arrears, whether bills are still on direct debit or they have bounced. That kind of mess.
So I am stepping up and trying to help her get her finances back on track. We started this conversation because she wants to move to a bigger house and had a mortgage broker round her house the other day talking about getting a new larger mortgage.
The broker thought she should be ok to get another mortgage! Really Mr Broker? Really? Let’s just think about this for a minute. She has:
- A County Court Judgement (CCJ)
- Missed at least one mortgage payment
- Missed credit card payments
- Debt collectors chasing her for utility bill and mobile phone bill non-payment.
And you think she can get another, larger mortgage? Jeez.
A work in progress
So far we have only got her paperwork in order i.e. it’s now in order in separate plastic files for each bill/institution.
Her homework last time we met was to create a list of all her income and outgoings and print her bank statements for past 3 months. She also agreed to contact 2 creditors to re-engage in a dialogue with them.
Next time we meet we can compare her income to her outgoings and draft a budget and hopefully a debt pay off plan to help her become debt free, in time.
I know people get themselves into financial pickles but I was shocked and disappointed my friend was in this place. She works in credit control and knows about debt chasing yet had managed to bury her head in the sand as regards to her own finances.
There is obviously much more to this story than just poor financial management. I can’t help her with some of her other difficulties but hopefully I can help her get her finances in better shape.
As long as she commits to the work this will involve.
I’ve had my eyes opened to just how messy things can get when from the outside you would think she was doing ok. Own flat, nice car, good job, 2 kids.
Helping my friend start the process of tackling her financial mess got me thinking about what she needed to do to become debt free. Ideally long term I’d like to see her re-mortgage with a mainstream lender.
This will take some time and she’s going to need to put in some hard graft before that happens but it is possible.
So what do you need to do if you are in debt but don’t want to be? What steps must you take in order to achieve that coveted debt free status?
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21 things you must do to become debt free
1. Stop your borrowing
This may be obvious but sometimes we can fool ourselves. We rob peter to pay paul. You cannot pay debt off if you are increasingly using your overdraft each month. Paying off a personal loan whilst increasing your credit card balance is not reducing your debt. You are just shifting it. You have to commit to no more borrowing.
2. Clearly defined goals
Having a goal of paying off debt is not enough. You need to define it so you know exactly what steps you need to take. And it needs to be realistic!
If you have only £3000 spare each year to throw at your debt then there is no point having a goal to pay off £5000 each year. It may be defined but it’s not realistic.
Your goal needs to be SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timebound). Create your goal so that you know:
- what you need to do
- how you are going to do it
- when you are going to do it
- and how you will know you have achieved it
3. Emergency Fund
Real life always gets in the way of a good goal. You think you have every eventuality covered and then life throws you a curve ball.
Having an emergency fund is key to keeping your goals on track. Ideally you would want around £1000 in your emergency fund.
That should be enough to fix your car, cover an extra bill. All without your plans falling by the wayside.
It may seem counter intuitive to have your savings in an emergency fund when you are in debt but how else are you going to fix your car or pay that unexpected bill? Your emergency fund allows you to sleep at night knowing you can cover an emergency.
And yes this is an emergency fund. It is not a dip into fund when you’re feeling the pinch. It’s a do not touch fund unless it really is an emergency.
4. Know your why
To be successful in any long term financial plan you need to understand why you are doing it. It may seem a bit obvious, like doh! Of course you want to pay off debt.
But actually why? Why do you want to? Why do you want to become debt free? Other people have debt and survive. The Joneses have plenty of debt and ride around in nice cars and have nice holidays. So you need to dig deep and understand why you want to do this.
When the going gets tough it is your why that will keep you going.
5. Never give up
Sticking to a long term plan to get out of debt is hard! Knowing your why helps but day to day, week to week it’s still hard to pay down your debt.
It’s hard to watch other people seemingly have more money and enjoy themselves. Thing is, you’ve probably already done that. And this is why you have debt.
Fast forward to becoming debt free and you’ll have more money and be able to make better choices on what to spend it on. You won’t get into debt again after all your hard work. In the mean time, don’t give up.
6. There’s always an alternative
We see so much around us through the media, social media and people watching that you can be forgiven for thinking there are many things that are essential and that you are entitled to. Your essentials are a roof over your head and food in your belly.
- A mobile phone is not essential.
- Having a TV is not essential nor is the TV package most people have.
- Kids don’t have to go to 3 different clubs a week.
- You don’t have to go on holiday each year.
Understanding that there are alternatives to most things helps you to focus on your debt. Kids can make their own entertainment, have play dates. Free to view TV can be good enough.
I know you won’t be able to watch Game of Thrones but what did you do before GoT became a thing?
7. Visual reassurance
When you have debt that’s going to take time to pay off, having a way of actually seeing it go down can be really motivating. Looking at numbers on your credit card statement or a spreadsheet doesn’t always make it feel real.
Try creating a debt pay off chart, maybe in the shape of a thermometer and colour it in each week/month to show your progress. Initially it will be a little bare but it will soon get colourful.
8. Celebrate your wins
Do not think that you cannot have any celebratory events whilst you are pursuing debt free status. It’s really important to celebrate small wins as they happen.
Paid off your 1st debt in full? Celebrate it. Paid off your 1st £1000? Celebrate it.
What I don’t mean by celebrating is to splash the cash. Your celebration may be having a cuppa with your other half and congratulating each other.
It could be spending a fiver on a bottle of wine, all within your budget of course. Celebrating your achievements keeps you motivated and on track with your goals.
9. Get cash for your stuff
I think it’s probably rare that a true minimalist has uncontrollable debt. Many people’s debt comes from buying stuff. Too much stuff.
If that is you then why not sell some of your stuff to make a little extra money? That money can be thrown at your debt to pay it off faster.
You can sell stuff online, at a garage sale or via Facebook. Every penny helps!
Check out Emma’s post on how to make cash from your clutter
10. Snowball or Avalanche?
There are two popular methods to paying off your debt. Both work but for slightly different reasons. They are similar in that you pay the minimum payments on all your debt except one which you focus on until it’s cleared.
Debt snowball method
This method was made popular by Dave Ramsey. You focus your payments on the smallest balance first, regardless of the interest rate.
The idea behind it is that actually paying off in full one or more of your debts will keep you motivated and keep you on track to become debt free. Once you have paid off one debt you thrown all your extra cash at the next smallest. You only pay the minimum payments on all other debts regardless of size and interest rate.
With this method you pay your debts in the priority of highest interest rate first. This makes mathematical sense as you should pay less interest overall.
However, overall it would seem there is little difference in which method you choose. Both methods will get your debt paid off and there isn’t much difference in the cost and timing. See this great explanation
The most important thing is you plan how you are going to tackle your debts. Snowball, avalanche or other and stick to that plan throughout.
11. Revisit your student loans
In America you can end up with huge loans. These obviously can take years to pay off. However there are various ways to re-finance them, get the interest rate reduced or even get loan forgiveness if you are in the right vocation.
In the UK your student loan is more like a graduate tax. The more you earn the more your repay. Unless you earn a very decent wage and this is going to rapidly increase in the next few years it doesn’t make sense to pay off your student loan early.
The Institute of Fiscal Studies estimates that 83% of graduates with English loans will not pay off this debt within the 30 year period.
If you are in that 83% it therefore doesn’t make financial sense to throw more money at a debt you won’t finish repaying.
12. Utilise 0% credit cards
If your credit worthiness is not shot to pieces then using a 0% credit card can really make a difference to paying down your debt. Transfer your high interest balance credit card to a 0% and you can have up to 24 or more months to pay that debt off interest free.
But you absolutely must not spend on that card. You are aiming to become debt free so no credit card spending.
13. Get rid of mobile phone high price plan
Mobile phone plans vary enormously in cost. In the UK you can get sim only deals from as little as £8 a month. Keep your old phone, don’t upgrade and switch to a sim only deal.
There are so many places these days with free wifi that you don’t need a huge amount of data included in your plan. Just make sure you don’t use public wifi when accessing your bank apps and the like.
14. Car insurance
I am always surprised at the number of people who auto renew their car insurance. The difference in insurance quotes can be hundreds of pounds. Always shop around each year and get yourself the best deal.
Once you have your debt plan under control and working, make sure you pay for your car insurance annually. Almost all insurers these days charge you interest if you pay monthly.
15. Become a coupon king/queen
Coupons can be great to reduce the cost of your grocery and household shopping. In America it’s big business and there are still good savings to be made here in the UK.
Coupon clipping, searching out good deals and learning to stack them does take time. But if you are in debt then you are likely to have more time than money.
16. Sweat the small stuff
My Grandma always said “Look after the pennies and the pounds look after themselves”. Your Granny probably did too. Every penny counts so track all your spending and concentrate on saving every penny.
I recently had a money focus month to get back to sweating the small stuff. It’s very easy to stop doing this
Check the price per kg. Sometimes a big box of cereal can work out more expensive than 2 small boxes. Choose a smaller supermarket or a cheaper one to shop in.
I switched to Lidl for this reason. There is enough choice but not too much and the prices are cheaper. Aldi is similar.
17. Stop using credit cards
Credit cards can make your spending money seem invisible. You don’t know how much you’ve spent until the monthly statement lands in your inbox or on your doormat.
I know you can use cashback credit cards or those that have rewards. But guess what? You are in debt and have not been managing your money that great recently.
Stop using the credit cards full stop. Use only your debit card and cash. Make sure all your spending is highly visible.
18. Plan your expenses
You need to know what your expenses are each month and plan these. You need to plan how much you intend to spend on lunches for work (don’t! – take a packed lunch instead).
You need to plan how much money you intend to spend on clothes for the family and stick to this plan. Knowing what your expenses are and your plans will help you keep to your debt goals.
19. Track where your money goes
Having a plan for all your money is great. But how do you know whether you have stuck to your plan? If you planned to spend £300 on groceries, how do you know if you did or didn’t? You need to track all your spending.
Knowing what you are actually spending versus what you planned to spend is key to understanding your money habits. Your plans may have been too generous or not realistic enough.
Tracking your spending will enable you to make changes to your budget successfully.
20. Stop following the Joneses – they’re in debt too!
The Joneses are in debt. They are living beyond their means. Don’t try and keep up with the Joneses. Don’t look at what other people have got and what they are spending their money on.
In the UK we are very bad at having money discussions. Heck, we don’t always get to know what our colleagues at work earn as you aren’t allowed to discuss salaries in some companies.
Other people may earn more than you, they may have debt, they may be a coupon king. You don’t know their money life so don’t look on the outside and presume all is well on the inside.
21. Be happy with what you’ve already got
Marketing companies have a lot to answer for. We are constantly bombarded with the next best thing, which replaces the last best thing that only came out last year.
Be happy with what you have already bought. You obviously liked it so keep it. Don’t watch adverts if you get new thing envy.
If your TV works, you don’t need a new one. Your neighbour might have just got a 60” plasma screen TV but you don’t need one!
There might be a new exercise tracker out on the market, you don’t need it. Be happy with what you have, enjoy them and save your money.
22. (BONUS) Best things in life are free
It may be a little corny but it’s true. A cuddle with a loved one is the best thing in life when you are feeling tired. Your friends and relationships are priceless and free. Make the most of them. Enjoy spending time with your friends.
Crunching your way through the leaves in your local wood on an lovely autumn day gives you a sense of peace and tranquility. Sitting outside with a cuppa and listening to the birds sing whilst you breathe in fresh air is priceless.
Search out the free things that make your heart sing.
Some of these are quick to do and one off’s. Some are about changing habits and the way you view your finances and life in general. You may find some really easy and others not so.
When setting your goal to get out of debt you need to recognise that you can control a huge amount of what happens and how it happens.
You may have to make difficult choices in order to become debt free. But you can do it as long as you take control and see it through to the end.
Wish me luck in getting my friend signed up to all of these!