9 Personal Finance Experts Share 10 Free Debt Advice Tips

Debt expert giving advice

Paying off debt can be a tedious and painful process. But it is possible, and there are ways to speed things up and sometimes make it a little fun (really).

We’ve collected and organized free debt advice from a variety of personal finance experts who have been through the process and helped thousands of others progress in their debt-free journey.

10 Debt Advice Tips

1. Know your why

Cait Howerton, a financial coach, suggests you start with the “why” over anything else. “In order to maintain the daily motivation to implement micro-behavioral changes, one must understand the kindling of why.” Skip this step, and you might lose steam within a few months.

If you’re having trouble finding a why, consider thinking about what will change once you’ve paid off your debts.

“I suggest people create a 'debt-free dream list' of things they will have, or do, or accomplish when they're debt-free,” says Melanie Lockert, founder of Dear Debt and author of a book with the same title. “Having that carrot to guide you can help.”

2. Organize your debts

Knowing how much money you owe to whom, and the interest rate, total balance, and monthly payments on each debt can help you strategize a pay-off plan.

For example, you could start by targeting the debts with the lowest balance (the snowball method) to build momentum as you cross off one debt after another. Alternatively, focusing on paying down the debt with the highest interest rate first (the avalanche method) can save you the most money in interest overall.

“I wish I calculated how much interest I was paying sooner,” says Lockert. “Once I did that, I got angry and was more motivated to pay off my debt. At roughly $300 per month, that was a round-trip flight across the country!”

Lee Huffman, a personal finance and travel writer at Bald Thoughts, also points out that interest is often calculated based on your debt’s daily average balance. “Make your payments as early as possible to reduce the interest you owe,” suggests Huffman. For example, if you have a monthly payment, you could try to pay half mid-way through the month, and the other half at the end of the month.

3. Track your money

“You can't fix a problem you don't understand,” says Holly Johnson, co-author of Zero Down Your Debt. “The only way to get to the core of your issue is figuring out where your money is actually going.”

Yes, that’s another way of saying create a budget. But even if you don’t want to go all-out with software and spreadsheets to track every penny you earn and spend, taking a few hours to review your past expenses could be enlightening.

“Having a budget also gives you more control over balancing your spending,” says Chonce Maddox, a personal finance blogger at My Debt Epiphany. Knowing what’s coming in and going out can help you identify savings opportunities. You can then put more money towards your debt, says Maddox.

4. Adjust your budget to meet your needs

Maddox says she went overboard at first. “I tried cutting everything fun and enjoyable out.” While she made progress, the change wasn’t sustainable for her. “I found much more success during my journey when I started budgeting for fun, entertainment, and occasional dining out because it helped keep me motivated.”

Others can take and stick to a more hardline approach. “My husband and I paid off around $50,000 in car loans and student loans within a few years by tracking our spending and using a fairly strict zero-sum budget,” says Johnson. “We cut most of our discretionary spending while we were in debt payoff mode, then took all our ‘extra’ money and threw it at our debts each month.”

There’s no one-size-fits-all budgeting answer. It’s okay to play with your budget until you find something that works for you and helps you pay down debts faster.

5. See how extra payments can help

If you’re looking for motivation to make additional loan payments, Lance Cothern, a personal finance writer and founder of MoneyManifesto, suggests creating a spreadsheet that shows how extra payments impact your debts.

“This was a huge motivator for us to pay our student loan debt off faster as each extra payment moved the final pay off date closer,” says Cothern. Additionally, extra payments can save you money on interest.

If you’re not inclined to do the calculations yourself, you can use an online calculator to see how extra payments can affect your total cost and repayment time.

6. Visualize the result

“Debt payoff can seem like a slow and boring journey because you don't get to witness the money stacking up in your own accounts,” says Richmond Howard of PF Geeks. “Creating visual reminders of your progress can be a great motivator to keep pushing ahead!”

It’s up to you to decide what to use. Some people enjoy watching the changes in their spreadsheet or budgeting software. Others create elaborate pictures that they color in piece-by-piece as they pay down their debts.

7. Increase your income and build savings

“Get real about how much you earn and spend then look for ways to make extra money and throw 90 percent of it at your debt and put the other 10 percent into savings,” suggests Kylie Travers, owner of The Thrifty Issue. “This way, you clear the debt quickly, but also have a little buffer once your debt is gone to prevent you falling back into debt.”

Earning extra money, either through changing jobs, asking for a raise, or taking on extra work can be especially important if you already live a frugal lifestyle. “I couldn't cut back any more,” says Lockert. “It was then I realized I had to earn more, and frugality was not going to get me out of debt.”

Building savings can also be important, though. Howard says the lack of an emergency fund set him back. “We would have been able to save $1,000 in interest and taxes, and a year of time on our car loan if we had the recommended safety net in place.”

8. Keep ownership of your finances

Whether you’re single, in a relationship, or have a family, you may also want to maintain control and input over your finances.

“I assumed my husband at the time was taking care of my student loans,” says Leslie Tayne, a debt resolution attorney. “Looking back, I should have been more involved and insisted on being a part of the bill paying process. Allowing my husband to control the household money was a costly mistake.”

Travers says she’ll never combine finances again. “I did this in my marriage, but he was abusive, so it was awful… I was too flexible and generous with my money.” She left the relationship but had a stack of legal and medical expenses and two young daughters to look after.

9. Personalize your plan

“No two debtors are the same,” says Tayne. “It’s like a fingerprint, so I don’t believe in one size fits all debt payoff.”

Take what you learn from others’ experiences, do your own research, and customize your plan. Sometimes paying off the highest-interest loan or lowest-balance credit card might not make sense.

“Debt is emotional, so I recommend people pay off the debt that will help them sleep at night or a debt that makes them angry, such as credit card debt from a failed relationship,” says Lockert.

Also, be flexible with yourself, knowing that works today might not make sense in a year. “Our priorities change… The best advice is to know your needs and what will work for you,” says Tayne.

10. Don’t wait – start now

This last piece of advice is just as important as the first. Knowing what and how to do something is good, but you’ll need to act if you want to make a change.

If you want some help creating a personalized plan, Money Management International offers free debt advice from counselors who can help you create a budget, manage loans, pay off credit cards, and build credit.

Tagged in Budget tips, Debt strategies, Savings accounts

Louis DeNicola is a personal finance writer with a passion for sharing advice on credit and how to save money. In addition to being a contributing writer at MMI, you can find his work on Credit Karma, MSN Money, Cheapism, Business Insider, and Daily Finance.

  • The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) is an association of nonprofit consumer organizations that was established in 1968 to advance the consumer interest through research, advocacy, and education. Today, nearly 300 of these groups participate in the federation and govern it through their representatives on the organization's Board of Directors.
  • The National Council of Higher Education Resources (NCHER) is the nation’s oldest and largest higher education finance trade association. NCHER’s membership includes state, nonprofit, and for-profit higher education service organizations, including lenders, servicers, guaranty agencies, collection agencies, financial literacy providers, and schools, interested and involved in increasing college access and success. It assists its members in shaping policies governing federal and private student loan and state grant programs on behalf of students, parents, borrowers, and families.

  • Since 2007, the Homeownership Preservation Foundation (HPF) has served as a trusted, neutral source of information for more than eight million homeowners. They are partnered with, and endorsed by, numerous major government agencies, including the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of the Treasury.

  • The mission of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is to create strong, sustainable, inclusive communities and quality affordable homes for all. HUD works to strengthen the housing market in order to bolster the economy and protect consumers; meet the need for quality affordable rental homes; utilize housing as a platform for improving quality of life; and build inclusive and sustainable communities free from discrimination.

  • The Council on Accreditation (COA) is an international, independent, nonprofit, human service accrediting organization. Their mission is to partner with human service organizations worldwide to improve service delivery outcomes by developing, applying, and promoting accreditation standards.

  • The National Foundation for Credit Counseling® (NFCC®), founded in 1951, is the nation’s largest and longest-serving nonprofit financial counseling organization. The NFCC’s mission is to promote the national agenda for financially responsible behavior, and build capacity for its members to deliver the highest-quality financial education and counseling services.