10 Free Debt Advice Tips from 9 Personal Finance Experts
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.
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, confidential debt advice from counselors who can help you create a budget, manage loans, pay off credit cards, and build credit.