Advice regarding getting out of debt is everywhere, and the signal-to-noise ratio leaves many dumbfounded. Where to start? You want to get out of debt, but the often-contradictory advice given leads many to paralysis and lack of motivation.
There are five abiding principles for getting out of debt. Without adopting these steps, financial freedom becomes much, much more difficult.
1. Know Where You Stand.
If you are lost and want to find your way, you must first know your location. This step is crucial in any journey, geographical or financial. When traveling, this means grasping an objective sense of your surroundings and discovering, with the help of landmarks, your location on a map.
How does this translate into financial planning? First, before figuring out a plan, you must correctly identify the reality of your situation. We tend to deceive ourselves in several ways about many things, finances not excepted. We either overstate the good aspects while understating the bad, or we overstate the bad aspects while understating the good.
When applied to personal finances and debt, the former scenario consciously creates a false sense of security. Unconsciously, though, it leads to ever-increasing anxiety. The latter scenario produces a constant uphill battle, financial paralysis, and surrender.
How can this dichotomy be avoided? How can the Aristotelian mean, avoiding both positive and negative understatements and exaggerations, be achieved? The answer is both simple and difficult: be honest with yourself.
Being honest with yourself means committing to explore the realities of your financial situation, emotionally difficult though that process may be.
This means itemizing expenditures, figuring out how indebted you actually are, clearly identifying how much money you are bringing in, among other examples.
Once you become used to the often-grueling task of confronting unpleasant aspects of your financial reality and habits, you can even try to discern patterns (going on spending binges after an exceptionally good month income-wise, for instance).
If you are not honest with yourself about your own finances, you will not know where you stand – which means you will be in the foggy mires of debt much longer than necessary.
2. Know Where You want to Be.
In the traveling analogy above, it is not enough for the traveler to simply be aware of his location in relation to the map – equally of importance is to know his destination, unless he wants to be in a forever disoriented, nomadic state.
Although self-awareness is essential with regards to your financial status, self-awareness alone will not get you out of debt. It is also important to have clear goals regarding not only what you don’t want (debt) but also what you do want.
Positive goals (I will achieve X) are much more motivating than negative goals (I will avoid/remove X). This is because positive goals result in the achievement or attainment of something. Negative goals will simply result in a neutral state, which, though certainly better than a negative state, is hardly an impetus for motivation.
Human beings respond to incentives, and the process of creating an incentive for yourself sets your eyes on the prize of the hard work you are undertaking. However, honesty with yourself is also important here– don’t sell yourself and your abilities short, but also avoid setting yourself up for imminent failure.
3. Be Realistic – Don’t Bully Yourself.
It is a well-established fact that centrally planned, dictatorial economies destroy motivation among citizens. Most of us people accept this premise daily in our view of the world, yet we continue to treat ourselves with absolutely dictatorial oppression when it comes to self-talk.
For those who are in massive debt (and who have a predisposition to self-attack), it is tempting to stare down the mountain and decide to live as a martyr, expelling the debt by eating one meal a day, living in cold throughout the winter, and reducing the overall quality of life.
Although cutbacks are almost always necessary in order to become debt-free, it is not necessary to participate in self-immolation for the abstract cause of removing debt.
After all, one of the main purposes of ridding yourself of debt is to improve the quality of life. Years of malnourishment result in a net-negative change in quality of life, which is certainly not advisable.
Furthermore, extreme goals on the outset are almost always impossible to achieve in the time people give themselves (even if they don’t reach such absurd heights as the above examples), and so people set themselves up for failure.
This is the direct equivalent of a dictator of a centrally planned economy decreeing that all must have the same income level, yet going on a genocidal rampage when the black market naturally arises.
What is rightfully seen as madness in the political realm we practice towards ourselves almost daily and absolutely squelches motivation to eradicate debt.
4. Accept Help — But Don’t “Expect” It.
Yes, this prerequisite to getting out of debt might sound jaw-droppingly cold to a society of entitlement, but it absolutely holds true in most, if not all, situations.
Once you commit to getting out of debt, people in your life will likely want to help you out however they can, either through advice or through practical matters. However, if you expect this help and feel entitled to it, these same people will instantly pick up on that and will feel resentful of that.
90% of communication occurs under the surface, in ways that are not verbal. People in your life will absolutely and totally get it if you are expecting them to help you, and naturally, they will feel used and manipulated if you are using them in a utilitarian manner. If your friends offer to help you out, then that is fantastic – accept it, in moderation.
If you expect them to help, however, you will only harm the relationship, as no human being wants to be used as a calculated tool of material benefit.
As in many of the difficult challenges in life, friends can make the process of getting out of debt more enjoyable and far easier than simply going it alone. However, it is also important to remember to reciprocate the help that friends give you – and in the “I scratch your back, you scratch mine” sense of calculated gain.
Rather, since a main purpose of getting out of debt is to achieve joy and happiness, and healthy friendships are a main source of that joy, it is simply not worth harming friendships in order to be out of the red ink and into the black.
5. Just Be Creative.
“But isn’t creativity something that you either have or you don’t have? How can that possibly be one of the prerequisites to getting out of debt?” you may ask. Yes, it may be true that some people simply have more creative juices flowing in their system than others – there’s a reason not everyone can write books on par with the great works of Dostoevsky or Dickens.
However, this prerequisite is not meant to imply that you have to write a masterpiece that bests The Brothers Karamazov. Rather, it means to simply discover ways to not only cut costs in your budget, but also to increase your flow of income.
What are some of these creative solutions? Here are some examples:
- Do-It-Yourself. Take some of the luxury items that you enjoy and figure out “do-it-yourself” solutions to these items, whose costs accrue over time (i.e., fancy coffee drinks which, bought every morning, equal over $100/mo.)
- Freelance Work. Discover ways to supplement your income by providing a service, which you are good at, through online freelance work. Do you have some skills in design? Find ways to earn some cash designing online. There are many people who are likely looking for exactly the types of skills you possess. Take advantage of this resource.
- Clean House. Every now and then, take inventory of some of the items you have, but have not used for months or even years. Often, these can be sold for good chunks of change, and since you rarely use these items, it can hardly be said that it is a sacrifice to do away with them. Those old school textbooks can often be sold for hundreds of dollars. This extra cash can go a long way with regards to doing away with debt.
Since these are simply generalized examples, with no context of unique personalities that can discover creative solutions with regards to getting out of debt, imagine the possible solutions you can invoke in your own life. No masterpieces are required, no virtuosity of art is necessary, and almost anyone can do it.
One way to spur on this type of creative impulse in practical matters is to simply think, “If someone offered me $1,000,000,000 to get out of debt, how would I do that?” You will be surprised at the amount of creative ideas that can come out of such a hypothetical brainstorming session.
As mentioned elsewhere on this site, debt elimination and financial freedom are not primarily mathematical, but rather are emotional. By thinking creatively, you will barrel down the road of debt elimination more quickly than ever before, and it is this type of positive reinforcement that will kick start your financial freedom.
What It All Means
These five principles can all be summarized in one word: “choice.” Whether you are in debt or are financially free is ultimately up to you, no matter how difficult your predicament may be.
Whether it is in making the choice to be honest with yourself about your circumstances, the choice to accept help graciously, or the choice to think outside the box, you are in control.
What lies on the other side of that realization of control is both enormously terrifying and absolutely exciting.
Behind the terror is the fact that slavery to debt is a consequence of our behaviors, habits, and the choice not to change those habits.
Behind the excitement is the fact that financial freedom is a consequence of the choice to change those behaviors.
Your freedom, financial and otherwise, is earned through your own choices.