Debt-Free Living IS Attainable: If You Want It, You Can Have It

By Adam Baker on 10 September 2009 (Updated 17 May 2010) 16 comments
Photo: Johan Larsson

This is part two of my Getting Out of Debt: The Essentials series.

Before we start plowing into the specifics of paying off debt, we've got to build a durable mental foundation. This is so important that I've devoted the first two of seven parts of this series to cultivating this mindset. Acknowledging you have a problem with debt is the first step, but only represents half the solution. In addition, we need to recognize that living a debt-free life is actually within our grasp. In other words, if we want it...we can have it.

It sounds simple, right? 

Actually, as I mentioned before, many of us have had decades of exposure to the "you'll always have a _______ payment" mentality. We've been conditioned that car payments, mortgages, student loans, and credit cards are not only acceptable, but actually normal. They've been touted as symbols of responsibility and status. The process of juggling the stress of these debts has been elevated to an art form.

I can tell you firsthand that breaking through this stuff isn't as easy as it appears. You can't close your eyes and chant "no debt... no debt... no debt." This isn't about positive thinking. And I'm not going to share any "secrets" or "laws."

But I am going to suggest this. Certainty is the key to accomplishing any of your goals in life. You've got to be absolutely certain that getting out of debt is beneficial. Even more importantly, you've got to be absolutely certain that getting out of debt is possible. It's got to be not a question of if, but when.

This type of certainty breeds confidence. The more confident you become at something, the more likely you will be to take immediate action. Isn't it easiest to take action on the things you excel at? Of course it is. Building confidence early will prove invaluable as we move into the planning and execution phases of this process.

Surround yourself with inspiration...

While we'll talk more about maintaining motivation later in the series, it's important that you surround yourself with inspiration when building your mental foundation. This can come in many shapes and forms, but here are some I've had success with:

  • Personal Finance Blogs: Most likely, reading this means you already find value in a site like Wise Bread. In addition to this resource, there are many other great personal finance blogs, as well. I enjoy reading blogs from genuine people who are either passionately attacking debt or who are living examples of overcoming it.
     
  • Personal Finance Books: My journey started with books before blogs.  Although there are many choices to choose from, there are two that have had radical impacts on my life: Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez & Vicki Robin and The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey.
     
  • Create a Dream Budget: This neat trick involves literally writing out a budget as if you had no debt payment. Where would that extra income go? Where would you be spending and saving? This is a fantastic way to tangibly visualize the benefits of eliminating your debt.
     
  • Network with people who share goals: Join or create a local group of individuals focused on getting out of debt. Do a workshop at your church. Talk to people in your family who are starting a similar journey. Networking like this, especially face-to-face, can help provide an enormous amount of accountability.
     
  • Study Success Stories: Often times these are readily available on blogs, in books, and within your local community. Every Friday on the radio, Dave Ramsey has people call in and scream, "I'm Debt Free!" Whenever you read, see, or hear these stories embrace them. Celebrate the success and turn it into fuel for your own fire.

Insource the responsibility...

Ultimately there are many different paths and strategies to help you defeat your debt. We are going to be diving in and tackling many of the most popular. But throughout the rest of the series, remember that even though although these tactics can help, they will only take you so far.

Systems, strategies, techniques, tactics...whatever term you fancy. These are only going to provide you with a framework. Ultimately you are responsible for where you are now, and you are going to be responsible for your success or failure.

As we transition to more tangible advice, work hard to maintain your mindset. Do whatever it takes to make debt-free living a certainty. Dig down deep and find some of your own personal sources of inspiration. You're going to need them for the battle that lies ahead.

Between now and then, here are some additional resources on this topic:

What about you? Is it only a matter of time before you know for certain you'll be debt-free? Where do you find inspiration in your journey to pay off debt? Join in on the conversation by adding your experience below!

 

Getting Out of Debt: The Essentials

Over each of the next couple of weeks, an additional segment of the series will be released. The links below will be updated as each new articles goes live:

  1. Acknowledge You Have a Problem with Debt
  2. Debt-Free Living IS Attainable. If You Want It, You Can Have It.
  3. Get a Grip on Your Debt: Obtain a Clear, Concise Financial Snapshot
  4. Dissect the Source: Understanding Your Income and Spending Habits
  5. Plan to Win: Debt Reduction Methods and Emergency Funds
  6. Aggressively Attack Your Debt
  7. The Art of Maintaining Motivation while Overcoming Debt

 

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Guest's picture

I can't wait for the 3rd part of this post. I think step 1 is the most difficult: admitting you have a debt problem. So many people want to bury their heads in the sand and forget about it.

Making a plan is more difficult. Plotting out a budget that can eliminate debt is not fun, and some people aren't patient. They want to see results immediately, but paying down debt takes patience.

Thanks for this post-
-Little House

Guest's picture
Rosa

...is the stage we're at, with no debt except our mortgage and our son one year from starting public school. We've started having conversations that start out "next year when we don't have to pay for daycare..."

It's a strange place to be. For years and years we've been the notoriously cheap folks, the ones that give each other household appliances for Christmas and buy all our clothes at thrift stores, with nothing visible to show for it (the lack of credit card debt isn't really something that other people know unless you tell them.)

Now we're at the place of having most of our security goals met and getting into rewards part. Or at least thinking about the rewards part.

Guest's picture
Beth

Debt-free living sounds nice, but I don't think I can avoid going into debt to buy a place. How do people save for a home while still paying rent?

So the answer to the "what would I be doing without the debt payment?" question would be "Paying rent!"

Guest's picture
justmike

Some good rules I've started using are:
1. Your home should be your only debt, and never roll short term debt into a long term payment, and make sure your home is under 30% of your income.
2. If you have a car payment, get rid of it (however you must).
3. Pay off your lowest amounts 1st, then bundle them and work on that amount with extra payments.

Guest's picture

Can't say much changed for me in the bit of life I've lived "debt free." (I have student loans, which are debt, but I'm still in school... And until a few months ago when I got a new itty bitty car loan, I had no debt to make payments on.) Sure, I had at least $300 "extra" that no longer went to loan payments, but it quickly got eaten up by other things that were only too eager to get a bit more. (Namely trying to give my husband the same spending power I had.)

However, even though I don't really have a debt problem, I still enjoy reading stories about people who have overcome it. I realize that, someday, I won't have a pile of student loans to think about, and I might have a car loan on something else because it makes more sense to me that way in that particular situation. Debt is a nice tool, until it becomes the leverage for our entire lives.

My only "dream budget" includes me graduating from school and getting an "adult job!" :P And then, life without student loans and all that jazz.

Guest's picture
Guest

Dave Ramsey people.... if nothing else, listen to one of his archived shows.

www.daveramsey.com

Guest's picture
Rosa

We didnt' do it, because at the time we bought our house rents were way more than mortgage payments around here. If we'd thought about it a little more, added in repair and upkeep costs, we probably would have waited six years...and bought a house for cash in this current housing market.

But, in the 15-20 years leading up to the crazy late-90's rental market, rents where I live were significantly cheaper than mortgages. So I know several people who rented for 10 or 15 years and put the extra couple hundred dollars a month (the difference between rent & mortgage payments) into an investment fund, and bought for cash or nearly-cash when they were ready - about the same time we bought, actually, because like I said there were a few years when rents jumped and mortgage interest rates fell significantly. Right now, it may still be cheaper to buy, but the market is getting flooded with cheap rentals so I don't expect that to last.

It's totally doable, you just have to actually sock the money away. And the thing is, if you can't afford to rent & put something away every month, in most markets you also can't afford to buy - because that couple hundred bucks a month is going to go to a new water heater or replacing sidewalk squares or discovering your dryer stopped drying or whatever.

Guest's picture
pickeju

I don't think I've ever had a problem with motivation... it took two years of hard work to get to the point where suddenly all our bills add up to less than half of our take-home pay. Looking back it seems like that time flew by, and the freedom we have now to do what we want to do is all the motivation I need for the next several years.

For some people it's best to go for small victories first, even if paying off the small things don't give you the 100% optimal end result. If you need that extra push of motivation, that can really help. One less bill to pay is a gift to yourself. Each victory motivates you for the next one, and right now I'm actually filled with joy of what we've achieved.

Getting started can be hard, but the will to stick with it really comes easily afterwards (at least for me). I have one more loan to pay off over the next year or two, then it's all going into the mortgage. These days I actually look forward to the end of the month when I can divide up all my extra money to the house or to savings. It's a great feeling.

Now if I could get my husband to feel the same way, the remainder of this path would be about 40% easier ;)

Guest's picture

We just made it to debt free- I mean totally-- no credit card, no mortgage, no student loan. All paid off. It took about seven years of diligence.

We paid down $40k in student loans, paid off a $154k house, and $2,000 in credit card debt.

It's just a matter of making it a priority and sending that little bit extra every month. The key to paying off a house is to make that one of the criteria when you are shopping for one. Ask, at this price, could we pay it off if we sent X amount extra every month? Crunch the numbers, buy only as much house as you need, and drive a hard bargain when you buy.

Guest's picture
Greg

I look forward to the rest of this series!

What got me interested in a debt free life was the realization that nobody else was going to provide for me in old age. Social security will not be there, companies are bagging traditional pensions and those that don't can't guarantee they will be able to pay what they've promised (ask a retiree from United or GM). Every time and "expert" wants to show you how to live debt free they ask for money to do so. Interview 5 financial advisors and you'll get 5 different answers. If I want to retire, I've got to do it myself.

What has inspired me was finding a way that makes sense which I can implement myself. Toyota is known for their "lean" management approach. When you look at their management principles, every one comes down to common sense and every one can be applied to your personal life. In short... Educate, educate, educate yourself, eliminate the wastes of time, energy and money, spend less than you earn and invest what you accumulate. Learn more detail at http://eliminatethemuda.com

Growing wealth is not about doing 1 thing right one time, it's about doing many things right over a long period of time.

Guest's picture
Guest

I have about 25,000.00 debt with credit cards. I have a plan made with Chase Bank on one. We had to close our account and we pay 142.00 a month for 60 months @ 2% interest and they said that most of the payment goes to principal. WE have 7 years before our house is payed for we pay 660.00 monthly and I have a truck payment of 330.00 monthly for another year and a half. What is the best way to pay my credit cards so I can get them payed off? Is it good to close them? I pay about 800.00 a month in credit cards.

Donna

Guest's picture
Guest

It's not that hard, as long as you're willing to do without. We bought a cheap house, spent our labor fixing it up, then sold for almost double a few years later. Invested that in a better house to suit us for a long time, and got a 15-year loan. Paid extra on the loan, and it was gone in 12 years.

Two cars over 100,000 miles - maintenance is cheaper than a monthly payment.

Budget for the big expenses, and pay off the credit card every month.

Before you know it, you'll be free!

Guest's picture

After working on my own blog http://www.mewithoutdebt.com chronicling my journey towards debtfreedom led me to read lot of debt related blog and write few entries myself. I found it both therapeutic and inspirational.

Guest's picture
neverland~

nowadays, most people can not live without debt, to buy a house, a car, get a study load for study, to start a businees,ect. just can not live well without the debt. debt-free life, i want it, but hard to achieve it.[img]http://www.photosnag.com/img/4713/n09x0302vnsn/clear.gif[/img]

Guest's picture
April B

For me, I am taking it day by day. Each day without incurring more debt is a step in the right direction. My husband and I have absolutely enormous debt issues - credit cards and a student loan payment the size of most people's mortgage. We are at the beginning of our journey... Thanks for this post!

Guest's picture
Trish

I've actually been conditioned that payments are NOT acceptable. My parents taught me that both debt and credit cards were to be avoided. My hubby, much to my dismay, still had car payments when we got married. the only payment I am ok with is a house payment. I've never had any debt, not even car loans or student debt. Ok I owed my mom $800 once that I paid off within a year when I briefly didnt make enough money to meet my bills. But thats it. At the moment my mom actually owes me money!

I don't understand how people manage to get into debt I mean, live within your means. How hard is that? If I can do it on 1 income and $900 a month health insurance premiums coming out of our 1 income paycheck then others should be able to do it too.