Slow and Steady Wins the Debt Race


When I woke up to the reality of having $20,000 of credit card debt, I had to face this hard truth — I didn’t get into debt overnight, so I’m probably not going to get out of debt overnight.

In fact, it took me four and a half years to pay off my debt. There were plenty of times throughout that journey when I wished there was some easy way to just wipe it all out. But there was no easy way. I don’t recall ever considering bankruptcy. I racked up all that debt. I needed to pay it all off.

So I did. Slowly. Month after month, I sent big checks to creditors, paying dearly for trips I had taken long ago and restaurant meals I no longer remembered.

Today, with the perspective that time brings, and with lots of experience helping others struggling with debt, I honestly believe that the slow and steady way out of debt is the best way. (See also: How to Start Fighting Debt — Today)

The Danger of Fixing Symptoms

For many people buried under a mountain of debt, bankruptcy looks appealing. A quick way to end the pain.

However, according to a paper published by the Bankruptcy Data Project, a Harvard University-based research group that has studied bankruptcy for over twenty years, one year after filing for bankruptcy, one in four filers were struggling to pay routine bills, and one in three said their overall financial situation was similar to or worse than when they filed.

Tossing your debt overboard may feel good for the moment. However, for many people, ditching debt without addressing the underlying causes often turns out to provide only short-term relief.

Lasting Changes Require Changes of the Heart

When I was blindly digging my way into debt, I saw buying stuff as the route to feeling good about myself. I bought things I couldn’t afford in order to tell the world I was somebody.

I also saw carrying a balance on credit cards as normal behavior. How else did most people get by? 

I probably could have learned some helpful new behaviors around money without changing these attitudes — how to use a budget, how to set up an emergency fund, and the like. But without a serious attitude adjustment, I doubt I would have been interested. Or, if I did start dabbling in new habits, they probably wouldn’t have lasted very long. 

A psychiatrist friend tells me that attitudes and behaviors work in circular fashion to bring about change. Behavioral changes tend to alter our attitudes, and attitudinal changes tend to alter our behavior. However, they don’t usually happen on the same schedule. While we may be able to force ourselves into some short-term behavioral changes, attitudinal changes take time. You can’t just slap on a new conviction like cologne.

Getting on the Slow Track

To be sure, getting out of debt requires behavioral changes. You need to stop going any further into debt. You also need to gather the facts. How much debt do you have? Write it all down, and add it all up. Create a cash flow plan (AKA, a budget). Then start rolling a debt snowball.

However, getting and staying out of debt also requires the slower work of heart change. Start by taking a close look at your financial attitudes. Are there any ways of thinking that have contributed to your debt? Have you been buying things you can’t afford in order to feel better about yourself, like I did?

Acknowledging those attitudes is the first step toward changing them.

One of the key attitudinal factors that helped me turn things around was accepting responsibility for my debts. The credit card companies didn’t manipulate me into carrying balances on my cards. My parents didn’t fail me in some way. 

It wasn’t about beating myself up about my debts; it was about acknowledging the truth. I was responsible for my debts.

To be sure, some people with debt problems have gotten into financial trouble by way of horrendous life circumstances. A divorce, an extended period of unemployment, catastrophic medical bills. I don’t mean to be insensitive to any of that. But it’s been my experience that when a person with debt owns their role in the debt — and most people with debt played at least some role — they have a far greater chance of getting and staying out of debt.

If you have a lot of debt and you’re just beginning the process of getting out from under, I’m sure the idea that it may take several years doesn’t sound the least bit appealing. However, I’m thankful to have taken the long way out. It took time to change my money-related attitudes and cultivate some healthy financial habits. Since paying off the last of my debts some 15 years ago, I have carried no debt other than a reasonable mortgage. 

I firmly believe that taking the slow road was the key to making changes that have stuck.

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Guest's picture

Great article. I also feel like going slow is the best way to do it because it gives you time to reflect on how you got in the situation to begin with.

Matt Bell's picture

Absolutely, Sean. Taking the time to honestly understand how I got into debt - the behavioral factors and the attitudinal factors - was huge. When it comes to debt advice these days, I think there's way too much emphasis on tactics and not enough emphasis on understanding how a person got into debt in the first place.

Guest's picture

Loved your article. I think it's great that you didn't consider bankruptcy as the solution, but took responsibility for the debt and worked hard to pay it off a little at a time. If more people took this approach and didn't look for the easy way out, we'd be much better off as a country right now. The problem is most people run from challenges. What they don't realize is that if they will just take on the challenge and sacrifice for a while to pay off their debt, they'll develop the discipline they need to not let it happen again.

Matt Bell's picture

Well said, Michael. In addition to the discipline that gets developed on the slow path, successfully finishing the journey leads to a great appreciation for what it feels like to be free of the burden of debt.

Tara Struyk's picture

Great article. Learning the hard way is sometimes the best way, unfortunately.

Guest's picture

When I first tried to get out of debt, I tried to do it too quickly. Every extra dollar I found went towards paying off my debt. This worked great the first month. But then the second month, I started to realize that I was running into trouble and didn't have enough for my other expenses. I learned quickly that slowly paying off my debt was the way to go.

Guest's picture

Living in a "microwave" society (quick fixes), this article is definitely refreshing. Slow and steady is always the best policy.

Thanks for sharing!!