How to Get Out of Debt

GPS showing financial destination
Start with a budget, set the course, get to work.

First off, let me tell you this: You won’t find anything here that will fix your debt problem in an instant. There is no magic wand. There is no secret. Likewise, there are no smoke and mirrors trying to sell you anything. Usually, my posts are a personal snapshot of my finances with enough information to help somebody else.
Just like when people are trying to lose weight, there is no magic pill or secret that will take you there. What really makes a difference in reaching your goals is the subtle changes you make on a daily basis. Small changes compound and yield the best results!

In June 2018, after catching up with the FIRE movement( Financial Independence Retire Early) movement, my wife and I started looking at all our debt and liability. Things that we could do to be in a better position financially.
Now, let me backtrack 4 years ago, when we had about nine thousand dollars in debt with one of our credit cards, plus a student loan on my wife’s name that had started at 27k in 2003 and it had barely changed 15 years later when we still had 22K to pay.
In other words, our starting point was -9K at 25%, and -22K at 6.5%. My teacher’s salary kept going up every year but somehow we always found ourselves gasping for the next tax return to pay down debt. Not long after paying the card, more debt started accumulating again and before we knew it we were back in the same situation- repeating the same vicious cycle. Sounds familiar?
To add more stress to our financial situation our neighborhood was pushing us out and we were determined to find a better school environment for our kids. If we sold, we would have ended with about 5-6K in our pocket. Instead, we decided to move and rent out our house for at least a year. A year turned into two and recently I just survived my first 42 months as a landlord.
Anyway, we moved and life was great. The rental was cash-flowing about $500 a month after expenses, but we were still in the same financial predicament fighting off debt. After getting in touch with the FIRE community, things started to change. In June 2008, my wife and I sat down and started looking at our budget. Not only going through the motions of looking at how much we are spending, but we were trying to find where the holes of our financial vessel were. Where was the money going? What could we cut to save? What debt could we pay fairly quick to free some of our precious cash coming in?
After getting rid of some ludicrous expenses like cable and a magazine subscription we realized that we had a decent amount of cash coming in but somehow was disappearing in miscellaneous expenses. We started a spreadsheet that accounted for every single penny and decided to charge against the pesky credit card and student loan debt.
We transferred the credit card debt to another credit card with no interest for 24 months. With help of our tax return, we paid the card off fairly easy.
At the time, the monthly payment of our student loan was $235 monthly. We cut the cable saving $150. That was right away allocated as an extra payment to the student loan. We decreased my 403B contribution and started paying $716 monthly towards the student loan.  In my calculation, the student loan would be paid in January 2020. We automated 2 different withdraws to be transferred to our loan holding bank. From there, we would manually make the transfer at the most convenient time for our finances. We kind of made that account work as an emergency fund as well. We would pool some money there and then make the principal payment.

I Failed!

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You can’t imagine my disappointment when I was about to make what was supposed to be my last transfer! My wife reminded me that we had put our Christmas expenses on the card! At some point, between driving the kids here and there, lessons and just the demands of tending to a family with 4 kids our communication failed; my fault.
I had calculated and planned this moment for almost two years and it was not happening. My wife felt guilty. I probably overreacted with my frustration, although I reassured her it was not her fault but mine. But I just had a terrible feeling of failure! I felt defeated.

I went to work that day, tried to forget about it and then resumed to strategize how to pay the $1000 extra I didn’t account for. I started thinking about all the interviews in podcasts where people talk about the importance of being flexible in the pursuit of FIRE and how important it is to keep enjoying life, as well as the importance of not damaging relationships on the way.

With all those thoughts in mind, I reassessed the situation and realized that I was still in a terrific situation. I could not pay the whole loan off when I expected it but I am still very close. I took a couple of extra responsibilities at work to make extra money and I am still able to reach my goal next month! No big deal.

Wait! I failed but I am actually winning

In my moment of doom and gloom, feeling like a total failure I logged into my Personal Capital account looking for answers. I was looking at all the reports and started reflecting on it.
Our net worth is about $210K at the moment!
Hold on a second!- I thought.  I may not have paid the student loan…BUT we have increased our net worth from -31K to 210K in a matter of 4 quick years! What? That is super fantastic! I still can’t believe it. 210K! Yes, it is mainly equity. But remember, I was going to move out of my first home and walk away with 5-6K. Nothing!
No debt. Other than our mortgage and YES! The pesky student loan that will be obliterated and announced on Twitter for sure very soon. So help me celebrate that one!

How we did it?

First and foremost, you need a budget. Everybody needs a budget regardless of how much money you make.
Distribute your money according to your needs. Define what is a want and what is really a need. Cable is not a need! Lattes and eating out are not needs. They are privileges- expensive ones. You can still have them, but understand that they are impacting your investing capability. Are they worth it you working more hours of your life so that you can afford them? Only you can decide that, but be mindful of the trade-off.
Once you have your budget, determine your purpose. What are you trying to accomplish? Maybe retirement or FIRE is your ultimate goal? What other goals or milestones do you need to reach for that final goal to happen?
I like to call this my financial GPS. I need to know where I am financially and where I want to go. Without one or the other, I am lost and likely to get lost in debtland.
Check the course often, reassess and keep on going. You won’t reach these goals from one day to another, but every day you will be in a slightly better financial situation. More importantly, as you plow through and you implement some of these strategies you will continue optimizing your system and pave your way to reach your goals and beyond.
Be flexible and forgiving with yourself. Don’t get fixated on the goal. Focus on your strategies and system you have created to reach your goals. The rest will fall in place.
Automate as much as you can. Schedule those monthly withdrawals to pay off debt or invest. Remember, “out of sight, out of mind.” Don’t wait for the month’s left-over to allocate it or find a purpose for it. Pay yourself first, and pay everybody else with the rest.
Do not wait to determine your financial goals. It is never too late to plan your financial goals, but it is also never too early to plan and define your journey toward financial independence.
I truly hope these words get to someone looking for a change in their finances like I once was. I would love to hear your story or struggle.
On my end, I am already planning my next financial milestone but that will be coming soon in another post.

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