These days, most people are in debt to some degree—literally, if some or all of that money is owed to a college education. So debt can feel like a normal part of life. But it doesn’t need to be.
In fact, treating debt like just another bill payment can be dangerous. If you’re making minimum monthly payments, it’s easy to slip into a self-perpetuating, high-interest sinkhole that can really set you back.
I know because I’ve been there.
I once owed more than $45,000, thanks to a combination of my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, which, as it turns out, isn’t all that much higher than the average amount of debt owed by 2015’s graduating class.
But instead of whittling down my debt over decades, I paid it off in just six months—once I set my mind to it.
My story isn’t extraordinary: I didn’t come into a windfall or win the lottery. I just put some simple habits into practice, and changed my mindset and my behaviors. Here’s how.
I believed I could.
I know, it sounds a little silly. But if you don’t believe you’ll pay off your debt for decades, you’re never going to take the steps you need to do it sooner.
When I left grad school in 2012, I started working at a Fortune 500 company. But I wasn’t thinking at all about how to pay off my debt. For three years, I made the $500 monthly payment and nothing more.
Even though I was earning close to six figures, it didn’t feel like it was possible to get out of debt faster, while also putting money away for retirement and building up my savings account.
But I changed my mindset when I started listening to a financial podcast with my fiance (then boyfriend), in which many seemingly normal people shared their inspiring debt-freedom stories. Over time, I realized that it was in my reach, as well—especially when I worked out the numbers. (More on this in a minute.) My fiancé was also debt-free, and the idea of not bringing this burden into our future marriage was particularly motivating.
So if being debt-free is appealing to you, the first step is convincing yourself it can be done. It seems so simple, but you’ll be surrounded by enough naysayers who subscribe to “debt normalcy” that you might be talked out of it if you’re not firm in your beliefs. (A Pew report last summer estimated 86 percent of young adults carry debt.)
I committed to it.
It’s not enough to merely be interested in becoming debt-free. You have to truly commit to it because it’s hard to stick with it, and it’s easy to think of reasons why you should give up.
An actionable way to prove your commitment is to take a careful look at your expenditures from the past few months and formulate a plan to free up more money. Before I did this, I always felt like living paycheck to paycheck was unavoidable. But I learned that I was spending thousands every month on things I didn’t value as much as being debt-free. That made it easier to earmark more cash for debt repayment.
I scaled my expenses way back and boosted my income.
Armed with the right mindset, the next step is to look for more ways to cut expenses and increase your income—a winning combination, in my experience.
Scaling back can be as simple as brown-bagging it a few days instead of buying lunch, or as serious as downsizing your apartment, getting a roommate (as I did, which netted an extra $500 a month) or temporarily moving in with your parents.
I cut my expenses down so I was spending less than a third of my income. I was essentially just covering the basics: my rent, phone, utilities, groceries, and pet insurance. Although I did budget $150 a month for entertainment and meals out.
I also found fun ways to monetize my hobbies by teaching fitness classes for $25 a pop and dog-sitting on the weekends for around $150, which added up to another $2,000 a month to put toward debt repayment. (Plus, I got my gym membership waived because I was teaching.)
Still, the real progress happened when I started a side consulting business, helping entrepreneurs grow their businesses. My client base expanded quickly, which helped me earn more—an average of $4,000 a month, which I funneled directly to my debt—and allowed me to cut my repayment timeline from 12 months to six. (The best part: I eventually transitioned this business to become my full-time gig.)
Paying off my debt in just six months felt amazing. And here’s the takeaway for anyone else with similar ambitions: If I could accomplish my goal that fast, you can, too. How do I know? Because there’s nothing that special about my story. I just made that critical decision to do it, believed I could and took every action I could to inch closer to the goal.
Today, I’m on a mission to spread the word that debt doesn’t have to be a burden you carry for years. In fact, it can be a reason to start putting in place habits that will set you on the course to financial success even sooner than you imagined.
March 25, 2016