When you’re struggling to pay off debt, it can be tempting to pin the blame on outside forces—like higher prices for “necessities” or salary freezes at work. But you know as well as we do: those kinds of justifications don’t do you any good.
“At the most germane level, the reason we make excuses is out of fear,” says Kimberly Foss, Certified Financial Planner and founder and president of Empyrion Wealth Management. “Admitting you’re in debt is uncomfortable, but if you don’t proactively address it, it’s like slowly cooking in a pot of water that gets hotter and hotter.”
While you certainly won’t be alone if you’re in some denial about your debt—a New York Fed report found consumers tend to underestimate their credit card debt by 37 percent—the first step to getting back on solid footing is to face the facts and ditch the excuses, starting with these five.
Maybe you swiped to cover what seemed like a one-time expense, like a $300 bridesmaid dress or an unusually expensive flight to see your family at the holidays. You tell yourself it’s NBD—you’ll be back on track soon enough.
“The danger with this line of thinking is that you never build financial security,” says financial therapist Amanda Clayman. “Is this truly a temporary situation, or is it part of a larger pattern in which you frequently find yourself grabbing your credit card in a pinch?”
The fact is, there will always be unexpected expenses that pop up—which is why Foss says it’s key to start building a fall-back fund that can cover three to six months’ worth of expenses. That’ll keep you covered if you lose your job, say, and it will let you take care of one-off expenses in the meantime without reaching for your card.
Sure, many Americans owe money, but that doesn’t mean having debt should be the norm. if you want to achieve the kind of financial independence that allows you to travel to Italy or quit a horrible job, you’ve got to get out of the red.
“Debt is like a shackle on your ankle, holding you back from growing your income,” Foss says. Unless you break free, you won’t be able to live your life to the fullest.
“Attach yourself to a more positive narrative,” suggests Clayman, like telling yourself, “I deserve financial stability, and this is something I can work toward.”
Even applying a little extra money toward that balance can help you pay it off faster.
“Look at your budget and distinguish your wants from your needs,” Foss says. “This may mean making short-term sacrifices in the interest of long-term goals—but yes, you can live without cable.”
Whenever you do score extra cash—from a tax refund, bonus, or birthday—use it to make a dent in your debt. And as you earn more, make a habit of putting more toward your debt (versus just upgrading your lifestyle).
This is like the financial version of fight or flight. “I see this kind of reaction a lot,” Clayman says. “[Debt] brings up feelings of anxiety and shame, and so in order to maintain emotional equilibrium, people avoid the issue altogether.”
But being in a highly reactive state of mind makes it almost impossible to problem-solve. So train yourself to address your finances while steering clear of the red zone. “Establish a regular routine around money… rather than tying it to your stress response,” Clayman says. Review your progress and pay your credit card bill on the same day each month, for example, so it becomes routine.
It also helps to approach the process more scientifically than emotionally, creating a spending plan that will keep you on track and focusing on expenses you can control.
It’s depressing when you’ve been working hard to bounce back financially, but keep getting dealt blows, like an unexpected medical bill or car repair. But you can’t let yourself get sucked into a defeatist mindset and spend away your bad feelings.
Instead, harness your anger and use that energy to fight your way back to the black. “No matter what, you can actively manage your finances to minimize the damage,” Clayman says.
If you’ve already trimmed all the fat from your budget, consider cutting back on some of your biggest expenses, such as downsizing your home, getting a roommate, or trading in your car for a less expensive model. Or work on increasing the money coming in by picking up a side gig, or going for a new job altogether. A little fiscal creativity can go a long way toward helping you pay down your debt faster.