Let’s face facts; the vast majority of Americans are in debt. Nearly 81 percent of Baby Boomers have some form of debt, and around 82 percent of Millennials owe money, too. Credit cards, mortgages, student loans, and even medical debt can add up fast. Plus, it can be a major financial burden that might put a strain on your marriage. Luckily, getting out of debt is possible. If you’re married and want to be debt-free, here’s how to make it happen.
1. Stop Making It Worse
You can’t get out of debt if you keep making your situation worse. If getting out of debt is genuinely a priority, then your first step is to stop getting yourself deeper in the hole. Make a formal commitment to stop using your credit cards or borrowing money that you aren’t able to repay in full immediately. Create a budget that allows you to live within your means, cutting back as necessary until your budget is balanced.
If you can’t make ends meet without acquiring more debt even after cutting back, then you need to explore additional sources of income. Look for side hustles that don’t require money to start, pick up a part-time job, sell excess stuff online, or do whatever it takes to bring enough in to cover your expenses.
2. Build a Small Emergency Fund
While it may seem counterintuitive to forgo focusing on debt repayment immediately, having a small emergency fund is a critical part of the process. By having at least a bit in savings, you are protecting yourself from the unexpected.
Initially, aim to get at least $1,000 in the bank. This is usually enough to cover most insurance deductibles and many typical emergencies. With that in savings, you won’t have to turn to debt to handle a small financial crisis.
As you build your starting emergency fund, make only the minimum payments on your debt. That way, you are preserving your credit score and likely making a bit of forward progress, even if it is just keeping your interest charges from piling up in the interim.
3. Determine How Much You Can Send to Your Debt
Once you have an emergency fund in place, it’s time to focus on debt repayment. Examine your budget and see how much extra cash you have after making all of your minimum payments and handling your living expenses.
Any excess that can be directed to your debt will accelerate the process, so be ruthless when it comes to cutting back or finding additional income. Then, total up exactly how much extra you can send to your debts.
It’s important to note that, while you want to complete this step as you prepare to tackle your debt, it’s also wise to repeat it regularly. Your financial situation may change over time, so the amount you can direct to debt repayment may vary as well.
For example, if you get a raise, you could have more money available to pay down your debt. However, if your car breaks down and you have to dip into your emergency fund, you might need to send that extra money to your savings account to build that buffer back up. Similarly, if utility costs rise in your area, your expenses may go up, and you might need to make an adjustment.
By re-examining how much you can afford to send to your debt regularly, you can make sure that repayment remains a priority but that the rest of your financial life also remains in order. That way, you can avoid unnecessary hardship or, if your income goes up, accelerate your plan by boosting your debt payments.
4. Choose a Debt Repayment Method
Having a debt repayment strategy can make a substantial amount of difference. It allows you to focus your efforts based on a concrete plan.
Many people who want to be debt-free either use the debt snowball or debt avalanche method. Both are viable approaches, so you should choose the strategy that feels right to you.
With the debt snowball, you focus on your smallest debt first. Every extra cent you can find gets directed at that debt, though you do continue to make the minimum payment on all of the others. Once that debt is paid, you send everything you were directing at that one to the new smallest debt (along with the minimum payment you were making before. Then, you continue the cycle until you are debt-free.
The debt avalanche method uses the same kind of approach. However, instead of focusing on your smallest debt, you concentrate on the one with the highest interest rate.
Some people prefer the debt snowball method because it lets them get a quick win. Paying off a debt can be very motivating, making it easier to keep going. But this option doesn’t create the biggest financial benefit when compared to the avalanche.
With the debt avalanche method, you are actually saving the most in interest. You’ll spend less paying off your debt overall, which makes financial sense. However, if your higher-interest debts are large, you don’t get a quick win, and that may make it harder to stay motivated.
Decide whether having the quick wins is what you need to stay motivated or if the idea of saving the most money is enough to keep you moving forward. Then, once you choose a strategy, list your debts in the order you’ll pay them off, giving you a template to work from during the process.
5. Keep Track of Your Progress
As you follow your debt repayment plan, you want to monitor your progress. Ideally, on at least a monthly basis, review your balances so that you can see how they are changing. You might do this in a simple spreadsheet or create thermometer style charts that you can color in as you pay the balances down.
In any case, tracking your progress can help you stay motivated. You’ll be able to see how your situation is shifting, and that can make it easier to remain dedicated.
Also, make sure to take a look at your credit reports at least once a year. This allows you to confirm that your progress is being reported correctly, which can give you some reassurance.
If you use a credit monitoring service that provides you with your credit scores, keep an eye on those two. Usually, paying down debt causes your score to rise over time, so seeing that positive change can serve as another source of motivation.
Ultimately, by following the five steps above, it is possible to become debt-free. While it does take time, it’s a journey worth undertaking as, in the end, you’ll reach one of the biggest financial goals a couple can have.
Do you have tips that can help couples become debt-free? Share your thoughts in the comments below.