5 Ways to Get Out of Debt

From Experience Life

Americans are wallowing in debt like never before. Counting all types of debt, from mortgages to student loans to credit cards, three out of four of us are in the red, according to the Federal Reserve’s 2004 Survey of Consumer Finances. In the first quarter of 2008, average household consumer debt (not including mortgages) amounted to more than $19,000, according to Federal Reserve data. While the current economic crisis has tightened restrictions on lending and led to a slight decrease in average personal debt load, falling home prices, negative net worth and stagnant wages have made existing debts all the more challenging to wrestle into submission. And most experts predict the current recession will be protracted and harsh.

The strain that debt puts on personal finances is significant, but that’s not the whole story. What the headlines rarely mention is the high toll debt exacts on our mental and physical well-being.

Two surveys last year hinted at the breadth of the problem. The first, conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA), found that 75 percent of Americans are stressed about money. The second, by the Associated Press–AOL, showed that people who were the most stressed about debt were also more likely to be suffering from digestion problems, muscle tension, migraines, severe anxiety and depression.

The good news: If we are willing to take a close look at our debt, understand its underlying causes and secondary effects, and then shift our spending habits, we can minimize not just our excess financial obligations, but also the stress-related physical problems to which they give rise.

Next: How to lower debt stress

If debt is stressing you out, here are three ways to reframe the way you think about what you owe.

Find at least one person you can be honest with about your debt. “Saying it out loud — ‘I’m up to my eyeballs in debt’ — can be very powerful and help break the shame cycle around debt,” says Denver psychologist Stephanie Smith. The physical act of speaking can begin to alleviate anxiety, and friends can offer new perspectives. “We only see the bleakest of futures; we don’t see our positive options,” she says. “Often when you talk to someone, they can shed some light on the situation.”

Choose your media influences carefully. If looking at pictures of fashionista celebs makes you want to own couture you can’t afford, curtail your fashion-magazine habit. If gadget catalogs are your weakness, get off those mailing lists. If watching lap-of-luxury TV characters makes you feel underprivileged, turn the channel — or turn off the TV entirely. “This stuff gets stuck in your subconscious and it is going to influence your emotions and your behavior even if you tell yourself it won’t,” says Stanford University health psychologist Kelly McGonigal. “Start to pay attention to that low-level twinge you feel when you see something you want,” she says. “By simply noting how you’re feeling, you can start to withdraw from the cycle of ‘I see, therefore I want.’”

Start saving. As soon as debt-laden people make a little money, they usually scramble to pay off bills, says Brent Kessel, a financial planner and author of It’s Not About the Money (HarperOne, 2008). So they never experience a feeling of abundance or the pleasure of being rewarded for hard work. Instead, they are always in the red, which makes them vulnerable to falling back into old habits of self-soothing by shopping. Kessel suggests opening a savings account and putting away a few dollars every week. “It doesn’t take much to help shift your mentality away from deprivation to one of surplus.”

Next: 5 ways to start getting out of debt

5 Ways to Start Digging Out of Debt
Ready to be debt-free? Here are five ways to get started.

Set a budget for your weekly expenses, such as groceries and toiletries, and withdraw that amount of cash from the bank each week. Then spend only what you have in hand. “If you don’t have the cash, you don’t buy it,” says Stephanie Smith, a psychologist in Denver, Colo., who specializes in debt counseling. “We’ve become so accustomed to credit cards, we’ve lost all perspective of what cash can buy and of what we can and cannot afford.”

Drive a wedge between looking and buying. To help curb impulse shopping, make a list of things you want to buy, then wait, says Kelly McGonigal, PhD, a Stanford University health psychologist. The act of putting the item on a list gives you the warm fuzzies that come with the promise of reward, she says. “But, two weeks later, you’ll be amazed at how much has fallen off the list because you’re no longer under the spell of the product’s advertisement or fantasy.”

Reduce your wants. Think of emails and catalogs from retailers as “want generators,” says McGonigal. Contact these companies and ask to be removed from their mailing lists, or subscribe to a service that will do it for you, such as GreenDimes.com. Toss unsolicited coupons directly into the recycling bin. “When you are trying to save money, nothing excites the brain more than the idea that you are getting a bargain,” she says. “But, obviously, you’re not saving money if you’re spending it — even if it sounds like a deal.”

Don’t ignore debt. People don’t realize that the seed of the stress response is rooted in the unknown, says McGonigal. So trying to keep stress at bay by not opening the bills or balancing the checkbook is bound to fail. “Your mind will keep trying to solve this problem, and the less information it has, the more it’s going to worry,” she says. “That puts you in a never-ending stress response and takes a huge toll on your health.”

Establish a pay-off plan. Having a clear strategy for paying your debts each month and knowing when you’ll be debt-free is great for peace of mind — and motivation. For tools you can use to start your own step-by-step payback plan, see the “Pay It DownWeb Extra! at ExperienceLife.com.

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Karen R.
Karen R7 years ago


Karen Foley
Karen P7 years ago

So many people, myself included, buy stuff or experiences to make us happier. Unfortunately this only works for a while. Dealing with the pain and emptiness is the only way around it.

sheri denato
Past Member 7 years ago

thanks for share

Sheri P.
Sheri P7 years ago

thanks for the tips...

Kerrie G.
Kerrie G7 years ago

Thanks for the article, very interesting!

Kimberlee W.
Kimberlee W7 years ago

I'm still a bit confused. Since NO savings account of any sort will pay even a tenth in interest what I'm being charged, why should I try saving money that's earmarked for bills? And EVERY extra cent is going towards that.
I'd rather not have debt, but married a man who, every time his mom sneezes, calls for an immediate plane ticket. That's how you end up with debts that total 3/4 of his annual paycheck. I went to work for a while, but realized it was costing us more than I made between buying uniforms, washing uniforms, paying for the gas to get to work and taking away time to do everything else in the house.
And how should I deal with the fact that every time I seem to be gaining speed in paying off all our debts, some other catastrophe that ends up being expensive comes up? Like truck repairs, broken HVAC units, frig going out, etc.
Not seeing it. At least I'm not behind, there's always that.

Michele Wilkinson

Thank you

Jillian B.
Jillian B7 years ago

it's overwhelming to read this for me but I think if I concentrate on one thing that I have NEVER done it would be the weekly expenditure budget with cash that would really force me to not over spend! Hmmmmm, I think I can do this!

Christine C.
Chandra C7 years ago

Credit cards should ONLY be used for real emergencies

Shirley E.
Shirley E7 years ago

The biggest cause of uncontrollable debt is credit companies lending the money and then piling on the interest at exhorbitant rates. And, society making so many things like internet, cars and mobile phones into necessities for those who want to live in the modern mainstream.