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3 Surefire Ways to Lose Your War Against Debt

in Joan's Posts, Pay Off Your Debt, Rants

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Note: This is a post from Joan Otto, Man Vs. Debt community manager. Read more about Joan.

So how’s your war on debt going?

Ours has been a rough slog lately. I’ve shared about that in my past few updates, and one thing that has stood out in the comments is how many others in our community are also going through rough times.

Unemployment. Medical emergencies. Car problems. The list goes on and on.

And I’m beginning to realize that, while I don’t have “the perfect” advice on getting out of debt, I do know a lot about what NOT to do.

So today, that’s what I want to talk about – how NOT to win this war.

1. Underestimate the power of the enemy – or yourself.

It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.

~ Sun Tzu, “The Art of War”

Want to lose the war against your debt? Underestimate it. Put your head in the sand. Pretend it’s no big deal. By convincing yourself that it’s not a big fight, you’re not steeling yourself for the reality that it is.

The dollar amount of your debt doesn’t matter. What matters is that you KNOW the dollar amount. You know your creditors. You’re not surprised when the bills come. You’re not HIDING the bills when they come.

Doing those things is a sure way to lose the war.

Meanwhile, you’ll also lose the war if you don’t know yourself. What are your strengths – good at savings? Great with making extra money on the side? And what are your weaknesses – tendencies to impulse-buy, a failure to have an emergency fund, something else?

Know your enemy. Know yourself. If you don’t, it’s incredibly easy to get sucked into denial, to let bad habits accumulate, to slip out of the good habits.

2. Fail to take offensive action.

A good solution applied with vigor now is better than a perfect solution applied ten minutes later.

~ Gen. George S. Patton Jr.

Paralysis by analysis. Oh, we’re so famous for this in the personal finance realm. We debate and debate… what’s “the best” way to pay off debt? What ways could I come up with to make more money on the side? These aren’t bad questions – IF you pick a solution and act.

The bad part is when we get so caught up in the planning, the spreadsheets and the ideas… that we fail to take action.

Pull the trigger.

Get rid of the perfectionism that keeps you from doing the things you need to do to win the war.

Pick one battle – one Very Next Step – and fight it. Rack up a win. Then another, then another. One at a time.

They add up – when you’re taking action and not just playing defense.

3. Wave the white flag.

If you are going through hell, keep going.

~ Winston Churchill

It’s going to feel AWFUL, fighting this war. You are going to be bruised, beaten, kicked around, discouraged, tormented and abused.

Your debt is a BIG enemy, and it WILL get in some solid shots against you. There will be those weeks, months, maybe even YEARS when all you’re doing, it seems, is treading water.

Don’t give up. Don’t wave the white flag. If it feels like hell, keep going, because above everything else, you don’t want to lose the ground you’ve gained and have to start over later.

Tear down the obstacles. Keep fighting and turn it around. The second you give up, you’re done.

It’s not easy. Sometimes, it’s an act of such incredible faith and determination to keep fighting that it seems impossible.

You can do it. Keep fighting.

So what’s keeping YOU from winning your war on debt? What pitfalls or minefields should the rest of us look out for? How do you overcome them?

Comment and let us know!

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Darren October 3, 2013 at 10:38 AM

Hey Joan,
I was a total underestimater of managing debt! In the past, we saw the amount, and just downplayed it, paying what we could on it, and then hoping it didn’t grow. All the while, continued to live life, spend, and debt bounced up and down (everyone has debt, right?). Now that we are in a position of mostly debt free, it is liberating! We see that yes, that debt was huge and out of control for our liking. We see the endless possibilities of being debt free and now restrain ourselves from getting to the point of growing debt again. We see that everyone is NOT in debt, and our lives can be so much more fulfilling without it!

The biggest thing for me is to resist the temptation to use the credit that is available. It’s there in case some big emergency has come up, not to spend on whatever. We’re trying to place realistic budgets on spending to accomplish this, and ensuring we’re only living on what we make. If we can’t afford it without going into debt, it will just have to wait. And when you look at it, do you really need that item to live? Probably not.

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dojo October 3, 2013 at 12:58 PM

Paying off debt is hard and painful. If we all knew about it, before we signed the loans, probably most would have never bothered with it. But we need to keep our heads down and be consistent. Being deb free is worth all the pain

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BlueRondo October 10, 2013 at 2:04 PM

Well, I don’t know who this “Deb” character is, but she is toast!! LOL (sorry couldn’t resist).
You nailed it – I think that all the time – if I had known what long term pain my short term lapse of judgment and impulse spending would bring… if only. But, all we can do is not make the same mistake again, am I right!? Oh, wait, I did make the same mistake again… that’s right. But I will NOT do it to myself another time, that’s for sure.

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Erin @ My Alternate Life October 3, 2013 at 1:59 PM

I know so many people who just put their heads in the sand and try to ignore their debt. I don’t do that, but I do sometimes over-analyze instead of just taking action! Thanks for this reminder to keep on going when it’s tough :).

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Casey October 3, 2013 at 3:02 PM

Keep at it Joan! You’ve inspired me so much and have completely changed my life. I could not have done it without you. Stay strong and know that even though things are tough, they have been worse. Look at all the amazing progress you’ve made! I’m so impressed.

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Ree klein October 3, 2013 at 3:07 PM

Hey, Joan, while you may be experiencing a difficult time (and I’m sorry about that) it gives you such power in your writing. This post is quite possibly one of your best that I’ve read so far. It is so on point and inspiring.

I walked a lot of miles in your shoes and did come out the other side. HOWEVER, there is no perfect place and no matter how comfortable I feel, I realize that financial disaster is just a string of bad choices/circumstances away. I’m still a spender at heart and while I can temper my urges they’re still there. Know your enemy and know yourself…such wisdom applied to our finances!

Thanks for all you do ~
Ree

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Jennifer October 3, 2013 at 3:10 PM

Hi Joan:

I LOVE your posts – and this was just what I needed to read today. I am two months in to my own debt battle, and just got hit with a $2,462 dental bill and a $396 vet bill (sick kitten AND sick dog the same month). I have a child who is a freshman in college (OUCH), and sometimes it seems impossible. But I’ve managed to pay down almost $12,000 in three months, and it feels great. This month we may be just keeping even, or only go down a little — but that is better than going the wrong way. This is what I have to remember instead of just giving up when I hit a bump in the road…….

Thanks!

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Lauren October 3, 2013 at 3:15 PM

Hey Joan -

First of all I want to say how inspiring your posts have been for me. Especially the ones about when it has been difficult or you’ve had a setback! It makes me feel as though I’m not alone in having setbacks or stumbling blocks on my journey to pay off debt.

It’s really discouraging to have the amount go down at such a slow rate. I know I am making progress, but sometimes it feels as if I am just spending my life paying down debt and missing out on all of the other stuff. So thank you for the reminder to keep fighting the fight. I look forward to when we both have zero balances.

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Liz October 3, 2013 at 3:22 PM

Hang in there! You’re an amazing inspiration & you’re so brave yo put it all out there. I’m so grateful for the man v debt community and all the resources it provides! It will get better! Well wishes your way!!

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Alex October 3, 2013 at 3:23 PM

Keep it up Joan! We haven’t been able to stick to our original plan at all this year due to both our cars requiring some major major majorly expensive repairs. But at this point, we are happy that we have not taken on any new debt in over 5 years, we are still actively paying down the stuff we do have, and strive to be debt free in 3 years, completely! It’s a long journey. We just remind ourselves it took us 9 years to get into this much debt (entirely student loans now), so it won’t go away over night either! We don’t let it run our lives, we are on top of everything, and we still try to enjoy ourselves while paying down our debt. While it is not the top focus of our lives (spending time with each other is right now due to my husband being in the service), it is in the top 5 and we have already been reaping the benefits of less debt! We enjoy 1 cruise a year with one of the car payment equivalents we used to make. The other car payment gets thrown towards student loan debt. Any extra cash gets put toward the debt as well! So remember your overall priorities and you will get through it!

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Chris October 3, 2013 at 3:26 PM

I love this post, Joan. You cut through all the complicated stuff and nailed these big-picture points. What’s the next step, the next WIN, that we can rack up against Those Who Rhyme With MOA?

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Angie October 3, 2013 at 3:28 PM

Your fortitude is inspiring.

Thank you for your words or encouragement and praise; and for showing us it’s not a downhill battle. It’s easy to fall back into old patterns when we experience setbacks. It’s nice to be reminded it happens to the best of us.

Cheers to you and how far you’ve come! May we all keep going and find the other side. :)

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Meg October 3, 2013 at 3:30 PM

Keep up the good work Joan! I love your posts. They really motivate me to keep at it and keep my eye on the prize. You’ll get there.

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linda October 3, 2013 at 4:16 PM

Joan please do not give up. You have been a large inspiration to me and I have been bragging about you to my co workers. I hope this bad patch will fade and you can again pick up speed with paying off your debts. God’s best to you and your family. Hang in there we depend on it.

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Claire October 3, 2013 at 5:22 PM

For all the great strides we take in a positive direction, sometimes there are those steps backwards, and yes they hurt like crazy. We can feel failure much more acutely than success at certain points in our lives too. Remembering that we all have weaknesses, we’re human and we aren’t perfect goes a long way to how we deal with life when it hits the fan, in whatever context.
Fear used to keep me from eliminating my debt, mainly because I refused to believe it was really happening, and in my mind, I was living in a parallel universe, and everything ‘would be ok’. How or when, I didn’t have a clue, somehow maybe I’d get a great paying job or I’d suddenly win the lottery (yes, really!).I was scared because I knew it was a big number (just short of $50,000) and I couldn’t confront it because it also meant I had to be entirely accountable. It was all my own.
One of the most encouraging things that happened, was writing down the exact number I owed, and a breakdown of each amount to loans, credit cards etc…
That was my first point of success! I hadn’t paid a cent off, and I was ‘ok, I got this’. That attitude got me through almost losing my home twice and unexpected one off bills for home repairs that would have made me run and hide!
Debt will never win because we’ve all been motivated by this blog and by you Joan, encouraging us when we hit a tough time to come out kicking even harder! If there’s one thing we can do while you are feeling challenged, it would be to say we are fighting your corner just as hard as our own, because we want us all to be free and experience a life of financial freedom.
Progress may sometimes be slow, but if the intention is there, that’s at least half the battle! :)

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Alan October 3, 2013 at 5:47 PM

Hi Joan. I admire your tenacity. I have been deep in debt, and too many setbacks. I am out, and it is a great feeling there. Hang in there. Keep it up.

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Elizabeth October 3, 2013 at 6:21 PM

Joan, your journey has been amazing. I truly admire what a strong person you are!

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kate October 3, 2013 at 8:34 PM

Joan,

Thank you for your inspiration over the years. For the first time in my life I have a small savings “kitty” which has the potential to help me out during this time of government furlough and incertainty. I know that I will be ok even if the furlough lasts another month which is a very liberating feeling. That’s thanks in a large part to your inspiring posts. Thank you!

Kate

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Kostas @ Finance Blog Zone October 3, 2013 at 10:09 PM

This is a really great article. I know many people in debt who are guilty of these things. Most commonly, being in denial over the problem or surrendering at the first hurdle. This is something I am going to share with these people. Thank You.

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karen October 3, 2013 at 11:57 PM

hi.
today has been hard on me. ive gotten so discouraged lately because with all of my mounting bills, old debts..i dont think i will ever get beyond this. i am so discouraged and angry. i was just thinking about all of those previous debts that were paid off, and how once the coast was clear, i went right back to my old destructive habits that caused the debt in the first place. smh…there has to be a better way to handle this…

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Jane October 4, 2013 at 12:54 AM

Joan,

Words of wisdom. Thank you for this wonderful post! You may have a set back right now but because you know the enemy and you know yourself you will win the war.

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Dear Debt October 4, 2013 at 1:40 AM

For a long while, I couldn’t find a decent job and suffered many emotional setbacks. Things are finally on the upswing and I’ve paid off 10k this year so far, while making about double that after taxes this year. I write debt breakup letters on my blog to help deal with the various emotions of debt repayment. I still have several years to go, paying off 46k left…. a far cry from 81k, but the journey is still long. Most of the time debt fatigue is really wearing me down. I want to stop caring! But I can’t. This community has helped inspire me. Joan, if you want to write a dear debt letter, let me know :)

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Mariana October 4, 2013 at 11:25 AM

Very inspiring article! To see debt as an dangerous enemy is a very powerful metaphore. Most of us underestimate the enemy and ourselves. I really admire your path and all the effort you make to inspire others. Keep fighting, you will definetly win!

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Christina October 6, 2013 at 2:52 PM

Thanks Joan, I absolutely love this post. The guidance is dead-on what I needed right now. I lost my father this month to Parkinson’s (he had lived with me for the last 4 years since my mom passed). Also, a car repair of $900 to deal with. I’m looking around for something to get me refocused and energized to keep tackling this.

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Sophie W. October 6, 2013 at 9:08 PM

Christina:

I just read your post and I’m so sorry for your loss. I know all about car repairs, having had more than a few recently. However, there really is light at the end of the tunnel – sometimes it seems far away but it is there. I completely paid off two credit cards last year and, although I’ve been struggling to maintain my savings fund, I always stop and remind myself that I’ve made progress both financially and emotionally. At one point, I would have just given up and continued to rack up credit card debt, but I have changed my entire way of thinking. Please keep up with your good work and know that there are so many people out here in cyberland who understand and who are sending good wishes and strength your way. You can do this!

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Sophie W. October 6, 2013 at 9:01 PM

Joan:

I am going to embroider the saying by Winston Churchill in a sampler and display it prominently on my living room wall. It is simple, direct, and so very true. I have had a hard slog recently (car repairs – it’s not one thing after another, it’s the same damn thing over and over, as Dorothy Parker said) but I have kept going (mainly to work – sometimes walking there when the car was in for repairs) and have kept putting every cent – yes, I do mean EVERY PENNY – back into my savings account. The aforementioned car repairs have intensified my goal of living car-free, that’s for sure! I’m sending out good wishes to everyone who is dealing with going through hell – we’ll keep on going, all of us and reach our goals.

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Cay Lowery October 8, 2013 at 8:43 PM

Joan,
Debt set backs occur and your post addressing those set backs are amazing and so true. Even paying down debt by one dollar is paying DOWN debt. You have an amazing family. You guys support one another thru debt and going debt free! Joan, you also have US your readers,your accountability partners, and most of all your friends!! We are here for you. Praying for you and your family as your work towards your goal of being DEBT FREE!! Enjoy your post so much, even the hard ones.

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Hayley @ A Disease Called Debt October 9, 2013 at 4:55 AM

‘Paralysis by analysis’ – yep, this is me. Sometimes I think that my head will explode for all the thoughts swimming around in it as to how I can pay off my debt, how can I save more, make more money etc. As you say the trick is to get going with something, take action rather than just talking about it!

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cj October 10, 2013 at 11:10 AM

Joan,

I was in the denial road for a long time. Then, I went through and figured out what we owed and OMG…had the shock of my life.

we’ve been working on our debt now for 2 years. It’s amazing to us what we’re willing to live without during this journey and the blessings we’ve had along the way, with the not so blessed things that we’ve had. Life sure can throw you some curve balls.

We’ve also been knocked off the wagon a couple times with medical problems and surprise expenses, only to look at each other and relize, darn, we’re doing it again and then we work on getting back on the wagon and get back with the program.

“Debt Fatique” is a serious beast and it makes this journey that much longer but I’ve learned that the more we vocus on the goal to be debt free, even the small progress is progress.

Keep up the good work and fight the good fight! I really enjoy and look forward to your posts. It’s nice to read others struggles so you don’t feel so alone in this journey.

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Jan Koch October 14, 2013 at 8:27 AM

Hey Joan,
this post was exactly what I needed to read.

Actually I’m working 20 hours as an employee and building my online business on the side. I’m going to quit my job in the next weeks, as I simply can’t stand working for my employer and wasting my time.

So I’m not into debt right now, but I can definitely use your post as resource for my current situation. I’m not going to grow my online business without taking action and I’ll never be able to take more action when I’m wasting 2 or 3 days per week. So statement #1 and #2 really resonate with me, and I won’t let #3 happen ;-)

Thanks for the motivation!
Jan

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