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What’s the Best Way to Pay Off Debt?

in Joan's Posts, Pay Off Your Debt

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

How would you pay off $90,000 in debt?

It’s kind of like if I asked you how’d you go about losing 50 pounds, right? Everyone would have some different suggestions, possibly tied to a specific “plan” they believe to be successful. There would be some outliers – the equivalent of the grapefruit diet – and there would be a lot of people who’d recommend the same broad categories of eating fewer calories and burning more of them.

Weight loss is complicated. It’s a mathematical equation – and yet it isn’t. There are emotional variables at play that make it hard to “balance” your equation!

I bet you can see where this is going. Getting out of debt is complicated. It’s a mathematical equation – and yet it isn’t. There are emotional variables at play!

If I asked a large group of people how to pay off $90,000 in debt or how to lose 50 pounds, probably 90% of the suggestions would fall into the category of being too weird to be livable or too broad to be helpful.

Many would be solutions that “sound” good logically, but that would be hard to do in real life. They’d negate the emotional part and deal with the concepts, most of which we already know.

I led Weight Watchers meetings as a side job for several years. I liked to make people laugh – so I’d say things like, “You’re all here because no one ever told you it’s good to exercise and to eat vegetables, right?!”

So I’ll ask you guys here on Man Vs. Debt the related question: “You’re all here because no one ever told you to spend less money than you earn and not to run up credit-card bills, right?!”

Losing weight and getting out of debt do require you to be armed with some basic factual information. But they also require two other things:

  • Support from people who will help you do what you know is right.
  • A concrete plan that shows you how to deal with the emotional struggles that will inevitably arise.

The things that didn’t work for me

When I found Man Vs. Debt and participated in my first session of You Vs. Debt, I had tried to pay off my debt a bunch of ways before. I really liked Baker, but I didn’t necessarily expect that this time was going to be any different.

I just wasn’t motivated by the other methods I tried. I’d get started, but…

  • A financial “emergency” would arise and derail me…
  • I’d look at the HUGE amount I still had to go…
  • I’d see the pitiful amounts I was scraping together above the minimum payment…

And I’d get discouraged…

And then I’d just quit.

Here’s the problem. I am a “numbers” person – or so I thought. So I believed – and had been told – that I “needed” to pay off my highest-interest debts first because that was mathematically strong. If I had kept up with it? Yeah, absolutely, that’s factually correct.

This approach wasn’t motivating me to stick with it when spending less and earning more got hard. In fact, it almost depressed me – to see so much of my money going to a company and so little of it taking down the principal because of the high interest rate.

So then I tried the “little debts” approach. You know… Pay off the smallest debt, then take the payment you were making on that and put it against the next debt. That’s often called the debt snowball, and the idea behind it is that seeing that “win” early is supposed to motivate you.

This approach wasn’t motivating me to stick with it because my smallest debt at the time was almost $10,000. That’s a lot of months with no “snow” in your snowball!

I was also guilty of the not-normally-popularized “pay MORE than you really can on your debt and have no savings and then get panicky and charge it right back up” system. Yeah. That didn’t work out either.

The Debt Tsunami approach to paying down debt

So when Baker said I could do something different, it was really freeing. I didn’t feel like a failure because I – a math major – couldn’t keep up the “mathematically correct” system. I didn’t feel like a failure because I wasn’t “snowballing” anything or cutting out payments.

Simply put, Baker and the You Vs. Debt class encouraged me to figure out what debt I most wanted to be rid of – and hammer as hard as I could at that. That’s the debt tsunami in a nutshell – determining how you pay things off based on their emotional impact.

I don’t normally write long posts and then include bonus required reading. But this is important. One of Baker’s earliest posts here on Man Vs. Debt went into huge detail about how the Debt Tsunami works, and I want you to read it in his words, not mine.

Stop what you’re doing, save this post, and go read about the debt tsunami here.

You’re back? Did you read it?

GOOD. This is truly the foundational idea that’s framing our efforts to pay off about $90,000 in consumer debt.

I’ve written about it in passing many times, but I’ve never gotten a chance to really focus and explain why it’s so important to me.

With just under $60,000 in debt, I am now at my LOWEST percentage of debt in my adult life.

So, yeah, I want you to read more about the Debt Tsunami. But more than that, I would love for you to LIVE the Debt Tsunami approach if you’re still in debt, and to share how it’s working with our community!

So what’s your most-hated or most-stress-inducing debt, and why? Maybe it is because it’s got a high interest rate. Maybe it is because it’s a nagging little balance that you want to clear out. That’s fine – it’s a great way to combine other approaches.

But I want to hear what’s really motivating you.

Comment and let me know!

{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

Michelle January 31, 2013 at 9:14 AM

I hate my student loan debt! We are working on eliminating this. I made a whole length post on this (http://www.makingsenseofcents.com/2012/11/student-loan-plan.html) so that I would be more motivated.

We want it gone, because while it’s still there, I will not buy a lot of things. We can’t get a new house until then, and I don’t feel right splurging on anything. Luckily we’re only a couple of months away!

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Joan January 31, 2013 at 12:49 PM

Michelle, it’s awesome that you are so close! Keep it up – you’ll do it!!

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Michelle January 31, 2013 at 1:59 PM

Thanks!

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Nick | Credit Ranker February 2, 2013 at 11:39 AM

That is good that you are not splurging on anything while trying to pay down debt. Some people will think they are doing good so they will go out and “reward” themselves by buying something expensive. This is not progress. Make a game out of it. Look up ways for free/cheap entertainment. Keep going strong!

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Katie January 31, 2013 at 10:49 AM

Thanks so much for continuing this great blog. I feel so much less alone knowing you are out there with similar problems and guiding us all towards personal responsibility. It really makes a difference for me. And I’m sure I’m not alone in that thought!

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Joan January 31, 2013 at 12:51 PM

Katie, thank you so much for your kind words!! You made my day – I’m just glad to know I’m not alone either :)

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Sarah January 31, 2013 at 11:12 AM

Aside from our mortgage, we have 3 debts. A loan from my in-laws ($3k) from when we purchased our house 5 years ago, my husband’s student loans ($15k) and my student loans ($8k). Although the personal loan is smallest and my husband’s loan has the highest interest rate, it’s my loan that bugs me. I think that’s because it has the highest monthly payment ($250) and I feel like it’s that number that’s standing between me and my desire to stay home with my kids. So, we’ve been paying extra (now $600 each month) in the hopes that by the time baby#2 turns one year old, the loan will be history. Last year at this time we owed about $13k on that loan, so we’re making good progress!

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Joan January 31, 2013 at 12:52 PM

Sarah, that’s an AWESOME example of why the debt tsunami makes such a difference – because you know what will make the biggest difference in your life, and that’s freeing up the biggest amount of cash per month!!

You rock – and I can’t wait to hear you scream for joy when your loan is GONE!

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Katie @ SingleSimpleStudio January 31, 2013 at 11:59 AM

Great post and great progress, Joan! I’ve eliminated around $16,000 in debt in the last year using a modified approach of the debt snowball plan that is really more like the debt tsunami. I’ve made myself a budget and stick to it, using my income from my day job to support this budget. I took a part-time job as a waitress and use ALL of the income from that job to hammer down my high-interest student loan debt. The highest interest student loan just happens to be the one I hate the most, so it works for me, both financially and emotionally, to tackle this debt with vigor!

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Joan January 31, 2013 at 12:53 PM

Katie, that’s awesome – and WAY TO GO on the hustling for extra cash!!! Our hated debt also happens to be our highest interest rate, but the really funny part is, when I was attacking it “just because it was the highest,” I had trouble sticking to it. I had to get mad and figure out why I wanted it gone before I could make that work for me, if that makes sense?

You are doing great – keep it up!!

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Katie @ SingleSimpleStudio January 31, 2013 at 1:58 PM

Thanks, Joan! I have found that getting mad at debt is the best motivator! As I’ve learned more about personal finance and how important it is to save for retirement, what makes me more mad is that I can’t save like I want to yet because of these student loans. The sooner I pay those off, the sooner I can save!

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Alex January 31, 2013 at 12:19 PM

My husband is an active duty service member and we are also very well educated. We amassed a total of 188k of student loans together. That’s not even the worst, we move every 18 months to a new place (and sometimes country!) Due to an unexpected job change for my husband. So my wonderfully expensive college education is collecting dust on text books we keep on shelves for reference material. So I have odd jobs where I can find them (if possible) where we move, my debt alone at roughly 100k when we started out on this path. Almost five years later we are half that amount on basically one income. We have to front the money for most of our moves, in addition to paying security deposits, first/last, etc. We originally tried the snowball ideal, but quickly realized we needed much more than 1k in our “emergency fund” due to our constant moving. We now keep 10k in an account specifically for moves to help pay for these expenses, and some get reimbursed and some don’t so its a constant game of re-upping this account AND paying off debt. In addition, we like to experience as much of our new area as possible because chances are we won’t go there again, so we have an “entertainment” budget that includes money for cultural activities and meals of local cuisine and a small amount of momento shopping (usually magnets and photos). The debt just kept going down but we didn’t have a plan, and weren’t really happy with the slow progress. We needed motivation!

Hence, “the cruise plan”. We LOVE to cruise, and since we don’t drink alcohol it actually ends up being an economical way to see the world. And since we move a lot, we take cruises out of local ports, so we don’t pay for airfare or hotel stays and have friends drop us at the pier, no parking! We decided that for every amount we paid “extra” to our debt, we would match 25% to a “vacation only” account. When we had enough to cruise, we went! We started backwards and found a cruise about 18 months away, found out all the costs, then calculated how much we would have to “save” to get it. Boy did that motivate us to pay down debt! We have made great strides tieing our debt to something we love, and it hurts less to sit down and pay those bills because the first thing I do is transfer money to our vacation account!

While many would object to this method, saying we shouldn’t be spending an extra 3k a year on a cruise when we have 6 figure debt, and they are probably right. But we don’t have children, our cars are paid off and maintained, we do not have anything new from clothes ot furniture, we don’t buy pointless knick-nacks to hang on our walls or crowd end tables (we don’t even have end tables!). This helps because we don’t want to move a bunch of stuff nor do we want to pay for it. We also do not celebrate christmas, easter, valentines day, and many other “hallmark” holidays, so those costs are minimal as I bake goodies for friends who are of that persuassion. We give up a lot to live this crazy traveling life, and our method may not work for all, but its what we do. We now have a solid 5 year plan to be completely debt free, have 20k in the bank for our moves, and do 3 more cruises in that time frame!

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Joan January 31, 2013 at 1:00 PM

Alex, I’m a HUGE fan of your idea – because it’s clearly keeping you pumped, and because you’re clearly making great progress toward your goals!! We are travelers also (not movers, which my budget thanks me for) and we have absolutely continued traveling while paying down debt – with the “we’ll do it if we can pay cash for it and not get behind in our progress” mentality!

And I love it. It really does keep up pumped and moving forward. So proud of what you guys have accomplished, and I really appreciate you sharing your story!!

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Cheryl January 31, 2013 at 12:41 PM

I hate my BOA credit card!!! I’ve had it since I graduated college and it’s my highest interest rate and balance. I’ve gotten 48% paid off so far in the last 6 months, so I feel like I’m getting over the hump and can see a finish line approaching. I feel like I’ve been paying on it forever- and stuff I bought that I probably no longer have. Just the feeling of being held back by a piece of plasitc. That gets me motivated.
One part of Baker’s post made for a good visualiztion for me- I think that helps with the motivation as well.

I love the post today- it’s definitely a timely one.

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Joan January 31, 2013 at 1:01 PM

Cheryl, that’s awesome – I’m so glad our “two for one” post special helped!!

You are so right that when you can see an end in sight, it feels soooo good! Keep at it!

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Rebecca Tracey January 31, 2013 at 1:08 PM

Love this! When you can emotionally connect to anything, it makes it that much easier to stick to. I love the idea of connecting to to debt!

I sometimes make my clients turn it into a game (especially the ones who LOVE shopping). Imagine what they will be able to have in their lives when they are clear of debt. They get to damn excited that they start to get more thrill out of saving money than spending it!

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Joan February 1, 2013 at 2:42 PM

Rebecca, that’s awesome! That’s a great motivator too – imagining what you can do with that money later!

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Rebecca January 31, 2013 at 2:52 PM

What is my main motivation for getting rid of all of my debt. My three year old daughter because I do not want her to somehow be responsible for it. I also really want to live debt free or as debt free as I can. Right now my biggest pain or eye sore is my student loans. I almost have one paid off and hoping to get it paid off by next year. The other not so sure. I also have a credit card but, have it down to just paying off what I owe each month so it is not as bad as it could be.

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Joan February 1, 2013 at 2:43 PM

Rebecca, I hope you’ll get both those students loans tackled here in the next year or so!! I can tell you that in my experience, the madder and more passionate you get – whatever that takes – the faster they’ll go down!!

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BC January 31, 2013 at 10:05 PM

We paid off our smallest cc card first then my most hated cc of $12k second which was awesome. I was worried when we started tackling our debt that card would never get paid off so we put it second on the list and attacked it. Now we are tackling DH’s $6,000 of student loan debt because it’s unsecured. Our last two debts will be our cars which we’re going to snowball. I definitely hate the student loan and am excited for it to be gone. So excited that I look forward to getting the bill in the mail! I have already begun cultivating my hate of the car loans. Our debts are in the way of us saving for a down payment on our first home and for that reason I hate them all and so this is the year that they have got to go!!!

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Joan February 1, 2013 at 2:44 PM

BC, GOOD FOR YOU! You sound like someone who gets that you have to get fired up to get to the goal! I cannot wait to hear your comments when you get that awful credit card gone – and then imagine how you’ll feel when the cars are all that’s left!!

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Andrea Standin February 1, 2013 at 4:35 PM

I have two main categories of debt – student loan debt and medical debt. Right now my goal is to pay off the medical debt so that I can then attack the student loan debt full-force. I’m not sure if that’s the best way to go about it, but right now, it’s keeping my phone from ringing off the hook.

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Joan February 1, 2013 at 10:20 PM

Hey, THAT is a motivator!! I am a previous haver of medical debt, and I think that and tax debt are THE WORST in a lot of ways, so I say if it’s working, go for it!

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Matt February 19, 2013 at 10:11 AM

Andrea, You should pay off the student loan debt first. The reason is that it is not dischargeable in bankruptcy. I know that you nor anyone else for that matter is planning on bankruptcy, but in the event of job loss or disabling illness it might be the only option. The medical bills could be discharged through the bankruptcy, and if you have already paid of the student loan then you are debt free. Of course, I hope no of the above advice is necessary, and that you pay it all off quickly and throw off the shackle of debt that bind many of us.

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OC Budget February 1, 2013 at 7:16 PM

I hate my mortgage debt and credit card debt.
I wish my credit card debt was instead the student loan debt since i can say to myself that at least that is the cost of education that went as a foundation for my future. No…I still do not have a graduate degree and all that credit card debt was due to me spending frivolously. Shameful.

Not counting the mortgage debt, I still have around $15,000 in credit card debt that i am currently working on. I guess this has been motivating me since I have literally been eating cans of chili & beans with toasted bread for dinner and skipping lunch alot in the past week. $10 for 10 cans. I keep telling myself that this is the price i am paying for being stupid for a long time.

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Joan February 1, 2013 at 10:30 PM

Hey, you are NOT the only one!

I’m not a big fan of the super-deprivation method personally, because in our case, we just get fed up and quit entirely every time we do it. We’re not saying it doesn’t work for some people – there are a lot of plans out there that basically say that’s the exactly right thing to do. But it’s just SO hard to stick to long-term! I say, though, if you CAN make some sacrifices, it’s a good way to get rolling – just don’t forget to celebrate the progress you’re making and see the positive in that.

You rock for being willing to tackle it – and I can’t wait to see you celebrate along the way and after it’s all gone!!

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Stephanie Christensen February 2, 2013 at 12:41 PM

I am no longer in debt but when I was ($15K on a $30K salary) I found that finding second sources of income and devoting every penny of those earnings was the most rewarding and “quickest” path to paying down the debt. Naturally, you have to scale back in other areas as well, but it’s the most motivating way to move the needle, in my experience.

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Mike February 2, 2013 at 4:56 PM

Joan, my wife and I just shifted our paradigm to be disgusted with debt. Remember those “my pet fat” things you could get that show how much fat you’re carrying around on your body? We just blogged about our debt like it was “our pet debt” and that it was a soul-killing parasite that was robbing us of our autonomy. We cut our spending and increased our incomes. I gave up a car and started riding my bike to work. We’ve documented dozens of things to help us be more lean financially. We knocked out almost $100,000 in just a couple of years, with a surge of nearly $60,000 in about eight months. Never again! I love the work you’ve done here! Thanks!

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Joan February 2, 2013 at 7:07 PM

Mike, that’s awesome – I do remember those! And I think you’re right – you really have to get ugly and visualize your debt as the ugly, nasty blob that it is!! Good for you guys – and WHOA on that $60K surge, that’d get me to zero so here’s to it!! :)

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Jane Savers @ The Money Puzzle February 3, 2013 at 12:39 AM

Fear is my biggest motivator for fighting debt.
Debt keeps me from investing in my own future.
I feel like I am in a fight with my HELOC and most days I can’t get any good punches in.

I am very motivated to be in control of my own future even though it was made much harder this week because the word outsourcing is being used at my work.

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Joan February 11, 2013 at 12:43 PM

That motivation is what’s going to keep you going even ON those days with “no good punches.” I know that feeling – but it’s kind of like the Rocky movie, some days the goal is just to be on your feet at the end!

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Cassi February 3, 2013 at 1:11 PM

Student loans. I start University in August and looking at the prices from room and board to tuition and even the random fees. Ouch.

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Joan February 11, 2013 at 12:44 PM

Cassi, just the fact that you’re going into it KNOWING this is going to be a source of debt puts you ahead of many students (some people just don’t seem to realize or care that the money has to come from somewhere!)

Just make a plan – and stay motivated to take on as little debt as possible and get rid of it afterward as fast as possible! You can do it!

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RJ February 3, 2013 at 10:29 PM

In 2007 a business I ran closed it’s doors and left me with a large debt load. My wife and I also had a bunch of student loan debt and a few credit card debts as well. The total of all that debt was around $40,000. It was a lot of work, learning, research, and soul searching for me go get this paid off in just over 2 years, but the financial education I learned in the process was amazing. I also started my own blog about it http://www.mymoneylesson.com. My debt story is there along with other things I do regularly to keep my money. This site here is great and there are so many other sites out there everyone should now be able to find a great way to control their money!

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Vinish Parikh February 3, 2013 at 11:30 PM

In my view best way to pay off debt is to avoid unnecessary luxury expenditure and divert that money towards settling of debt and also one should try to increase the sources of his or her income like working part time after your normal work so that debt can be repaid easily and quickly.

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Claire May 27, 2013 at 11:01 PM

This was excellent. I have buried my head in the sand for a coup,e of years now to avoid my $26,000 in credit card debt. This is half of my salary!! I don’t even know what I bought anymore!! It has taken me months to get tot he point where I know I can deal with it. All of these plans didn’t seem to sit with me since I am so emotional-hence my debt problem- but this Tsunami just makes sense to me!! I have other cc’s which have a higher balance and interest rate but that Alaska Airline card gives me heartburn when I think of the plane tickets I wasted on that stupid guy. Can’t wait to pay it off and close that door!!! Thank you for this blog which said to me “Go ahead girl, it’s time to close the door on this!”

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manderee June 27, 2013 at 10:21 PM

I have struggled with debt a couple different times in my young adult life, thus far. The first time, I was so deep into debt that I could hardly afford the minimum payments and I would skip lunches so that I would have enough money to eat that evening. My parents dug me out and I will finish making my monthly $200 payments to them at the end of this year. In July of last year I purchased my first condo (I do not count this as debt because it’s a decent investment and my mortgage payments are the lowest I’ve ever paid for rent since graduating college). I changed jobs recently so I need to prematurely pay back my 401k loan or risk taxation and penalty. My parents are helping me yet again with this one. At the beginning of this year I was ~$18k in debt. This rose to ~$22.5k before I finally dug into my savings to reduce the amount of interest I was flushing down the drain. I am now down to ~$10k in debt and according to my calculations I will be completely debt free by this time next year. It’s so close I can taste it!

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Andre Vaughn June 29, 2013 at 12:50 AM

Debt is a huge problem for a lot of people in our country. Unfortunately, a lot of those people will never come out of debt which is sad. This post raises a lot of great points regarding debt. I certainly wouldn’t know what to do with $90,000 in debt other than to come away with a plan to pay it off. Thanks and great post.

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