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Get Your Head Out of the Sand: 5 Steps to Facing What You Owe

in Joan's Posts, Money Basics, Pay Off Your Debt

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

I’m kind of a numbers freak, but there used to be one number I ABSOLUTELY ignored.

100% ears-covered, la-la-la-I’m-not-listening ignored. I had my head in the sand.

And that number is the one I quote most often nowadays.

It’s my total worst-ever debt balance, and when we finally got committed and figured it out in early 2011, it was almost exactly $90,000.

Yeah, you’d ignore that too, wouldn’t you? Who wouldn’t? It’s gut-wrenching!

But it’s also empowering – because it forced me into action.

I was chatting by email with one of our past You Vs. Debt students and frequent MvD commenter Katie the other week, and she put it perfectly. (She’s newly married – the wedding came after our last class concluded!)

I set up a spreadsheet like yours [download here] with both of our debts in it, and honestly, it makes me sick to see how much we have combined… I knew it was bad apart but WOW! … That was the biggest thing I got out of going through the class last January… realizing just how out of hand my debt was. And now that I am married, it is helping us figure out where to start with paying things off!

That’s exactly it.

Much of the time, it’s sickening to know just what you owe as one lump sum. It can also be awful if you realize you have a large NUMBER of accounts – regardless of their dollar value.

But none of that will leave you feeling as bad as not owning up to what you owe. Trust me, I’ve been there. The bills that I just didn’t open. The accounts I thought were paid off, but weren’t.

So whether you’re in full-on Ostrich Mode or not, I encourage you to take these 5 steps today so you can be sure you’re ready to face what you owe.

All you need is 15 to 30 minutes and a paper and pen - no overcomplicating allowed!

1. Write a list of every debt you KNOW you owe.

Don’t worry about the amount, the APR and all that jazz – just name the debt, and move on to the next one. A few ideas to start with:

  • Credit cards
  • Mortgages
  • Car, RV, motorcyle, boat or other vehicular loans
  • Personal loans
  • Family loans
  • Student loans

2. Go to where you do your bill-paying.

Here’s where you check through recent statements and add any accounts you missed.

Get out the checkbook. Go back and page through your bill calendar. Search your emails for payment confirmations. Use whatever information you have on hand to be sure you didn’t miss any accounts.

3. Pull your credit report.

This could be a whole post in itself, but if you haven’t checked your credit report in the last year, now’s a good time to do so. If you HAVE, hopefully you’ve saved a copy, which you can now scour – both to check for discrepancies, and to add any accounts to your list that you’re missing.

In the U.S., AnnualCreditReport.com is the official way to request your report from each of the three major credit bureaus, once a year, for free. You might have to pay if you’ve done it recently, or if you’re living outside the United States.

But trust me, it’s worth it.

4. List the total amount due for each debt.

I know, that’s the ugh part. At this point, don’t get hung up on exact change here if it keeps you from finishing the project! (Says the woman with the balances to the penny.)

Round up if you’re going to round, though – so that you’ll know the worst-case scenario!

5. Add supplemental information if you have it.

This could include:

  • Account numbers
  • Phone numbers for the issuing companies
  • Interest rates (if you care about them)
  • Minimum monthly payment (I like to know that in particular)

… and so on.

I can’t overstate the importance of facing up to what you owe.

I wasn’t brave enough to do it on my own – but when I teamed up with Chris, and with other like-minded debt-busters like Katie, for encouragement,  I managed to get it done and it was such a relief to finally just know and move forward!

Need that kind of support? We spend almost the entire second week of the six-week You Vs. Debt course tackling this topic!

Take action today – and be SURE you know what you owe. 

Do you know your number now? Had you been ignoring it like I used to?

Comment and let us know!

{ 44 comments… read them below or add one }

Alan October 25, 2012 at 10:02 AM

Great post. Make number shrink as fast as you can. Bare minimum living expenses, cut to the bone and beyond. Do any job to up income. Throw all at debt. Celebrate,as number gets small (no cost one, make a cake type). Big party when zero. Take eternal vow, never again to pay $1 interest to Bank of America, or like.

So,excited. Dave Ramsey coming to Denver today. It snowed to greet him. Follow him for more details.

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Joan October 25, 2012 at 4:35 PM

Exactly right, Alan – never another dollar once this is gone!

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Leah October 25, 2012 at 3:04 PM

Definitely good to know! So much easier to tackle the beast if you know it’s name!

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Joan October 25, 2012 at 4:35 PM

They say name your fears – I think this is very much the same idea, Leah!

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Alan October 25, 2012 at 3:41 PM

My 4 year old says “Debt is JAIL”. Very true. “Pay the DEBT thou hast contracted with the printer (substitute bank or whatever institution). Release thyself from BONDAGE.” (Doctrine and Convenants 19:35, scripture book of The Church of Jesus Christ of LatterDaySaint (www.lds.org)

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Joan October 25, 2012 at 4:34 PM

Alan, your 4-year-old has nailed it!!

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Bilgefisher October 25, 2012 at 3:51 PM

Joan,

Very good post. We can’t fix what we do not know. I would add, track it every month and follow your example. Track what you pay off each month and the years total. That huge debt total can be daunting, but seeing what has been paid off is very exciting and motivating. I’m one of the few nuts that gets excited to see my bills each month. I get to see what’s left on our individual debts. My wife and I then review the numbers. When we look back and realize we have paid off nearly 20k this year so far. It inspires us to keep on truckin.

Jason

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Joan October 25, 2012 at 4:34 PM

Jason, we are EXACTLY in the same boat. It keeps me motivated to go farther and do more! :)

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Cat October 25, 2012 at 10:25 PM

It is a relief to know what your debt is in total. Then as you begin to make inroads into the debt, give yourself some encouragement by celebrating (with out spending $) with a friend. Always have a mentor or friend who helps keep you on track and questions ‘suspicious spending’

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Joan October 26, 2012 at 2:07 PM

Cat, you’re exactly right – having support to stay on track is a MAJOR key!

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Jenny October 26, 2012 at 7:34 AM

Just for future reference – you cannot request a US credit report with an IP address outside the United States. I tried. Now, I have NOT gone back and tried while using a VPN (Virtual Private Network). But I really didn’t want to do that kind of thing over VPN… (shows I still have’t been over here long enough); and it will still have to go to a US mailing address so it’s like…ok. Bah! Maybe this one isn’t getting dealt with right now.
And I’ve requested my credit report before and then not been given the full information without a “and for x number of dollars you can get THIS information!” and it was like – well what was the point of that??? I thought I had the non-scam one; and then when I found the non-scam one, I was out of the US. *shrugs* Hope this helps someone – get a credit report before you move, or while you’re home, or whatever.

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Joan October 26, 2012 at 2:09 PM

It’s definitely not a super-user-friendly system, I’ll tell you that! We consistently have problems even in the US with my husband’s, because of the “security questions” they ask, there is one that is pulling incorrect info. It’s not a huge deal – they have a previous payment amount off by like $50 – but it’s just enough that we pick the “wrong” answer and get told we have to get it by mail, when that question comes up!

Privacy and security are great – simplicity is SUPER great! :) That’s what I need to invent, huh?

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Marie at Family Money Values October 30, 2012 at 3:29 PM

I had this problem when I started checking mine. Some little piece of information was incorrect causing me to have to send in copies of my documentation by mail. When I finally got the report, they hadn’t updated my address when I moved – 15 years ago!!! Why do they pretend to track if they can’t keep current information?

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Travis @DebtChronicles October 26, 2012 at 8:27 AM

I was in full on ostrich mode (love that term, BTW) until June of 2009 – my wife and I added up our credit card debt – $109,000!!! We’re now over 3 years into a debt management plan and aiming at March of 2014 to have that mountain of debt eliminated…can’t wait!

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Joan October 26, 2012 at 2:10 PM

Travis, we’re racing you guys!! We are targeting November 2014 – but you never know, right?? :) I’m so glad you guys are un-ostriched.

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Jenna, Adaptu Community Manager October 26, 2012 at 1:55 PM

Buying a house has totally made me a numbers freak and a better prioritizer.

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Joan October 26, 2012 at 2:11 PM

Very much so, I think, Jenna!! I was always fairly careful, but I think our current house, which is a financial stretch in some ways, made me really cautious and analytical, and I count that as a good thing!

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Alan October 26, 2012 at 3:03 PM

Joan and Travis. Race to the bottom. Winner? You both win when debt be gone. Good luck and keep up the fight.

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Alan October 26, 2012 at 3:04 PM

Debt B Gone. Sounds like a great name for a helpful program.

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Alan October 26, 2012 at 3:09 PM

How about a name change for Bank of Amercia?
We R DEBT.
U B R $lave.
Debt Is U$
B R $lave.
U R Broke

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Adam Hathaway October 26, 2012 at 6:48 PM

For far too many years I stuck my head in the sand and ignored our family debt. It was unfair to heap it all on my wife and the day I decided to get a handle on it is the day we started moving in a positive direction. I look back on it now and know that it was very unfair of me to make my wife go it alone.

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Joan October 27, 2012 at 7:28 PM

Adam, the important part is that you guys are a team moving forward – I’m REALLY glad to hear that!

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Alan October 26, 2012 at 7:43 PM

Good job Adam. A lot of support to help toss the gorilla off of your shoulders.

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Leslie October 27, 2012 at 4:13 PM

Hi Joan!
As usual, I totally agree with what you’re saying about facing the reality of your debt. I did it in February 2012 and it sucked, big time. But I found blogs and sites like this one that totally inspired me and made me believe that I could make serious changes and I DID! In fact, I just this morning updated my “debt payoff plan” worksheet, which is basically my closest friend & obsession. In addition to throwing every last cent possible at debt, I’ve taken big steps: sold almost $4350 in crap since February, asked for a promotion at my job, and even though it took me 6 months of wrangling/negotiating, I found out 10 days ago that I GOT IT, and I’ve taken on side “side work” and am looking for more. Bottom line (literally): by December 31, 2012, my overall consumer debt (no student or car loans, thank God) will have the number “10″ in front of it (down from somewhere in the “30s”! Oh yeah baby, I’m killing it! I’m working my ass off to do it, but seriously–every step is a total high. I just made $28.99 from selling something on Amazon, and it made my week.

Keep on keeping on! You’re awesome!

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Joan October 27, 2012 at 7:30 PM

Leslie, YOU are awesome – that is amazing!! It’s it wonderful what motivation and a willingness to really give it all you got can do, isn’t it?? Cannot wait to see how we’re both doing as of the end of this year!

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Alan October 27, 2012 at 4:22 PM

Awesome Leslie. Keep at it. Will be looking for you on the other side, watching net worth increase debt free Keep us updated.

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Alan October 27, 2012 at 8:24 PM

All. Can’t wait to hear each say “we are debt free”. I got to meet Dave Ramsey personally on Oct 25 in Denver. I got to personally tell him I was debt free. He did awesome. I hope everyone soon calls his show for your debt free scream. It will be so worth it. You can feel his passion and desire to teach debt free. Listen to him when need some motivation. Good luck and gazelle intense.

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Ginny October 29, 2012 at 1:49 PM

Looking at that big number was scary when we did it at the beginning of the summer. Since then we’ve paid off one TSP loan, and five small-ish credit cards to the tune of about $4500. The next card on our list is estimated by to be paid off November 2013. After the Wham! Wham! Wham! knocking off cards for the past six months, having to wait a year before I can X that one out will be painful. I guess we will work on making some Very Next Steps so that we can feel like we are still making progress. I haven’t taken your course, so I’m wondering if you have any guidelines for what makes up an effective VNS?

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Joan October 30, 2012 at 5:30 PM

Ginny, a lot of that depends on what motivates YOU… that’s something we spend a lot of time in You Vs. Debt digging into. For instance, if it’s a particular debt that you hate, the VNSes you want to set would be ones that help you feel you’re making progress on that specific account. If it’s the total amount of your debt that gets you most upset, then maybe it’s seeing that number go down. If it’s just knowing that you’re making progress on SOMETHING, then it’s just setting incremental numbers just tough enough that you know you’re stretching for them and still doable enough that you can reach them!

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Red Siren Julie October 29, 2012 at 9:44 PM

Hello,
Wow, yes this was me too. And mainly inspired by your site I am now facing up to my debts and turning things around. It has been an emotional process for me and still feels pretty awful sometimes as I still have some way to go and tend to struggle sometimes to make all my payments, but, I am facing up to it now and am committed to being debt free (and free) in the near future.
I have learnt that being frugal and having less stuff is nowhere near as bad as I thought it would be, in fact that part of it has felt unexpectedly positive to me!
So thanks.
I write a blog and you can read about my personal experiences of dealing with my debt here: http://www.redsirens.co.uk/red-sirens-blog.html
Julie.

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Joan October 30, 2012 at 5:32 PM

Julie, I’m so glad you’re making such a change! You’re right – it does feel awful, but that awful feeling is a motivator of its own, huh? :)

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Alan October 29, 2012 at 11:53 PM

Julie, congratulations on your progress. Looking to see another free person on this side. I will check out your blog. Keep it up. Spread the word. DEBT IS DUMB. And no putdown for anyone. I was also so far under for far longer than I would care to remember.

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Red Siren Julie October 30, 2012 at 7:56 AM

Alan,
Thank You so much for the kind words. I will keep posting as to my progress.
Hopefully this time next year I could be free and travelling. But even if I am not, I will be well on my way to getting debt free.
I am always talking about, and posting links to this site, it feels good to spread the word.
Julie. :-)

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Joan October 30, 2012 at 5:32 PM

(We appreciate all you guys spreading the word, by the way! Our goal is to help as many people as we can JOIN the debt-free ranks, ourselves included!!!!)

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Alan October 30, 2012 at 5:36 PM

Thank you Julie. I get to travel through my 11 year daughter. She is going on a People to People Ambassidor trip to London and Paris in summer 2013. She gets to because we just made debt free. A year before, no chance. My motivation to help people, in my own way deprive Bank of America on debt customers.

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Paul October 31, 2012 at 8:36 AM

In the spring of 2010, my wife and I did Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University. We were making great progress until I retired from the Air Force on the first of October. It took me a couple months to find a job and that put us further in debt. The new job was in another city, so we had to move half way across the country, resulting in more debt. While I was in the military, my wife handled most of the financial duties because I was deployed a lot. When she relinquished these responsibilities, she put her head in the sand. In the meanwhile, I hated my job. I found another job after about a year, and moved yet again, incurring more debt. I think our worst point was in April of this year. We were at nearly $43K, not including mortgages. My wife’s head was still in the sand until our new church offered the Dave Ramsey class this fall, which we are currently attending. I think her head is finally out of the sand, and our current number is $26,843.93. I am hoping to be done by the end of 2013.

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Joan October 31, 2012 at 1:39 PM

Paul, it’s SO great when you’re working together, isn’t it? I hope you guys can really embrace a team mentality and move forward together toward that ZERO goal – we’re rooting for you!

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Alan October 31, 2012 at 10:19 AM

Hi Paul. Sorry to hear the challenge. Been there. Done that. You are on track now. Congratulations. Keep eye on the prize. Plan to call Dave’s show for debt free scream. Glad wife on board. You are on way. To meeting on the debt free side.

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Alan October 31, 2012 at 2:48 PM

First goal is 0. Get to bottom from debt of the parabola. Once there, next goal grow wealth at a good rate.

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JMK November 2, 2012 at 11:16 AM

When my husband was laid off several years ago, we initially panicked. We had no debts other than our mortgage, but we also had no real idea of what we spent and how long we could carry on with just my salary before things became dire. That lay off was the best thing that ever happend to us. It forced us to really assess what we normally spent and where we could easily and more importantly quickly cut back until he found a new job. His severance was initially delayed and once he received it he wouldn’t qualify for unemployment so we were essentially on our own at first.
After assessing all our spending (the necessary and the frivolous) we realized that we could quite comfortably get by on 55-60% of our combined (prelayoff) income. That’s just the basics: mortgage, taxes, insurance, gas, groceries, utilities. No savings, no clothing or entertainment. Nothing extra. Discovering that our true basics required so little of our income was a revelation. Clearly we’d been wasting a huge amount of money on stuff we couldn’t even remember. His severance came in shortly afterward, but by then we’d already adjusted to live almost entirely on my salary. He found a new job and was back at work in a couple of months at the same salary (but with a huge severance payment now added to our retirement accounts). Instead of going back to our old ways, we now divert the excess 40-45% of our income not used for the basics to extra mortgage payments, building our retirement accounts and taking a trip once a year (our one luxury in an otherwise ultra frugal lifesyle). That layoff was the best thing ever and I wish it had happened a decade sooner. We’d never bothered to figure out how much we were wasting until we were forced to. Adding it up and knowing our “number” was a bit different, but like the debt number, it motivated us to make changes and take control of our finances to make our dream of early retirement happen. We’d always assumed that we were doing enough retirement savings to hopefully retire well at 65, but always assumed early retirement would required a lottery win or unexpected inheritance. Once we had the knowledge that we could make it happen through carefull planning and spending, we’ve become unstoppable. We track every penny. We weight the value of every nonessential dollar spent against the cost to our early retirement. Rather than a debt free date, we are working toward our early retirement date with a vengence. Maybe we’ll scream “we’re job free”!

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Joan December 10, 2012 at 2:01 PM

That is a GREAT thing to scream!!

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Alan November 2, 2012 at 11:30 AM

I like job free scream with debt free scream. Great lemonade from the lemons. Even there. Free of the hated phone company job. I work when I want. I highly recommend it

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Casey November 26, 2012 at 1:18 PM

This post in combination of the debt payoff tracker have honestly made me do a 180 in my thinking and spending. I’ve paid off 1 out of 3 credit cards completely and am working on the next to be paid off in Feb. I made a budget and can actually see the amount of money I will have until the next paycheck. Seeing my balance after paying all my bills, debts over the min, and weekly $20 savings is so incredibly helpful when I’m tempted to splurge or buy something I don’t really need. This is the first time I’m being truly responsible with my money and it feels so great! I definitely had my head buried in the sand for a while but this post has changed everything for me. Thank you!!!!

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Joan November 27, 2012 at 12:32 AM

Casey, thank YOU for sharing how much it helped! I am so thrilled to hear about your progress – and hope you’ll check back in as you go, especially when that next card is gone in February!!

You rock – please keep us updated on how the rest of 2012 goes for you!!

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