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How to Kick Your Denial to the Curb

in Money Basics, Pay Off Your Debt, People & Products

denials

This is a guest post by Jeff Rose, CFP®. Jeff blogs at GoodFinancialCents.com and just published his first book, Soldier of Finance. You can check it on Amazon and other major book retailers. Jeff previously shared The Danger in Comparing Yourself to Others with our community here at Man Vs. Debt.

“We really don’t have that much debt……”

I love when clients try to play off their situation like it’s not as bad as it really is. I know better.

It’s no different than asking my 6 year-old son why his little brother is crying and he tries to convince me that he has no idea. Sure, kid, I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that you just put him in a headlock…

I had the same gut feeling feeling when I met with these clients that something didn’t seem right.

They were more than 10 years away from retirement and didn’t have nearly as much saved as any financial planner would feel comfortable with. Despite their lack of savings, they did have some positive things in their favor.

First, their house was completely paid off. That’s a huge accomplishment for anyone.

Second, they were really confident regarding their overall debt picture, boasting to me that that they didn’t have that much debt.

But when I pressed them to share with me how much debt they exactly had, they couldn’t answer the question.

It wasn’t the fact that they couldn’t give the exact total of the debt that they had that troubled me. It was the fact that they couldn’t even give me a range.

They knew their car loans were about $15,000, but beyond that, they were stumped.

Before we could move forward on any planning, I gave them a homework assignment to find out how much debt they really had.

A week later, they emailed me their findings and the results were not pretty.

The financial truth revealed

On top of the $15,000 car notes, they also had a camper that they still owed $10,000 on. That was just a small zinger when they revealed the total amount of credit card debt they had – to the tune of $25,000, some of which was on department-store cards that carried a 19% interest rate.

Yuck!

So let’s recap….

  • New clients come in claiming they don’t have that much debt…
  • Turns out they really don’t know how much debt they have….
  • Further discovery reveals they have $50,000 of debt.

So in their minds, “not a lot of debt” = $50,000 of consumer debt. Anyone else see the issue here?

This isn’t the first time that I’ve encountered a couple that was in denial about their finances. This couple definitely took the prize for being the most clueless, though.

Be honest

Research has shown that we are all in denial about something. It’s a way of protecting ourselves from issues that are just too much for us to address. With the couple above, they were concerned about retirement and hoped they could retire when they wanted. I believe they discounted the amount of debt they had to avoid the reality that retiring early wasn’t even close to being an option.

It’s easy to fall into this trap when you don’t pay attention to the big picture. This was evident with another client I met with.

This guy had convinced himself that as long as he could afford the payment, he would be OK. With this jaded rationale, he had purchased new cars, a new boat, a new four-wheeler and a bunch of other stuff that he didn’t need. All on credit, of course.

When I tried to explain to him that being able to afford the payment was a distant cry from being able to pay cash and be debt-free, I felt like I was speaking alien to him.

My efforts fell short and he kept buying stuff and making the minimum payments. What money he had invested with me was gone in a few short months (it was a small settlement he had received) and the last I heard from him, he had filed bankruptcy and gotten divorced. Sounds like affording the payment isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

This guy was in major denial. I felt at least the first couple I met with had some hope.

Time to ‘fess up

Who knows why these people sought me out? Deep down, they must have figured that they needed help. The scary thing is that if they wouldn’t have scheduled an appointment with me, who knows where they would be?

Challenging them to tally up every debt they had, so they could visually see it, was the wake-up call they needed to break the state of denial that they were in.

After our next meeting, which felt more like a scolding, the couple acknowledged that they were in much worse financial shape than they had led themselves to believe. They vowed to work hard to pay off their debt and planned on tackling the crazy-high interest rates first.

Pointing fingers

It’s easy for many of us to point fingers and say, “That would never happen to me“, but it doesn’t take much for the cycle of denial to take shape. In college, I was running up credit card debt so fast it felt like was trying to qualify for an Olympic trial. Compound that with the student loans I was taking out, I was on a path to financial destruction. What made the issue even worse? I didn’t believe it was a problem.

I thought that I was good and planned on making BIG money one day, and it would be easy to pay off the debt “later.”

I think I had the biggest case of Denial ever. (Yes, I spelled Denial with a capital “D” on purpose because I had it bad!)

The wake-up call that I needed was my girlfriend (now wife), who challenged me when I informed her I was getting ready to head to Best Buy to purchase a 42″ flat-screen TV. I was going to put it on my credit card, of course, because I could pay it off later.

Yeah, right.

At first I fought it and disregarded her remarks, thinking, “How dare she challenge me?!” After a few days, I finally came to my senses and realized she was right.

I had allowed myself to become in denial of how ugly my debt had become.

Stop avoiding it

After my girlfriend called me out, I took a serious look at the debt that I had built up and realized it was time. I had to make myself fully aware of what was going on because, truth be told, I didn’t know exactly how much credit-card debt I had.

If there’s anything that you’re avoiding – credit-card statements, 401(k) statements, whatever – it’s time to take a serious look and really see what’s going on. With a clearer vision, you can now formulate a plan and kick your denial to the curb.

As painful as the debt realization was for my clients and myself, I can assure you we are both much happier because of it.

*****

Note from Joan: Jeff is a longtime friend of the Bakers, an all-around awesome guy and the organizer of the Debt Movement, which recently hit the $1,00,000-paid-off mark. When told me that his new book, Soldier of Finance, was now out, I wanted to make sure we let the MvD community know about it right away. I asked Jeff if he had any advice to share, and WOW. He hit one of my favorite topics!

In addition to just being awesome, Jeff agreed to send one lucky Man Vs. Debt reader a free copy of Soldier of Finance!

[Update: Our winner is commenter #2, Gwen! Congrats, Gwen!]

Tell us your biggest “denial issue” – past or present. If you’ve faced up to it, how did you get there? We’d love to hear your stories!

Comment and let us know!

{ 44 comments… read them below or add one }

The Plaid Cow September 19, 2013 at 9:13 AM

The biggest denial? That the amount of debt really didn’t bother me. I knew exactly what it was and watched it creep up over time and lost track of how negative of an effect it was having on me.

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Gwen September 19, 2013 at 9:25 AM

My biggest denial that I finally admitted to is that I am a horrible money manager, thought I am an intelligent woman. It’s difficult as a a single mom to get a handle on it; I am working on it slowly, but definitely could use some help/tips.

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Lisa L September 19, 2013 at 9:25 AM

My biggest denial was my shopping habit. I do have a lot of debt (student loans) but it didn’t increase because I paid off my credit cards each month…but it didn’t decrease because I had spent my “extra” money shopping. Now that we have a plan and a budget, I get a shopping high each time I make a payment on our debt.

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Amanda September 19, 2013 at 9:33 AM

The biggest denial is that I’ve told myself, “I deserve this or that” and then put it on my card because I knew I could pay it off. As soon as I got one card paid off, all of a sudden, another card had $250 or $300 on it because, “I work so hard, that I need to reward myself with this.”

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Mary September 19, 2013 at 9:48 AM

I keep dreaming about winning the lottery or some big sweepstakes as a means to finally feel financially secure. Not terribly realistic, I know, but the dream persists . . .

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Mona September 19, 2013 at 9:55 AM

My biggest deneial was that all the credit card debt didn’t matter since I would be finishing grad school soon and my salary would increase dramatically.

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Nancy September 19, 2013 at 9:56 AM

Was in denial about my relationship until my husband told me he wants to leave me as soon as all of our debt is paid. Now I realize that even though we love each other we are not IN love with each other any more. Just not sure how I am going to support myself being on my own as I have chronic pain issues and haven’t worked in over 10 years.

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Carolyn September 19, 2013 at 10:08 AM

My biggest denial: small charges ($10, $20) to a credit card now and then are OK. NO! Those can add up really fast and become $100 before I know it. I’m slowly learning that if I can’t buy it with cash, I can’t buy it!

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Slackerjo September 19, 2013 at 10:11 AM

“I felt like I was speaking alien to him” is the funniest thing I have read today!

I am very good with money. I am horrible at EARNING it. My denial is how much I suck at getting a job and advancing within an organization.

I’ve had “survival jobs” almost my entire life. I went to school, trained for a career and watched my chosen field disappear after the tech meltdown. So to avoid being homeless and hungry, I take a survival job. The problem with survival jobs that they mostly suck. Low wages, crappy working conditions, lunatic/don’t-give-a-shit-about-employees bosses and stress. I never am able to advance because the stress is so bad, I loathe the company and my boss so much that I end up quitting to save my sanity. Then I get another survival job and the whole cycle repeats.

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Rebecca @ Stapler Confessions September 19, 2013 at 10:38 AM

I gave up on paying off over $200k of student loans early. Gah! So stupid! http://staplerconfessions.com/index.php/why-i-gave-up-paying-off-my-student-loans/

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Shiloh September 19, 2013 at 11:09 AM

My biggest denial has been believing that my spending habits were under control only to look back over a few months and realize that my family and I have spent almost the amount of our mortgage in going out to eat!!!! I haven’t actually tackled this problem yet. But at least now I recognize that it’s an issue so I’m a little more cognizant as I spend……

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Linda S Montgomery September 19, 2013 at 11:09 AM

Estate sales & garage sales! It can’t be that bad because everything’s SO cheap, right? Ugh. This is my achilles heel.

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Ginny September 19, 2013 at 11:10 AM

We are about to be woken up from a serious case of DENIAL, so big it warrants all capital letters! My husband is two paychecks away from the end of a consulting job and about two months away from opening his new business. This is not a surprise. We’ve known for two years when the consulting gig was up. And what did we do – what did I insist we do – this summer? We took trips we couldn’t afford to pay cash for and we spent more fake money (credit cards) on our daughter for her birthday. It was like one of those weekend binges before a Monday diet. I saw myself doing it and couldn’t stop. Now we’re making emergency plans (our emergency fund is almost depleted) and discussing calling the mortgage companies (yes plural) to ask for a month off. We’ll survive one way or another but this is classic denial and de-railment.

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Darla September 19, 2013 at 11:14 AM

My biggest denial is just moving money from one envelope to the next and thinking I haven’t hurt my budget… or thinking i can buy more clothes because i have money in the propane fund and it’s summer so i can “pay” it back before winter. :) Also the whole eating out thing that Shiloh admitted.

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LCM September 19, 2013 at 11:16 AM

Our main area of denial was the amount of money we were spending each month. Our bank account seemed to be too low too much of the time, but we were too “busy” to determine the reason. Since we pay for nearly everything with debit cards, we finally sat down with our bank statements and computed what was spent for one month. We separated the monthly totals by category (auto gas) or store (Walmart, Target, etc.) After being horrified by some of the totals, we were able to address the areas where spending was out of control and make appropriate changes.

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Elizabeth September 19, 2013 at 11:37 AM

I am always surprised when people don’t count vehicle debt assuming you’ll always have b it. Or when they owe money to family members or their retirement and dont count that either. Debt is more than credit cards and mortgages! The good thing is when a financial plannerr like yourself congress around and asks questions and doesn’t take their word on it!

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kate September 19, 2013 at 11:42 AM

for years considering credit cards as savings and emergency money. The whole term “credit cards should be for emergencies” got me into a lot of trouble if you can come up with enought excuses to qualify one after another purchase as “emergency”.

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Dean Poff II September 19, 2013 at 11:45 AM

My biggest denial is student loans, I continue to spend and live paycheck to paycheck while never tackling even the smallest of my 50k+ student loans. I have kept them deferred even though I make decent money.

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Raven September 19, 2013 at 12:03 PM

My biggest denial is movies. I am an avid movie-goer, and movie buyer. I have recognized it, and trying to cut. I saw one movie a week, with popcorn and pop. Now, I cut down to 2 movies a week, and I buy a small popcorn. Still trying to work on it, but it is slowly getting better.

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Chris September 19, 2013 at 12:15 PM

All through college I just ignored my debt and kept racking up student loans to pay for “wants” instead of “needs.” I never thought that all the loans would add up to THAT MUCH in the end. Well, I was wrong. I graduated with just over $100,000 in total debt.

I have now been out of school with a decent income and am slowly chipping away as much as I can. One positive is that there are so many separate government loans from different years of school that I can have some enjoyment of paying some of them off fairly quickly and getting that jolt of confidence that I am on the right track.

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Lori Stalter September 19, 2013 at 12:25 PM

I’m not sure if I’d call it denial, because I knew exactly what I was doing, but did it anyway. I was in a funk at the time and felt pretty hopeless in my situation. I fell into an attitude of “I work hard, I deserve to have this.” Ugly. Just ugly.

My wake up call came when I realized I was close to maxing out both of my credit cards. With no savings, it meant one major unexpected expense or repair would bring down the house of cards.

I tallied up my debt and put together my snow-ball plan to tackle it. It’s a slow dig-out, of course and how the story plays out is not certain, but at least I finally woke up to what I was doing to myself and my future.

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meg September 19, 2013 at 12:39 PM

My biggest denial was around facing exactly how much I owed in student loans. My student loans are… enormous. I went to law school in a big city and paid a lot of money for it, thinking I would get a job right out of school that would cover my loan payments. Instead I interned for 6 months then got a job that paid about half of what I thought I’d be making. Awesome.

I did not look at my loans once from the end of school until my grace period was up in January of this year (and to be perfectly honest I barely looked at them during law school). I told myself that I could deal with them later on, once the grace period was up, and that there was no need to worry about them during that time since I was totally focused on job hunting and networking. I finally logged onto my loans website in January this year and almost threw up. I was almost $7000 in the hole just in outstanding interest with almost no way of starting to pay off my loans. That day was really ugly and caused a lot of anxiety over the next few months. But, I also spent about 3 hours that day digesting every detail of my loans, reading articles on the internet (that was the day I discovered Man vs. Debt), and filling out my first debt payoff tracking sheet. That was the best thing that has happened to me regarding my debt and this month I’ll be hitting one of my big personal goals regarding my debt. Glad I finally woke up and started hitting back at it!

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Alicen September 19, 2013 at 12:43 PM

Using credit cards as emergency money.
Spending beyond the amount in my account between every pay period.

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Jamie September 19, 2013 at 12:53 PM

This past year, my husband and I rented out our house, moved in with friends and lived in a camper in their backyard with the hope of moving to the west coast debt free. We did not quite meet our goal although we did pay off about 40K. We ended up moving unemployed (not in the original plan), getting a debt consolidation loan, and living off our savings for a while. My regret is, if we had really buckled down and been honest with ourselves about not only our debt but our spending, we could have been debt free when we moved.

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Nichole September 19, 2013 at 1:42 PM

I grew up never talking about money but also knowing we didn’t have a lot of it. Now at 37 years old, I am finally starting to talk about money. I denied there were any issues with our spending or debt or saying no to purchases because we just didn’t talk about money. It is easy to deny that you have a spending problem when you don’t even acknowledge that spending the is happening. I do feel like we are finally turning the corner but I can’t help but kick myself for not talking about it sooner!

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Maureen September 19, 2013 at 2:31 PM

Using the debit card as “my cash” that I could use to buy anything I wanted rather than taking cash from my paycheck for my spending money. I was using the money in the checking account that was supposed to pay bills as my spending money. It doesn’t matter if the unplanned purchases only costs a few dollars using a debit card. Those few dollars over time are what eventually creates a checking account with not enough money in it to pay the bills.

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Scott September 19, 2013 at 3:27 PM

For several years now debt & financial pressure has been very high for myself and my wife. Once the economy tanked we quickly found ourselves in a world of hurt…we eventually lost a business which left us with a $60K addition to our debt which was followed up 8 weeks ago with my wife needing to have back surgery. She was unable to really do any of her work from her home based eBay business until about 2 weeks ago, but we are so far behind on orders we are literally working night and day. I have a good job, but it’s still tough.

I would say our biggest denials have been that we will find a way to cut costs & increasing income. It’s definitely been tougher than we thought it would be.

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Erin September 19, 2013 at 8:52 PM

My biggest denial is exactly like Jeff’s. I justified my credit card spending on things “I had to have” by saying I would pay them off as soon as I started making more money. However, as my income increased so did my spending. It took me getting the courage to write down my credit card and student loan debt total…(ugly..ugly number)..to finally get my priorities straight. Keeping that number fresh in my mind makes me question every purchase i make and to really be honest with if it is a need or a want. I still have a long road to get debt free but I felt a real turning point once I admitted to myself how bad it really was.

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Lynn September 19, 2013 at 9:02 PM

My biggest denial was our crdeit cards. I knew what the payments were down to the penny, but I too couldn’t give you and exact amount of what I owed. I figured around $12,000. WRONG !!! Try closer to 3 times that amount and that didn’t include the mortgage. : ( Still working on paying them down. About 1/2 way there.

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Jack September 19, 2013 at 10:03 PM

When I was with my ex, I let her take out a store credit card in my name to take advantage of a discount. She was supposed to pay it off (you know the deal, interest free for 36 months or whatever) though I ended up making the monthly payment as often as not. When I left, she said she’d keep paying it, and so I didn’t think too much about it when I didn’t get the bills at my new address. I was busy and living on my own was expensive as it was so I just ignored it… until the collections agency tracked me down. It ended up costing a lot more in the long run.

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Christina September 19, 2013 at 11:14 PM

My current biggest denial is my monthly budget. I have no idea what I spend on a monthly basis! I’m working on tracking down where the money goes and I’m trying to put together a rough plan for each month now.

PS – New subscriber here! I’m loving your blog! :)

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Susan September 19, 2013 at 11:14 PM

Mine is telling my husband he can’t buy anything until the next paycheck & the on Amazon & buy something. I tell myself it’s just $25. Gotta spend justenoughfor te free shipping right?!

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Hope September 20, 2013 at 1:54 AM

I’m blessed that somehow I have never been in denial about my finances. My DH on the other hand was/is/and sadly will ever be. The sweep-the-elephant-under-the-carpet-and-then-walk-around-it kind. It’s so VERY FRUSTRATING.

On one occasion I’d negotiated a new lower fixed loan period for our mortgage which he only had to go in to sign, and didn’t get around to, costing us thousands of dollars in savings and extending the term.

We have orthodontic treatment the children need, their future tertiary education costs, weddings perhaps, and retirement to think about for starters; and it would just be so nice to both be working towards our financial future together rather than feeling like I am pushing a tsunami uphill with a rake.

Are there other married MvDers who are ‘unequally yoked’? How do you cope?

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Bob September 20, 2013 at 12:41 PM

For me, that somewhere down the road there will be a windfall that make it all go painlessly away.

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Melissa September 21, 2013 at 4:35 AM

When it comes to finances I’ve been in denial about everything at some point. From my 20′s into my 30′s I refused to look at my credit card debt. I blocked out how little I was making at jobs by using excuses about why I stayed at those dead-end jobs. There were even years when I lived off credit cards because “getting a job was hard” and “no one was hiring”. Looking back, it’s amazing how easy it was to rationalize completely insane and harmful situations.

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Lael September 21, 2013 at 9:00 AM

Continually finishing out the rent, buying groceries, helping with monthly utilities for daughter who would have had the money had they not spending on non-necessities of eating out, activities, lessons. It was not teaching her to manage and was enabling her to live way beyond her means because I would always come to the rescue. My credit card bills are now more than my mortgage and my pay has been cut in half.

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Shelly Hanson September 21, 2013 at 10:08 PM

My husband and I were taking Dave Ramsey’s Fiancial Peace University class as a weekly date night. I figured it was a good way for us to both understand how the other thought/felt about debt. I was the saver and he was the spender. Smack dab in the middle of the class we went to the annual boat show…. you know what that meant! We both grew up on a lake with boats. Yep, we signed papers on a brand new boat!! As we were driving to the next class we vowed to not bring up the purchase to the group – it was our little secret. We kept the boat 2 summer before selling it…. didn’t use it as much as we thought we would. While we had fun for the 2 summers, we sold it for ten grand less than what we paid for it, plus the cost of a slip rental, gas, stuff to outfit the boat…. looking back, we wish we wouldn’t have made that purchase.

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ten b September 22, 2013 at 1:59 AM

I have a few denial issues – being “too busy” to keep on top of finances – missing payments because I lost track of them/forgot about them; eating out – can get very pricey very fast; using credit cards for small purchases – those $5 charges add up, and then there’s the interest on them – did I really need that xxx? – nope, not so much. am slowly getting back on track. thanks for the article and giveaway.

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Jim September 22, 2013 at 1:31 PM

haha, of course Jeff is doing a guest post here. He has been everywhere lately… but to be honest he deserves everything… his book is great! I thought I would have seen him here earlier though.

The biggest denial I had, is believing we were in the clear with our debt payment. We didn’t have a emergency fund, and was searching for more money. We were paying an extra $200 a month more than everything… but we didn’t have that cushion so almost every other month, something came up and we had to take from our debt payment fund.

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AWB September 23, 2013 at 5:13 PM

Financial responsibility sometimes takes time to learn. One approach for tackling reality is one-step-at-a-time. By piecing apart financial problems such as debt, learning personal accountability does not have to be so daunting or impossible. For example, if you have a high credit debt, a method of handling it is to just focus on refinancing the highest rate card for a lower interest rate and then paying it down while paying the minimum on lower-cost debt. Just focusing on credit rather than credit and auto loans helps make learning financial discipine more manageable.

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Lee September 23, 2013 at 9:29 PM

I’m currently in denial. I’ve just bought a house on top of having auto and student loans and too much credit card debt. I am the queen if moving money around and I’m almost to the point of not being able to fix things. I’ve got to do something about my debt now so I can live worry free and comfortable 25 years from now when I want to retire.

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John Corcoran September 26, 2013 at 5:30 PM

My biggest denial issue is eating out. I really like eating out and when we do it (which admittedly isn’t all that often), I don’t really censor myself. I take the attitude of “well, we rarely eat out so we might as well have wine, and appetizers, and dessert, etc. etc.”

Great post, Jeff!

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Nila Sweeney October 8, 2013 at 7:59 AM

Great post, thank you!
My biggest denial is budgeting. I know what the big expenses are but the small ones are bigger drain on our cash reserves for sure, yet I find it difficult to sit down and itemize them.

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Faith Presley October 22, 2013 at 3:17 PM

These are great tips to get serious about getting rid of debt. Thanks for the straight talk.

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