Three years ago I was a new college graduate, $1500 in debt and no prospect to breathe free any time soon with my $750/month job in an NGO. 5 months ago my debt has accumulated to a staggering amount of $10,000. And now I am about to get married to the woman I love, debt free.
Looking back I could still see myself in half despair and total dejection over the crushing debt 5 months ago. Much has happened during these dramatic 5 months and my lifestyle has had a complete reversal both in philosophy and practice. Today I would love to share with you what I did to erase the $10,000 outstanding debt from my balance sheet as well as what I have learned through mistakes and failures.
- Start your debt-free race now
First and foremost– don’t ever assume you can always pay off your debt later. Start now. This “I will eventually be debt free” or “I can always do this later” mindset has lured many a miserable debtor into more miserable situations by presenting an inflated version of their capacity and resolution to be debt-free. I realized I had to start right away if I intended to start at all. I did about 10 months ago. And you know what happened, otherwise I won’t be writing this post here now.
- Set a specific plan and measurable goals
Plans and goals antedate everything in any project. You might find yourself striking the air the whole time if you don’t set a specific plan and measurable goals for your debt reduction plan.
I started out without a plan and though hard I tried, I was no closer to be debt free after 2 weeks than before. There were tough and substantial savings, but there were also compensative indulgences of gluttony and entertainments. Honest and hard-earned achievements were easily set off by irresponsible impulses simply because I had neither a plan nor a goal.
Seeing my failure had to do with the lack of a plan, I set out to draft a very specific plan in which daily and weekly spendings on different categories were stipulated and clarified. I also set measurable goals for each week, along with which my fiancée and I came up with various rules and prohibitions in accordance with the goals.
It had seemed impossible for a guy of unorganized personality like me to abide by a plan when I started, but soon the joy of finding solid cash saved repelled the gloom of almost Pharisaical regulations.
This is what my plan and goals looked like five months ago. It’s a very simple spreadsheet where I broke everything down and set budgets for every category and item. While some people choose to spend as they need and pay off debt with the rest of their money, I prefer to set a certain length of time during which period I pay off a certain amount of debt and spend the rest. Even though the amount for my daily spending was set as minimal since I intended to get out of my debt ASAP, the reason I choose not to use the surplus for debt payment is that I know there are countless occasions for extra spending and if I have loose money around there is no guarantee that I keep it till the next payday. So instead I take out a large slice for debt payoff as soon as I get my salary to make sure I don’t succumb to temptation during the month.
- Don’t buy clothes that you don’t need
This could apply to almost anything besides clothes.
Let’s be honest, if clothes are treated as what they should be, namely a cover against cold and shame, 80% of clothing business in the world would disappear. I used to buy loads of clothes many of which I wore only once or twice and never again. And now they are just antiques in my wardrobe and serve as nothing but a painful reminder that I could have used the $50 to pay off my debt and be one step closer to being debt-free.
I started practicing restriction on my clothing purchase 5 months ago and avoided going to branded department stores altogether. The discipline of buying only the clothes I absolute needed which were simple and cheap and diligent searches for Amazon coupons and deals on various coupon sites have saved me more than $500 since. That’s 10 steps closer to being debt-free, isn’t it?
- Use coupons whenever you can
Whether it be printable or online, coupons could be a decisive factor in your budget. Tiffany, the owner of mylitter.com, testified that her spending on food and toiletries per month dropped to $450 from $1200 after she started couponing. I use a coupon aggregator called Dealgogogo to get Amazon coupons automatically applied when I check out. Though I don’t shop unless necessary, those Amazon coupons did help me cut my spending on Amazon by 40-50%.
- Stop going to restaurants and start cooking your dinner at home
Restaurants are expensive. Especially if you dine out on a daily basis. Especially when you go out with your friends. I used to have both lunch and dinner in restaurants and went out with my friends 4 times a week. That didn’t help me at all.
Seeing me in this ever-going-down spiral of overspending, my fiancée prescribed the remedy of cooking dinners at home and packing lunches for work, the practice of which during last five months has saved me about 700 dollars. There are lots of tricks you can apply when employing this plan.
First, the plan must be executed with ruthless resolution. No exception must be allowed unless in a real emergency. If because of laziness you choose restaurants over home-made food once, it will happen twice. You’d always be thinking, this is the last time, or, I just need to relax. Keep in mind that you’d always want to relax. And ask yourself since when your last time for anything really is the last time?
Second, never habitually just go to one place to buy vegetables and meat. I have found that while during daytime vegetables in a vegetable market may be cheaper than in a supermarket, it is often the opposite in the evenings because supermarkets do not stock perishable goods during the night. And when I buy meat, I go to the vendors who are further inside the meat market because their price would be lower due to their inferior positions. One more thing I keep in mind is to never buy packaged meat. They are easily 1.5 times the price of fresh meat and more often than not they are not fresh, plus being damaged by the freezer. I also check Amazon for cheap cooking materials and moneypantry.com for food coupons.
- Live without entertainments for a while
I had always thought that I couldn’t live without movies, and this conviction plus temptations offered by ticket coupons have led me to cinemas countless times all the while I was in debt. I started by cutting down the frequency, and when I realized that I could save 80 dollars per month if I choose to wait a while and watch the movies later on my laptop, I became motivated enough to curb the desire for huge screens and spatial sounds. I’m in for the story anyways. And guess what, there are those amazing Amazon coupons to help you watch movies for free sometimes!
In about 5 months I saved 400 dollars just by not going to cinemas. I didn’t really live without entertainments. I only changed the way to get entertained.
- Don’t covet new things while your old is still functional
This could be your phone, your laptop, your TV… Modern people have such ridiculously ardent desires for new things—it doesn’t matter if we already have an iPhone 5 and an iPhone 7 when the X comes we sure get our hands on it. Certainly, you can sell your old ones and get the new, but there are still inevitable losses and if you don’t have an iPhone to sell, there is not much you can expect to recover.
What I did was to take care of my stuff with extra diligence and make sure they are functional for a maximum period of time. I knew I only needed one phone so I didn’t buy a second one like many people did who thought two phones offer double services. I knew even though my old ThinkPad was all beaten and scratched, nothing was lacking and the interior was sound and complete and that old faithful ThinkPad has rendered me needed services, as well as any new flashy laptop, could. I saved about 1500 dollars because I chose to continue using my old phone and laptop instead of buying new ones. Some say with Prime Day and many other similar occasions, electronics could be much cheaper. Granted. Say I saved a huge $300 through Amazon coupons, so what? What do I gain but a new case inside of which are the same functions that I really need? I would still lose 1200 dollars. It’s not something I would do while in debt.
- Accept gifts
Now comes the tough part. Most people tend to think that accepting gifts from parents and friends is a sign of incompetence. Financial gifts could be a huge emotional burden that often results in embarrassment or shame on the receiver’s end. But it could be such an enormous relief from suffocating debts!
My parents, who knew nothing about my debt, graciously gave me more than $3000 as a gift for my wedding. That was a not-earned, not-deserved gift of love, and that gift most certainly helped me to reduce my debt by 30%.
Accepting gifts is not shameful, as long as you are not taking advantage of the giver and you can always reciprocate the good-will when you are able to.
- Apply for aid
What I did was to apply for the Housing Aid to College Graduates from the city government. This is something that went through a long process and ate up chunks of time, but $2500 is a no-brainer for anyone. I went through a complicated process of filling out forms and getting stamps from numerous committees and printing out dozens of proofs, but at the end of the day, I got my debt reduced by another 25%.
- Stay where you are till you are debt-free
By “stay where you are” I mean “Do not travel—anywhere”. One of the major reasons why I got debt in the first place is that as a backpacker, I grew increasingly reckless with my budget and schedule when my friends offered to help me finish my trips. What I realized but didn’t take to heart was that those money needed to be repaid. Every penny of them.
Even as a frugal backpacker, I spent a lot of money paying for hostels and transportations. Hitchhiking was fun and free of charge, but free rides didn’t come all the time, and I didn’t always have the time to wait by the roadside. I spent a lot on food as well. The thing about compressed biscuits and dried beef is that there is no way that you can eat them every day and not get sick. There was one time when I grew so terribly sick of biscuits that I opted for fasting that day. As I reverted to normal food during my trips, my spending skyrocketed. Those spendings, once they occur, are unavoidable. There are no coupons or deals to offer relief.
With experiences of this kind in mind, I took a break from the successions of trips I used to take every year. Harmless they may seem to be, costing only 500 dollars each time, the aggregate could be surprisingly expensive. This way I save about 1500 dollars in five months.
If you are in a position that is somewhat similar to mine, and if you wish to pay off your debt ASAP, I would strongly exhort you not to take any trips till you are debt-free.
- Avoid impulsive buying by setting a budget every time you shop online and stick to it
This may be easier said than done, but it has to be done if you don’t want to buy a pile of things you don’t need and be a mile further away from being debt-free. I used to be a miserable yet ignorant victim to the habit of impulsive buying and have often checkout with 10 things I had no intention of buying in the first place.
With this in mind, I adopted the discipline of deciding what I needed to buy and set a budget on them every time before login. For example, when I had to buy toilet paper I would decide that this is the only thing I would purchase today and I would spend 10 dollars on it. This I did and as soon as I finished I logged out and sighed relief. Hundreds of dollars were saved because I avoided the marketing traps (coupons, add-on items, promo codes, deals…) Amazon placed for me and resisted temptation.
You will have to be very disciplined from today with online shopping if you don’t wish to falter in this commercial wetland.
- Stay away from parties and gatherings
It’s not the time for celebration—you are not debt-free yet. From all my failures up to five months ago, I have perceived how prone our hearts are to self-deception. We are not vigorous enough attacking our debts because we so often paint a beautiful prospect and imagine ourselves there already.
I stopped going to parties and gatherings—the ones that cost money—when I started my debt-free plan, not because I didn’t value friendship, but because my priority was to spend as little money as possible and be debt-free as soon as possible. Anything that gets in the way which is not physically or morally imperative constitutes an obstacle and obstacles have to be removed if you wish to accomplish anything at all. Furthermore, I believed there are many other ways to keep in touch and maintain friendship and for a person determined to be debt-free, the best means are those free of charge.
Those 10 practices above are not necessarily “best practices for debt reduction” per se as we are all in different positions, but they sure helped me get from $10,000 in debt to debt-free within 5 months. The point here is not to make beautiful plans and set rigid rules against which you feel enmity, to reluctantly and grudgingly search for coupons and deals. The point here is to gladly adopt the philosophy of simplicity and to willingly practice the lifestyle of frugality. It is only by resolution that we gain capacity, and the two of them will by no means fail us when we start our debt reduction plan.