6 Strategies for Becoming Debt-Free

By Jamie Cattanach · May 20, 2024 · 11 minute read

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6 Strategies for Becoming Debt-Free

Many people aspire to live a “debt-free” life. And for good reason: Getting out of debt means that your take-home pay is completely your own (since you won’t be sharing any of it with creditors). Having more money to work with can help you achieve your goals, whether it’s building an emergency fund, sending your kids to college, or being able to retire some day. Knocking down debt can also improve your day-to-day life by relieving stress and boosting your mental health.

The question is, how do you get there? If you’re currently living under a mountain of student loans, credit card debt, medical debt, and/or other types of debt, it can be hard to see a way out or, frankly, even a ray of sunlight. But don’t give up. We’ve got six ideas that can help you whittle down your debt and get on the road to financial independence and freedom.

Key Points

•   Living debt-free enhances financial stability and mental health by freeing up income and reducing stress.

•   A realistic budget is crucial for managing expenses and allocating funds towards debt repayment.

•   Extra income should be directed towards paying off debts, accelerating financial freedom.

•   Debt repayment strategies like the snowball or avalanche methods help focus efforts and clear debts efficiently.

•   Consolidating debts can simplify payments and potentially reduce interest rates, aiding quicker debt resolution.

What Does It Mean to Live a Debt-Free Life?

Living “debt-free” can mean different things to different people. In the purest sense, being debt-free means having absolutely zero debt — including no credit card debt, no car or student loans, and no mortgage.

However, some people subscribe to a looser definition of “debt-free,” where you’re free of so-called “bad debt,” such as high-interest credit cards and payday loans, but recognize that some debt is “good.”

A low-interest mortgage or student loan, for example, can be considered good debt, since it can help you increase your net worth or generate future income. This looser definition may work to your advantage because it allows you to achieve milestone goals like owning a home without high-interest debt burdening your monthly finances.

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Benefits of Living Debt-Free

However you define debt-free living, knocking down your debt comes with a wide range of benefits — some expected and some, perhaps, surprising.

•   More money to spend: Interest charges eat away at your income, giving you less money for other things. Once you pay off your debts (particularly those with high interest rates), you’ll have a lot more money in your pocket.

•   Financial stability: By freeing up cash, you’ll have money available to build your emergency fund (your best defense against running up costly debt in the future). You’ll also be able to put money towards other goals and investments.

•   Less stress and anxiety: Dealing with debt isn’t just a financial challenge — it also impacts mental health. In a recent Forbes Advisor survey, 54% of adults said they often or always feel stressed by their debt circumstances; another 32% said they sometimes feel stressed because of their debt.

•   A happier marriage: In the Forbes survey, 60% of respondents said financial stress has led to disagreements in their relationships. Money fights are a common cause of divorce.

•   Increased self-esteem: Eliminating debt isn’t easy — it takes hard work, discipline, and determination. Reaching your debt payoff goals can give you a huge sense of accomplishment that leads to greater self-confidence.

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6 Ways to Climb Out of Debt

Having a lot of debt can feel overwhelming. The key to gaining control over the situation is to approach it one step at a time. Here are six strategies that can help.

1. Creating a Workable Budget

A smart debt-payoff plan begins with a realistic budget. Having a basic budget will help you live within your means (so you don’t get into more debt) and free up extra cash to put towards your debts each month.

The first step in creating a budget is understanding your monthly expenses. This includes everything from rent or mortgage payments, utility bills, groceries, and transportation costs to smaller expenses like subscriptions, leisure activities, and dining out. By assessing your expenses over the last several months, you may be surprised by how much you are spending in certain categories. You may also immediately find some places to cut back, such as canceling membership to a gym you rarely use and/or giving up streaming services you rarely watch.

If the idea of tracking every penny has been a barrier to budgeting, or if you’ve tried and failed in the past, try keeping things simple. The 50/30/20 rule is a simplified budgeting strategy that’s gained traction because it limits the number of spending categories you need to establish and track.

With this approach, you divide your take-home pay (what’s left after paying taxes) into three buckets:

•   50% goes to needs, including minimum debt payments

•   30% goes to wants

•   20% goes to savings and debt payments beyond the minimum

Keep in mind that these percentages are just a guideline, and can be tweaked to fit your situation. The key to becoming debt-free is to make a budget that’s strict but still doable.

2. Making More Money

Yes, this is easier said than done. But before rolling your eyes and moving on, consider the possibilities. Is it time for a pay raise? If a bump is overdue, it might be time to have a talk with the boss.

Consider any potential ways to make extra income from home. Do you always have nights or weekends off? Maybe a friend does catering, landscaping, house painting, or some other work and could use an extra hand from time to time.

If you have a marketable skill, like website design or creating social media content, you may be able to pick up freelance work. If you’re crafty, you might look into selling your wares online or at craft fairs and flea markets. If you love animals, you might want to offer dog walking or cat sitting services.

If you could earn an extra $500 per month, in 12 months, you’d be able to pay off an additional $6,000 of debt.
Even selling things you no longer need can bring in a nice lump sum of cash that you can use to knock down debt.

3. Applying Extra Money Towards Debt

If you get an unexpected windfall (such as a bonus at work, cash gift, tax refund, or inheritance), instead of living it up while the money lasts, consider using it to pay down some debt.

You might not think a few hundred dollars will make much of a dent, but every dollar you pay over the minimum can help reduce the interest you owe on a credit card or loan.

To get some idea of how paying even a little extra toward a bill can help, consider playing around with the numbers using a credit card interest calculator. It can be scary to see how much money you’ll pay in interest if you continue to pay only the monthly minimum, but it can also motivate you to divert as much extra money as you can toward getting that debt paid off once and for all.

4. Focusing on One Debt at a Time

Seeing progress can be inspiring. Think about how good you feel when you lose a little weight from changing your diet or gain some muscle from working out. Even small wins can be motivating.

How does that apply to downsizing your debt?

Two of the commonly recommended approaches to debt repayment are the snowball and avalanche methods. These strategies focus on making extra payments towards one balance at a time instead of trying to put a little extra money toward all your balances at once.

The Snowball Debt Payoff Method

The snowball method directs any excess free cash you might have to the debt with the smallest outstanding balance. Here’s how it works:

•   List all of your outstanding debts based on how much you owe, from the smallest balance to the largest. (Disregard interest rates.)

•   Pay as much as possible toward the debt with the smallest balance, while making the minimum payment on all other debts.

•   After you pay off the smallest debt, turn your attention to the next-lowest balance. Keep going until you are debt-free.

The Avalanche Debt Payoff Method

The avalanche method focuses on paying off debts based on interest rate. It can take longer to get a win with this approach but, ultimately, it will save you more money than the snowball method. How it works:

•   List your debts in order of interest rate, from highest to lowest. (Disregard balance amounts.)

•   Pay as much as you can each month towards the debt with the highest interest rate, making the minimum payments on all other debts.

•   Once you’ve paid off the highest-interest debt, focus on the debt with the next-highest rate, and so on, until you’re debt free.

Though the methods are different, both plans provide focus, and as each balance disappears, momentum grows.

A newer approach, the fireball method, may be a better fit for modern-day debt, which could include a large amount of low-interest student loan debt.

The Fireball Debt Payoff Method

The fireball method takes a hybrid approach to the traditional snowball and avalanche strategies. It’s called “fireball” because it can help blaze through bad debt faster by making it a priority. How it works:

•   Categorize all debts as either “good” or “bad.” “Good” debt generally refers to things that can increase your net worth, such as student loans or mortgages. (Interest rates under 6% could be considered good debt.)

•   List “bad” debts from smallest to largest based on each bill’s outstanding balance.

•   Funnel any extra cash each month toward the smallest balance on the “bad” debt list, while making the minimum monthly payment on all other debts. Once that balance is paid in full, move on to the next-smallest balance on that list. Keep blazing until all “bad” debt is repaid.

•   Pay off “good” debt on the normal schedule while investing for the future. Apply everything you were paying toward “bad” debt to investing in a financial goal.

The fireball approach can help you save money because it gets rid of your more expensive debt first, but it also provides motivation by giving you wins early in the process. These combined elements could provide an extra boost to your efforts.

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5. Consolidating Debts

If your credit is strong, a debt consolidation loan could potentially help you repay your debts at a lower interest rate, saving you money over time. It also simplifies repayment by merging multiple payments into one. With this approach, you take out a personal loan and use it to pay off multiple high-interest debts. The key is to find a lender that is willing to give you a lower annual percentage rate (APR) than what you’re currently paying. Keep in mind that the shorter your loan term, the lower your APR may be.

Another way to consolidate credit card debt is to move it to a balance transfer credit card. This can be a smart move if you can qualify for a 0% intro credit card. This way, you can avoid paying interest for the first several months and all the money you pay towards the card goes to knocking down debt. Keep in mind, though, that you may have to pay a fee when utilizing a balance transfer credit card. And, once the 0% intro period is over, you’ll have to start paying interest on the remaining balance.

6. Negotiating With Your Creditors

If your debt has become too much to handle and you’re delinquent on payments, you may want to reach out to your creditors, explain your financial situation, and see if they may be able to work with you. They might be willing to set you up on a payment plan, reduce your monthly payments, or settle your debt for less than what’s owed.

If you go this route, be sure to take notes on your conversation with the customer service rep (including the name of the person you spoke with, when you called, and what they said) and get the proposed repayment or debt settlement plan in writing before you make any payments.

Also keep in mind that debt settlement can negatively impact your credit, so this option is generally considered a last resort.

Recommended: Debt Settlement vs Credit Counseling: What’s the Difference?

The Takeaway

When it comes to debt, the deeper the hole you’re in, the longer it may take to climb out. But having the right plan in place before can help stick to a budget and methodically reduce your debt in a way that keeps you motivated and saves you money.

Becoming entirely (or nearly) debt-free comes with a substantial payoff: The money you were once spending on debt repayment each month can now go towards savings — and an opportunity to earn, rather than pay, interest.

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