In your 20s and 30s accumulating debt may not appear to be an earth shattering event. Everyone has it and it feels like its just part of life. Buying a home, keeping up with the latest cars, upgrading technology, and taking regular vacations. It is all part of living the American Dream.
Yet in your 50’s and 60’s that same debt you have been carrying for decades now can feel like a noose around your neck, preventing you from meeting financial goals and obtaining the retirement you have always dreamed of.
It is never too late to change your habits and begin living a debt free life. These key steps will lead you to a life without debt and the worry and stress that comes along with it.
Key Number 1: Don’t Spend Money You Do Not Have. This will take a change in how you look at money and debt. As long as you are using debt or charge cards as a stop gap for financial shortages you cannot reduce and eliminate the debt you currently have. The easiest way to accomplish this is to go to a cash budget until spending is under control.
Key Number 2: Where Are You Now? Goal setting requires the establishment of a starting point. To do this you need to know how much debt you have, what interest rates you are paying and what the monthly minimum payments are. The easiest way to establish a starting point is to keep track of where your funds go for 30 days. This will give you a base for both income and spending. Your credit report will generally list all your debt and a free report can be obtained at www.annualcreditreport.com once every 12 months. Monthly statements are also a good source for this information. Put this information on a spreadsheet or use an app to help you identify where you are financially.
Key Number 3: Where is Your Money Being Spent? Now that you have tracked spending it is time to take a hard look at where the money is going. Think about your priorities. Is your money being spent towards the things that are most important to you? Establish a spending plan based on those priorities.
Living a debt free life requires you to make paying off debt a top priority for a few years. This goal is more important than new clothes, a new cell phone and other consumer goods you have become accustomed to having. The better you control the urges to spend, the faster you will pay off debt that is currently weighing you down.
Key Number 4: What Money is Coming In and Is There A Way to Increase It? There are two ways to pay off debt. The first is to increase income and the second is to reduce spending. This might mean taking a second job or being creative about “finding” money. We are a society that accumulates “things.” Sell whatever you are not using. Look at your skill sets and find ways to utilize those skills for making extra money. If you are great with computers, home improvements, photography or any range of skills you have developed over the years, create a side job that generates income. Many people have discovered their hobbies can provide an income stream well into retirement.
Key Number 5: Eliminate Waste. We all know that crash diets are not an effective way to lose weight. The same could be said for plans to reduce spending. The key to spending cuts is not to eliminate every little thing you spend money on. It is about finding ways to reduce costs without necessarily giving up everything you enjoy. For example, if you love your morning coffee from the local café, buy a nice coffee maker and carry it with you. Pack a lunch rather than eating out, shop sales for essentials, eat in, and reduce things like premium services and gym memberships. Look at your lifestyle and find more frugal ways to do the things you enjoy.
Beware of rationalization. For example: You want to be fit, but do you really “need” that $50 a month gym membership, even though there is another gym for $10 a month you could join. Or better yet, use those weights collecting dust under your bed. When it comes to cutting back, many unnecessary expenses can suddenly become “needs.”
Key Number 6: Set Aside for A Rainy Day. Life is unpredictable and it is not always possible to account for unexpected expenses. The car breaks down and the roof leaks. Having money set aside to deal with the unexpected will prevent these expenses from being charged on a high interest credit card. When there is no emergency fund, efforts to become debt free debt can feel like one step forward and two steps back. That discouragement could derail your goals.
Key Number 7: Create a Realistic Budget. Really consider your spending habits and what triggers overspending. Then create habits that address these concerns. This will help you stick to the budget you have set. In reality a budget is just numbers on a page. If you don’t track what you spend and set realistic goals that can be monitored, you will be unable to really make differences in how you spend money. The idea of a budget is to create spending patterns based on the things that matter most to you. Having it in written form, or on a convenient app, will help you measure progress, stay on track and celebrate success.
Key Number 8: Reduce Your Monthly Payments. Take a critical look at every bill and see where you can save. Compare insurance rates, raise deductibles, or eliminate premium services. Seniors and veterans qualify for all types of discounts and senior discounts sometimes start as early as 50. Many people discover when scrutinizing bills line by line, that they are paying for extra services they never even remember signing up for. Becoming more fee sensitive can save a lot of money.
Key Number 9: Look beyond Credit Card Debt. There is the temptation to only look at paying off credit card debt. As you enter retirement, housing can take up 30% or more of your income. Student loans, car payments and other debt payments you are still carrying will require a larger income and more in investments throughout your retirement years.
Key Number 10: Define a Specific Timeframe For Obtaining Freedom from Debt. This might be the day you plan to retire or sometime sooner. Without a specific end date, it is difficult to measure progress. Perhaps set a goal to become free of credit card debt in 5 years and mortgage free in 10. The less debt you carry into retirement, the less money you need to fund the life you want.