Saving is the fastest way out of debt. Time and time again I see men and women in debt keeping themselves in deprivation mode saying things like, “I can’t buy new clothes until my debt is paid down,” or “I don’t deserve a vacation because I’m only paying the minimum on my cards.” A poverty mentality can be very depressing and might affect one’s self-esteem, relationships and ability to earn money. Worst of all, it can keep you in the debt cycle because the tension around keeping a lid on it has to be released eventually. It is possible to save money and pay down your debt at the same time. It takes some discipline, but the integrity and peace of mind you will experience through authentic guilt-free spending is priceless. Simultaneously, you will cultivate the skills and awareness you need to prevent future debt. According to my mentor, Karen McCall, here are four approaches to saving your way of debt.
1. Stop debting.
The first step towards getting out of debt is to stop digging the hole. You must stabilize the situation before you can make shifts in your mentality and changes in your behavior. Make a decision to take your credit cards out of your wallet, change your primary card for all of your online shopping accounts to your debit card. If you’re a dramatic type, you can freeze your cards in a bowl of water or ceremoniously cut them up. I have a client who mailed one of her credit cards home to her dad with a letter saying, “Thank you for paying for my monthly car payments, gas, tolls, insurance and repairs for the last eight years. I’m taking on all the payments from now on!”
Put money aside every month into a periodic savings account. Periodic expenses are anticipated non-monthly expenses like vacations, holidays, tuition, vet bills and car repairs. These are expenses that can end up on a credit card if you’re not prepared. The periodic savings account is a foundational regular savings account with a revolving door and money that is meant to be spent. When a periodic expense comes up, simply transfer the money you proactively set aside into your checking account and pay with your debit card. It’s okay to deplete your periodic savings, and you should expect to from time to time. By making monthly transfers to your periodic savings account a consistent part of your budget, you can always build it up again. Map out your periodic expenses and divide the total on the bottom right by 12 months -- that is how much money you should be saving every month in this savings account.
2. Manage your debt.
The next step is to live free from debt, mentally and emotionally, even if you are not debt-free. Once you organize every credit card balance, APR (annual percentage rate or interest rate), credit limit and current minimum in one place, then you can create a strategic debt repayment plan. The priority is to get each of your balances at least 33% away from the available credit. You may have to pay only minimums on all of your cards while you build up your periodic savings, get a handle on your monthly in and outflow and reduce your balances by a third.
The next level of savings is the safety net. The goal for this account is to have six months of living expenses set aside in cash. The intention behind the safety net is to prepare for a potential interruption of income -- critical for those of you with fluctuating incomes. Note that a separate tax-only savings account is equally important for self-employed folks. And, a safety net savings account is important for everyone regardless of your employment status. This is an emergency fund. Once some of your safety net is built up, you’ll have the funds to pay yourself the difference during a lower or zero earning month. Remember, being laid off or set back on disability is considered an emergency while quarterly tax payments are not.
3. Eliminate debt.
This is the final stage of debt -- being free from debt financially and spiritually. Once all of your debts are cleared, it can take some time for your heart to catch up and integrate this new reality. The key to preventing a back-slide into debt is to take excellent care of yourself by respecting your money with personal money practices, routines, rigorous honesty, willingness and accountability.
The highest level of savings is for investments -- real estate, stocks, bonds, money market accounts and retirement accounts. This is truly do-not-touch money, and these accounts are designed to take care of your future, older self. In an ideal world, you would have multiple savings accounts to cover periodics -- your safety net, taxes and the long-term. I am a big believer in “build it and they will come”. Something very powerful starts to happen when you take action and open savings accounts on every level even if your initial deposits or monthly transfers are minimal.
4. Watch for signs of deprivation including making do, doing without or overdoing.
If you notice one of these limiting beliefs in your life, it’s an opportunity to uncover an unmet need. It’s not always obvious. Unmet needs have amazing ways of hiding themselves. I have a client who is a chronic over-spender. Her weaknesses are clothes, bags, shoes and jewelry. She has very expensive taste and virtually can’t say no to sales people who know her by name. I gave her a tool she could carry with her at all times -- a shopping journal! It helped her connect to her underlying thoughts and feelings before, during and after a spontaneous purchase. Through this process, she realized she was feeling lonely and bored on the way home from work and frequently stopped at Barney’s to pass time and have social interaction. The unmet need was in her social life and relationships. She compensated for that void by overspending on her wardrobe. Anyone who has been in debt knows about the snowball effect and how quickly things can get out of control. Be mindful of slippery slopes, hot spot areas of spending and money fog. Protect yourself today by proactively building and sustaining multiple levels of savings.
Carrie Friedberg, SF Money Coach is a certified financial coach and financial behavior specialist. She guides individuals, families and small business owners through a holistic process of aligning your spending, saving and earning with your values. Carrie works in downtown Palo Alto and with clients around the world via Skype.