The following post is by MPFJ staff writer, Melissa Batai. Melissa is a freelance writer who covers topics ranging from personal finance to business to organics to food. She blogs at Mom’s Plans where she shares her family’s journey to healthier living and paying down debt.
Have you ever gone on a crash diet before? You know, the kind where you eat grapefruit every day or you slash your calories to 1,000 or fewer a day?
Chances are, your extreme diet works great for the short-term, say a few weeks at most. If you need to lose 10 pounds to fit in your wedding dress, a crash diet may be just what you need.
On the other hand, if you need to lose 100 pounds, a crash diet will likely set you up for failure because you can’t thrive on such restriction over the long haul. Ultimately, you’ll likely follow your strict diet, and then, within a few weeks (or a few months if you’re really dedicated), you’ll be unable to take the deprivation any longer. You’ll be so ravenous that you’ll overeat. Sometimes you might overeat a lot. Before you know it, your weight is right where it was when you started the diet, or even higher.
How Paying Off Debt Can Be Like a Crash Diet
I know what you’re thinking. This is a personal finance blog. What does dieting have to do with finances?
Actually quite a lot, especially where debt is concerned.
Around the personal finance sphere, the most common advice that you’ll see is to pay off your debt first and as quickly as possible. Slash your spending and pay off the debt before you save for retirement or even build an ample emergency fund. Be disciplined, suffer through the deprivation, and then go on with your financial life when the debt is gone.
Just like a crash diet, this is great advice if you have, say $5,000 to $10,000 of debt to pay off. Depending on your income and discipline level, this can be knocked out in a few months to a year. Sure, you can put off emergency and long-term savings for 12 months. You can even live a life of deprivation for a few months to a year.
But, what if you have a lot of debt to pay off? What if you have $50,000 in debt to pay off (besides your mortgage) and you only make $50,000 a year? You can be as frugal as possible, but that debt isn’t going anywhere fast. In this case, you’re like the person trying to stay on a crash diet to lose 100 pounds.
Putting your life on hold, not saving for a rainy day and pouring all your money into the debt isn’t going to work in the long-term.
Change Behaviors First
We’re creatures of habit. Our habits can be good or bad. Just like an overweight person probably got that way by eating too much and eating the wrong foods, the same is probably true of someone in debt. If you’re in debt, you likely spend more than you earn each month, and you may be reliant on credit cards to buy something NOW rather than waiting and saving your money or finding a cheaper alternative.
If you’re going to successfully pay off debt and stay out of debt the rest of your life, that means you need to change your behaviors.
You need to be able to save money in an emergency fund. You need to be able to save for a replacement vehicle if your car is old and you know it will need to be replaced in the next few years. You need to save your money for smaller purchases that you want to buy like a new computer so you don’t go further into debt.
You need to get rid of the all or nothing view on debt repayment. Despite what bloggers and Dave Ramsey say, throwing all of your money on debt might not be the best idea if you have a large amount of debt to pay off.
I was a gung-ho-gazelle-intensity debt payer. My husband and I have credit cards and student loans to pay off, and we wanted the debt gone as soon as possible. I worked too many hours and my health and our relationship suffered.
I pulled back a little on the work and tried to reduce my stress, but I still embraced gazelle intensity. Over the next year, we made good headway on our debt while leaving our emergency fund at a measly $1,000. (Not smart, in my opinion, if half of your family income is variable as mine is and you also have children.)
As you can guess, we were hit by some unexpected expenses, and our emergency fund wasn’t enough. We went a few thousand dollars back in debt.
We recovered from that bump in the road and continued on with gazelle intensity. About 6 months later, we were hit with nearly $3,000 in-car repairs, and my income had a large dip for four months. This time, we went several thousand dollars back in debt.
After this, I decided enough is enough. I finally realized that for us, gazelle intensity just doesn’t work. Like someone who has 100 pounds to lose, we had too much debt to go gazelle intense for years and years.
Our car is 9 years old and has 120,000 miles on it. Even if we don’t replace it for several more years, it will likely have expensive repairs. A $1,000 emergency fund isn’t going to cut it.
My recent income cuts showed me that I was risking my family’s security by skating by on such a small emergency fund.
Simply put, Life wasn’t waiting for us to pay off our debt.
Instead, we agreed to make a plan to get out of debt completely in 5 years.
Here’s what we have done:
- Now, we’ve created a one month buffer.
- We have enough in our checking account to pay this month’s bills with last month’s income.
- We’re also saving for expenses like a car replacement/repair fund as well as our irregular expenses.
- While we are paying down debt on our 5 year plan, my husband’s employer is taking 8% of his gross salary out for our retirement savings. I recently rolled over my retirement (complete with employer match) from my previous job, so luckily, we’re on track for retirement savings. When we’re on better financial footing, we’ll begin to also invest in a Roth IRA.
Why This Works
Let’s go back to the overweight person trying to lose 100 pounds. If she learns to make smart food choices and to eat just when she’s hungry and to stop when she’s full, she’s already instituted the behaviors she needs to be a thin person who stays thin. Yes, she has extra weight on her that is a reminder of her old lifestyle, but that weight will take care of itself as a byproduct of her new lifestyle.
If you take the steps to live a financially responsible life by living within your means, setting aside emergency money, setting aside money for replacement items and irregular experiences, your lifestyle will support a healthy financial life. The debt, just like the weight, will eventually be gone.
You might not be debt free in an incredible 18 months had you been gazelle intense, but you have something even better. You have changed your behavior and mindset, which sets you up for financial success for the rest of your life. Perhaps it takes you 5 years to get rid of all your debt like it will take us.
Let me say it again.
The debt will be gone, and you won’t go into debt again. You will have freed yourself from the shackles of debt for life. That sounds infinitely better to me than racing to pay off debt just to go back in the hole because you haven’t prepared for the future and changed your habits.
How about you all? What do you think? Change behaviors and pay off debt slowly or knock it out with gazelle intensity?
Share your experiences by commenting below!
***Photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/sklathill/