A common problem these days is debt. A lot of people use it to buy things they want and (think) they need. Debt can come in the form of bank loans, credit card debt or overdraft on your checking account. Once the cycle of debt starts it can be very difficult to come out of it.
But it’s not impossible.
In fact, it’s relatively easy if you formulate and enact the right strategy.
Here is the 4-step strategy I used to climb out of debt and enter the green zone.
- FORMULATE A PLAN
The mere thought of climbing out of debt is so overwhelming that it is tempting to either do nothing or get depressed and spend even more. To avoid this negative spiral, I recommend sitting down and thinking about your current situation: Are you happy? What are your short term goals? Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
If the answer to these questions is No – I don’t know – Broke – Broke, then it’s time to act.
Recently, I was in the red due to financial mismanagement: I was spending without keeping track of my expenses and found myself in severe overdraft every month. This situation caused me massive stress and the overdraft was all I could think about – to the point of not being able to sleep at night. I worried about the future and feared I would live a life of poverty.
Finally, I decided to react: I fixed myself the objective of ending the month at 0 – not negative 1000 – within a six month period.
2. TRACK YOUR SPENDING TO SLASH IT
First, I decided to keep track of my spending for one month to see where my money was going.
Boy was I in for a surprise. I quickly identified three critical “waste zones” that needed immediate attention.
I realized that besides rent and utilities, my biggest expense was food. Not grocery shopping but eating out – I would buy a coffee and croissant in the morning; a sandwich, burger or restaurant meal at lunch time; and occasionally (actually frequently) pizza at night. On average, eating out cost me $400 a month – sometimes more! This was the easiest place to start saving. I decided to bring my own lunch to work and cook for myself at night. To ease the transition, I still allowed myself to eat out and order pizza a few times a month.
My second biggest expenses were cigarettes and alcohol. I used to be a heavy smoker and I enjoyed going out with my friends on the weekend. These were expensive habits I indulged in without second thoughts. However, after doing the math, I realized I could spend upwards of $300-$400 a month on these activities. The obvious things to do were to cut back on my smoking and spend less money on nights out.
My third biggest expenses were the impulse purchases I would make after work and on weekends: clothing, electronics, accessories…. I’m amazed at the things I bought and never really used or actually needed. This category of spending was the least important of the three critical waste zones but still cost me anywhere between $150-$300 a month. This got me thinking whether I really needed all these things or whether the act of buying provided me some bizarre inner satisfaction. I quickly realized it was the latter and vowed to change.
Finally, after serious introspection, I had located the domains where I could save some money and proceeded to the third and perhaps most difficult step of the process: NOT SPENDING.
3. STOP SPENDING!
It’s easy to identify a problem and formulate a strategy to solve it. It’s much harder to actually enact the strategy and stick to it. It’s incredibly hard to stop yourself from buying things when the mind associates buying with pleasure. Your dopamine receptors have to be rewired over time to stop you from feeling frustrated every time you deny yourself the pleasure of buying something.
Luckily, and rather paradoxically, I was working in retail at the time. I used to visit the shops of the mall I worked in very frequently after work and occasionally bought something; the fact that I got a discount for being a mall worker didn’t help me curtail my spending. I was surrounded by temptations and willingly succumbed to their charm.
However, once I decided to start saving, I noticed just how crazy the consumption frenzy really is. Every two months there is a reason to splurge: Back to school sales, Halloween, Black Friday, Christmas, Valentine’s day, Mother’s day, Easter, Summer sales…it just never stops and the cycle keeps repeating itself. There is always an excuse to buy something. During these moments, when the mall was flooded with people almost stepping over each other to buy, I took a step back and realized just how crazy society has become. I started to become detached from the desire to accumulate material things and almost felt disgusted by this excessive consumption. I noticed that I started feeling proud and satisfied when I resisted the urge to buy and kept my wallet in my pocket. This signaled that I was on the right track.
4. INCREASE YOUR EARNINGS
After eight months of reducing my spending, I finally achieved my objective: I ended the month at 0 for the first time in three years. Despite being two months behind on my objective, I was incredibly proud of myself. I felt like a new man.
However, I realized that although saving is good, ultimately it would only take me so far. I won’t become rich by saving on a meager salary. However, I’m convinced that saving helps develop good habits and self-discipline that can be carried over in other fields.
To really level up you need to focus on increasing your earnings. Granted, it’s not easy and takes time. But can you name some good things which don’t?