A Minimalist Approach to Becoming Debt-Free (or, 3 Steps to Financial Freedom)
Prior to paying off $95 000 worth of debt, Sporty and I used the head in the sand approach when dealing with our finances.
Which is to say, we tried our best to pretend there wasn’t a problem.
When in fact, there was a small herd of elephants in the living room.
We’d draw money at the ATM and purposefully not look at our bank balance. We’d buy stuff on our credit card and hold our breath while we waited to see if the transaction would go through or not.
We’d dutifully file our bank statements, but then we’d avert our eyes in the process.
We had no savings, not much in the way of retirement anything and a maxed out overdraft.
So much of fun, right? Actually no, not so much.
If any of that sounds familiar, don’t despair. It’s actually simpler than you imagine to fix things. It’s not easy, mind you, but it’s definitely simple. Taking a minimalist approach to becoming debt-free involves three steps.
Before we dive in, I need to chat quickly about mindset and the importance of changing it. You’re about to tackle a huge task and the only way to ensure success is if you a) believe you can and b) think of the challenge as something exciting to be conquered.
The belt is going to be pulled tighter than a Victorian corset for the foreseeable. Make peace with that. Rather than continually focus on all the things you can’t have, set your sights on the end goal: Financial Freedom.
Make paying off your debt a game. Find other ways to spend your weekends that don’t involve spending money, such as hiking, picnics, game nights, home dates, etc.
Get creative, make it fun and whenever you indulge in a No Money Spent (NMS) activity, think about how much closer you are to your goal because of it.
Now that you have your game face sorted, let’s work our way through the three steps that will lead to your spectacularly awesome debt-free life.
1. Analyze Your Spending Habits
When Anthony Ongaro took a fine tooth comb to his spending habits on Amazon, he got a pretty hefty shock and decided to break the twitch (as he called his constant urge to buy things online) for good.
￼For Sporty and I, it meant ‘fessing up to our daily coffee indulgences, our penchant for dining out and our habit of buying household items we also didn’t necessarily need.
Take a look at your spending habits and analyze the thought pattern behind them. Is your imagination getting the better of you?
Maybe you saw a pair of running shoes at the mall and pictured yourself finishing your first marathon. There’s just one small problem: you’ve never run further than the bathroom in your life.
The easiest way is to take a look around your house and identify all the items you never use. From there, go through your bank statements and look for online purchases, meals out, drinks, etc. You’ll quickly see a pattern forming.
When you do, it’s time for a little reflection.
Is your imagination getting the better of you? Are you buying things because you think they’ll make you happy? Are you afraid of saying no to drinks with friends because of what they might think?
Whatever the reason for them, your spending habits have landed you in a bit of a pickle. There’s no point in ruminating, no good ever came from that. Now that you know your weak points, you can at least address them.
Tone down your imagination by running in the sneakers you have. Focus on intrinsic happiness and ditch your friends if they’re not cool with you staying in.
Like I said, this stuff I simple, but it won’t always be easy. The road ahead requires a steely resolve, a good sense of humor and some rocket ship underpants, but you’ve got this. I know you do.
2. Time to Budget
Everything changed for the better when Sporty created a kick-ass budget for us. The first step was the most uncomfortable: we wrote down our monthly income and expenditures and made peace with the massive discrepancy between the two columns.
It wasn’t fun (obvs), but the task certainly brought with it a massive sense of relief. Now that we’d acknowledged the elephants to we could begin taking steps to evict them.
Not only were those freeloaders not paying rent, they were costing us money. Paying interest on things you no longer have (food, booze, etc.) or stuff you no longer use (like running shoes) is a bitch.
Now more than ever, you need to live within your means. If you have no disposable income left after you’ve paid your bills and put aside money for groceries, you can’t go out for dinner or to the movies.
It’s simple math, really. It’s also about holding out for the second marshmallow. I think we can both agree that your desire for instant gratification hasn’t really been working in your favor, has it?
If your budget is particularly tight (like that pair of jeans from high school you refuse to throw away), you need to get creative with your money management strategy.
There are plenty of awesome ways to trick yourself into saving money. Use coupons, take note of when your grocery store marks down the fresh produce, take part in surveys, etc. Don’t be bashful, just do it.
Pro tip: If you earn more money thanks to a salary increase or side-hustle, act like it’s not there. Just put straight into paying off your debt.
3. Simplify Your Finances
The final step in our minimalist approach to becoming debt free is to simplify your finances as much as possible.
You need an account to run your day to day finances, you need somewhere to squirrel away your rainy day savings and you need to invest for the future.
A credit card is definitely handy for things like booking a hire car or flights, but it absolutely has to stay in the black. Never, ever, ever use the bank’s money to fund anything.
Get rid of any and all other accounts. Close them if you can and if you can’t (because you still owe money on them) make a list and tackle them one by one. Start by paying off the smallest balance first.
As for the rest, just pay the minimum payment. When the smallest one is paid off, move to the next one. And so on. The reason for this strategy is that these small wins are relatively quick and easy to achieve.
As you begin knocking them off you’ll get a sense that this debt demolishing business isn’t that hard after all. This will motivate you to keep going. Each time you pay off an account, make sure you cut up the card and close the account.
Sometimes, though, if you really overdid the whole overspending thing, you may find you need to take advantage of a debt consolidation program to help you get a handle on things and keep your head above water.
That’s okay. Just make sure you do your due diligence before jumping in. Consolidating your debt into one monthly payment is naturally appealing, but it can also lead to you owing even more money if you’re not careful.
One reason for this is that some companies charge a premium for the convenience. Doing your homework will definitely help you avoid this potential pitfall, however an even bigger problem is your desire for instant gratification.
It can be tempting to look at your one monthly payment and think your finances are in good shape. The next thing you know you’re even deeper in debt with a stack of new clothing accounts, etc. Don’t do that.
No really, don’t do that.