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Financial planning tips

January 08, 2013

How to dig your way out of debt

It isn’t easy to pay off a heavy debt load, but it can be done. Find out how one new grad managed to pay off $60,000 of debt in 18 months.

Saving isn’t as sexy as spending.

It’s a lesson Serena, the semi-anonymous blogger behind Fabulously Broke in the City, learned early. At 23, she graduated from university with a $60,000 debt.

“It was really more of a lack of frugality plus pure money management ignorance that made me do rather silly things, such as live as though I wasn’t piling up debt,” she says, noting her business school degree was four times the cost of the average program.

Canada’s total debt per consumer (not counting mortgages) sits at $26,768, according to the credit-rating agency TransUnion. Debt can creep up anywhere, whether as student loans, a mortgage or personal debt resulting from poor habits or job loss. And while it’s not hard to rack it up, paying debt down is easier said than done.

“(Debt reduction) is not that difficult in theory,” says Serena, who managed to pay off the $60,000 in 18 months. “But in practice, it is mentally the hardest thing I've ever done.”

She was fortunate enough to land a job with an annual salary of $65,000, but a good income was only part of her debt solution. Since her job required frequent travel, she sold her furniture and moved in with her parents. Finally, she spent almost nothing on clothing and entertainment for nearly a year; her only splurge was train tickets to visit her boyfriend.

If you want to get out of debt, even on a more modest income, consider these tips:

Start your debt-cutting campaign now

By putting it off, you allow the problem to grow — literally, as interest compounds. Take a first, baby step by writing down your goal and tacking it up in a place you’ll see often.

Break debt down and budget

Serena says a successful debt reduction plan will make your budget your best friend.

Create a spreadsheet of everything you owe, with the highest balances at the top, then start paying off the debts with the highest interest rates first, to avoid digging yourself deeper.

Set realistic goals: Planning to be debt-free in a year is much harder to manage than planning to cut your eating-out budget in half.

It’s also smart to make more than the minimum payment — even if only a few bucks more. As you continue your journey, revisit your budget weekly to see where you stand and where you can adjust.

Keep out of future debt

To achieve success, here’s the key: Don’t spend money that you don’t have. To help keep yourself honest, consider leaving your credit card at home and paying for everything in cash.

“Be angry at your debt,” Serena says. “Every time you whip out your wallet, ask yourself if the purchase is really necessary.”

Serena started experimenting in the kitchen while paying down her debt; she found that homemade dinners are cheaper than meals out, and cooking gave her a hobby to fill the nights she previously spent out on the town.

Reduce your debt with little things

To pay down loans faster, infuse your life with frugality.

You can cut out store-bought coffee, take your lunch to work and look for second-hand options whenever you need to buy something. Think about it: Cutting just $2.50 from your daily spending will give you $912 each year to put towards your debt. If you need to take more drastic measures and it’s feasible, get a part-time job and sell anything you don’t need.

Serena, who also runs The Everyday Minimalist, stresses that even if you’re cutting back, you should still build fun into your budget. After all, if you’re stressed, you may break down and, in turn, break rules.

Know the budget numbers

Everyone’s budget will look different. That said, there are several theories on how much you should put toward debt each month.

Consider the 60:40 rule, which says you should spend 60% of your gross income on expenses — housing, bills, food and entertainment — and the rest on debt repayment. Serena suggests a more manageable repayment schedule: Spend 75% of your gross on expenses, save 10% and use the remaining 15% to pay down your debt.

  • The road to financial security starts with action: Get going with our Bright Start tool.

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