There are a host of different strategies for getting out of debt, but it’ll be hard to even get started if you haven’t first worked on your money mindset.
We can't live without money, but that doesn't mean our relationship with it is always healthy. Millions of Americans struggle with debt that robs them of hope and financial freedom. Even the government is struggling (stop rolling your eyes). Yes, they’re always struggling with debt, but it’s gotten even worse. The pandemic-created economic recession of 2020 resulted in a $4.4 trillion increase in the United States' public debt, which now rests at approximately $27.5 trillion.
With greater difficulty finding work, rising costs of living, and mounting student debt and medical bills, Americans seem to have money designed to work against them. Even having a full-time job with benefits isn't enough to guarantee financial stability anymore. The endless pursuit of wealth or even just trying to make ends meet can lead people into a negative place that feels near impossible to escape. But there are things you can do that may help.
It starts with tapping into your money mindset and changing the way you view your finances can help you manage debt, break unhealthy habits, and finally start to build savings that don't feel like a burden. It’s just a matter of knowing how and where to start.
So, what’s a money mindset anyway?
Simply put, it’s the way you think about money, and the beliefs you have about it. Both affect how you earn, spend, and save. You’d be hard-pressed to meet anyone (that doesn’t live by themselves in a Tibetan cave) who claims not to care about or want money — or who would choose to live without any form of income and all the essentials it provides. But why do so many people struggle with it? Why do they struggle to get out of debt? Why do they overspend in the first place when they know they should save? Why do they use credit cards when they know paying them off will be a heavy burden?
It all comes down to perspective and self-integrity. That might sound a little frilly, but not when you consider how a person’s mindset impacts their action. If you believe that you can exercise and lose weight, you will. But someone who thinks they're incapable of losing weight isn’t going to put effort into exercising and being more active. The same applies to financial health.
Most people are fully aware that they have a choice in how they spend their income, but they don’t always make the best decisions when it comes to their long-term interest. The belief that they need a certain amount of money for it to have a worthwhile affect creates a dismissive attitude toward their own earnings. Rather than seeing that extra $50 or $100 as a way to improve their financial health, they think it's not enough to help them do anything of significance, and consequently spend it on something they don't need instead. Hey, we’ve all been there, right?
A healthy money mindset involves practicing self-discipline and believing that one has the ability to reach whatever financial goals they set. Being realistic is also key. If you tell yourself that you have to be a millionaire by 30, the likelihood of that happening on a regular salary is slim. But if you decide to commit yourself to saving at least $1,500 a year, that's possible, even if you're only working part-time.
How your beliefs affect your budget
The word "disposable" isn’t the best term when describing income. In fact, it can actually be harmful. Although extra funds can be spent on non-essential items once bills and living expenses are covered, it shouldn't be frivolously tossed around at every opportunity.
Constant coffee runs, nightly takeout, and a slew of subscription services can drain your bank account month after month. Using a credit card to buy things you know you can't afford results in more stress and greater debt for years to come. Think about it — an impulsive one-time charge can create a year or more of repayments that ultimately cost far more than you ever spent.
A budget is actually a very powerful tool. Contrary to what many believe, a budget doesn’t take away freedom — it actually gives you the freedom you need to gain greater financial stability. Although it can be eye-opening (and sometimes a little disheartening) to initially see more money going out than in, a budget will help you clarify your own beliefs about finances and your ability to spend more wisely.
Stop settling for default payment plans
If you don't have one already, sit down and draft a personal debt recovery plan. This will combine your current income and budget with your outstanding balances. You may explore options like loan consolidation or refinancing to lower monthly payments. A good payment history will have a tremendous impact on your credit score, and it's one thing always in your control. When you’re struggling financially, always reach out to lenders and negotiate options. You may be able to defer a payment or even be eligible for some type of forgiveness program.
Credit counseling can also help you establish better habits and significantly reduce what you owe. Counselors are able to speak on your behalf and often know loopholes consumers don't. They'll teach you how to review your free credit reports each year and establish a repayment timeline. Also, establishing a credit hierarchy will allow you to prioritize your payments and make greater progress at a much faster rate.
Another option when exploring how to repay is to consider taking out a personal loan rather than relying on credit cards. Although a card can be useful when you pay it off each month, it comes with higher interest rates that can quickly become unmanageable when you're already juggling other expenses. Instead, try a loan — it’s flexible and designed to meet your needs and ability to pay. If you get approved for one that covers your biggest debts, you'll then be able to focus solely on repaying the loan.
Reshape your view of money
Don't view your relationship with your finances as a reflection of your character. Most people who are impulsive spenders or bad at managing their income are simply unaware. They haven't ever taken the time to dissect when and how they developed such habits, so even when they suffer negative consequences, they never get to the root of the issue.
Failing to address how your spending and money management impacts your life will ultimately only lead you into a deeper hole and more financial pain. Ask yourself how your concept of money has impacted your beliefs about yourself. Do you see money as something you're burdened by and forced to earn, or do you see it as a valuable tool that you can use to grow and thrive?
Just as your worth isn't dictated by how much you earn, it also isn’t rooted in how much you owe. But both of these things can directly influence how you feel about yourself and what you can do in life. Working with rather than against your circumstances will help you begin to progress beyond whatever obstacles you face.
Although there is plenty of advice on how to get out of debt, instructions and guides don’t always prepare you for the difficulty of staying encouraged when your repayments seem to be barely moving the needle. Frustration is normal. And it’s likely you'll go through periods where you feel accomplished one day and like you’re spinning your wheels the next. But rather than being hard on yourself or taking backward steps, recognize the feelings and see them as a reminder that you’re changing long-held habits and beliefs — and that’s not always easy.
The key is to set small goals to keep you on track. Wins, no matter how small, can boost your confidence and optimism. So, rather than seeing your total debt balance as a success or failure, set monthly or weekly goals. Even setting aside just $25 to put toward a payment or into a savings account can make you feel inspired. With time, you'll learn what types of goals work best for you, and your new money mindset will help you not only recover from the past but start reaching for new financial goals in the future.
There are certainly a host of different strategies for getting out of debt, but it’ll be hard to even get started if you haven’t worked on your money mindset. So take some time to look a little deeper into what you think about money and why. Who knows, you could stumble onto a single event in your life that shaped your thoughts on finances, and that awareness alone could change it. But chances are, just looking into it further can help you understand your thoughts on money better, which can start to reshape how you think — and act.
Justin Weinger is a married father of three, with over 15 years of corporate finance experience in various industries. He is an avid personal finance enthusiast, blogger, and chaser of passive income streams.