The real key to being debt-free
Deciding to get out of debt is easy; actually getting started is a bit harder. But the real test is sticking with your plan. Here's what makes an effort succeed.
Debt is persistent. You may have noticed that. Debt has a sticky quality, like gum that gets in your hair.
The harder you try to get rid of it, the more of it there seems to be.When you dislodge a chunk, you can't believe how much is still left and how hard it is to clean out.
If anyone knows this, it's me. Not only have I been in debt and clawed my way out of it, I've spent the past eight years writing about debt from just about every angle:
* How I fell into that hole and my struggle to get out.
* How other people spiralled into debt and their struggles to break free.
* The success of the Women in Red Racers, who continue to wow me with their steady get-out-of-debt strategies.I have the world's first unofficial doctorate in debt. And yet, as I read through my considerable oeuvre recently, I was struck by an obvious omission.
I hardly ever mention the one skill I found myself dwelling upon almost constantly as my husband and I paid down our credit card debt. It's the secret ingredient that is as important as -- perhaps even more important than -- finding the money: persistence.
The science of debt
It's not an illusion -- or a sign of your own personal failure -- that debt is so sticky. Once you're in debt, researchers have found, you're much more likely to stay in debt for a long period.
Researchers at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago analyzed the persistence of debt in 6,000 adults born between 1957 and 1984. Data come from the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth.
Those who were in debt at point A (say, age 33) were likely to still be in debt five and 10 years later, and their debts were likely to have increased. By contrast, those who had no debt when they were first surveyed were less likely to have accumulated any debt in five to 10 years.
Among those surveyed between age 20 and 25, the people in debt at age 20 were carrying an average of about $10,900; five years later, their average debt had quadrupled to $43,700.
In other words, there's no question that debt tends to persist, and you have to cultivate an extraordinary persistence of your own to deal with it.
Change is a process
Being in debt, by definition, means you've been living beyond your means. We all know that.
On the surface, the remedy also seems obvious: spend less than what you earn, and you'll get out of debt.
What people overlook when they make their get-out-of-debt plans, however, is how very difficult this first step is.Here you are, living a lifestyle based on certain behaviours and assumptions (many of them justified by inspiring Visa commercials). Suddenly you're supposed to rethink your entire life, not only to spend less but to put big chunks of your cash into that debt hole instead of buying fun things.
These are big adjustments, and they require the determination to make and stick with difficult decisions, says Ellen, a fashion designer in Edison, N.J., and a Women in Red member who is whittling down about $10,000 in credit card debt.
"I made a lot of lifestyle changes when I started my debt repayment plan," she says. "I moved to a less expensive area, I got two roommates and got rid of my car."
As one reader put it in response to a discussion on the Women in Red message board:
"For me, persistence over the last two years looks like $60,637. That money could have been trips to many of the places that I want to see -- New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Egypt, Spain and Ireland. Instead, we've paid off three student loans, a brand new car, two store credit cards, most of another store card and 35 per cent of a home loan.
"Making new lifestyle choices and making smarter spending choices, when you'd much rather relax on a stack of plastic -- these aren't one-time moves. They require constant effort, a sort of retraining.
And that effort must be sustained for years. Looking back over the five-plus years it took us to pay back our debt, I'm struck by how much stamina it took.
As one reader wrote: "Persistence means that I realized that it took me a number of years to get into debt and that it would take me several years to get out of it; that I couldn't wave a magic wand and make it disappear. I've had to make some hard choices in order to bring my expenses in line with my income and to find more money to pay off the debt."
It takes more than discipline
Although persistence may sound like another name for self-discipline -- a point debated by a few of the gals in red -- it's more complex than that, says Sharon Melius, a life coach based in North Bellmore, N.Y.
She uses the following formula with clients to break down perseverance into its essential components (she credits a publication by Cornerstone Leadership titled "Sticking to It"):Focus x Passion x Competence = Adherence"
If your focus is zero, or if your passion isn't there, or if you don't have the skills," Melius says, "you won't be able to stick to your goal."
In order to persist and eventually succeed, she says, each of those components has to be present in your thoughts and deeds.No wonder debt is such a tricky little devil. Not only do you need the clarity of purpose, the fire in your belly and the skills to get out of debt -- you need money.
So to all those who are fighting that good fight, Women in Red or not, take pride in every step you take, no matter how small. And remember this quote from 19th-century humorist Josh Billings:
"Consider the postage stamp: Its usefulness consists in the ability to stick to one thing till it gets there."
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