Trying to pay off debt when you're on a shoestring budget can feel like an impossible goal. Aside from the basics like rent, groceries and gas, there are always unexpected expenses (think medical bill or car repair cost) threatening to set you further back. For those struggling with getting out of debt, staying on top of it all comes with a unique set of problems.
Below are 10 of the most common obstacles to paying off debt:
- Figuring out how you got into debt in the first place
- Changing your debt attitude
- How to handle calls from collection agencies
- Making a debt pay off plan
- How to decide which debt to pay off first
- What to do if you hate living on a budget
- Getting out of debt with no money
- Learning how to save money (Even if you struggle)
- Avoiding debt in the future
Let's get started!
Getting out of Debt? Tackle These Common Problems
Problem #1 – “I don't know how I got here.”
Assessing how you got into this situation, (not to mention finding extra cash to pay down debt with) begins with understanding where your money is actually going every month. It's not something you should try to estimate in your head.
- Take a look back at your last three months of spending, and you may be surprised at what you find. Perhaps you spent $150 on clothes or close to $200 eating out at restaurants. It can be surprising to see how quickly little purchases add up.
- Considering signing up to use a budgeting software like Mint.com to help you understand your spending habits and create goals for the future.
- Consider a cash-only lifestyle for a month and see how quickly the money gets spent!
After all, the first step to getting out of debt when you have no money is to make sure the money you do have is being spent wisely.
Problem #2 – “I won't be able to do it.” (the defeatist attitude)
Are you depressed about your debt? Depending on how bad the situation is, this is only normal. While it might not seem like a debt solution, you’ve got to change that attitude first. Getting out of debt is hard work, and while it’s natural to have a wide range of feelings about debt, those emotions aren’t the most helpful guides. Below are some examples of things to try to change your attitude around your debt.
- These next steps take some guts. So remind yourself of your fantastic qualities.
- Start by considering what life without debt looks like (a vision board is a great exercise for this!). It doesn’t have to mean an elaborate vacation. It can be as simple as getting the mail without that sinking feeling that it’s full of bills.
Problem #3 – “I'm starting to get calls from collection agencies.”
Meanwhile, are collection agencies calling you day and night? Then hang tight to that positive attitude. These people receive training to use words that manipulate you. According to the Federal Trade Commission, collection agencies must abide by these laws.
Collections Callers May Not:
- Call before 8:00 a.m. or after 9 p.m.
- Call your place of employment once asked to stop (Send a certified letter.)
- Harass you or lie to collect the debt
Here's how to handle collection calls.
- Don't avoid creditors – this only makes things worse and compounds your anxiety.
- Ask creditors to mail a “validation notice” with all the information about what you owe.
- Once you have that information, take control of the situation and create a debt master plan.
Problem #4 – “I don't even know where to begin or how to make a debt plan.”
The easiest place is to start by making a list of all your debts including credit cards and loans along with the current balance and interest rate for each account. Easy, right? (A little bit of wine makes this a much easier process, I promise.)
Here are a few other things to keep in mind.
- If you're dealing with collection agencies, call them and share your plan with them.
- Get the company to agree to your terms and put it into writing.
- You may need to negotiate, but never agree to send more than you can afford.
- Ask for a copy of the agreement. Without that agreement in place, companies can still sue you. (Yes, even if you are sending regular payments.) So do your best to negotiate with them.
- If this makes you nervous, you can work with a debt management company to negotiate with creditors on your behalf.
Tallying up all the debt you owe may seem overwhelming. But it’s important to know what you’re up against.
Problem #5 – “I'm too hung up on which debt to pay off first! I can't decide!”
Once you have your list of debts, choose one to focus on first.
- Some say to start with the smallest debt for a quick win.
- Others say to knock out the one with the highest interest rate.
But I suggest choosing the one with the biggest motivation factor for you. If you owe money to family and wish you could enjoy Thanksgiving pie in peace again, start there. If one credit card is such a nuisance that you’ve nicknamed it “the Soul Sucking Scumbag”, you’ll want to put that first.
Focus on one debt while you tread water with the others. Your brain is more likely to accept this new habit.
Problem #6 – “I hate living on a budget.”
Uhm, yeah…me too. It sucks.
Remember: if you want a big result, you’ve got to make a big change.
- Can you take on a part-time job for a while?
- Consider downsizing your home or car.
- Do you have big items you can sell?
I know how much you love those things, but do you love them more than the peace of debt freedom? Only you can decide that. Remember, you can replace things. And buying a new one will feel sweeter with cash.
- Here's five easy things to cut when paying off debt, and a post about decluttering your home and selling the items for cash.
- While it's easy to complain about a tight budget, the truth is most of us have something we could cut which is why I always recommend a bill audit. (Companies like BillShark can do this on your behalf, but they'll take a cut of whatever they save you.)
- Start by canceling any services you don't need, such as a music subscription service or online storage platform (think Dropbox).
- Next, review your fixed expenses. (Here's our tutorial on how to do this.)
If you're able to reduce your monthly expenses even a little, make sure to use the extra money to pay off debt. Set up an automatic transfer to your credit card or loan account to avoid the temptation to spend extra cash.
Problem #7 – “How do I get out of debt with no money?”
You can't, really. You can consolidate your balances (like with the Payoff Credit Card Loan) which can lower your interest rates and your monthly payment, but you'll still have to pay the debts each month to remain in good standing. Yes, that takes real money. This is why I emphasize earning extra cash via side hustles so much. It's the key to any successful debt payoff strategy.
If you've reviewed your budget in depth and find you aren’t able to lower your monthly spending enough, consider increasing your income. They’re many different ways to earn extra money outside of your 9 to 5 job. (See our Pinterest board or Side Hustle category for more ideas on how to do this!)
Below are also 41 ways to make extra money I literally just listed off the top of my head. Money is a renewable resource, you can make more of it…you just might have to get creative and sacrifice some free time.
- You could babysit using a website like Care.com
- become a tutor using Tutor.com
- become a virtual assistant using a website such as Freelancer.com.
- take surveys (these are our favorite survey sites)
- 12 ways to make money in your sleep
Problem #8 – “I feel like I can't talk to anyone about my debt problems.”
Few of us can handle getting out of debt on our own.
Kick off your debt plan by finding people whose money management style you admire. Read books, listen to podcasts, and subscribe to blogs that inspire you to pay down debt.
Changing the way you think about money doesn’t happen overnight. But catching an “aha” moment from someone who’s been there might be just the inspiration you need. (Read my debt story on how I paid off $8,000 in 90 Days here.)
You can also find a licensed therapist to speak with about your debt on a regular basis. Get matched with a therapist online with Talkspace.
Problem #9 – “I Can Barely Save Money, Let Alone Pay Off Debt”
What is the recommended amount to save each month? About 20% of your take-home pay, if you're using the 50-30-20 budgeting method.
So if you make 2200.00 per month after taxes, that's 440.00 you should put away toward debt repayment AND savings. You should adjust this if you live at home to probably around 40 or 50% since you have no living or “fixed” expenses.
I live alone in an expensive city, so I am only able to contribute about 17% to my goals. Do I beat myself up about it? No.
Many recommend you put the entire 20% toward debt repayment if you have it, but for young women who have a high burden of student loans, this is just not realistic.
If you have high consumer debt, such as a car loan or credit card, try 15% towards paying those off and 5% towards savings.
Just save something! You will never know when you need it. Automatic savings apps (I like Qapital, Digit (pictured above), Albert and a million others) make this easy for you and helped me bump up the amount I save each month.
Most people are only successful with savings when they make it PERSONAL. Do one better and make it personal and put a concrete timeline on it. Most savings goals should have a start and an end date, like a race. Be competitive with yourself.
It doesn't matter what your goal may be: a house, a child's college education, a 30,000 dollar wedding. Even smaller goals can be super effective: saving for vacation, a certain jacket, purse, or trying to pay off your Christmas presents in full instead of putting them on your credit card. If you make it personal, your chances for success increase exponentially.
Problem #10 – “I don't know how to stay out of debt in the future.”
Once you’ve got a handle on your current debt, you need to commit to not taking on new debt in order to break the cycle. This is definitely easier said than done.
- Consider removing your credit cards from your wallet so they aren’t accessible.
- Stop impulse purchases by making yourself wait 24 hours before buying something that is outside of your budget.
- Consider building a small cash cushion of $500 to $1,000 to cover emergencies. Any extra money (including a bonus, tax refund, or extra income from a side gig) can be split – half toward your debt and the other part toward building a cash cushion or emergency fund.
Becoming debt free isn’t easy, and it’s even harder to stay that way. So while the question of how to get out of debt with no money may seem impossible, the truth is that with a little determination and creativity you can become debt free and a step closer to living your financial best life!