Tips to Stay the Course and Pay off that Debt – Part 1

I’d like to introduce you to my friend Jolyn from Budgets are the New Black!  She is wise. She is funny. She is honest. She is transparent.  And she’s got a few tips for anyone who is dealing with debt!

Over the years, my husband and I have borrowed money, paid it off, reached for the credit card, paid it off, taken out a loan, made payment after payment, paid it off… Sound familiar?

Something was always “coming up” that we never had cash for, and it was usually a move! We have been married 15 years and have moved some 11 times. We never felt like we could get ahead because we were always just trying to keep up.

Last Spring I discovered Dave Ramsey’s book, The Total Money Makeover, and it hit me: We don’t have to live like this! We can control our finances! We don’t have to reach for our credit card when those unexpected expenses come up!

The first step was to get rid of our current (non-mortgage) debt. We are eight months into paying off $19,375.72. True to (our) form, we had acquired this debt just since our last move in August 2007: We had just moved from overseas and needed a family car; we bought a house that needed new windows, new countertops… You get the idea. We are now on the home stretch to paying off that consumer debt, and here are some things I’ve learned that have helped us stay the course.

Write It Down!

I can’t emphasize this enough. I’m not going to talk here about writing out a budget — which, yes, you should do. I’m saying keep a running tally of your total debt. Show me the numbers. Write them out by hand and post them on your refrigerator. Use colorful crayons if you like. Type them out and send it to yourself in an email every day. (To your spouse, too.) If nothing else, posting these numbers in a prominent place will make a great conversation-starter the next time someone stops by. In my opinion, our society would greatly benefit if more of us shared our financial strides and struggles with each other.

Do what works for you, but find a way to remind yourself daily of your debt-free goal. It doesn’t hurt to catch a glimpse of where you started from, either.

Make it Scary

This means different things for different people. For me, putting our retirement contributions on hold while we tackled our snowball was scary: after all, we can’t get this time back! We also drew down our regular savings account to just $1000 and immediately put the rest toward our snow ball. I’m using that fear to motivate me to stay the course and to reach our goal as quickly as possible, speed bumps and all.

Now some of you are undoubtedly saying, “Savings account? $1000? I don’t even have $10!”

Then you are coming from a different place, and that is okay. For some people, it is scary to set money aside where it isn’t “doing” anything! But trust me, for others that money is playing a very important role in making us feel secure. If a true emergency comes up — if our car breaks down, say — we can dip into that savings instead of reaching for a credit card.  Once the emergency has passed we can bulk that savings up to $1000 again and resume our snowball, but at least we haven’t added anything to it in the meantime.

Keep Track of Your Spending

This is unavoidable, sorry. And a no-brainer — but undoubtedly the hardest thing to do. It’s much easier to stick your head in the sand.

The thing is, becoming and staying debt-free is more about how we spend our money than about how we save it. The only way to assess where your money is going is to, well, know where your money is going.

Many personal money management software options are out there. I personally use, a free online money management program. I also keep a separate running total of all debts, credits, and daily transactions on a tally sheet I created on a simple word pad. It’s been trial and error, and that’s the point — the only way you’ll figure out what system works for you is to get started.

The important thing is to keep up with it. The easiest way is to review and update it every (business) day. Once you have a system it literally takes less than five minutes. How much time do you spend checking your email? or on Twitter? or facebook? (Ahem) It may take up to three weeks to make this a habit, but once you do it will revolutionize your financial life.

PART 2 – Spouses, Baby Steps, Horses and more…Stay Tuned…Coming Next Week!

Jolyn recounts her family’s financial strides and struggles over at Budgets are the New Black where she chronicles their journey to live a “debt-free, credit-free, clutter-free life (one day at a time).” Currently, they’re focusing on the debt-free part.

Jolyn has one Air Force husband and three well-traveled children. They currently make their home in Ohio.

Photo Credit: Kath Walker Illustration


  1. Jason says

    I’ve always liked your blog, but now I respect it (and you) even more because you’re also a Dave Ramsey follower! He truly is the best and is great at opening your eyes to how we “can” live, which is not how everyone else lives! My family is debt free (minus our house) and it’s FANTASTIC! Good luck!!

  2. says

    Sheesh, Erin, what an opening! You make me blush! Thanks so much for inviting me to post this. I had a lot of fun writing it! And if others read along and decide to join me on our journey to becoming and living debt-free?… All the better!!!

  3. Tacy M says

    YAY! I love the Dave Ramsey philosophies and we are nearly done with our debt. We just have the car left and we think we’ll be able to pay it off with our tax refund in a month or two. It’s gonna be close! Then on to the house! We are Air Force as well, and I stay home with our five children, but we haven’t moved too much. 6 homes in 12 years, but twice we moved from one place to another, larger one within a mile. I am amazed at how the budget works. We use a simple spreadsheet, and it’s magic how disciplined our spending has become. I can even tell you how miraculous it is that we haven’t gone back to our credit card. In the past 2 months we’ve paid out nearly $2000 for car related dramas…all in cash! With 5 kids, a road trip and our enlisted paycheck, it just can’t be anything but a miracle! I’m excited to absorb more helpful strategies and tips here! THANK YOU!

    • says

      @Tacy M, Six moves in 12 years is quite significant! Even moving within the same town/base area can put a drain on the finances! We, too, had some $2000+ in car repair during this time we have been working on our snowball. (I think I go into detail on that in “Part 2″ if I remember right) and we cash-flowed it… It hurt, but I’m so glad we didn’t have to reach for the credit card. Here’s to you paying off your car in the next couple of months and getting (consumer) DEBT FREE!

  4. Jenny says

    Ii was wonderering if you would consider student loan debt (stafford loans, not private) as consumer debt or if it is a category by itsself? What are your thoughts on paying off student loan debt compared to increasing savings?

  5. says

    Our family just recently put to action getting out of debt (all we have is our mortgage) by the end of this year. We have switched up our blog to help us stay on track with this goal. I sure am enjoying reading everybody’s blos tat have such helpful tips.

  6. says

    Wow it feels good to know “I”m not the only one”. I”m a huge lover of Dave Ramsey, I”m in about as much debt as you, and I’m trying so faithfully to pay it off. THanks for this!

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