How to Get Out and Stay Out of Debt
Part 1–Accepting That You Need to Go on a Diet

When I happen to tell people that three years ago, I managed in two years to clear $28K of debt and found a way of saving for my retirement while still enjoying life, they all ask me, “How the hell did you manage that?!” Well, I’ll tell you how in this series of postings that I’ll be writing over the coming weeks. My system took a lot of work on spreadsheets to help me map out what I kept visualizing mentally, but I’m sure it could be adapted for someone else in a lot less time now that I’ve ironed it all out.

Cat about to pukeWhen people get the advice that they should prepare a budget, they either roll their eyes or even feel a little nauseous. We tend to think of it as having to go on a diet, and the mere mention of the word “diet” can make anyone feel a little queazy. Trust me, I know: I’m having a dickens of a time trying to find the motivation to start a traditional one — of the food variety.

The analogy doesn’t end there, though. With a diet, if you stop following it or go back to your old eating habits once you reach your goal, you’ll gain weight again. (Trust me on that one, too.) Similarly, if you stop following your financial diet once you reach your goal of getting out of debt, you’re likely to eventually go back into debt.

Pushing the analogy further: a particular diet might work wonderfully for some people, moderately for others, and not at all for others still. Everyone’s metabolism is different, not to mention their appetite (pardon the pun) for physical activity. Well, similarly, everyone has different financial circumstances to deal with, and not everyone has the same appetite for belt tightening and deferring, nor the same definitions for needs and wants. Plus if your needs exceed your income, which is a situation I’ve known at one time of my life, getting out of debt is an outright impossibility. However, even there, by keeping wants to a minimum if not completely cutting them out when you don’t have enough to cover needs, you can limit the damage — that is, the debt.

The tips I’m about to share with you in this series of postings work best if:

  1. your income is enough to cover your needs and (preferably) then some;
  2. you receive a steady income at a steady interval;
  3. you don’t turn all “damsel in distress” on me when I tell you that you have to get used to using and moving around an electronic workbook with many worksheets;
  4. you’re willing to “balance your cheque book” almost every day and move funds frequently from one account to another, and
  5. you’re willing and able to accept what the numbers tell you and move on if they tell you that certain wants will remain wants foreover.

For instance, I need housing like everybody else but I would have wanted to own mine. However, I also needed a plan for my retirement and, after many hours of research and number crunching, I had to come to terms with the glaring reality that, given my age and where I live (and, yes, want to live), I couldn’t have both. Housing prices in Montréal have more than doubled in the last 15 years but salaries certainly haven’t, so my timing to enter the housing market was horrible to say the least. Therefore, I had to take a step back, put a cross on my want to own my home, and move on.

But coming back to the diet: Have you ever gone on one — of the food variety, that is — and had some success on it for a while? It might have only worked for a few weeks or a few months… maybe longer if you were lucky as I was when I managed to sustain it for more than five years. If so, do you remember how proud if not downright euphoric you felt?

Well, I’m anticipating the nay-sayers who say that diets never work by asserting that a financial diet can be just as uplifting, and if you sustain it after you climb out of that hell hole that is debt, you’ll be encouraged to sustain it so that you can see for yourself the array of choices that’ll open up before you. Think also of diets or restrictions some people have to impose on themselves due to food intolerances or allergies. If they start again to eat certain foods, they will become ill or, in extreme cases, might even die. Similarly, debt is an illness that robs you of long-term choices and, if you manage to finally climb out of it, you’re not likely to want to go back to feeling financially rotten.

In terms of needs, you’ll be able with my method to think about and plan for those that are years in front of you. As for the wants, you’ll find that you can allow more than you might imagine right now and, because you’ll have given them a lot of thought, you’ll apppreciate them much more than if you’d succumbed to them on a whim and quickly (and perhaps mindlessly) moved on to the next one to get that next hit of excitement.

So what kind of choices am I talking about? Some are small but some are huge.

Three years ago this coming November, just a month after I’d gotten out of debt, it became clear to everyone including myself that I was miserable in my old apartment. I found the one where I’m living now on Kijiji, but it was available the following January and, as I feared, the landlord at the old place refused to give me a break and let me out of my lease before April. On the surface, it seemed foolish to pay an extra $2,670 over three months to rent two apartments (not to mention the nearly $1,000 in moving costs on top of that). But it was a pity because I’d spent hours upon hours searching and everything I found was a compromise, a downsizing …until I found this one. It had my name all over it!

Sure, before my financial diet, I still could have chosen to rent both apartments, but with the head-in-the-sand approach I had back then, I only would have pushed my debt load well over the $30K mark with no realistic plan to lower it. However, with my diet and newly found debt-free status, on April 1 when the lease ended on the old place, I still had my first $2,000 in savings — the same amount I had when my double-renting period had started on January 1.

Choices… and a whole lot less stress. Now when life throws me a financial curveball, I may not like it — who does?! — but I can shrug it off. When a big annual bill comes due, I don’t even bat an eyelash. When dear friends come to town, I can pick up the tab and make everyone happy yet know that it’ll be paid off by the time I get home. When I decide to go away on vacation, I don’t always HAVE to stay with friends in order to afford to travel.

You get the picture.

And all it took to reach this enviable situation was to accept that I needed to go on a financial diet.

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