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Debt-Free Living: How to Get Out of Debt for Good

You can work to get out of debt—and stay debt-free—by reducing your interest rates, choosing a repayment strategy you'll stick to and cultivating habits that prevent you from having to rely on credit. That can mean setting up a budget and getting intentional about the specific purchases you use credit for, which can also help keep your credit score strong.

But you don't have to go it alone. Getting out of debt can be a long, difficult process, and changing your financial habits is no small task. Connecting with helpful resources will give you a better shot at success. Read on for more about how to start the journey toward debt freedom, and how to get help along the way.

How to Get Out of Debt

There are many debt-reduction strategies to choose from, which might overwhelm you when you first make the decision to focus on eliminating debt. One way to start is to write down all your debts, including their current balances, interest rates and minimum monthly payments. That will give you clarity on which ones to tackle initially.

This, however, can be a hard step; seeing the amount of money you owe staring back at you may lead to shame or fear. But remember that there are many, many people who have the exact same goal as you, and who have gotten out of debt and stayed that way. You can do this.

Once you've created a list of your debts, take these steps:

  • Reduce interest rates where possible. Start by limiting the amount you have to pay back by lowering interest rates. Call your credit card companies and ask for an interest rate reduction (which may be more likely if you are a longtime customer and don't have a history of late or missed payments). Consider refinancing car loans or high-interest private student loans if you meet the qualifications and stand to save money. Refinancing your mortgage may also be worthwhile if you're eligible for a lower rate that offsets closing costs.
  • Consider debt consolidation. Depending on the type of debt you have and your credit score, consolidating debt might help lower interest rates and make paying off debt easier. Balance transfer credit cards give you an introductory period with low or 0% APR, if you have good or excellent credit, letting you pay off credit cards without accruing interest. If you have more than just credit card debt, such as personal loans, a debt consolidation loan could help you combine them into one monthly payment—ideally at a lower rate than you're currently paying.
  • Cut expenses, add income or both. You'll typically need to free up at least a little extra money to make progress on your debt. Tax refunds, work bonuses, economic stimulus payments and other one-time windfalls can get you started. Or, find an extra $25 or $50 a month by cutting a subscription you don't use, taking on freelance or gig work, or limiting takeout meals to, say, once a month.
  • Utilize a specific paydown strategy. Once you understand how much you owe, and you've taken steps to reduce interest rates if possible, choose a debt payoff method. You can pay off the most expensive debt first, meaning the one with the highest interest rate, using the debt avalanche method. This way will save you the most money, but it can also take a while. The debt snowball strategy, on the other hand, lets you pay off the smallest balance first, giving you a more immediate morale boost.

Habits to Help Keep You out of Debt

Perhaps the most important step to take when paying off debt is to avoid adding to it, which means no longer relying on credit cards and skipping new applications for credit. Your goal should be to buy only things you can afford to pay for in cash, or at least by the end of the month when your credit card bill is due.

How do you transition to this mindset while paying off debt? Here are some tips:

  • Embrace budgeting. Until now, making a budget might have been low on your priority list. But it's an essential step in making sure you don't overspend; in fact, trying to live within your means without a budget is often too difficult for the average consumer. A budget gives you guidelines to work within, and you can choose the strategy that works best for you. That could mean keeping track of every single purchase or setting up monthly automatic transfers to different savings accounts to meet your goals, then spending only whatever is left. There are many methods to choose from.
  • Get curious about your credit score. Your credit score reflects how you're using and paying off credit. As you pay down debt, you may not always see an immediate boost to your score. But in the long run, the less credit you use compared with your credit limit, the better. Track your score for free using one of the many apps or services provided by banks, personal finance websites and credit card issuers. When you see your score increase over time, that might encourage you to avoid taking on more debt.
  • Reward yourself. Changing money habits that you may have repeated for a long time is worth celebrating. When you create new routines like tracking your credit score, using credit cards more wisely, saving a little of each paycheck or sticking to your budget for a full month, give yourself a reward (that doesn't cost a lot). Keep track of your wins on a calendar or a notepad you see regularly.

How to Get Help With Your Debt

There is support available if you're unsure where to start or you get stuck along the way. It's important to make sure any financial assistance you receive is reliable and trustworthy, and use an extra layer of caution if you're considering paying for help to get out of debt. Here are some tips:

  • Consider nonprofit credit counseling. A nonprofit credit counseling agency can help you develop a debt payoff strategy and a new budget. Depending on your situation, you may get all the assistance you need during a free, one-hour initial consultation. Search for a certified counselor through a membership organization like the National Foundation for Credit Counseling or through the U.S. Department of Justice's approved list of agencies (this list is targeted at consumers needing bankruptcy counseling, but anyone can refer to it). Your credit counselor can help determine whether you're a candidate for a debt management plan, in which you pay a monthly fee for help lowering fees or interest rates or streamlining debt payments. But it's up to you whether to participate.
  • Try to avoid debt settlement companies. Unlike nonprofit credit counseling agencies, debt settlement companies are for-profit entities that claim they will substantially reduce the amount you owe—which, often, it's not possible to do. Debt settlement can also lead to high fees and damaged credit, since these companies typically direct you to stop paying creditors during the negotiation process. In general, it's best to avoid them.
  • Look into free local assistance. In many states, the local consumer affairs or consumer protection agency can connect residents with free financial counseling, such as through a program like New York City's Financial Empowerment Centers. Search your state's consumer protection website or attorney general's website for resources. You can also reach out to your state social service agency or use Benefits.gov to determine whether you qualify for state or federal benefits. These can help you stay on your feet while you work to pay off debt.

Rebuild Your Credit After Getting Out of Debt

When you're working to bounce back from a poor credit score, all the positive credit habits you've been building as you get rid of debt will pay off.

For instance, paying down credit cards will lead to lower credit utilization, which accounts for 30% of your FICO® Score . Making all your debt payments on time—which will be easier when you stick to a budget and limit the amount of new debt you take on—is an even more important step to take. That's because payment history is the biggest factor in your score.

It's also smart to keep old credit card accounts open, as long as they don't come with expensive annual fees, so you don't inadvertently shorten your average account age or lower the amount of overall credit available to you. Or take steps to repair your own credit by getting advice from a nonprofit credit counselor and regularly checking your credit report for errors that might affect your score.

Rebuilding credit is not a speedy process. Late and missed payments stay on your credit report for seven years, though their effect on your score will decrease over time. That means it's up to you to stay the course and keep the good habits going, even if you don't see an immediate positive impact.

Living Debt-Free for the Long Term

There are countless benefits to a life without debt, besides saving money on interest and fees. Knowing you don't have to pay creditors any longer can give you space to dream and plan that may not have felt accessible before. The work to get out of debt—making a plan, getting support, regularly making extra payments and tracking your progress—is worth it, as long as you keep the end goal in mind.