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Clear Purpose Keeps Couple on Track to Erase Debt

June 24, 2015
Credit Card Basics, Credit Cards
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Racking up $109,000 in debt wasn’t in the plan for Brian and Lynn Brandow.

But after years of using credit cards to cover things they wanted but couldn’t afford, they were forced to reckon with reality. They had maxed out all five of their credit cards, so they applied for a credit limit increase — and were denied.

It was a wake-up call. And over the next 50 months, the couple from Long Island, New York, took drastic measures to pay off their debt, averaging $2,180 in debt payments a month. Lynn re-entered the workforce to earn extra money. The parents of three also canceled their favorite subscriptions, shrunk their grocery bills and stopped going on family vacations.

Lynn and Brian Brandow

Lynn and Brian Brandow

For Brian Brandow, 44, succeeding with a plan to pay off the mountain of debt started not with the “how,” but with the “why.”

» MORE: How to pay off debt

Start with the big picture

Before you get into the dollars and cents of your plan to get out of debt, look at the big picture:

Find your motivation

While you do need a map for your path out of debt — including specific techniques to execute your plan — you also need a reason to stay focused during times when you feel discouraged or apathetic.

Your purpose for wanting to get out of debt should be specific and meaningful. For the Brandows, it was preparing their children for a better financial future than the one they had created for themselves.

Whatever purpose you choose, find a way to remind yourself of it often. Use a background picture on your computer, a college savings progress chart on your refrigerator or a countdown to being debt-free.

Make it your priority

If you’re serious about paying off debt, it needs to be one of your top priorities in practice as well as in theory.

For the Brandows, it was a matter of putting their future into perspective.

Before deciding to face their debt, they “were only concerned about immediate things,” Brian says. “If something unexpected came up, we would cover it with a credit card and not think about the long-term effect of that decision.”

Take time to review your current financial goals. Keep track of your spending for a month or two to see whether your behaviors are in line with those goals. If you need to make changes, don’t delay. As long as you’re paying interest, procrastination is your enemy.

Once you feel like you have your priorities straight, keep evaluating yourself monthly to make sure you don’t drift back into old habits. Over time, it will become easier to stay focused on what’s most important to you.

Be honest about the problem

Whether your debt is a result of overspending or something out of your control, living in denial will only make it worse.

“We had danced around the debt and overspending for a few years before hitting rock bottom,” Brian says. “Once we had that moment, we were forced to be honest with ourselves because we had no choice — we were out of borrowing options.”

It may be easy in the short run to ignore the problem, but interest never sleeps, and one day you may find yourself  in a deeper hole than you could have imagined. As soon as you can be honest with yourself about your debt, you can view it as an enemy to be conquered instead of a friend to be welcomed.

Set a target date

Once you have decided how much money you can put toward paying down debt every month, it’s time to determine when you want to be debt-free. Brian credits this deadline as part of the couple’s motivation to reach their goal.

“We tracked out debt repayment in a spreadsheet and had a target payoff date,” he says. “It helped us visualize if we sacrificed more or earned more money how much sooner we could be out of debt.”

You may need to do a little math to calculate the exact date you can be debt-free, or you can simply set a feasible goal in the future and keep track of your progress.

Freedom isn’t free

Getting rid of debt won’t be easy. Depending on how much you have, it can take months or even years of scrapping to earn extra money and cutting back on spending to reach your goal.

For the Brandow family, it meant living like they had never lived before. Brian describes the first few months on a budget as particularly tough. But over time, they adjusted to their new habits.

“It’s an amazing feeling,” he says. “We are now focused on building wealth and helping others.” Brian now blogs about his experiences with debt at Debt Discipline.

Ben Luthi is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @benluthi.

Photo courtesy of Brian Brandow.