July 23, 2017

The consumer debt crisis is personal

The banks have been winning the battle for a long time, and their lead seems to be growing each and every day. Personal debt products such as loans, credit cards, lines of credit, etc. are some of the most aggressively marketed products out there today. I’m sure you’ve all seen your mailbox flooded with credit offers addressed to you, your spouse, your dog and probably even your stuffed animals. Banks are willing to loan money to anyone and everyone at absurd rates because the cultural value of “things” is at an all time high.

As a recent college graduate, I’ve felt the crushing blow of student loan debt, credit card debt, and even personal loans from an unemployment spell during a career transition. I know what it’s like to watch your friends buy new cars and houses, or go on fancy vacations without having the means to do that myself. We all feel that pressure to compete or keep up. We don’t want to show up to work driving beater cars, we don’t want to work 52 weeks out of the year without a vacation, and we’re all sick of living in apartments after wasting away in crappy rentals during college. So what do we do?

The average household is paying a total of $6,658 in interest per year.

Look at how crazy that above statistic is. If you expand that for 40 years of your adult life, the average household pays more than $250,000 in INTEREST during their lifetime. I’m not going to sit here and preach the gospel of Dave Ramsey (although his teachings are working for me), I’m not in a position to preach anything, because the debt crisis is 100% personal. However, I do think there’s a lot Americans can learn from some basic financial literacy.

When I was in college, I helped develop an online, one credit personal finance elective. The sheer amount of Americans that have no experience balancing a checkbook, working on a monthly budget, and are completely unaware of basic financial terminology is astounding. That included me, by the way. The first step to getting yourself out of debt is learning how to manage your personal finances. In fact, many people that work on corporate finances, are often at a loss when it comes to managing money within their household. So here are just a few tips that could help you on your financial fitness journey.

Stop borrowing money and create a monthly budget

These two items go hand in hand. The first step in getting out of the debt spiral is to stop the cycle. It’s virtually impossible to pay off your debt if you’re constantly accumulating new debt. Starting a monthly budget is imperative to halting the spiral. First, you need to know (at least roughly) what your monthly income is. Then just start a basic spreadsheet of your income minus known expenses. (utilities, car payments, credit card payments, etc.) Make sure to budget for items such as groceries, gas and other items that are recurring budget hits as well.

The first month will be rough. It always is. If you keep track of things and balance your checkbook/budget at the end of each month, you’ll quickly develop a useful template that will streamline this process in the future. Going through this process will help you identify where you spend money unnecessarily, and where you can possibly cut items to help save for future expenses or speed up the process of paying off your debt. If you’re looking for a place to start, there are numerous budgeting apps out there, and I’ve personally been using EveryDollar.com and the related iPhone app.

Stop glorifying vehicles

Items with engines are the biggest purchases we make, that go down in value. Not only that, but paying payments and interest on assets that go down in value make the purchases all the more mind boggling. If you have room in your budget, start saving monthly into a savings account to pay cash for a used vehicle to get you by while you get out of debt. You’ll find that getting rid of a car payment opens up a ton of room in your monthly budget.

The average car payment on a new vehicle is $479 per month. Saving $479 per month could get you a decent used vehicle in under a year. Sure it won’t be nice and flashy, but it’ll get you by while you’re working your way out of debt. Going by the above statistic of $6,658 per year in interest, the average American pays upwards of $500 per month in interest alone. If you can suffer through a used vehicle, paid for with cash, while you get out of debt, then you could easily save close to $1,000 per month once your debts are cleared up. Then you can quickly buy the flashiest vehicle you want.

Narrow your focus

We like to try and do everything at once. Saving for retirement, saving for a down payment on a home, saving for emergencies, and paying off debt. It could help to try and simplify the process. When drafting your monthly budget, if you squeeze and tighten your spending, you can typically find a few left over dollars at the end of each month. Try throwing those additional dollars at a single debt until you pay it off. Then take the money you were applying to that debt and move it to the next one. You’ll rapidly see a steady decline in your debt total, and seeing progress always helps.

I know it’s not fun or flashy, and perhaps it slows your ability to save for a house, or a new car, but paying off your debt first will help speed up all of those things in the future and help you eliminate interest payments going forward. At the end of the day would you rather you save the $250k in interest payments for yourself or give it to the bank?

Live below your means

This is the big one for me. Sure it’s nice to think that you deserve a new car, a nice trip, or an expensive toy, and you do, but maybe that time is just around the corner. We like to think we can afford something if we can make the monthly payments, but at the end of the day, you’re throwing your money away in interest. Banks and retailers have made a killing by advertising products on a monthly payment basis, but often times you’ll find that you could save up and get a better deal in cash, plus you avoid paying any interest. Sure you may make a decent salary, but if you’re giving it all away in payments can you really afford it? Perhaps we need to redefine what the affordability really means.

The last point I’d like to make is that we need to do away with the shaming of people that are “rich.” I have a very good friend whose parents lived modestly, stayed out of debt, and saved responsibly. As a result, they put their child through college debt free through saving in an ESA or 529. They were often teased for living off of “daddy’s money” even though this family was far from wealthy.

Isn’t that the goal, though? If I can get out of debt, save my money and put my children through school without debt, I’m setting them up for success. It’s not something to be ashamed of, it should be applauded. Just because I’m struggling doesn’t mean I should tear that person down.

That’s all the motivation I needed to try and solve my personal financial crisis as I look to start a family. Find your personal motivation – your why – and do the same. As long as we’re all making payments and paying interest, the banks are still winning. Do some research and find something that works for you, these are just tips that have worked for me, but like I said – personal finance is 100% personal. What worked for me may not work for you. Find what works for you.

Tom Danielson 65 Articles
Managing Editor

Every family needs an adult figure. That's Tom's job on this ship. After graduating from Iowa State University, Tom headed down the ‘failed professional golfer' career path before heading back to his calling as an engineer in the great white north (Minnesota). He got his start in blogging, and continues to contribute at the critically acclaimed site, Wide Right & Natty Lite.  A student of the ‘you can't fail if you don't try' philosophy, there's no better way to describe Tom than a 'Jack of all trades, master of none'.

1 Comment

  1. I agree with living below your means. In my opinion, credit card debt is an easy thing to control. Limit the number of cards you own, use them sparingly, or in emergency situations. If you want to splurge on yourself, have a plan to pay it off before any interest hits, or within a couple months.

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